Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Unity Day crowd sees possibility of harmony




By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If only for an hour on Monday, Cincinnati's Unity Day at Fountain Square gave city leaders and residents a snapshot of the city's potential for healing and reconciliation.

        More than 200 black and white people exchanged smiles, hugs and handshakes during a gathering aimed to bring people together with music and speeches in the aftermath of April's civil unrest.

        Unity Day came as the city grapples with a dramatic upswing in drug- and gang-related violence and just two days after community activists called for a boycott of the city until a range of demands is met.

        When Mayor Charlie Luken took the podium, he denounced the call for economic sanctions and urged Cincinnatians not to listen to just the loudest voices, but also to “the quiet voices working for change and healing.”

        “When people stay away from the city, it is those on the most fragile end of the economic ladder who would be harmed by that,” Mr. Luken said. “Rather than that, be positive about your city. Stand up for your city and work for change.”

        Charter Party mayoral candidate Courtis Fuller told the audience that true healing requires the will of people not afraid to challenge the status quo.

        “Cincinnati is my town. It's your town. It must be our town,” Mr. Fuller said. “For true change to occur, folks need to come out of their comfort zones.”

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Know someone who has successfully bridged the racial divide? Tell us about it.
        Changing Hearts and Minds, the group that organized Unity Day, hoped the rally would draw people together, and that it would lead to more diversity at this weekend's Ujima Cinci-Bration and other downtown festivals and events.

        On Monday, small groups of blacks and whites sang together, talked about their similarities, shared ideas and even a bite to eat. Hundreds of black-and-white ribbons were handed out as a show of solidarity and friendship.

        “We need to find some way to start treating each other like human beings and recognize that our differences are things we should celebrate and not be afraid of,” said Tom Fehr, 41, of Westwood, who came out in support of the rally. “I think this is something really positive.”

        Unity Day was organized in response to racial unrest in Cincinnati following the April 7 shooting death of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man, by a white Cincinnati police officer in Over-the-Rhine. The shooting sparked the city's worst riots and protests since 1968.

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        It also comes on the heels of a call for an international boycott of Cincinnati made by 14 local religious and political groups on Saturday. The groups vowed to place severe economic pressure on the city and to urge organizations with upcoming conventions here to meet elsewhere.

        They demanded a host of changes before the boycott would be lifted —including strengthening police oversight and firing City Manager John Shirey and Police Chief Thomas Streicher. The coalition calling for the boycott reflects a mix of African-American religious activists and left-wing political groups that share a distrust of big business and local law enforcement.

        So far, the organizations involved have refused to make much information public about their membership or their plans.

        “The challenges feel overwhelming, but I know the answers are out there,” said Susie Pepper, 24, daughter of Procter & Gamble Chairman John Pepper, who came to hear the speeches and share ideas. “We just need to be more compassionate toward one another and communicate.”

        While setting up for the Unity Day gathering, Dr. Lionel Brown, an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and rally organizer, said, “We don't want to destroy our city as we are bringing about the kind of change that is needed. We in this city have to begin to work together, play together and stand together.”

        Not everyone at the rally came to show support.

        About a dozen protesters wandered the crowd at the square hoisting picket signs and chanting “hypocrisy” and “no justice, no peace.” Many booed Mr. Luken and heckled him relentlessly throughout his address.

        Protester Ken Anderson, 43, of Kennedy Heights said the problem in Cincinnati is not with individual blacks and whites getting along, but that institutional racism exists and is condoned by city officials.

        “We cannot have a party in the house when the house is on fire,” said Mr. Anderson. “This is a feel-good session and it's not time to feel good because the city is in pain.”

        Despite the protesters, organizers called the rally a success and indicated that more may be held on a regular basis.

        “If no more than 10 people see each other in a different light, then today's rally was worth it,” said the Rev. Jeannette Shegog, a rally participant and pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Walnut Hills. “Cincinnati has so many walls built up and today I think we broke down a few of those walls.”

       



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