Sunday, May 13, 2001

Lynch draws on lessons of civil-rights movement

Civil disobedience means of change or fuel on the fire?

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Rev. Damon Lynch III learned the lessons of civil disobedience as an 8-year-old boy peering through the stair railings of his parents' North Avondale home. In the living room, his father, the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Otis Moss and other civil-rights leaders mapped out strategies to fight injustices of the day.

        They planned acts of civil disobedience to encourage companies to hire more African-Americans and a epartment store to have a black Santa Claus.

        Three decades later, the student becomes the teacher.

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in Over-the Rhine, uses the playbook of his father's generation to preach the mer its of civil disobedience to young African-American men and women.

        Critics say there are better ways to change the city and improve race relations than breaking traffic laws or disrupting businesses.

        But the Rev. Mr. Lynch and others say civil disobedience has a long history as an effective tool in battling injustice. Civil disobedience played an important role in prompting many of the 20th century's significant social changes, from

        Mohandas Gandhi's protests against British rule in India to the civil-rights movement to the push for nuclear disarmament.

        “Cincinnati can expect to hear our voices, to continue to challenge,” says the Rev. Mr. Lynch, who has led rallies and marches to protest the April 7 shooting death of an unarmed black man by a Cincinnati police officer. “There will be other acts of peaceful civil disobedience, by one or by the masses. I'm not stopping. Our mistake in the past is we stopped.”

The Rev. Mr. Lynch is confronted by a police supervisor after leading protesters into the Findlay Market area on the first day of the rioting.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        After Monday's announcement that Officer Stephen Roach was indicted on two misdemeanor charges in the shooting death of Timothy Thomas, the Rev. Mr. Lynch led a group of 150 protesters in a march around police headquarters on Ezzard Charles Drive.

        The following day, the Rev. Mr. Lynch and others gathered at Fountain Square, then held a sit-in at a nearby restaurant before marching down the center of Vine and Ninth streets to City Hall.

        These peaceful protests should encourage — not stymie — other proposals for improving race relations, the Rev. Mr. Lynch says. The collaborative process on racial profiling should continue, as should the work of Cincinnati Community Action Now, the mayor's commission on which the Rev. Mr. Lynch serves as a co-chairman.

        Some describe the Rev. Mr. Lynch's actions as contradictory. At the same time he serves on Mayor Charlie Luken's panel to defuse the racial tension in Cincinnati, some contend his acts of civil disobedience are inflaming the situation. Either lead protests or serve on the mayor's commission — but not both, they say.

        Last week, City Council members Pat DeWine and John Cranley were critical of the Rev. Mr. Lynch's protests. And on Friday, Councilman Phil Heimlich called for Mr. Luken to remove the Rev. Mr. Lynch from the race commission, calling the pastor's tactics unlawful and disruptive.

        “Rev. Lynch's actions do not qualify him to lead our city through the process of racial healing. In fact, his actions disqualify him,” Mr. Heimlich wrote in a memo to the mayor.

        Mr. Luken has not yet responded publicly to Mr. Heimlich's memo. But it was clear last week that a rift between Mr. Luken and the Rev. Mr. Lynch exists.

        “Mr. Lynch and I have a legitimate difference of opinion about whether the protests are helpful or productive,” said Mr. Luken, who hopes to be the city's first directly elected mayor in more than 70 years in November.

        When asked last week whether the race panel was in jeopardy, Mr. Luken said, “No. Not yet. I hope not.”

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch says he believes he can contribute in both arenas. He hopes not to have to make a choice. He says he's not sure which he would choose.

New methods needed?
               The Rev. Christopher Beard, senior pastor of First Christian Assembly of God in Corryville, says he believes in aggressively addressing issues of injustice in the city. But he doesn't advocate civil disobedience as a method. He fears such acts treat others unjustly as a response to injustice and “risk multiplying the pain.”

        “I trust that (the Rev. Mr. Lynch) is following his heart,” says the Rev. Mr. Beard. “But I think we need new methods for dealing with the issues of today. To rely on methods from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s is not what God would have us to do. He would have us seek wisdom for new methods to deal with the current, relevant issues of today.”

        Longtime civil-rights leaders say civil disobedience is a tried-and-true way to achieve change. The Rev. Mr. Shuttlesworth was first arrested in the 1950s in Birmingham, Ala., during a protest of segregation laws. He is one of the generals of the civil-rights battles, alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a strong advocate of civil disobedience.

        “The beauty of civil disobedience is without breaking a window, without throwing a rock at a policeman, without harming anyone or anything, a person can be disruptive just by being in the way,” says the Rev. Mr. Shuttlesworth, 79, of Roselawn. “We know the city is able to control people who break windows and violate curfews ... but the city is not able to stop people who go out there in a peaceful demonstration.”

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch suspects many people don't quite understand the term civil disobedience. Some people hear only the disobedience part, and see it as tacit permission to break windows and loot stores. Others consider civil disobedience passive and benign resistance.

        It is neither, he says.

        Civil disobedience is the willingness to break laws to call attention to unjust practices, he says. It is a willingness to go to jail to make the statement that you're willing to suffer for what you believe.

        Civil disobedience includes such peaceful acts as marches and sit-ins. It comes out of the same toolbox as economic boycotts and prayer vigils, actions that call for change but do no physical harm.

        Charles Smith II, 48, of Westwood, came to the Rev. Mr. Lynch's office Friday to offer support and suggest an additional means of protest: a “black flu” similar to “blue flu,” or widespread absences by police officers when they want to protest a policy or decision. If all the black people in Cincinnati stayed home for a day, the community would sit up and listen, he says.

        “Everything else, including violence, hasn't worked,” Mr. Smith says. Besides, “You can show a greater love without knocking someone out to prove it.”

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch says his group hasn't talked about economic boycotts at this point. The peaceful protests are an appropriate response so long as the city continues to work toward solutions, he says.

Reciting King's words
               Pages are dog-eared and falling out of the Rev. Mr. Lynch's copy of The Words of Martin Luther King Jr. He has always considered the civil-rights leader a hero, but the words have special resonance today for the Over-the-Rhine pastor.

        When protesters poured into New Prospect Baptist Church on Monday night, the Rev. Mr. Lynch passed out excerpts from the book to explain his position on civil rights.

        “Mass civil disobedience as a new stage of struggle can transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force,” the Rev. Dr. King said. “The limitation of riots ... is that they cannot win and their participants know it.”

        Riots fail because they can't be sustained, says the Rev. Mr. Lynch.

        “The city didn't have any problem stopping the riots. When they decided it was over, it was over,” he says. Civil disobedience is longer-lasting and difficult to stop.

        “There can't be an ease in Zion,” says the Rev. Mr. Lynch, alluding to the Bible. “Nothing can just stop.”


        Enquirer reporter Kevin Aldridge contributed.


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