Monday, April 16, 2001

Why did he run?

        Why did he run? That question haunts the city and the memory of Timothy Thomas.

        The 19-year-old unarmed man with two outstanding warrants and 14 misdemeanor charges ran from police and died from a bullet fired by Officer Steve Roach.

        The fatal shooting ignited days and nights of rage and racial tension across Cincinnati. Rioters shot at police, looted stores, set fires, threw rocks and beat drivers after pulling them from their cars. Calm returned only after a dusk-to-dawn curfew hung a “closed” sign on the city.

Unanswered question
        Timothy Thomas was buried Saturday. But the question remains: Why did he run?

        The answer depends on the skin color of the person you ask.

        The standard white reply I keep hearing — from others and inside my head — is: Running's stupid. It's illegal. And very dangerous. Cops carry lethal weapons. No one runs with nothing to hide.

        The standard black reply begins the same way: Running's stupid.

        But, from the African-American males I spoke with late last week at Corryville's University Plaza shopping center, the rest of the answer varies.

        These men, ages 16 to 33, gave me reasons for running from the law. Their explanations centered on avoiding being harassed.

To run or not
        “When the police say stop, you'd be crazy to run,” said Corey Clay, a 16-year-old junior at Withrow High School. “But you must tell them what they want.”

        “Just be careful how you tell them,” warned Deon Dray, a 23-year-old plastics worker from Mount Auburn.

        “Attitude is everything. I've been stopped by the police. But never hassled. That's because I answer their questions, don't give them any lip and I'm fine.”

        Mike Chappell should be so lucky. The 25-year-old forklift operator from Westwood has been “stopped while walking, pulled over while driving, asked to show some I.D. and thrown up against fences. Police always say I "fit the description.'

        “No matter how hard I work, I fit the description of some criminal. Maybe it's the gold tooth I have in my mouth, I don't know.

        “I do know, not all black people deal drugs, steal things and riot. I have better things to do with my life. Still, police stop me.”

        He's never kept going. But he understands why someone else would run.

        “Being stopped is humiliating. You sit in your car for an hour while they check your I.D. Then they come back, toss your I.D. at you and just tell you "go on.' Like you should be happy they let you go without so much as a "I'm sorry.'”

        David Johnson regularly ran from police “when I was 14 to 19.” The 33-year-old maintenance worker at Playhouse in the Park admitted he wasn't “the most productive person in society back then. I stole things, little stuff like ball caps from the Walgreen store.”

        When police ordered him to stop, he ran.

        “Got cracked in the head once with a cop's walkie-talkie.”

        The Evanston man knows why he ran.

        “First, you do it for the adrenalin rush. The excitement of the getaway.

        “Then there's the rebellion thing. I was at an age when I did things just because they were wrong.

        “Finally you figure, I'm unarmed. He won't shoot.

        “Now, that's not such a good idea. You could wind up dead.”

        Cliff Radel can be reached at (513) 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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- RADEL: Why did he run?
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