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15 Dead in Ohio: The Black and the Blue in Cincinnati


Wise

Sometimes, folks don’t

even bother hiding their racism. Take Keith Fangman, President of the Cincinnati

Fraternal Order of Police. In the wake of this past week’s uprising to protest

the killing of Tim Thomas and fourteen other black men by his colleagues since

1995, Fangman said:

"If we give one inch to

these terrorists in the form of negotiations, then we’ve got no one to blame but

ourselves when we turn into another Detroit or Washington D.C."

Now, he could have said

that negotiating with the "rioters" would turn Cincinnati into another Boulder,

Colorado, or Carbondale, Illinois, or East Lansing, Michigan, or Eugene, Oregon,

or State College, Pennsylvania, or Storrs, Connecticut, or Pullman, Washington,

or Tucson, Arizona–all sites of major riots by drunken white college students

in recent years. But he didn’t. He picked Detroit and D.C.–two places that

haven’t had any riots lately, but which both have a lot of black people. And

that, after all was his point.

Now frankly, for any

representative of the official Police Corruption and Brutality Protection Union

(commonly known as the FOP) to refer to those who rebel against cop violence as

terrorists, is, well, precious to say the least. I think the old saying "takes

one to know one," probably applies here. Oddly enough the only "terrorists" in

evidence in Fangman’s town are the Klansmen he and his pals protect every

Christmas season when they erect their lit cross in Fountain Square. The rights

of a 135-year old paramilitary hate group apparently count for more to

Cincinnati authorities than the lives of young black men.

To hear police

representatives tell it, blacks in Cincinnati still have no rights that a member

of the FOP is bound to respect. In seeking to justify the deaths of the 15 black

males, Cincinnati Police Sergeant Harry Roberts noted that those killed were all

"criminals who resisted arrest," leading one to wonder just what is the

allowable punishment for "resisting arrest" in Ohio nowadays? I mean damn, I

knew the death penalty was still popular with most folks, but execution for

running away from a cop?

And as for the

"criminals" whose lives have been snuffed by the Cincinnati police, they include

not only Tim Thomas–whose rap sheet was filled with traffic offenses like not

wearing a seatbelt (the savage!)–but also Roger Owensby Jr., who had no

criminal record, but whose "attitude" convinced police to arrest him for

"disorderly conduct" and apply a deadly chokehold in the process. And then there

was Lorenzo Collins, a mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed young man

whose shooting was explained as necessary since he was wielding a solitary brick

and threatening to throw it at police–fifteen of them who surrounded him before

dropping him in a hail of bullets. Sounds like a fair fight. Or Michael

Carpenter, who was shot in the back of the head during a traffic stop. Or

Courtney Mathis, a "menace to society" all of twelve years old who borrowed a

relative’s car and who was shot to death for trying to flee after being pulled

over.

Apparently the

Cincinnati police have a hard time distinguishing between children and hardened

criminals. Following the funeral for Thomas on Saturday, cops opened fire with

rubber bullets and beanbag ammunition, shooting a seven year old black female

during a demonstration and march.

But hey, as the FOP’s

official slogan boasts, they’re just "building on a proud tradition." A

tradition that reaches all the way back to 1915, to a time when many a proud

member of this proud organization proudly and rather openly engaged in the

murder of African Americans by joining in anti-black riots and lynchings. In the

first forty years of the twentieth century, about half of all blacks who were

killed, were killed by law enforcement, including, one can be sure, many a

dues-paying member of the FOP’s Aryan brotherhood in blue.

In recent years the

Cincinnati police in particular have been building on a proud tradition of

racism that has finally resulted in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and a local

coalition of African American leaders. Among the dozens of racist actions

prompting the suit, perhaps the most egregious involves a pregnant mother of two

and her husband who were detained and handcuffed at gunpoint in front of their

children, even as the officers involved explained to them that they were looking

for two adult males driving a similar kind of car.

But rather than focus

their attention on weeding out those officers who engage in racist and brutal

practices, the FOP prefers to concentrate on such important tasks as boycotting

movies whose stars are supportive of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Seeing Mumia killed and

picketing Rage Against the Machine concerts have been among the group’s top

priorities in recent years. And even though the FOP rejected racial profiling at

their September 2000 National Board Meeting, they insisted on the legitimacy of

"criminal profiling," the definition of which apparently still includes race as

a factor of suspicion.

And of course there are

those who think this is just fine. On many a chatroom bulletin board one can

find any number of angry whites, defending the actions of the police and

chastising the black community in Cincinnati in only the most thinly concealed

racist terms.

"Most cop killers are

black," comes the cry from some–an argument that is both historically false and

irrelevant. Even if true, who but the most racist, unfeeling soul could use such

a "fact" to justify killing someone whose skin color happened to match that of

the offending group? In fact, by this logic of "rational" discrimination or

rational murder, blacks would have far greater reason to kill white police

officers than these officers would have to kill black people. After all, most of

the cops who have killed blacks have been white. But somehow I doubt that those

who think statistical models should be used to justify unequal treatment would

appreciate the use of the one to which I’m alluding here.

"Police put their lives

on the line every day,’ say others, ‘and we shouldn’t second-guess them when

they have to use deadly force." But police are actually half as likely to die on

the job as farmers, fishermen, truckers, construction workers or miners. And a

lot less likely to die from being police officers than black folks are, just

from being black. Whether from police violence itself, or inadequate health care

services, the excess mortality rate for African Americans is far higher than

that of police, yet rarely is there much sympathy for how often black people

"put their lives on the line every day" just trying to survive in this country.

"Notice that we whites

don’t go riot every time something bad happens to us,’ comes the mantra from

still others, followed by the predictable, ‘and look at what animals those

blacks are–they burn down their own neighborhood!" True enough, whites don’t

riot over things like police brutality, mostly because we aren’t often the

victims of it; but also because we are too busy rioting over other things–like

the outcomes of sporting events or crackdowns on underage drinking. Yep, at over

twenty college campuses since 1995, white co-eds have taken to the streets in

their own neighborhoods and gone absolutely ape-shit: burning furniture and cars

in giant bonfires, hurling bottles and rocks at police, and smashing glass in

business windows. 1500 people at Colorado University, 1500 at Penn State, 500 at

the University of New Hampshire, 300 at the University of Oregon, and over

10,000 at Michigan State in 1999.

And yet, when whites

riot (and don’t even get me started on Woodstock ’99 again), not only do we not

call them "terrorists," cops rarely if ever shoot them with rubber bullets or

spray them at point-blank range with mace. Although many arrests were made and

harsh sentences handed out in the wake of the Michigan State riot two years ago,

coverage was still largely sympathetic, with media asking "what made good kids

do bad things?" and focusing on the otherwise "straight arrows" who got caught

up in the moment. Hell, in that particular riot, white students were caught

actually trying to pry a loaded shotgun from a police car (before trying to push

the vehicle into the fire)–an act that surely would result in death number

sixteen were a black Cincinnatian to try it, but which, in East Lansing, only

prompted a brief volley of tear gas, in order to disperse the crowd.

And most telling of

all, in the wake of the two most serious white college riots–Colorado and

Michigan State–police and residents in the riot zone actually reached out to

students in an attempt to "understand their frustrations" more fully. According

to Boulder officials, the riots led to a greater attempt by police to improve

their relations with students; and in East Lansing, local residents launched a

campaign to "adopt" entire dorm floors, invite students to backyard barbecues

and let the kids know "that we appreciate them in the community," according to

one neighbor. I will swallow my keyboard if anything like that happens in

Cincinnati.

After all, in

Cincinnati there’s plenty of room for Klan crosses in public parks, racist

baseball team owners like Marge Schott, and blowhards like Keith Fangman and the

FOP, but no room apparently for civilian review of the police, accountability

for cop violence, or a real challenge to institutional racism at the highest

levels. It will be up to the folks in the streets to change that.

Tim Wise is a

Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism activist. He can be reached at

[email protected]

 

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