Sunday, June 11, 2000

Pandering to poison

        “The anti-Christ is in charge!” a man was yelling — no, screaming — at Cincinnati council members on Wednesday. “The white man is a devil, a murderer!”

        I think his lips were foaming, but I didn't want to get close enough to find out.

        The next guy wore a hat that said “UNITY,” which was like seeing “LOVE” on a Klan robe. He called the mayor a punk and ranted like Louis Farrakhan on open-mike night at a comedy club. But it was not funny. Council members were frozen, carefully looking the other way as if they were skirting a deranged panhandler.

        By my count, I heard “the N-word” more than a dozen times, including a proposal to rename our city “N-----natti.”

        The reason? To make sure nobody says the N-word. Especially Police Chief Thomas Streicher, who used it in a training session, and therefore should be the guest of honor at a necktie party, according to irate citizens.

        The bonfire has been flaming for weeks, fueled by kerosene stupidity, and nobody seems willing to dial 911 for some facts.

        Among the 18 Cincinnati Police sergeants and lieutenants at the May 10 training session, five whites and five blacks were interviewed about it. All but one agreed: Chief Streicher used the word in a training exercise, asking “what if” he used it on Sgt. Andre Smith.

        Several who were there said that was a mistake. But all — including Sgt. Smith — said the class was “extremely worthwhile or excellent.” And all agreed the chief was not being malicious. Except Sgt. Smith.

        The chief has apologized profusely. He is “distraught and embarrassed,” said Safety Director Frank Ryan.

        Not good enough. Sgt. Smith says the chief is lying, that it was not a training exercise. “Chief Streicher called me a racist name and walked away,” he told council members.

        Some questions: How do you tell someone not to use a word if you can't say it? If a cop can't handle a training session, how will he react on the street? Is it constitutional to outlaw a word? And while we are X-raying the chief's clean record, what about Sgt. Smith?

        Sgt. Smith complained bitterly that nobody should question his motives. As it turns out, they are pretty questionable.

        Sgt. Smith has been suspended and reprimanded repeatedly for dishonesty, neglect of duty, crashing police cruisers, incompetency and improper behavior. He was reprimanded for circulating a petition criticizing the police shooting of a black mental patient, Lorenzo Collins. “You drew your own unsubstantiated inferences and recklessly disseminated misleading and inaccurate statements which disrupted the (police) division's working environment,” the reprimand said, according to the Cincinnati Post. Sound familiar?

        Sgt. Smith was fired in 1994 (reinstated by the Civil Service Commission) after an internal investigation of a fight. Again, dishonesty was a problem. The commander of internal investigations at the time: Thomas Streicher.

        In Dec. 1997, Sgt. Smith ran for president of the Sentinels by promising the group of black cops that “Andre Smith is not afraid to address the issues and to call a spade a spade, even if that spade is the Police Chief or his command staff!”

        So now it looks like he's called a heart a spade. And council's answer was to vote for a federal investigation.

        There's something worse than listening to citizens spout venom at city hall. It's the sound of pandering I heard from Charlie Winburn, Alicia Reese, Todd Portune and Minette Cooper.

        I also heard the sound of silence from genuine leaders in the black community who could speak truth about a good man, without being called white devils.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.