Cincinnati 2001 Protests: A First-hand account

A narrative by Carl Sack about his experience during the 2001 Cincinnati protests. Carl wrote this narrative at the request of Pam Oliver, who had heard him describe these incidents.¬†Carl is a White man who is now a PhD Geographer who is on the faculty of a community college. This is a supplement to our research project’s description.

 First off, background. I grew up in Cincinnati, on the edge of a Black neighborhood called Madisonville, part of which I would walk through every day on the way home from the school bus. In reality, our house, although not particularly fancy, was on a wooded hillside overlooking the neighborhood rather than in it, and located just outside the city proper in Columbia Township. We went to Cincinnati Public Schools, but Montessori magnet schools that parents needed some amount of effort and privilege of time flexibility to get their kids into, so they were whiter than average (CPS average at the time was 80% Black).

The Timothy Thomas shooting happened when I was 18 and about to graduate high school. I remember being out of town the day of the actual shooting, returning to a city in chaos. Groups of angry Black youth were filmed running around the streets of the West End and Over-the-Rhine breaking windows and generally taking out many years of pent-up rage at over-policing and lack of opportunities in their neighborhoods on the local storefronts. At the time, I was somewhat involved in an organization called Cincinnati Radical Youth (CRY), which had formed around the 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle, and I remember us having a forum where a white leftist resident of Over-the-Rhine described the situation in Cincinnati neighborhoods as “economic apartheid”–the white neighborhoods got not just better city services but more capital investment from the city’s close-knit business elite while the Black neighborhoods were left to rot into post-industrial slums.

The mayor (Charlie Luken, one of a few mayors to come out of a revolving door as an anchorman with one of the local TV news outlets, and a friend to the white business community) declared a curfew targeted at Black neighborhoods, and the rage subsided a few days before Timothy Thomas’s funeral. Rev. Al Sharpton came to town and I distinctly remember a public meeting with him at packed church in which Black community members gave him a round verbal drubbing for failing to represent the interests of Black working people at the national level until there was a crisis he could opportunistically make an appearance at. Nonetheless he presided over the funeral, which was held at a Black church on Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine.

After the funeral, I believe as visitation was going on, several hundred people were milling around on Elm Street outside the church. I did not particularly want to wait in line to see the casket, so I walked up to the corner of Elm and Liberty to join a group of fifty or so people standing in Elm Street, blocking car traffic from turning onto Elm while holding signs and waving at passing cars, many of whom honked their support. Elm Street is a relatively small north-south corridor that connects Over-the-Rhine and Downtown. Liberty Street is a much larger east-west divided thoroughfare. The atmosphere on the corner was generally high-spirited, and although we were technically blocking a city street, it helped to protect the funeral-goers a few blocks down, and the few motorists who did try to turn politely altered course and found a different way to their destination.

Rather suddenly, I noticed six or so Cincinnati Police Department squad cars come racing around the corner from Central Parkway a block west of us. They quickly pulled up short on Liberty Street in front of us and all the cops jumped out, and without warning, began firing beanbag rounds at the crowd. We all dove for cover. I took shelter behind a car at the mechanic shop on the corner (now a vacant lot). There was a lot of confusion as to what was going on. After the first round or two, though, the cops stopped firing and stood in the street for about five minutes. Almost immediately when the firing stopped, one Black woman broke cover, walked out into Elm Street and started berating the cops, screaming at them along the lines of, “What the hell are you doing? There are kids and babies and old people you could have hit? What’s wrong with you?” and so on. The cops just stood there and did not engage. Then they left.

Once the cops were gone, the rest of us came out to assess the damage and figure out what to do. I saw one injured person, a white woman from Louisville who had come up to show solidarity as there had also been recent incidents of racial police violence in that nearby city. I believe she was shot in the leg, as she was on the ground leaning against a wall, crying, and could not seem to stand. She ended up getting taken to the ER by an ambulance. I heard rumors that at least two other people were hit, including an elderly person, but never saw them myself.

Meanwhile, word was getting back to the crowd at the funeral that something dramatic had happened up on the corner. Maybe 15 or 20 minutes after the shooting, hundreds of people came streaming up Elm Street. The de-facto leaders from the local Black community held a brief huddle in the street and then announced that we were going to march. So we began marching south, across Liberty and toward downtown, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” “No justice, no peace!” and other expressions of outrage. But as we marched, I noticed something curious. At each cross-street Elm intersected stood a line of cops in riot gear, blocking the side street but leaving the way forward open and not attempting to interfere. We got about three or four blocks down like this, then there was a line of cops to the left and a line of cops across Elm Street in front of the march, but nothing to our right. So we turned and headed west.

Only a block west of Elm Street is Central Parkway, a six-lane, divided thoroughfare. This part of Central Parkway was built as a cover atop the old Ohio & Erie Canal, which apparently reminded 1840s German immigrants of the Rhine River back home, hence naming the neighborhood they built “Over-the-Rhine.” In the 1920s, there was an attempt to build a subway line in the canal bed under the street, which was ultimately abandoned due to poor engineering, cost overruns, and the stock market crash.

In any case, we were herded like cattle to the slaughter out onto Central Parkway, where we were met by a phalanx of at least 200 or so cops from at least three different agencies (CPD, Hamilton County Sheriff, and Ohio State Patrol) in a double-deep semicircle enclosing the intersection. At this point, the crowd spontaneously put our hands up and sat down in the street. There followed a tense several minutes of negotiations between the de-facto Black community leaders at the head of the march and police representatives. The outcome was ultimately that we were allowed to continue our march westward, into the West End. I’m not sure whether or not it was intentional, but the timing was such that we ended up encountering and merging with a much larger “unity” procession of religious people singing gospel hymns (Cincinnati is part of the Bible Belt, so this sort of event wasn’t that surprising or rare). Video of me (white male teenager) holding hands with an elderly Black lady, singing and marching down the street together ended up on the 5 o’clock news. What a feel-good moment for the local media to focus on.

As I later testified to a grand jury that was empaneled to investigate the shooting incident, among other things, I believe the entire episode was a set-up by the cops to enable a show of intimidating force. The grand jury never did anything, though, and the whole incident was ignored and buried by the media. The FBI would go on to accuse Mayor Luken and DPD of stonewalling their investigation, an effort that was successful on the city’s part because no charges were ever brought against any of the cops. I believe the cop who shot Timothy Thomas in the back either ended up staying on the force or left of his own accord and took a cushy job out in the suburbs.

There was other fallout, though. The city’s cops did get more careful, and didn’t end up killing any more unarmed people until 2015 (I think).* At any rate, they had killed 16 Black people in the 3 years prior to 2001, so there was a marked improvement. The next city budget did have substantially more in it for community services in underserved parts of the city, and some new community rec centers ended up getting built and staffed in Black neighborhoods. For their part, the city’s captains of industry got together and decided that the way to avoid future racial reckonings in the city was to simply kick the poor Black people out of the neighborhoods adjacent to downtown through gentrification (no exaggeration–an article I read a few years ago cheerfully detailed the inside story, perhaps with slightly more euphemistic wording). They poured capital into buying up and restoring historic buildings in Over-the-Rhine, turning them into pricey apartments, hip coffee shops, fusion restaurants, nightclubs, and fashion boutiques. While this remains an ongoing project, today’s Elm Street looks markedly different than it did in 2001. They even put in one of those tourist-serving downtown streetcar lines. The large-scale public housing projects of the West End are gone, replaced by new market-rate apartments and townhouses designed to look retro (plenty of parking in back, though).

Anyway, that’s my account of 2001 in Cincinnati. 

*NOTE: From Pam Oliver. Although not a shooting, in 2003 an unarmed man died in a struggle with the police in which they used a choke hold.

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