In April, when riots erupted in Cincinnati, the national media let out a glad cry: Black rage, that hottest of political commodities, was back!
The subsequent post-riot drill, perfected over the last four decades, unfolded without flaw: instant discovery of the riot’s "root causes"; half-hearted condemnation of the violence, followed immediately by its enthusiastic embrace as a "wake-up call" to America; warnings of future outbreaks if the "wake-up call" is ignored; and hurried formation of task forces promising rapid aid for Cincinnati’s inner city.
"Riot ideology"—historian Fred Siegel’s caustic phrase for the belief that black rioting is a justified answer to white racism—is alive and well in twenty-first-century America. Riots may be relatively rare, but the thinking that rationalizes them is not. It pervades the country’s response to underclass problems and to race issues generally. The Cincinnati riots and their aftermath offer a peerless example of all that is wrong with this conventional approach to race. But in Cincinnati, too, if you look, are the clearest possible guideposts for how to get race issues right.
A fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager, Timothy Thomas, triggered the riots. After 2 AM on Saturday, April 7, Thomas spotted two Cincinnati police officers and started running. Wanted on 14 warrants for traffic offenses and for evading arrest, Thomas led the policemen on a chase through the narrow alleys of Cincinnati’s most drug-infested and violent neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine. The area’s Italianate walk-ups, home in the late nineteenth century to one of America’s most culturally rich and densely populated German-American communities, today often are either abandoned or given over to methadone clinics, drop-in centers, or Section 8 public housing.
Officer Steve Roach, hearing a radio alert about a fleeing suspect with 14 warrants, joined the pursuit and came abruptly face-to-face with the 19-year-old in a dark alley. When Thomas appeared to reach for his waistband, Roach shot him once in the chest. Three days later, Over-the-Rhine would be burning.
Cincinnati’s riots hardly constituted a spontaneous outcry against injustice. A demagogic campaign against the police, of the kind common in American cities today, had already heated black residents almost to the boiling point. "Thirteen black men!"—a tally of the suspects killed by the Cincinnati police since 1995—was the rallying cry of protesters in the City Council chambers last fall. Thomas’s shooting (added to a January shoot-out death) brought the total to 15, and black politicians duly updated their cry to "Fifteen black men," in effect charging that Cincinnati’s cops were indiscriminately mowing down black citizens. With robotic predictability, every national news account of the riots repeated the cry, to demonstrate Cincinnati’s racism.
In fact, the list of the 15 police victims shows the depraved nature not of Cincinnati’s cops but of its criminals. Harvey Price, who heads the roster, axed his girlfriend’s 15-year-old daughter to death in 1995, then held a SWAT team at bay for four hours with a steak knife, despite being maced and hit with a stun gun. When he lunged at an officer with the knife, the cop shot him. Jermaine Lowe, a parole violator wanted for armed robbery, fled in a stolen car at the sight of a police cruiser, crashed into another car, then unloaded his handgun at the pursuing officers. Alfred Pope robbed, pistol-whipped, and most likely fired at three people in an apartment hallway, just the latest assault by the vicious 23-year-old, who had already racked up 18 felony charges and five convictions. He then aimed his handgun at close range at the pursuing officers, and they shot him dead in return.
To call such lowlifes martyrs to police brutality is a stretch. Besides the Thomas shooting, only three of the 15 cases raise serious questions about officer misjudgment and excessive force. The notion that race was the controlling element in the 15 deaths is even more absurd.
But it is perfectly in keeping with Cincinnati’s racialized politics. Advocates of the city’s status quo, whether opposing competitive bidding for city services or blocking the investigation of low-income housing fraud, can bring the City Council to its knees by playing the race card. For the last two years, black nationalists calling themselves the Special Forces have turned up regularly in the delicately carved council chambers of Cincinnati’s Romanesque City Hall to spew anti-white and anti-Semitic diatribes. Two days after the Thomas shooting, on Monday, April 9, they were back, accompanied by hundreds of angry black residents, by Timothy Thomas’s mother, and by her attorney Kenneth Lawson—Cincinnati’s answer to Johnnie Cochran.
The Council meeting instantly spun out of control. Backed by constant screaming from the crowd, lawyer Lawson and another racial activist, the Reverend Damon Lynch III, masterfully inflamed the crowd’s anger by suggesting that city officials were willfully withholding information about the Thomas shooting. Lawson, and doubtless Lynch, too, knew full well that disclosing Officer Roach’s testimony after the shooting would jeopardize the investigation and possible prosecution of the case, yet both threatened to hold every chamber occupant hostage until Roach’s testimony was released. Some of the Council Democrats seconded the threats. Three chaotic hours later, Lawson and Lynch grudgingly agreed to disband, Lynch demanding that the police chief "call off the dogs [i.e., officers] outside."
The crowd left City Hall and, swelling to over 1,000 along the way, headed toward the boxy, low-slung police headquarters. Protesters screamed at the officers protecting the station and snapped photos of them, promising lethal revenge for the 15 black "murders." Someone threw a rock that shattered the station’s front door; others pulled the flag from its pole and hung it upside down; police horses were hit; officers were injured by flying glass—but the order was: "let them vent." The lieutenant in charge even gave a protester a bullhorn in the hope of calming the crowd. It didn’t work.
Finally, at 1 AM, police started arresting those who were hurling rocks and bottles at the station house. Too late: the violence had begun. Over the next three days, crowds would rampage through Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhoods, beating white motorists, burning property, breaking hundreds of store windows, and making off with the appliances, furniture, clothing, and booze within. Gunmen fired thousands of shots, many at officers. The police chief begged black clergy for help in restoring calm but got little response.
Though the police were outmatched and overworked, Democratic mayor Charles Luken refused to take additional measures against the violence. Then on Thursday, a bullet hit a cop, grazing off his belt buckle. That afternoon, Luken imposed an 8 PM curfew and announced a state of emergency.
By then, the riot ideologues were in full cry. The NAACP’s Kweisi Mfume flew in to declare Cincinnati the "belly of the whale" of police violence against young black men. Al Sharpton called for federal oversight not just of Cincinnati’s but of the nation’s police. Time magazine named Cincinnati a "model of racial injustice." The New York Times found pervasive economic discrimination against the city’s blacks. White gentrifiers, pronounced The New Republic, lay behind the riots. The Los Angeles Times and ABC This Week noted how salutary the violence had been.
Local leaders scrambled to contain the public-relations fiasco and to show their concern for black anger. The City Council hurriedly voted to submit a pending racial-profiling lawsuit to costly "mediation," rather than contest it, even though none of the suit’s allegations had been shown to be credible. Mayor Luken invited in the Justice Department to investigate the police division, which could result in federal oversight of the kind that busts municipal budgets. But the city’s main riot response was to form Community Action Now (CAN), a three-man panel dedicated to racial reconciliation through, as its members and promotional materials insist, action, action, and more action. Its three co-chairs are Ross Love, an ex-Procter & Gamble vice president who now heads a black radio empire; Tom Cody, an executive vice president of Federated Department Stores; and the Reverend Damon Lynch, the activist who calls the police "dogs."
At CAN’s inception, Ross Love, the official spokesman, announced five task forces to "address the root causes of the recent unrest." The groups, manned by local civil rights figures, business leaders, and poverty advocates, would address "education and youth development, economic inclusion, police and the justice system, housing and neighborhood development, and image and media." But "root causes" have a way of proliferating: soon, Love created a sixth task force to look at "health care and human services." And as a harbinger of its future largesse, CAN then hired a former black city manager at $1,400 a day as "special counsel."
With the formation of CAN, and the media agitation that preceded it, we are ready to test the central tenets of riot ideology. In place of "riots," any other element of underclass behavior, such as crime, can be substituted—the rationalizations are identical.
Start with the contention that riots are a response to white racism, since this is the mother of all "root cause" arguments, first popularized by the Kerner Commission Report on the 1960s riots. Ross Love gives this argument an economic spin: racially based "economic exclusion" is his mantra for explaining why blacks rioted in his city. The New York Times jumped on the "economic exclusion" bandwagon as well, claiming that Cincinnati has long "frustrated" blacks’ justified demands for a "share of prosperity."
To test that hypothesis, walk around Cincinnati’s poorest areas, from the river basin, spanned by John A. Roebling’s first, beautiful suspension bridge, up to the city’s seven surrounding green hills, which in Cincinnati’s nineteenth-century heyday compressed its population into a greater density than anywhere but Manhattan. You will see knots of young men in their teens and twenties milling about on almost every street corner, towels draped over their heads, their shorts hanging far below their underwear. Heat has driven some out of their apartments, but many others are there to peddle drugs hidden in crevices in the old brick buildings. I approached a group of boys leaning against a tiny convenience store on a steep intersection called the Five Corners. One boy’s T-shirt read: NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE, THESE OUR STREETS, F—K THE POLICE, 1981-2001—presumably Timothy Thomas’s dates. I introduced myself and asked if they’d answer a few questions. "Hell, no!" In a blink of an eye, all but one of the boys had disappeared across the street and into a parking lot or down the steep incline.
Inside the tiny, dark store, a fortyish Jordanian with a mustache and a receding hairline stands squeezed behind the register. He will only give his name as "Mike." "We call the police five to ten times a day," he says quietly. "They drive through and tell them to move." What are they selling? He casts his eyes down. "I don’t know; I don’t want to talk about it."
At least Mike’s store has not been shot at. Under the shredded red awning of Johnnie’s Supermarket in the Walnut Hills neighborhood, spider-web cracks radiate across the window from a bullet hole. The bullet’s target—a large red sign prohibiting loitering and giving the police the authority to come onto the premises at any time—is still visible under the cracked window. Until recently, up to 50 young men stood in front of Johnnie’s, hawking drugs and extorting money from the market’s customers. They are mostly gone now, thanks to an undercover operation that netted 19 indictments. But in front of an abandoned building kitty-corner from Johnnie’s, ten young men in white T-shirts shift back and forth.
Now, remember the "economic exclusion" argument: Cincinnati’s racist power structure is excluding hordes of qualified young black men. Well, here the men are, and it is ludicrous to attribute their joblessness to corporate bigotry, rather than to their own unemployability. The high school dropout rate in Cincinnati is between 60 and 70 percent. And will the young men across from Johnnie’s show up every day to work on time and respond appropriately to authority? Has any of them even applied for a job and been turned down? Last summer, King’s Island, an amusement park north of the city, had to import 1,000 young Eastern Europeans for summer jobs, because it could find no local youths to apply. Yet the well-intentioned CEO of Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati’s beloved corporate titan, has called, in good riot-ideologue fashion, for the urgent creation of 2,500 government- and privately subsidized summer jobs to forestall another rampage.
I asked Ross Love what evidence he had for "economic exclusion" in Cincinnati. "You have to look at the end result," he said. "The unemployment rate is four times higher for blacks than for whites; for 18- to 30-year-olds, it is an incredible 50 percent." But "looking at the end result" is the hallmark of bogus civil rights analysis, designed to shift attention from individual deficits onto the resultant disparate outcomes, which are then attributed to racism. We can argue about whether society is, in some structural way, still somehow to blame for Cincinnati’s idle, functionally illiterate young dealers, but let’s not brand employers as racist.
Cincinnati’s African immigrants have a different perspective from CAN on "economic exclusion." "We experience more resentment from African-Americans than from whites," says cabdriver Mor Thiam. "They don’t want to see us in business. ‘Man, go back to Africa! You come here and take our monies,’ they say." Amy, a Senegalese cabdriver in a robin’s-egg-blue ruffled cotton dress, has been teaching herself about riot ideology by listening to Ross Love’s local radio station, WDBZ, "The Buzz." "They are angry on that station!" she exclaims. "A lot of them don’t work; they go to your taxi, try to steal your money. When I came here, I earned $4.25 an hour, but I worked. I liked it. I paid my bills; I sent money home. If you want to get a job, you get a job. We see a lot of opportunity here."
The notion that this friendly, well-meaning town is denying employment to job-ready black men because of the color of their skin is ridiculous. To the contrary, Cincinnati’s biggest corporations have long practiced affirmative action. Expect CAN’s "economic inclusion" task force to recommend even more quotas, however, rather than honestly to address why young blacks are not working.
Those who attribute riots to racism blame racist police no less than racist employers. The riot apologists’ most incessant indictment against the Cincinnati Police Division: the Cincinnati 15. But besides ignoring the defensive nature of almost all the killings, the apologists never mention that one of the 15 victims dragged an officer—a black officer—to his death in a car; or that, as of May 17, all four of the most recent shootings by police (two lethal) involved black officers; or that, with a death toll of three officers over the last four years, a Cincinnati cop is 27 times more likely to die at the hands of a black man than a black man is to die at the hands of the Cincinnati police.
Little evidence supports the claim that the Cincinnati Police Division is an institution out of control. In 1999, Cincinnati officers had fewer fatal shootings per officer than the San Diego Police Department, constantly lauded as progressive by the liberal press. Over the last six years, the police in St. Louis, a city comparable in size to Cincinnati, killed 20 suspects, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, without attracting the national media’s attention.
Cincinnati officers use non-lethal physical force (such as punching or kicking) about 50 times per year, or in .09 percent of all arrests: an unexceptionable rate. A Cincinnati Enquirer study found no racial pattern in force incidents, and as for the racial-profiling charges, Cincinnati officers ticket black and white drivers proportionately to their representation in the city’s population. The department’s current and previous chief are highly respected among their peers. While by no means as cutting-edge in its management techniques as the New York Police Department, the Cincinnati department appears to be easily as well managed as most.
Like every police force in the country the Cincinnati department struggles with police-community relations. Too many officers are sullen and defensive, say some downtown leaders. Of course, they often face a very hostile audience. "Younger people have a hateful attitude," laments Officer Dean Chatman, recalling the F—K THE POLICE T-shirts he has seen. Boys try to provoke the police into chasing them, so that they can be caught empty-handed. Passersby often accuse Chatman of being a "house nigger." "They tell me: ‘You’ve sold out; you especially should understand,’ " he says. "My response is: ‘No, I don’t. My brother wouldn’t do what you’re doing.’"
But for all the talk of Cincinnati’s abysmal police-community relations, it is easy to find people who bear no animus toward the police. Typical is Galen Bailey, a 40-year-old illustrator. He figures he’s been stopped 15 or 16 times for speeding (he drives very fast), and there has been a warrant out for his arrest because of unpaid traffic tickets. The only time he’s felt any qualms about a police officer occurred during a traffic stop across the Ohio River in Kentucky: "I got the impression I should keep my mouth shut," he recalls.
Even some of those who express animus report civil treatment. A 16-year-old in a doo-rag and low-slung pants waiting at a bus stop outside City Hall says he figures he’s had three encounters with the police. Most recently, he was frisked by officers looking for car thieves. Afterward, they said: "We’re sorry, we made a terrible mistake"—precisely the courtesy that police brass nationally struggle to elicit from their officers. The apology calmed him down a little, he said, "but they still had me kind of mad."
But the Cincinnati Police Division does have one very big problem: it has to fight too hard to get rid of bad apples on the force. About a decade ago, seeking to give managers more power, the department instituted binding arbitration for disciplining officers. "It was the worst thing we’ve ever done," says former police chief Mike Snowdon. The arbitrators almost always vote pro-union and anti-management; the division has lost all of its last ten cases. Rolando Underwood is the poster boy for the department’s discipline problems. A six-foot-two, 245-pound drug dealer, Underwood was suspended three times, fired and reinstated once, and reprimanded five times for offenses ranging from incompetence to neglect of duty during his ten years on the force. In 1995, he was suspended for conduct unbecoming to an officer for a sexual imbroglio. The department finally nailed him when he negotiated an $80,000 marijuana deal with an undercover officer.
No protesters are calling for giving management more power to fight police corruption, however; instead, the activists are making the usual demands for stronger civilian oversight. And they are racializing the discipline issue. In 1995, a special commission decried the fact that blacks, 23 percent of the force, represented 44 percent of all discipline cases. But court mandates have forced Cincinnati to hire and promote by race since 1981, and of course such mandates invariably compromise quality.
Even so, the department is far from the pit of injustice that the civil rights establishment and the national press have painted it. Does it stop and frisk more blacks than whites? You bet: because blacks commit the overwhelming preponderance of crime in Cincinnati. Bringing up that issue, however, is deemed "racially inflammatory." But it wasn’t police brutality that incited the riots; it was the incessant anti-police campaign waged by local activists.
Ever since the Kerner Commission report, riot apologists have insisted that more social programs are necessary to prevent riots. The Kerner Commission called for welfare on demand, 1 million new government jobs, and extensive new job-training programs. No matter that the federal government was already spending $1.6 billion on job training in 1968, that cities with some of the most brutal riots, such as Detroit and New Haven, were particularly well-endowed with the then-400-plus federal poverty programs, or that the welfare population was already skyrocketing, despite an unprecedentedly long period of economic growth.
Cincinnati’s leaders are no less impervious to reality. Since the riots, the Reverend Damon Lynch has been blaming "disinvestment" in poorer areas and demanding that poverty agencies that had been defunded because of fraud be fully refunded. Yet Over-the-Rhine, with its thick concentration of helping agencies, is already a social worker’s dream.
Mayor Luken’s swipe at the business community, with its faux sorrow and its faux facts, is a riot-ideology classic. "I am somewhat saddened that it takes this kind of situation to come together, [but] I’m happy that business leaders are finally engaged," he pontificated at the end of riot week. Finally engaged? Cincinnati’s business community can perhaps be faulted for the dreary conventionality and naïveté of its philanthropic efforts but not for the scope of those efforts. Local corporations contribute millions to poverty agencies and civil rights groups. Fifth Third Bancorp and Procter & Gamble, for example, have been funding "economic development" in Walnut Hills, home of Johnnie’s Supermarket, only to see their projects torn up by the recent riots. Loath to bear a grudge, the companies have only "redoubled [their] commitment to . . . improve the neighborhood," according to a spokesman. Too bad they haven’t decided to rethink radically what Walnut Hills and other riot targets really need.
Wrong on the Facts
The New Republic’s Michelle Cottle has given riot ideology a decidedly new-century twist: economic revitalization, not economic abandonment, in Over-the-Rhine caused the Cincinnati riots, she argues. Seems you just can’t win.
Cottle’s anti-gentrification case is easily dismissable, since growth is an antidote to, not a cause of, poverty. But buried in her occasionally qualified case against development is something far more dangerous: a spurious revisionist history of 1990s policing that seeks to delegitimate the greatest crime conquest—and the greatest boon to the law-abiding majority of ghetto residents—in decades.
Cottle stops just short of claiming that the new businesses and few white residents trickling into Over-the-Rhine have actually displaced black residents. She is wise to restrain herself. In 1870, Over-the-Rhine housed 60,000; today, the same buildings contain just over 7,600 people, 20 percent fewer than in 1990. There’s room and to spare.
The biggest problem with new urban entrepreneurship, Cottle asserts, is that it brings in the police. Cottle claims that 1990s policing in Cincinnati, New York, and elsewhere arose from the need to make the world safe for white yuppies. If the police stopped and frisked more suspects for guns, if they enforced quality-of-life ordinances more vigorously—enforcement techniques she preposterously labels “police brutality”—it was only to protect the white urban homesteaders moving into the ghetto.
This is fantasy of the purest order. Had Cottle bothered to check the facts, she would have discovered that policing in the 1990s was driven by one thing, and one thing only: the incidence of crime. There is no column in the reams of data that top brass pore over in New York’s weekly Compstat meetings for neighborhood Starbucks, no column for the social class of crime victims. A Compstat session several months ago intensely grilled a Queens borough commander over the murder of a Mexican gang-banger outside a seedy bar; no one asked first whether white dot-commers had “discovered” the bar. The most stunning crime drops in New York occurred in places like the 33rd and 34th Precincts in Washington Heights—heart of the Dominican drug industry and a neighborhood wholly unspoiled by Martha Stewart catalogs. The NYPD created Model Blocks—its most intensive policing strategy, designed to liberate law-abiding residents from drug dealers—only in ungentrified neighborhoods. Cottle could stand a very long time on Elder Avenue, a Model Block in the Bronx, without seeing a single white person—with or without a Ralph Lauren polo shirt.
The situation in Cincinnati and other cities that implemented data-driven policing is the same. Police go where the crime is, and that is almost invariably in minority communities. But unfortunately Cottle’s ignorant thesis is catching on; of course the New York Times promptly picked it up, as part of the liberal press’s ongoing effort to discredit as racist the policing revolution of the last decade. If that effort succeeds, the long abatement of crime will end, and inner-city neighborhoods will return to the reign of the thugs.
Rioting sends a message, according to the riot ideology. Indeed, riot apologists attribute deep thoughts about injustice to vandals. An assistant professor of communication at the University of Cincinnati saw the recent riots as a campfire sing-along: "People wanted to come together and express their solidarity and frustration and outrage," he explained. David Gergen of U.S. News & World Report discerned concerns about global capitalism in the bonfires of Over-the-Rhine. The Cincinnati Enquirer was an equally creative oracle: the riots "revealed dissatisfaction in the areas of education, jobs, and economic opportunity," it editorialized.
These sympathetic spokesmen overlook one hard fact: rioters are often criminals. Seventy-two percent of the defendants indicted so far in the Cincinnati explosion have adult criminal histories. Prior offenses include rape, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, assault, weapons discharge, and endangering children. The Walnut Hills riot was started by drug dealers and their clients, according to Candace Tubbs, a convicted former assistant to a Cincinnati drug lord who described to me the fun she used to have rolling in the piles of cash her boss hauled in. These rioting felons were simply wreaking en masse the destruction they usually wreak individually.
Many riot skeptics, including the great Edward Banfield, have questioned the logic of protesting injustice by destroying your local grocery store, or fighting police brutality by stealing microwave ovens. The riot apologists who nominate inadequate social spending as a "root cause" should wonder what "message" the Cincinnati rioters were sending when they torched poverty agencies. One group that provided financial assistance and job training, for example, lost about $50,000 from fire and theft.
No one likes alarm clocks, but we all acknowledge their usefulness. So, too, with riots, according to the true believers. CAN’s Ross Love told me that the "unrest" was a "wake-up call that the city needed." Kenneth Lawson, the inflammatory anti-police attorney, explained that the beatings of whites provided their recipients a lesson in what the "brothers" experience daily from the police, and that presumably the white establishment would take notice. The Los Angeles Times oozed: "While no one wants to say that the riots were good, there was on Friday an undeniable sense of relief that the mayhem . . . had laid bare Cincinnati’s fissures. Now, perhaps, there could be progress."
Try telling Chris Schoonover how useful rioting is. Schoonover is part of a still-small movement of white residents and business owners back into Over-the-Rhine. On the first day of violence, as she was driving back to her apartment, a brick flew through the car’s open window and struck her. "Man, you hit her in the head!" one brick thrower admiringly exclaimed to his buddy. At the hospital, Schoonover recognized an acquaintance among the dozens of bloodied people waiting for care: a rioter had jumped into her acquaintance’s car and beaten her viciously with a brick.
Since the attack, which left five staples in her scalp, Schoonover’s world has changed completely. Once exquisitely sensitive to racial political correctness, she now sees the world in black and white. For days after the attack she was terrified to return to her largely black neighborhood and university. The sight of white girls jogging alone filled her with dread that they would be attacked by a black person.
This heightened racial mistrust runs both ways. Schoonover’s black colleagues at the bar where she works were clearly uncomfortable around her after the riots. "The black community had put out a call to arms: ‘We need to be strong and united,’ " she says. The call translated into greater separatism.
After a couple of post-riot incidents in which white friends were threatened, Schoonover has blacked out her window so people on the street won’t see a white girl alone in her apartment. She recalls that, after the brick attack, "I was crying, because this was my neighborhood"—"her" neighborhood, despite the crack whores and the young men hustling drugs. Now she’s not so sure.
Here is the hidden logic of race riots: supposedly a cry against racial oppression, their implicit threat to destroy the city merely guarantees full employment for race hustlers and sensitivity trainers by driving the races further apart. If whites flee Over-the-Rhine, expect plenty of breast-beating in the future from the press and civil rights advocates about Cincinnati’s enduring racial segregation. No one will recall why the integrators left.
Riot apologists even deny the economic damage they cause. "No one has lost property value because of the riots," Ross Love told me. "Property values have gone up since the 1960s riots; there’s no reason to believe values are down because of last April."
"Is he crazy? What is he talking about?" sputtered Marlene Vonderhaar, an Over-the-Rhine merchant, when I told her of Love’s claims. In all of May, Vonderhaar made two sales from her antique store. "My shop is dead," she pronounces. Suburban customers refuse to come downtown now; business in the area has dropped some 60 percent. Vonderhaar lost up to $50,000 in merchandise when vandals, enraged that her store was already boarded up, hurled tires and bricks against the plywood, sending mirrors and ceramics shattering to the floor.
Vonderhaar’s antique store typifies the "gentrification" that some media critics blame for the riots. So what will be lost if her store and others like it fold? The new Over-the-Rhine entrepreneurs offer jobs to those local residents who have the work ethic to take advantage of them. They provide entrée to the world of work beyond Over-the-Rhine. And sometimes they may try on a very personal level to free someone from the ghetto. For several years, Vonderhaar has been struggling to save from the streets a charming homosexual youth with a crack-addicted mother. After he stole money from her, Vonderhaar gave him a second chance and tried hard to help. But when he continued to steal from her and others, she finally gave up. "He broke my heart and broke me," she says.
According to the riot ideology, the most authentic black leaders are angry black leaders, and the Reverend Damon Lynch, ever since his appointment as the city’s Number One racial healer, has taken on the role with a vengeance. He drove out an annual rock festival from Over-the-Rhine by threatening boycotts and protests, and he tried to shut down one of Cincinnati’s most moneymaking tourist attractions, its food festival. During a noisy sit-in at a downtown restaurant, he promised to "let people know that Cincinnati is not a place to bring your conventions or your business. Until there is justice, there will be no business as usual, no lunch as usual." (Lynch carefully refrained from defining the "justice" that would buy peace.) His choice of protest symbolism was fanciful, since no one has ever alleged that blacks cannot get service at downtown restaurants—but no more fanciful than his comparison of Cincinnati to South Africa in its "economic apartheid."
Lynch’s rhetorical extremism guarantees his ongoing relevance as anointed black leader. Liberal whites need black anger to prove the persistence of racism among their unenlightened neighbors, which they alone can atone for by the noblesse oblige of liberal paternalism. Thus, to reinforce their own sense of moral superiority, they confer racial authenticity only on blacks like Damon Lynch, self-proclaimed angry victims of American bigotry. Lynch’s ever more rash protests make a mockery of his mediator position on Community Action Now; if he wants to continue playing firebrand, he should resign from CAN. But no one dares suggest he leave, even though his boycotts are killing the very neighborhood he purports to represent. Ross Love’s support of his co-chair reflects his grasp of the underlying dialectic: "Lynch’s protests increase his authority," he told me. "They give him more credibility in the eyes of the people we need at the table."
And here, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of moral leadership in black America. Love merely states received wisdom in claiming that black moral authority derives from protesting white racism, and that the alienated youth who most respond to such protests are the most authentic representatives of the black community.
This logic consigns to silence many, many black Americans—law-abiding citizens, who see crime, not racism, as the biggest threat in their lives. Over-the-Rhine resident Sheila Randle, for example, doesn’t buy Love’s and Lynch’s charges. A former manager of Salvation Army stores, the 50-year-old Randle is a prisoner in her own home. Young people smoke marijuana and crack on the street outside her apartment all night; they jeer at her husband when he asks them to get off his car. Addicts have started breaking into her building’s entryway. "You never know who’s going to be on the landing in the morning," she says. Randle is desperate to move, but her options are limited.
What about these stories of police racism? I ask her. "I have no problem with the police; they treat me respectfully," she answers. "It’s the young people who are the problem." And the thesis that the police only care about white yuppies? "The police are there to protect all the people, not just the whites," she asserts. What about societal racism generally? "I’ve never experienced it."
Randle wanted to support the police in their time of trouble by attending the annual police memorial this May. The anti-police demonstrators frightened her off, however—demonstrators allegedly representing her interests as an oppressed black woman. As for the claim that the Timothy Thomas shooting is a sign of police racism, Randle will have none of it. "Thomas brought it on himself," she says. "He had [warrants] on him; if he had halted like they told him to, it wouldn’t have happened."
This is no fringe view. In early May, a letter writer named Loretta Blackburn wrote to the Cincinnati Enquirer: "If I were in pursuit of a black youth and had cornered him in an alley, after what happened to Officer Kevin Crayon [dragged to death last year by a 12-year-old joyrider], the first thing in my mind would be, ‘Someone is coming out of this alley; now who do you think it will be?’ We as black people need to get back to the basics and help the police to police our neighborhoods. . . . When you are in the streets hollering how unfair black people are being treated, what are you teaching your children about respect for authority? If you don’t like the job that [the police] are doing, then give them a helping hand, not a shot in the back."
Damon Lynch, Al Sharpton, and Kweisi Mfume have no interest in representing the Sheila Randles and Loretta Blackburns. Far more responsible leaders who do speak for such citizens are out there, though—but the opinion elites are not about to give them a platform.
Tom Jones is standing arms akimbo just inside Johnnie’s Supermarket, the beleaguered shooting target in Walnut Hills. Jones is helping Johnnie’s landlord, William "Babe" Baker, put the store back on its feet, after police busted its previous Arab lessees for fencing stolen goods. A small, wiry man in his fifties, alternately serious and effervescent, Jones is arguably the most relentless advocate for public safety in Cincinnati. Since moving his copying business here in 1995 from Washington, D.C., he has been organizing his community to battle drug dealers. His efforts helped cops make 335 drug arrests in a three-month period in 1999.
Jones has one overriding principle for how to take back a community from crime: "You must build a working relationship with the police," he says, crouching down for emphasis. Jones taught his fellow businessmen in Avondale, the still-scarred epicenter of the 1968 riots, to call the police when crowds of dealers amassed in front of their stores. "They weren’t calling!" he recalls in amazement. He organized a crime task force that won extra police patrols for the district. Unable to persuade the merchants to testify in drug cases, Jones goes on their behalf. "I stand in front of the judge and tell him: ‘This community wants the dealers out,’ " he says.
Jones’s work with the police has won him accolades and, by a landslide, the presidency of the local community council, but he has acquired numerous enemies as well. "I may as well have kkk written on my chest," he says. Sure enough, when I asked members of the Special Forces, the black nationalists who have been disrupting the City Council, about Tom Jones, one of their "generals" contemptuously replied: "Oh, you mean Uncle Tom Jones? He was with his little group to sterilize Burnet Avenue [Avondale’s main commercial strip]. We don’t need police protection; it was only one block, and most of the crime is gone." Not exactly. Last year, a drug dealer fatally shot a landlord in the head on Burnet Avenue for removing the dealers from his property. Jones has been shot at as well.
Jones has only scorn for the post-riot circus. Would the civil rights activists and poverty advocates on CAN’s six task forces show up if they couldn’t get a cut of the resulting money? he wonders. As for that beefed-up social spending, Jones observes that "developed neighborhoods work very well without social programs, because they got up off their ass and solved their problems." If the existing programs didn’t prevent the riots, Jones asks, "Why are we creating more programs?"
No less iconoclastic is the man Jones is helping at Johnnie’s—real-estate owner Babe Baker. Infuriating the black establishment is a badge of honor for these men. "I’m probably the most disliked person in this city," Baker says proudly. "No, you’re not; I am!" Tom Jones shoots back, laughing.
Actually, it’s hard to imagine anyone disliking the tall, ebullient 84-year-old Baker, a former luminary of Cincinnati’s rich musical life. In the 1950s and 1960s, Baker was the impresario for serious jazz in Cincinnati, booking such great as John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley into his dozen nightclubs. But the 1968 riots almost bankrupted him, and now he sees the same destructive rationalizations for violence at work again. "You can’t go around with a chip on your shoulder, blaming the world for your problems," he says of the rioters. "You must have a desire to do something." Black poverty will be solved only by "education and economics—putting your shoulder to the workforce"—not by protests, he insists.
Baker embodies a powerful tradition in black culture: optimistic self-help. Arriving in Cincinnati from Alabama at age 11, he started working in a produce market in Over-the-Rhine and has not stopped working since. I ask him if there was a different work ethic back then. He closes his eyes and laughs uproariously. Pausing to wipe his eyes, he answers in a voice high and scratchy with age: "Absolutely! I’ve done all sorts of work. When I drove cabs, the other drivers taught me to trip the meter. I refused to do it, and they wonder why I made it and they didn’t." Welfare destroyed self-reliance, he says, and resulted in the time bomb of "babies having babies."
Baker believes that the free market is the best chance for reviving Over-the-Rhine and other troubled areas. He is a font of the entrepreneurial wisdom needed to do it. "You must pay your bills!" he says. After the 1968 riots, he obtained a loan to keep his jazz clubs open, but eventually the bank wrote it off. Five years later, he reactivated his debt and repaid it in full. Later, he wanted to buy some property for $80,000. "I went back to the bank and asked how to finance it. ‘Mr. Baker, with your signature,’ they said. Today, I can borrow more money than I need."
He knows how crucial knowledge is and frets that aspiring black entrepreneurs are reluctant to seek it. "You know how I learned banking?" he asks. "Someone asked me for a financial statement. I didn’t know what one was. I asked: ‘Will you please explain to me what that means?’ All you have to do is be honest, not smart-alecky, and say to people: ‘I really don’t understand,’ and they will help you," he says enthusiastically. And like any entrepreneur, he takes for granted the need to save and invest. "The mistakes we made?" Baker muses. "When we made a little money, we bought a Cadillac, not a house."
Don’t wait for Baker to get a hearing in official Cincinnati; his views are just too radical. Most galling, he denies the charge of systemic racism. "This used to be a prejudiced city, but that’s changed," he says. "Blacks are making lots of money now." The racial-profiling controversy? He’s not buying it. "I’m a disciplinarian. There’s no reason to get into trouble."
What a difference it would make if Jones were as lionized for suppressing the drug trade on Burnet Avenue as Damon Lynch is for organizing boycotts, or if the press gave legitimacy to people like Jones and Babe Baker instead of to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. If the media did pay attention to the racial nonconformists, it would find a large, untapped audience, frustrated with conventional black politics but also afraid of retribution for dissent. A downtown Cincinnati business figure who would only speak anonymously told me bitterly: "The civil rights leadership is killing us; it’s absolutely killing us. As white exploitation is a sin, so is black waste. We are living in an unnatural state." Illustrator Galen Bailey blames Lynch and Lawson’s pre-riot rabble-rousing for the violence: "All these young kids needed was for an adult to give them permission to riot," he says in dismay.
Riot ideology in Cincinnati has had its usual effect. In the month following the riots, violent crime of all kinds rocketed up 20 percent. This is not surprising. Not only did the riot ideologists romanticize assaults and theft as a long-overdue blow for justice, but they demonized the police as hard-core racists. Arrests for quality-of-life offenses, disorderly conduct, and drug possession—the firewall against more serious crime—have plummeted since the riots, as the police keep their heads down.
The next time an urban riot hits, the best response is: do nothing. Compensate the property owners, then shut up. Scurrying around with anti-racism task forces and aid packages tells young kids: this is the way to get the world to notice you, this is power—destruction, not staying in school, studying, and accomplishing something lawful. Even better, of course, would be to prevent the next riot before it happens by sending in police in force at the first sign of trouble.
But better even than this, political and business leaders who have not already sold out to the civil rights monopolists should try to break their cartel. They should find black citizens who are willing to speak about values and personal responsibility, and who embody them in their own lives. They should appear with these citizens at public meetings and put them on task forces, if task forces they must have. If they do it enough, the press will have to pay attention. And when the voice of hardworking black America becomes familiar, the riot ideology may finally lose its death grip on American politics.