TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains content about racialized violence and police brutality.
The Cincinnati race riots are one of the few events I can pinpoint as a defining moment in my life. I will always remember the riots. I will always remember uniforms beating back black bodies. I will always remember people crying in the streets. I will always remember my city burning for days. And I will always remember people’s reactions.
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 11 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 police approached Thomas, he took off running. Thomas turned down a dark alley, and Roach shot and killed him, 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.
The Thomas shooting was the last straw in a long history of police brutality and questionable use of deadly force—in the six years before the riots, 15 black men died in confrontations with Cincinnati Police. As an adolescent, I didn’t realize that there were places in the United States where you could turn on the news and the top story wouldn’t be related to a police officer brutalizing a black man.
All of this goes hand-in-hand with the historical undercurrent of neglect and disrespect toward the urban black community in Cincinnati: extremely high poverty rates and the cultural mindset that poor people—not poverty—are the problem; unproportionally harsh sentences for minor crimes; segregation into white and black neighborhoods; and uprooting low-income black families to make way for “revitalization projects” in Over-the-Rhine or to build I-75 through the Westend. Nothing better indicates these ideas than the compilation video below of news stories from the riots:
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 hundreds of people 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. Estimates indicate 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 reached. Reforms were made. Cameras were rolling the entire time.
April Martin was a production assistant at local news channel WCPO, and she was so shocked by her co-workers’ cavalier attitudes about blacks’ outrage that she began personally documenting the riots. Compiling over 100 hours of footage, she teamed up with Paul Hill of The Ohio State University Wexner Center for the Arts to produce Cincinnati Goddamn.
The title draws on Nina Simone’s song “Mississippi Goddam,” written in 1963 in response to the bombing of an Alabama church and the murder of Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary of Mississippi. The film chronicles Cincinnati’s history of police brutality, judicial misconduct and grassroots activism in the wake of Thomas’s and other black men’s deaths at the hands of Cincinnati Police.
I cried when I watched it. I recognize those streets. I’ve stood in those places. At the time I didn’t understand, and I was complicit because I didn’t do anything.
It’s hard to believe most of this footage is from 10 years ago. Put it in black and white, and it would look like it’s from before the Civil Rights Movement. But this was going on while I was in high school.
I’m so glad someone is making this film, that someone thought to keep a record. If we don’t document it, it’s like it never happened.
For more, watch footage from Cincinnati Goddamn on CrusadeForJustice.com, listen to Kathy Y. Wilson’s comments on the first anniversary of the riots on NPR, and watch Cincinnati Riots: 10 Years Later, a WCPO special report.