Equivocal Outrage: On the Cincinnati Race Riots Anniversary and Trayvon Martin

by: Jamie Anne Royce

Trigger warning: This post contains content about racialized violence and police brutality.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 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 minor misdemeanor warrants for offenses like loitering and not wearing a seat belt—and when police 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. Although Roach was acquitted of criminal charges in the incident, internal investigations would later find he did not follow proper procedure for handling a firearm in pursuit of a suspect and that Roach 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. 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 everyone on the Cincinnati streets. The curfew coupled with a heavy downpour quelled the riots.

These deaths were not isolated incidents. From 1991 to 2001,Cincinnati faced at least 137 lawsuits alleging improprieties by its police officers. And 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 primarily black neighbors like Over-the-Rhine or to build I-75 through the Westend.

Some Cincinnati leaders saw the riots coming. “There’s a potential for violence. I hate to raise that issue, but I think there is,” said Karla Irvine, then executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, at a community meeting on race relations two months before the riots.

“White people and city leaders need to step up, because until that happens it’s too easy to see it as a black concern or a concern to only of people of color,” said Cheryl Nunez, then affirmative action director at Northern Kentucky University, at the same meeting.

Rev. Damon Lynch, president of the Black United Front, called for a boycott of the city. Conventions and celebrities—including Bill CosbyWhoopi GoldbergWynton MarsalisSmokey RobinsonAl 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. But little has changed. And only the people who lived in Cincinnati during that time really remember the riots, let alone Thomas’s murder.

This is why the outrage over Trayvon Martin’s murder is so, well, outrageous. About one-fifth of the total news space earlier in the week was devoted to the Martin shooting, Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reported April 4. Suddenly police brutality and racism is being talked about in the mainstream media and all over the internet like it’s something that just recently became an issue. It was an issue long before the riots, and it’s still an issue now.

The Martin and Thomas cases are similar. Both were young black men in their late teens, who appeared to have a weapon and were shot in alleged self-defense. And while Martin’s killer wasn’t a police officer, George Zimmerman is an extension of the police force and a cog in the criminal justice system that is overwhelmingly racist and classist.

It took over a week for the Martin case to spread beyond local news. Martin was shot Feb. 26, but it wasn’t until Martin’s father appeared on Good Morning America on March 10, calling for Sanford police to arrest Zimmerman and release 911 tapes, that any sort of national public outrage sparked. This is because the murder of a young black man by an authority figure isn’t news because it’s something that happens all the time. But the Martin case is shocking and newsworthy because the injustice is fairly clear cut—he was a “good,” non-criminal black man who was unjustly murdered. And all of this rhetoric still works within the systems of oppression that lead to Martin’s murder; if there was any shadow of a doubt that Martin wasn’t “good,” his murder would be talked about very differently, and probably not even be called a murder.

Granted, media was different during the time leading up to and during the riots. The majority of the world didn’t have access to the internet, and if they did, they used dialup. Gmail didn’t exist, and Wikipedia was in its infancy. People still relied on physical newspapers, broadcast TV and radio for news, rather than their Facebook feed. And the Martin case went viral once it hit the national news, as did commentary on it.

What hasn’t gone viral? The stories of 28 black men who have died at the hands of police or other keepers of the peace since the beginning of 2012, 16 of which have been since Martin’s death. Of those 28, 18 were definitely unarmed and 8 were alleged to have non-lethal weapons. And those are just the ones who have been reported. There is no outrage for these people.

Jamie Royce is a fierce fancy femme and mobile media machine, working as a freelance writer, reporter, editor and photojournalist. She also blogs at Stuff Queer People Need To Know.


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