Sunday, September 24, 2000

'Scary stuff'

Wrestling with race

        The mayor of TV Land glides in black limousines surrounded by a squadron of flaks and motorcycle cops who keep reality from crossing the rope-line.

        In safe, quiet Cincinnati, Mayor Charlie Luken walks alone. It has always been that way. But it may not last for long.

        The city safety director has told Mr. Luken to start using bodyguards, or the police can't guarantee his safety.

        He was harassed and threatened on Fountain Square last spring. At Oktoberfest, two protesters jumped in front of him at the microphone and set off a bullhorn that Mr. Luken says “sounded like an air-raid warning.”

        The reason is the stone in Cincinnati's shoe that cripples our city: race.

        A few black protesters are exploiting fear, bitterness and silence.

        The mayor has been reluctant to talk about it, he says, because “attention is encouragement.” But after a four-hour circus Wednesday, he said, “We're over the line. We can't ignore it anymore.”

        Councilman Phil Heimlich described the council meeting as, “Heckling, shouting, interrupting and personal attacks. The lack of order is scary stuff.”

        Mr. Luken said, “Every citizen of Cincinnati should be required to watch that meeting. The behavior is so reprehensible.”

        About 20 African Americans have tied council in knots, using public coment time to call council members, the mayor, police and city officials racists, punks, creeps, freaks, thieves, crooks and worse, spouting “white devils” lunacy that would be a four-alarm hate crime if aimed at blacks.

        “The bigotry that is espoused from that microphone should be reprehensible to every citizen of this city,” Mr. Luken said.

        Many citizens, black and white, want the shouters removed and arrested. But then the mayor and council members are dragged into court and accused of racism and censoring free speech.

        “Addressing council is done with permission. Not all legislative bodies allow that,” Mr. Luken said. “But what can we do short of taking that away?”

        There's another problem: “The people who say these things and do these things are encouraged by some on council,” Mr. Luken said.

        Most at City Hall won't name names. But it's easy to get the picture:

        Todd Portune and Minette Cooper pander to protests.

        Charlie Winburn demands “law and order” — but others say he plays both sides of the street.

        Paul Booth and Alicia Reece don't fan the fire but don't put it out, either.

        The black members of council and Mr. Portune are on one side, and the white targets are on the other: Mayor Luken, Mr. Heimlich, Jim Tarbell and Pat DeWine.

        And the abuse escalates.

        Mayor Luken is considering a rule that would let council members vote immediately to eject anyone who disrupts a meeting.

        “But it will get worse before it gets better,” he said.

        State Sen. and Democratic Party Chairman Mark Mallory said it's time for everyone to chill out. “We have to respect the people's right to disagree with council, but they have to respect council members.”

        He says “one or two people profess to represent the (black) community” because nothing is being done about unresolved race problems. “It's time to put together a task force or a series of meetings to get into these issues,” he said.

        But Cincinnati would rather limp than unlace our shoes and take a look.

        So council members who represent a city of more than 300,000 are bullied by a few shouting bigots. Leaders who should speak up say nothing.

        For now, the mayor is walking alone.

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.