By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Amid the loudest protests at Cincinnati City Hall since the April 2001 riots, City Council agreed to stick with the historic "collaborative agreement" on police reform - but only if the Black United Front and its lawyers drop out.
By a 6-3 vote - with City Council's three black members on the losing end - the council remained committed to the agreement, but only on the condition that anyone associated with the boycott movement be dismissed.
Councilman David Pepper, sponsor of the motion, insisted that the resolution simply asked a federal judge to decide whether Black United Front lawyers had a conflict of interest.
But in terms of its symbolic value, members of the front, led by the Rev. Damon Lynch III of New Prospect Baptist Church, saw it as a direct challenge to their right to speak out on issues of racial justice.
The front has already asked to be removed as representative for victims of racial profiling in a class-action federal lawsuit that led to the collaborative settlement. But its lawyer, Kenneth L. Lawson, remains involved. Lawson wasn't mentioned by name in the resolution, but nonetheless said the city was targeting him to "shut up Ken Lawson."
"I cannot let City Council threaten my business," he told council. Lawson has become the lawyer of choice for many people - especially African-Americans - who feel their rights have been violated by the Cincinnati Police Department.
He was supported by dozens of protesters wearing T-shirts with his picture on it. They chanted "Law Dog," referring to his nickname.
In all, about 200 protesters attended the meeting, frequently interrupting the proceedings with chants and jeers. About 2 p.m., the scheduled time for the meeting to begin, leaders of the Black United Front and the Bucket Boys street band banged on drums as they marched up the steps to the third-floor chambers.
Mayor Charlie Luken adjourned the meeting for several minutes while the commotion died down. The drummers eventually went outside, but their drumbeat served as background music for the remainder of the meeting.
Dozens of police officers watched the protests.
The rhetoric inside City Council chambers was also evocative of the unrest of 2001. The Rev. Stephen Scott, pastor of the First Recovery Christian Fellowship Church and one of the first supporters of the boycott movement, was particularly incendiary.
He called for "regime change" at the Cincinnati Police Department and threatened to "invade" the department to make it happen.
"You think of black-on-black crime now; you'll be able to change the color scheme," he said. "It's going to be a long, hot summer if our demands are not met. If you think hell is hot, you ain't seen nothing yet."
Many of the protesters derided Pepper, who was taken aback by the commotion that his resolution had caused.
"This is not about an individual attorney, and I'm sincerely sorry that it's been characterized as such," he said.
"What we're trying to do is set forth principles of conduct for lawyers as we move forward. It's nothing personal."
Some council members, such as Alicia Reece, saw the resolution as a moot point. City Solicitor J. Rita McNeil, in a response sent to the court Tuesday and officially entered Wednesday morning, had already argued the city's position.
In light of the front's conflict in promoting the boycott and the agreement, McNeil said, "it likewise follows that the class counsel, who currently represent the (Black United Front), should be precluded in representing the (front) against the city, now or in the future, in matters involving ... the Collaborative Agreement."
Lawson told City Council on Wednesday that he's worked as hard as anyone else on the collaborative.
"I support, with all of my heart, the collaborative," Lawson told City Council.
The court-appointed monitor, former Michigan U.S. Attorney Saul A. Green, released his first status report charting the city's progress on police reform Tuesday.
In it, he chastised the Cincinnati Police Department - and Chief Tom Streicher in particular - for not meeting deadlines and not being fully committed to the idea of community problem-oriented policing.
Luken responded to that report Wednesday, saying in a letter to Green that "an inordinate amount of blame is placed on the city of Cincinnati and our approach to the Collaborative."
He said the Black United Front deserves equal opprobrium for its decision to back out.
"It is inconceivable to me that you do not comment on the total failure of one of the parties to fulfill any of their obligations," Luken wrote. "The Black United Front and its attorneys have continued to sue the city, continued to protest and slander the police, and have continued to boycott the city that they have purported to partner with. Yet their behavior goes unchecked in this report."
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