Sunday, January 13, 2002

Roach protesters: look in the mirror

        Did you ever walk around a corner and nearly bump into some sloppy idiot and suddenly realize — it was your own scowling face in a mirror? Cincinnati is getting a glimpse of itself in the cracked mirror of racial hypocrisy. It's not a friendly face.

        Two years ago, an ex-con named Derek Farmer tried to practice law in Cincinnati. He was hounded out of town.

        Oh, plenty of people stood up for him. But Mr. Farmer, who is black, had been sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a Dayton policeman during an armed robbery in 1974. He didn't pull the trigger. But he was guilty.

        The debate broke down, as usual, along racial lines.

        Black cops, lawyers and activists wanted to give Mr. Farmer a second chance. White cops, judges and prosecutors said he should not be allowed to practice law.

        Now Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach is trying to practice his profession in Evendale, and we're watching the same racial wrestlemania — but the roles are reversed. Officer Roach was acquitted in the accidental shooting death of a fleeing black suspect in a dark alley. Timothy Thomas, 19, was later found to be unarmed.

        And now people who can't forgive Officer Roach are trying to hound him out of Evendale, where he has been hired as a cop.

        I asked Attorney Ken Lawson if he saw any parallel between Mr. Farmer, whom he defended and hired, and Officer Roach, whom he is now suing on behalf of the family of Mr. Thomas. He said no.

        “Derek spent years in the penitentiary. The administrative investigation is not complete on Roach,” he said. “That's the difference. A lot of people feel Roach has not paid his debt.”

        Mr. Farmer also had the support of Cecil Thomas, leader of The Sentinels group of black cops. “I cannot say I believe in God and not be able to forgive somebody,” Mr. Thomas said.

        Mr. Thomas is now director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, and has no forgiving words for Officer Roach. “They are entitled to how they feel,” he said of the Evendale protesters. “It would not be good for the HRC for me to speak on that.”

        Justice Watch activists joined a rally for Mr. Farmer in 1999. But they don't plan to rally for Officer Roach.

        “Actually, we haven't taken a position on that,” said director Andrew Stallworth. “I personally don't see a whole lot of comparisons.”

        Let me draw a picture:

        Both men paid their price: Mr. Farmer in prison, Mr. Roach through a hellish year of death threats, rioting and a trial.

        Both men had glowing recommendations: Federal Judge Walter Rice praised Mr. Farmer's “character, ethics and sense of responsibility.” Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher called Officer Roach one of the city's five best officers.

        Both men have been trampled into two-dimensional symbols. Both were told “You're not welcome here.” Mr. Farmer wound up in Columbus; and if Evendale backs down to protests, Mr. Roach might also have to leave town to pursue his chosen career.

        The similarities are as obvious as a rock through a window.

        I'm not surprised that the same people who condemned the injustice against Mr. Farmer are now making flimsy excuses for their ugly prejudice against Officer Roach.

        Nobody's perfect. As soon as I thought of Mr. Farmer, my mind raced to rationalize the difference: After all, he was convicted of aggravated murder. Officer Roach was acquitted; he was only doing his job as a cop.

        And so the mind scrambles to invent ways to ignore the truth: Both men simply wanted forgiveness.

        Seems like we could all use more of that.

        E-mail: Past columns at


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