Monday, April 16, 2001

Civility turned to anarchy:
How it happened

Last week's unrest began with a stormy City Council committee meeting that spilled into the streets. Civility gave way to rage. And Cincinnati would need seven days for that rage to subside.

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The crowd pressed close to John Cranley as he took his seat in Cincinnati City Council chambers a week ago today.

Angry African-Americans filled council chambers last Monday.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        The councilman recognized some of the faces. They'd been there before to protest the deaths of black men in the custody of Cincinnati police.

        In earlier meetings, they had carried signs and shouted protest slogans. Last year, they'd marched around with handmade coffins hoisted on their shoulders.

        Each time, they vented their anger and left in peace. Order always was restored with a swift swing of a gavel.

        Mr. Cranley felt something different this time. The crowd was bigger. He sensed more frustration. More anger.

Angela Leisure, mother of Timothy Thomas, asks for answers. At left is her son Terry Thomas.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Maybe it was the dead man's mother in the middle of the room, sobbing, surrounded by young men with arms folded across their chests. Her son, Timothy Thomas, was the 15th African-American to die in confrontations with police since 1995.

        The first item on the agenda was a proposal to increase taxi rates. But the crowd had no patience for that.

        “We want answers!” someone shouted.

        “Stop killing us!” yelled another.

        Mr. Cranley banged the gavel. The crowd grew louder and surged closer. Mr. Cranley called a recess. Several spectators pushed and shoved him as he left the room.

        “What should we do?” he asked a police officer. “Will canceling this make it worse?”

Angry demonstrator confronts Police Chief Tom Streicher.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        One spectator stood on a table. Another waved a “COP KILLERS” sign in front of Police Chief Tom Streicher. A teenage boy plopped down in Mayor Charlie Luken's empty chair.

        Back at the table in the middle of the room, Mr. Cranley slammed the gavel again. The crowd shouted back. “Put the police in order! Put the police in order!”

        The Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor at New Prospect Baptist Church, suggested the protesters bar the doors until they get some answers.

        The shouting went on for three hours. Mr. Cranley, the police chief and most other city officials gave up trying to address the crowd. Mr. Luken eventually left the room.

        Finally, Councilman Jim Tarbell told the crowd the officer fired his gun because he thought his life was in danger. After hearing that, the protesters headed for the doors.

        And into the streets.

        The delicate social contract that holds a community like Cincinnati together began to visibly crumble last week at John Cranley's committee meeting. The basic assumptions that guide how different segments of a community live their lives together were shouted down by the angry crowd.

Protesters marched to the scene of the fatal shooting of Timothy Thomas.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        That anger then spread block by block, street by street, for three days. By Wednesday night, dozens of fires were burning in at least seven neighborhoods, looters were trashing stores from Evanston to the West End, and someone shot a police officer who was patrolling Over-the-Rhine.

        As far as the protesters at City Hall were concerned, their social contract with Cincinnati was broken two days earlier when yet another black man died at the hands of police.

        The 19-year-old Mr. Thomas was leading police on a foot chase through Over-the-Rhine. The man was wanted for a string of minor offenses, mostly traffic violations.

        Officer Steve Roach encountered Mr. Thomas as he rounded a corner and fired once. The officer would later say he thought Mr. Thomas went for a gun in his waistband. But there was no gun. And soon, there would be no peace.

Mounted police and officers lined up around police headquarters keep the angry crowd at bay.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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        As the Rev. Mr. Lynch left City Hall Monday evening, he was talking about peace. He was on his way with the protesters to District 1 police headquarters four blocks away.

        “We need to keep this peaceful,” the pastor said.

        He'd spent years preaching about the consequences of poor race relations in Cincinnati. He was getting frustrated, and he knew he was not alone.

        The crowd stopped at the police station's front entrance on Ezzard Charles Drive. Someone pulled down the American flag, turned it upside down and ran it back up the flagpole.

        Officers on horseback watched the crowd. Police cruisers blocked the street. A line of officers guarded the doorway.

        As the sun set, the crowd began to swell. Almost 1,000 gathered in the dark, chanting and ranting at the officers. “You're killing us! You gonna kill me, too?” The police stood firm but took no action.

Police fired bean-bag ammunition and tear gas to break up the crowd.
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        “Please,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch said to some young men around the flagpole. “Keep this peaceful.”

        Less than an hour later, someone stood on the same spot and hurled a rock through the police station's front door. Others tossed beer bottles at the mounted patrol.

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch saw the bottles shatter at the feet of police officers. He saw civility giving way to rage.

        On Tuesday afternoon, the Rev. Mr. Lynch called for a “Peace Walk” through Over-the-Rhine. His goal was to rein in the violence that had broken out among the young people the night before.

A mob rampaging through downtown and Over-the-Rhine Tuesday afternoon broke windows and overturned a hot dog cart at Reading Road and Main Street.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        The protesters had dispersed after midnight, but the Rev. Mr. Lynch worried about what they might do next.

        His response was to ask religious leaders like himself to gather up young people and lead them to Washington Park for a peaceful, organized rally on Tuesday night.

        But just minutes after the walk began at 8 p.m. near Findlay Market, a young man at the front of the march made an obscene gesture to police.

Officer subdues a rioter in Over-The-Rhine
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        The police, in full riot gear, were lined up in front of a blazing trash bin to make room for firefighters to work.

        One of the officers, shotgun in hand, bolted toward the young man. “You! You! YOU!” the officer yelled. “Come here!”

        The officer slowed as he approached the crowd. The police edged forward. Hundreds of marchers did the same. The Rev. Mr. Lynch met the officer between the two lines. “You gonna give me trouble?” the officer demanded. “Is this gonna be a problem?”

        “This is a peace walk,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch said. “This is meant to be peaceful.

        A window shattered a few feet away. Flames sprouted from a nearby storefront.

Rev. Mr. Lynch confronts officer.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        The officers began to advance, banging their plastic riot shields. The marchers yelled at them. The Rev. Mr. Lynch led the crowd back to New Prospect. He wanted to regroup at the church.

        Half the marchers, mostly young people, refused to go. They weren't interested in more preaching. “Enough of the talking,” one woman shouted, “let's do something!”

        By the time the crowd entered the church, most of the marchers were back on the streets. “This is not the answer,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch told the marchers who had remained with him. “There's enough violence in this city without us adding to it.”

        Outside, no one was listening.

        Mobs smashed windows and set fire to buildings. Looters carried off bundles of clothes and appliances. At least one white motorist was pulled from a car and beaten. As the Rev. Mr. Lynch tried to assemble his marchers at the church, Mr. Luken climbed into a car and headed into Over-the-Rhine to meet them. He wanted to show support for the peace walk.

Teens were hurt by rocks thrown through their car window.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        The mayor had spent Tuesday afternoon talking with safety officials about preventing mob violence. Chief Streicher wanted a strong show of force to discourage unrest. The mayor agreed but worried it might stir up more trouble. No one was really sure what might happen.

        As his car crossed Central Parkway in the early evening, the mayor was confronted by an angry mob. The protesters shouted insults. They told him to get the hell out.

        Mr. Luken grabbed his cellphone and called the police chief, who had pushed for a strong police presence. “There's hundreds of police down here. Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

        “It's better to be ready this way,” the chief said, “than to be caught off guard.”

        The mayor turned his car around and headed back to City Hall.

Storefront burns on Elder Avenue in Findlay Market.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        He would spend the night in his office, listening to police scanners. He heard breathless officers describe the scene. Dumpster fires. Broken windows. Looting. Assaults.

        Before the night was out, police would arrest 66 men and women. Things were getting worse, spinning out of control. The mayor was stunned.

        He turned off the scanner sometime after midnight. Tomorrow was going to be another long day. More meetings. More tension.

        Worse, there was no end in sight.

        (Photo gallery)

        The mayor stepped out of a van shortly before noon at Findlay Market. He had come to visit the neighborhood that a mob had forced him to flee the night before.

        Broken glass littered the street. Sheets of plywood covered storefronts. Charred debris was heaped on the sidewalk.

Workmen board up windows broken overnight at Mediterranean Foods in Findlay Market.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        For years, the mayor had given speeches about how Findlay Market brings jobs and stability to Over-the-Rhine. This morning, he saw only chaos.

        “This neighborhood offers hope to people,” the mayor said. “But this ... this is all senseless, random vandalism.”

        Someone asked him what Over-the-Rhine needs now. “A couple of nights of calm would help,” he said.

        A few blocks away, in a school auditorium, Chief Streicher was saying almost exactly the same thing.

        The chief was at Taft High with more than 50 clergy and church elders. He asked them to help restore order. He told them he was shocked by the previous night's violence.

        “We're begging for your help,” he said. “We certainly can't resolve this by ourselves.”

Police check out the vandalized Thanh Mai Market on 918 E. McMillan Avenue in Walnut Hills.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Here, at least, the chief had hoped to get past the shouting and anger. For about 20 minutes, he succeeded. He talked about walking the streets together, about his hopes for a peaceful night.

        But as a black city official spoke, a young woman rose from her seat. “Why is he standing up for the chief?” she said. “He's here to answer to us.”

        Almost immediately, the meeting spun out of control. A dozen ministers got up and left in frustration. Some decided they would urge peace, but not alongside the police.

        “We do the work of God,” said the Rev. Gerald Freeman of Morning Star Baptist Church. “Not the Cincinnati Police Department.”

        The ministers headed back to their neighborhoods.

        By early Wednesday evening, it was clear to the police and ministers that another night of violence would grip Cincinnati. Still, no one knew how far it would spread.

        Roslyn Jones was on her way home to Over-the-Rhine around 9 p.m. when she noticed a traffic jam ahead. The 28-year-old mom had just finished her evening class at the University of Cincinnati.

Youths scramble over a fence in the Kroger parking lot at Central Parkway and Vine Street Wednesday night after police began firing non-lethal projectiles to disperse them.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        She tapped her brakes and rolled down her window. It was a beautiful night in Avondale. The breeze felt good on her face, and her new CD sounded great on the stereo.

        She knew about the riot, of course. She'd watched looters outside her apartment window the night before. The damage upset her, but she never feared for her safety. As an African-American, she understood the rage even if she didn't condone it.

        She heard someone shout something about a “white girl.” Ms. Jones is albino, with very fair skin, but she didn't think the comment was directed at her.

        Then a rock slammed into her windshield. Then another. Then everything went dark. She was dazed, but when she came to there was a brick in her lap and blood pouring from her head.

        “Drive!” someone yelled. “Get out of here, baby!”

        But she couldn't move. Couldn't think. “I can't,” she sobbed.

Unidentified man screams in pain and anger after being hit by a projectile driving through Evanston.
(Gary Landers photos)
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        More rocks bounced off her gold Honda Accord. The windshield was a spider web of cracked and shattered glass.

        “Stop,” a man yelled. “She's black! She's black!”

        She felt a man pull her from the car and carry her to safety. “Stay awake,” he kept saying. “Stay with me, baby.”

        She was treated at a hospital for severe bruises and cuts. They told her she'd be OK, but she wasn't too sure.

        “It hurts,” Ms. Jones said. She wasn't talking about physical pain. “My own people couldn't even recognize me,” she said. “They didn't even look long enough to see. The first piece of white skin they saw, they hit it.”

Police detain two men immediately after an officer was struck by a bullet on his belt buckle near the corner of Greenup and Vine Streets.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Ms. Jones' car was smashed and looted during the night. So were stores and cars in the predominantly black neighborhoods of Evanston, Walnut Hills, West End and Over-the-Rhine. Rioters set fires throughout the city.

        A few streets over from Ms. Jones' apartment, a police officer was shot by a sniper. The bullet lodged in his belt buckle, sparing him serious injury. An already tense night had just gotten worse.

        An exhausted Mr. Luken listened again as the reports roared out of the police scanners. He went on TV to urge calm. “We've tried everything,” he said. “Frankly, it's not working.”


        The stench from charred trash bins was everywhere in Over-the-Rhine early Thursday. Garbage littered the streets. The cops were weary from three days of double shifts. More than 150 men, women and juveniles were in jail.

        One of them was James Roper's kid.

Vine Street in Corryville, outside Bogart's, was deserted when the curfew went into effect.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        Mr. Roper is 39 and he grew up in Over-the-Rhine. He lives in Westwood now, and so does his 18-year-old son, James Jr. He doesn't know if his son did anything wrong, but he wishes the kid hadn't been hanging out in Over-the-Rhine last night.

        Mr. Roper thought he'd taught his son better than that. He thought he'd given him the tools he needed to make good decisions.

        “All I can do is raise him the best that I can,” Mr. Roper said. “It's time for him to take reason and put in play what I taught him. I can't hold his hand, but yet he's out there.

        “He represents me.”

        Steven Rothchild had someone in jail, too. She's an employee who lives in a small apartment above his Big Dollar store on Vine Street. He spent the morning making calls, trying to get her out. Her arrest was a mistake.

        “She is the real hero,” Mr. Rothchild said, nailing plywood over his shattered store windows.

Officer stands guard with pistol drawn while others arrest curfew violators at Elm and Green streets.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        As the riot raged Wednesday night, Mr. Rothchild's phone at his house in the suburbs kept ringing. It was his terrified employee calling to tell him looters were raiding the store, smashing windows, kicking in doors. “They're taking everything,” she told him.

        The young woman kept dashing into the store to save the inventory. She carried up trinkets and boxes. On her last trip, she grabbed the cash register.

        That's when the cops stormed in. She was arrested and charged with burglary. No one would listen when she tried to explain. “She risked herself to save my property,” Mr. Rothchild said. “That's bravery.”

        Even so, he lost at least 90 percent of his inventory. His wife wants him to close the store for good. It could happen again, she warned him. It could happen tonight.

        Cincinnati's troubles were now national news. Nightline. CNN. The networks were there when Mr. Luken imposed an 8 p.m. curfew and announced the city was in a state of emergency.

NAACP president Kweisi Mfume speaks to the crowd outside New Friendship Baptist Church.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        The president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People arrived Thursday afternoon. Kweisi Mfume came for a town hall meeting in Avondale to talk about racial violence.

        “Cincinnati,” he said, “is the belly of the storm.”

        At one point, a dozen or so people shouted to the stage. They were upset because they didn't get a chance to address the audience, too.

        Mr. Mfume heard the shouts, saw things getting out of hand. “We are family,” he said, firmly. “We are family, and we have to work together.”

        The crowd quieted. The speech continued. Later, as spectators walked home, some urged the crowd to break the 8 p.m. curfew. Few of them did.

        And for the first time in four nights, the streets did not fill with angry mobs.

        The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth stepped to the pulpit and cleared his throat. He is 75 years old, and he is tired of giving speeches about violence in the streets. The longtime civil-rights activist was the featured speaker at Temple Bible College in Avondale, where a group of politicians and religious leaders demanded more oversight of the police division.

Jenny Laster of the Grassroots Leadership Academy reads a statement asking for 'swift resolution' to the investigation of Timothy Thomas' death.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        The city has been relatively calm for almost 24 hours. The Rev. Mr. Shuttlesworth wants it to stay that way.

        Order must be restored, he said. Healing must begin.

        “I am saddened,” he said of the riots. “I thought we were beyond this.”

        The same message went out at Good Friday services across the city. For the most part, the crowds heeded the ministers' words. The Rev. Mr. Shuttlesworth invoked the memory of his friend, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as he urged the cheering crowd to reject violence.

        “Amen!” someone shouted.

        “Go on, Fred!”

A motorist promotes peace as he drives past the New Prospect Baptist Church, site of Timothy Thomas's funeral the next day.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        The crowd lingered outside after the meeting, but there were no protests or police barricades. Just a man and woman carrying handmade signs urging “PEACE.”

        A few miles away in Over-the-Rhine, at New Prospect Baptist Church, a choir practiced gospel songs for Timothy Thomas' funeral Saturday. The music spilled outside into the bright afternoon.

        A man driving past the church held a sign out his car window. On a torn piece of cardboard, he'd scrawled a message: “Let the peace begin!”

        By late morning, the streets around New Prospect teemed with mourners and protesters. They waved multicolored flags, banged on drums and wore T-shirts bearing the smiling face of Timothy Thomas.

Protesters gather for the funeral.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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        Chief Streicher had described the funeral as a “turning point.” It could bring more violence, he said. Or it could finally bring peace.

        The ministers and city officials inside the church left no doubt which they would choose.

        “There are young people out there who need you,” said the Rev. Mr. Lynch, his words echoing from loudspeakers on Elm Street. “As you leave here today, do not leave posturing. Leave here hugging somebody.”

        “Amen,” the spectators said. “Amen.”

        The Thomas family followed the silver casket out of the church. A line of New Black Panthers gave the black power salute. The crowd began to disperse, heading home.

        A block from the church, a police cruiser suddenly stopped and several officers with rifles jumped out. At least one fired beanbags filled with metal pellets into the crowd.

Jahcol Lowry, 7, was hit by a police beanbag at Liberty and Elm Streets.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        A white woman from Louisville was struck in the neck and taken to a hospital. A 7-year-old black girl also was hit, but wasn't seriously hurt. The crowd was enraged.

        Within minutes, the mourners filled the streets again. Some hurled bottles at the police. The officers drew their guns.

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch heard the uproar, saw everything once more spinning out of control. He rushed into the streets to find out what had happened. This time, he was just as upset as the crowd around him.

        He had urged peace, and the people had listened. And now this. Another incident. Another conflict.

Angry marcher shouts at police.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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        Hundreds filled the streets and began marching toward Central Parkway, toward District 1 police headquarters. They stopped at the station and sat down in the middle of the street.

        “We have no place else to go!” shouted the Rev. Mr. Lynch, as emotional as he'd been all week. “We want answers. We're not leaving until we get some.”

        Across the street, Chief Streicher watched the crowd grow. He took a deep breath and walked over to the Rev. Mr. Lynch. He shook his hand. “What is it you want?” the chief asked. “We'll facilitate whatever you want.”

        The pastor told him they wanted to march peacefully. They wanted to pray together. The chief offered to let them into the Taft High auditorium, and the Rev. Mr. Lynch accepted.

Police Chief Thomas Streicher helps diffuse a tense situation.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        Then the chief asked the protesters if they had any questions. The crowd pressed close, just as it had at City Hall days earlier. A young man asked how the chief would feel about the violence if he wasn't wearing a badge.

        “It's my city, too,” the chief said. “I'd be upset about it.”

        The protesters stopped shouting. They asked questions and the chief answered. They didn't like everything they heard, but they listened.

        When they'd finished talking, the Rev. Dale Tolbert asked the chief to pray with them. The Clifton minister took the chief's hand and all bowed their heads.

        They prayed for almost five minutes. They shook hands. They hugged. And as night began to fall, they left the streets and headed for home.

        A gentle rain fell Easter morning. Families from the West End to Over-the-Rhine to Avondale took shelter beneath umbrellas as they walked to church or the corner grocery.

        At the Big D Supermarket across from Findlay Market, Mohamad Shalash worked the cash register and served up fries and fish to customers. “Just like any other Sunday,” he said.

        Elvis Artley stopped by to cash in a winning lottery ticket. He can use the $291. It's been a bad week for business at his nightclub.

        The curfew, 600 arrests, dozens of injuries and as much as $1 million in damage have left a scar on his neighborhood, and his city.

        But he thinks things will get better soon. “It's going to be OK now,” Mr. Artley said. “I think the city got the message.”

        On his way out, he stopped to chat with Mr. Shalash. They talked about business, about shooting pool. They watched the rain fall on the sidewalk.

        “It's peaceful,” Mr. Artley said. “Nice and peaceful.”

        This story was written by Dan Horn. It was reported by Horn, Marie McCain, Ken Alltucker, Jane Prendergast, Tom O'Neill, Kristina Goetz, Mark Curnutte, Kevin Aldridge, Robert Anglen, Andrea Tortora, Jennifer Mrozowski and William Weathers.


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