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No Land Is Innocent 

The slaying of unarmed black citizens reveals deep scars in America’s heartland, and a cautious path to healing. by Sarah Stankorb

January 18, 2015

Education and Technology:

Microsoft Learning Tools is software that helps improve reading skills by reducing visual crowding, highlighting words, and reading text aloud, so students can engage with words in a whole new way.

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Billie Holiday famously condemned the South in the tearless sob “Strange Fruit.”

“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”

As Midwesterners to the north hearing Holiday’s lament, it’s a song that wraps history in its rightful cloak of pain. Pointing a finger to the South, it reverberates: We remember Jim Crow, white lynch mobs, and slavery. You did this.

But recent months—years really—show the vile legacy of racism alive in the swift trigger-fingers and the violent chokeholds of police in cities from Staten Island, N.Y., to Oakland, Calif.—Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and Beavercreek, Ohio included. A child with a toy gun, shot by police before the cruiser even stopped. A college-bound kid described as a “demon” by the officer who fired at him. A man killed at a Walmart for carrying around a pellet gun he picked up off the store’s shelf.

Decades ago, it was the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a ruthless act of white supremacist terrorism that left four little girls dead. It was Selma, Ala., and Bloody Sunday, leaving the world horrified by images of state troopers charging protestors on horseback and beating them down. These injustices and many others became so palpable that the worst could not be ignored. That time, and the years leading into it, was the crucible that birthed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as well as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its first president Martin Luther King Jr.

The wave of die-ins and protests that recently cropped up around the nation are again a response to horror—to too much being too much. Just as Selma was but one extreme, shocking example of police brutality that plagued blacks in the South, the ensuing media coverage of the senseless deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and John Crawford has once again put the intersection of racism and abuse of authority in the public spotlight, but this time the focus is on the Midwest.

While it may be tempting to think of the slayings in Ferguson, in St. Louis’ Shaw neighborhood, in Cleveland, and in Beavercreek as recent examples of particularly troubled forces—or, in the case of the Cleveland Police Department, subject of a scathing Department of Justice report in 2014, the ne plus ultra of biased and excessive policing—the truth is these Midwestern cities have legacies of prejudice as old as slavery in the United States. Nowhere is this more apparent than Cincinnati, the site of the nation’s most recent race-related riots prior to Ferguson—a metropolis that, as recently as 2012, was still being called one of the most racist cities in the country. But, then again, according to voices ranging from mayors to civil rights leaders, no Midwestern city offers a clearer path toward reconciliation, either.

How Midwestern Racism Was Institutionalized

Cincinnati grew up with divisive race relations. A city along the Ohio River, it nudged the border between slavery and freedom, with a flow of anti-abolitionists, slave catchers, and fugitive slaves (whose stories inspired Toni Morrison’s Beloved) crossing the water from Kentucky. A first stop to freedom along the Underground Railroad, the wildly growing pork town was also home to cycles of race riots. The early riots typically consisted of bands of white anti-abolitionists attacking and killing black settlers. In 1829, whites drove half the city’s black population out of town. In 1836 there was a rash of white attacks on black Cincinnatians. Another clash in 1841 was one of the most severe pre-Civil War urban outbreaks of violence against black people, during which whites fired cannonballs into a black neighborhood.

But whether in relatively peaceful cities to the north like Cleveland or in already-tense areas like Cincinnati, the early 20th century changed race relations forever in the Midwest. During the Reconstruction period between 1865 and 1877, many blacks sought to escape disease and violence in the South, and by 1916, another massive wave of black Southerners moved north to fill labor shortages created by World War I. In what would come to be called the Great Migration, which spanned into the 1970s, 6 million rural, black, Southern families moved to cities elsewhere. The New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore notes: “It was bigger than the Gold Rush. It was bigger than the Dust Bowl Okies. Before the Great Migration, 90 percent of all blacks in the United States lived in the South; after it, 47 percent lived someplace else.”

When Cleveland—which historian Kenneth L. Kusmer notes, prior to 1870, treated black people as “almost equal”—saw its black population grow 300 percent between 1910 and 1920, the city implemented new discrimination and segregation decrees in theaters and restaurants, and some city parks were only open to blacks on designated days. Job discrimination on the basis of race increased; available, affordable housing grew slim. 

In reaction to the new arrivals, Midwestern and Northern cities, including Cincinnati, used race-based deed restrictions at first, and later “steering” and “blockbusting” by realtors once such deeds were determined to be unconstitutional in 1948, to create black ghettos, while predominantly white suburbs sprung up as bedroom communities. In St. Louis, notes Colin Gordon, a historian at the University of Iowa who studies the city, “If a realtor sold to an African-American outside of those zones, they lost their license.” Black homeownership was compared to nuisance land use—like glue factories and slaughterhouses—that would bring down property values. The result was racially and economically segregated communities.

By the 1980s, the Cuyahoga County Regional Planning Commission, which serves Cleveland and its surrounding metro area, determined Cleveland was the second-most segregated area in the nation. Similarly, Cincinnati bled its wealthiest white residents out into large suburban tracts starting in the 1930s, and as recently as 2011 was also considered to be one of the 10 most segregated urban areas in the country.

This housing pattern has continued even as the Great Migration has reversed, with legions leaving segregated Rust Belt cities for economic opportunity along the Sun Belt. As political scientist Daniel DiSalvo noted, this great reverse migration “also testifies to the liberal North’s failure to integrate African-Americans into the mainstream.” For instance, the previously mentioned list of segregated cities includes two Northern cities, one Western city, one Southern city, and six Midwestern cities.

The most deadly result of this “failure to integrate” is that cops often police neighborhoods they otherwise have little contact with, leaving many of them operating in fear. And that fear puts both the police and the communities they are sworn to protect in mortal, perpetual, and unnecessary peril.

Policing by Bullet and Blood

In November 2000, Roger Owensby Jr. was at a Cincinnati Sunoco gas station when two off-duty officers approached him. They had misidentified Owensby, an Army veteran, as a drug dealer.

A Sunoco surveillance video shows Owensby lifting his shirt, evidently to demonstrate he was unarmed, then fleeing. The police pursued. Owensby was eventually held down. One of the officers, Robert Jorg, held him around the head. (A police cruiser camera recorded Jorg telling another officer afterward: “I had his head wrapped the whole time. My arms were across his forehead ... trying to hold him down. I was trying to hold him down.”) The other officer, Patrick Caton, was observed punching Owensby. A chemical irritant was sprayed directly at Owensby’s face. Later, blood and fluid on Jorg’s sleeve—cut off at the scene and later found in Jorg’s cruiser trunk—were ruled by the coroner to be from Owensby’s lungs, and it was determined that he died of “mechanical asphyxiation” as a result of a chokehold or piling of restraints, or both.

Both officers were indicted, however each argued the other was responsible, and neither was convicted.

“We believed black lives did matter then,” says Iris Roley, a local businesswoman and active member of Cincinnati’s Black United Front. “Roger Owensby Jr., that was just the one for us—it was too much collateral damage … We needed to get some accountability.”

Owensby was the 12th in what would be a string of 15 black men to die in custody or confrontation with Cincinnati police within a six-year period (with no other deaths among other races during this time). Around the time of Owensby’s death, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Cincinnati’s Black United Front filed a suit in which they pointed attention to the 30 years of racial profiling by the Cincinnati police. Accompanying the litigations, Roley and others gathered more than 400 accounts of bias expressed by Cincinnatians to share with the federal court.

We believed black lives did matter then.

Cincinnati civil rights attorney Alphonse Gerhardstein worked on the suit, having been involved in police misconduct cases since the ’70s. He carries around three big, three-ring binders full of commission and blue-ribbon panel reports.

“And that’s how cities typically deal with incidents of police abuse,” says Gerhardstein. “There’s an event. They act like it’s an outlier.” After Owensby’s death, there was no backing down. “We said we want a court order, and the only thing that will change the culture of the Cincinnati police is a commitment to reform enforced by a federal judge,” says Gerhardstein, referencing what would come to be a collaborative agreement between the City, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Cincinnati Black United Front, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In February 2001, freshman Cincinnati councilman (now mayor) John Cranley wrote and sponsored anti-racial profiling legislation, which was passed by city council. In a recent interview in his stately, wood-paneled office, Cranley—a co-founder of the Ohio Innocence Project who says To Kill a Mockingbird inspired him to pursue a legal career—recalls the time surrounding Owensby’s death, the legislation, and the lawsuit.

“This was not an academic exercise. The depth of frustration between police and community was very sobering. And battle lines were drawn there very quickly,” says Cranley. “In some ways we were all naive to the depth of the problems on both sides.” 

Then in April 2001, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was chased on foot by Cincinnati police, shot, and killed—making him the 15th black man killed by Cincinnati police. At the time, he’d had 14 citations. Notably they were a mix of tickets given over 65 days: one was a moving violation, eight for operating a motor vehicle without a license, and four seat belt violations. Leslie Blade, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, noted at a Law and Public Safety Committee meeting following Thomas’ death that the number of citations he got over such a short period seemed like an abuse of authority. “Honestly, I think it’s statistically impossible unless someone’s hounding you,” Blade said. As Cincinnati’s CityBeat commented, “A cop doesn’t know a driver has no license until he pulls the driver over.”

Cranley is a singular character, a Jesuit-educated man of faith with the demeanor of a slick Harvard Law graduate. Sitting in his sharp blue suit, words flow out of him in paragraphs and pages, and he’s as frank about the city’s wrongdoings as he is keen on setting records straight. Cranley remembers what it was like in chambers during the first council meeting after Thomas’ shooting, careful to squelch a local urban legend that rioting started in council chambers, “It was a boisterous meeting where people were expressing their anger at the government.” Cranley remembers that Thomas’ mother sat in chambers and refused to leave. People wanted answers.

Hours later, there would be violence. Looting, fires, hundreds jailed, police in riot gear with guns, clubs, and chemical spray. There would be an economic boycott of the city.

Then-police Chief Thomas Streicher, already involved in a string of disagreements with city officials, initially balked at the collaborative agreement. It took until April 2002 for the police union, city administrators, community groups, and the Department of Justice to come together and approve the document. In 2003, busy with the ongoing economic boycott, Cincinnati’s Black United Front withdrew from the agreement. In response, the Fraternal Order of Police attempted to withdraw, citing “mutual accountability,” but the federal court denied the FOP’s request, stating that the agreement was not between the Black United Front and police, but all black Cincinnatians, the police, and the City, and that the remaining plaintiff, the ACLU, was more than capable of representing their interests. Today the collaborative agreement stands, requiring reforms like new training for cops on non-biased policing and dealing with the mentally ill; use of tasers to decrease lethal use of force; squad car cameras; and the establishment of Cincinnati’s Citizen Complaint Authority, which gives the community the right to investigate police misconduct.

The depth of frustration between police and community was very sobering. And battle lines were drawn there very quickly.

Recently, after 37-year-old Donyale Rowe pulled a gun on cops at a traffic stop and was killed in the ensuing struggle with the police, Cincinnati’s police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell immediately released the names of the cops involved, as well as a squad car video of the incident. He made it clear that the police attempted to resuscitate Rowe, that the police were in immediate danger, and at a press conference expressed his condolences to Rowe’s family. Transparency around the case meant there was little community backlash. Blackwell, who eschews “black glove” policing like what was seen in Ferguson, also carries a copy of the collaborative agreement with him everywhere he goes.

“I believe we have a police Chief who gets it,” says Roley, who owns a business in the predominately black Bond Hill area. But Roley says it depends who you ask whether things have gotten better in Cincinnati. It’s been over a decade of work, negotiation, and regulations. Some feel a difference, still sometimes “I hear it, that the police haven’t changed,” but she adds, “I also see the numbers.” Those have improved.

Of Course Black Lives Have Mattered

When a crowd gathered outside Cincinnati’s U.S. courthouse after the Ferguson grand jury opted not to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, Cranley attended the protest as Cincinnati’s mayor. He talked to the demonstrators about how far Cincinnati has come since 2001, offering assistance to Ferguson and his city’s collaborative agreement as a possible guidepost for reform in St. Louis.

Roley went to Ferguson in November with local pastor and Cincinnati Black United Front founder Rev. Damon Lynch III, with a hundred photocopies of Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement in hand. They promoted the agreement as a model for resolution between the community and the police.

Roley and the pastor were tear-gassed twice while in Ferguson. She remembers 2001 in Cincinnati: cops on horses, rubber bullets, and bean-bag guns. “Today, it’s tanks and tear gas, and drones and helicopters,” she said.

When asked if having Cincinnati police around during a dicey situation today would make her feel safer, if she feels as though the police are there to protect her, Roley hesitated for a while, finally saying she didn’t like answering that question.

“As a human being you would want the same type of protection that everyone got all around you … I don’t want to feel like it’s different …” she drew a long breath. “That’s a tough one to answer right now.” For what it’s worth, she added, “I would feel safer now than I would have in 2001.”

While “feeling safer” may not sound like such a major accomplishment, it is the first step in a journey toward justice for black citizens that many Midwestern cities must now embark on in earnest. In that respect, Roley, Cranley, Gerhardstein, and the city of Cincinnati have much they can share with their regional neighbors.

In Cleveland, the local NAACP branch has begun calling for a collaboration like Cincinnati’s, with that branch’s president Rev. Hilton Smith saying: “Cincinnati admitted they had problems and set out to fix them ... For us, we must talk about race. There are racial implications here.”

The DOJ’s two-year civil rights investigation of the Cleveland Police Department has fast-tracked that city’s discussion, unearthing a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force”: excessive use of firearms, tasers, chemical sprays, and fists; excessive force against the mentally ill; and tactics that escalated potentially nonviolent encounters into dangerous ones. The DOJ investigation was requested by community and religious leaders and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson himself after Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams’ car chase ended with the unarmed pair fired upon 137 times by Cleveland police in 2012. In the meantime, six officers were indicted by a grand jury, but hearings continue over allegedly tainted testimony. Then-police Chief Michael McGrath administered suspensions against 64 officers, even firing several, but arbitrators overruled every one of McGrath’s disciplinary actions, notes Dan Williams, media director for Mayor Jackson’s office.

Williams stresses that Jackson ran for office nine years ago on a promise of “upholding the law the right way,” and with policy changes on use of force, rates of deadly force used by police have dropped by almost 50 percent since he took office. Still, that meant 14 uses of deadly force by police in 2013. A fiscal manager for Cleveland’s Public Safety Department just resigned, stating that he lost faith in Jackson’s administration after controversies including the 2012 police chase and Tamir Rice’s death.

One could lose faith in all of humanity after watching the chilling video of Rice’s immediate shooting, the police bounding upon his sister and holding her down as she tries to reach her dying brother, their deliberate failure to try to save his life. As Afi Scruggs wrote for Belt Magazine after the extended video was released: “I can come to only one conclusion: Cleveland officers killed Tamir Rice without justification or excuse. They shot him and turned their backs while he died. They murdered a 12-year-old boy.”

Jackson called Rice’s shooting his worst day in office. Maybe it will go down in history as the worst day in 21st-century American policing. Or the worst single consequence of the racism still pervading the Midwest. For that to happen, society needs to ensure nothing so heinous occurs again.

Cincinnati. Cleveland. St. Louis. There are hundreds of Midwestern cities and towns in between, each with histories complicated by their ancestors’ sins, their grandparents’ pain. Cincinnati demonstrates change can come once a city’s need is clear, the injustices so egregious, so bloody, so incessant, that ignoring them or pretending they’re mere exceptions makes every citizen complicit.

“What we’re seeing today in America is simply what Cincinnati went through in 2001,” says Roley. 

Illustration by Matt Chase

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No Land Is Innocent  The slaying of unarmed black citizens reveals deep scars in America’s heartland, and a cautious path to healing.