Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Battered Cincinnati Looks for Lessons

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Battered Cincinnati Looks for Lessons

Article excerpt

For Kimberly Thompson, the recent riots, the police shootings, and the decades of racial tension in her usually quiet Midwestern city all come down to one thing: "That could have been my son."

As this mother of four talks about African-American teenager Timothy Thomas, who was killed April 7 by a white policeman, it's clear that she and many of her neighbors see the riots that erupted after the shooting as a desperate but understandable reaction to a system that they consider utterly unfair. But many say the violence has also served a purpose, highlighting enduring grievances.

Now, as Cincinnati settles into an uneasy calm, enforced by nightly curfews, the question is whether this city that both literally and figuratively straddles the American divide between North and South can pull together and bridge its racial differences.

To a certain extent, Cincinnati is like so many other cities in the recent past - Los Angeles, Oakland, Baltimore, and others - that have seen a controversial police shooting, usually of a minority, break out in urban violence.

But Cincinnati is also unusual, and consequently its handling of the latest incident may hold lessons for other cities trying to deal with enduring tensions between blacks and whites.

The specifics of this case remain the subject of starkly different interpretations by the city's different factions.

What is known is that the 19-year-old Thomas didn't have a gun on that fateful night he was shot - though he did have a record of 14 misdemeanors. When Officer Steven Roach tried to arrest him, Thomas ran away. The chase continued down an alley, where Thomas was killed. Officer Roach says he thought Thomas was reaching for a gun.

Thomas was the 15th black man killed here by police in the past six years. Police are quick point out that 13 of the 15 victims were armed - and some shot police first. Both local authorities and the FBI are investigating the latest incident. After the shooting, two days of riots caused about $1 million in damage.

Behind all the specific complaints about police misconduct lie fundamental changes that have contributed at times to tensions in the city.

City problems

In some respects, Cincinnati has been in a state of slow decline since 1950. Once filled with 503,000 residents, the city now has only 331,000. For the most part, those who left have been middle class and white - and they have gone to the suburbs.

In 1970, Cincinnati was 28 percent African-American. Today, it's 43 percent black. With few other ethnic groups, the city is basically bipolar.

"Here, diversity comes in two colors and one language," says Daniel Hurley, a Cincinnati historian. "All issues become racial...."

On the surface, Cincinnati appears to be the model of a civil and civic-minded American city. …

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