I was 15 when the riots started. My mother was glued to the television — local coverage was nearly round the clock. Images of uniforms beating back black people while buildings blazed and sirens screeched were all we saw for days.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Timothy Thomas was gunned down by Cincinnati police officer Steven Roach. Thomas was recognized by police as a wanted man — he had a slew of misdemeanor warrants for offenses like loitering and not wearing a seat belt — and when they approached Thomas, he took off running. Eventually, he turned down a dark alley and Roach shot and killed Thomas, claiming Thomas appeared to be reaching for a weapon. Internal investigations would later find Roach did not follow proper procedure for handling a firearm in pursuit of a suspect and that he was intentionally dishonest about this in reports.
When I heard the Thomas story, I wondered why anyone would run from a police officer. I lived in a mixed suburban and rural area, nearly all white neighborhood about a half hour outside Cincinnati, where children are raised not fear the police. Police officers were our friend. As children, we were told to find a police officer if we were ever lost or ever felt unsafe. And our police force mostly busied itself by leading safety programs, busting kids for underage drinking and pulling people over for failure to signal.
But this is not most people’s experience with the police, especially not African-American people in the urban areas of Cincinnati, not then anyway. The Thomas shooting was just the last straw in a long history of questionable use of deadly force and police brutality — in the six years before the riots, 15 African-American men died in confrontations with police. Not to mention an undercurrent of neglect and disrespect toward the African-American community: extremely high urban African-American poverty rates and the mindset that poor people — not poverty — are the problem; harsh sentences for minor crimes; and uprooting low-income African-American families to make way for “revitalization projects” in Over-the-Rhine or to build I-75 through the Westend.
People rioted for four days, mostly in Over-the-Rhine, after Thomas’ death. It was the largest urban uprising since the 1992 L.A. riots. Mayor Charlie Luken enacted a curfew, arresting any and everyone on the Cincinnati streets. The curfew coupled with a heavy downpour quelled the violence.
Rev. Damon Lynch, president of the Black United Front, called for a boycott of the city. Conventions and celebrities — including Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, Wynton Marsalis, Smokey Robinson, Al Roker and Barbara Ehrenreich — refused to schedule events and appearances in the city. It is estimated the city lost $10 million during the year-long boycott.
Class action and wrongful death lawsuits were filed. Investigations were launched. A collaborative agreement was started. Reforms were made.
And while I can now turn on the TV without seeing a story of police brutality, Cincinnati is not healed. Cincinnati is not different. We’re still dealing with the same issues (gentrification, anyone?), but most people have just forgotten what the riots were supposed to teach us.
Many local news outlets are marking the 10th anniversary of the Cincinnati riots with special coverage:
- The Cincinnati Enquirer interviewed Luken and Lynch.
- City Beat‘s cover story is a comprehensive look at what started the riots and the aftermath, including interviews from many key players in the city’s response to the violence.
- WCPO has a webpage with links to stories and video from the shooting, riots and subsequent court cases, as well as then-and-now interviews.
- USA Today looks at the past 10 years and what the Cincinnati Police Department has done to keep history from repeating itself.