Sunday, October 07, 2001

Riot verdict

A question of responsibility

        The evening of Sept. 26 was quiet in Over-the-Rhine. Police reports show a pinch of traffic stops, a sprinkling of assaults and a dash of disorderly conduct, thefts, shots fired and vandalism.

        That might qualify as a crime wave in Hyde Park, but in Over-the-Rhine, it was peaceful.

        Then at 10 p.m., something happened. During the next two hours, 10 fires were reported. Some cops say they counted 30. And when firefighters arrived to hose down burning furniture, cars and dumpsters, they had to dodge flying rocks and bottles. Rioters smashed the windshields of passing cars. Amazingly, nobody was killed.

        The sudden seizure of violence is what our wincing city calls “racial unrest.” It was rationalized as angry reaction to the acquittal of Police Officer Stephen Roach for the April shooting death of fleeing suspect Timothy Thomas.

        But that verdict was announced before noon. No serious violence flared until 10 hours later — about the same time a protest gathering was held in Over-the— Rhine by the Rev. Damon Lynch III.

        Police say the pattern of fires and violence followed the crowd that left the gathering. “Based on a review of our reports for that evening, they branched out from his church and spread out as they walked away from that area,” said Cincinnati Police spokesman Lt. Kurt Byrd.

        Police Chief Thomas Streicher said the same thing at a press conference to announce a curfew. And Mayor Charlie Luken said “questions have to be asked about responsibility,” suggesting that Rev. Lynch's event sparked the violence. “I think he's been helpful at times and less than helpful at times,” the mayor said.

        Even that mild rebuke was lost in most reports the next day. Instead, the Rev. Lynch was portrayed as the peacemaker who walked the streets to stop violence.

        It's a rerun of April, when the Rev. Lynch's protest at City Hall got out of control, a mob took over a council meeting and riots erupted into the streets. Then he played peacemaker, and was appointed by Mayor Luken to fix race problems as a leader of Cincinnati Action Now (CAN).

        CAN was MIA when it was needed most after the Roach verdict. After five months of meetings, it has offered nothing. And many wonder if the Rev. Lynch is deliberately keeping the pressure cooker on simmer to generate steam for his demands.

        “That's just the Cincinnati myopic view of pointing fingers somewhere to avoid pointing fingers at the verdict or the problems in the neighborhood,” he replied. “As a matter of fact, we walked around putting fires out.”

        He said what he did on Sept. 26 was the same neighborhood walk he has been leading for 12 weeks. “That night was no different except there were a lot more people. Eighty-five percent were peaceful, but there were 10 or 15 people who were hell-bent on setting fires and acting crazy.”

        “They kind of congregated around us — young men with masks on their faces. That's how they chose to express their whatever.”

        He said the riots might have happened anyway, because 10 percent always look for an excuse for violence. “They'll always find it. They find it every night.”

        He also said his plans for a protest vigil were shared with clergy and police at a CAN meeting, and nobody objected.

        I asked if he'd do anything different. “Hindsight is always 20/20,” he said.

        As he paused, I was hoping he'd say, Yeah, it was a mistake to hold a rally that night. People could get hurt.

        Instead, he said, “I probably would have done it the same way.”

        Too bad. Doing it the same way sounds like a recipe for more riots.

        Contact Enquirer Associate Editor Peter Bronson at 768-8301; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Bronson.


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