Pubdate: Sun, 01 Jul 2001
Source: Columbia Journalism Review (US)
Copyright: 2001 Columbia Journalism Review
Author: Daniel Lazare
Note: Daniel Lazare is the author, most recently, of America's Undeclared 
War: What's Killing Our Cities and How We Can Stop It.
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)


It is the theory which decides what we can observe.

- -- Albert Einstein

What caused a major outbreak of racial rioting in the historic
riverfront city of Cincinnati, the worst such eruption in the United
States in nearly a decade?

The trigger, of course, was the April 7 killing of an unarmed teenager
named Timothy Thomas by a twenty-seven-year-old cop who said he
thought Thomas was reaching for a gun even though no weapon was ever
found. But as journalists started searching for some deeper
explanation, a consistent theme began to emerge, one that from a
national perspective was oddly reassuring.

The story line, in a nutshell, was Cincinnati as a city still mired in
the racially benighted past. In The New York Times, Francis X. Clines
observed that "this patchwork city of black and white enclaves"
offered "time-warp facets of the old ways of street protest and
official crackdown." Clines quoted a thirty-nine-year-old black
resident saying of the riots, "This all feels kind of strange, like a
return to the 60s, you know?" In the Los Angeles Times, Stephanie
Simon wrote that the town labored under a racist legacy going all the
way back to 1841, when, in one incident, a white mob dragged a cannon
to the edge of a black neighborhood "and fired it again and again as
police stood by and watched." In The Cincinnati Enquirer, Richelle
Thompson cited a general failure to deal with long-standing black
grievances concerning poor job opportunities and discriminatory
lending practices. Another Enquirer reporter, Kristina Goetz, reported
on the lack of progress in regard to such perennial inner-city
problems as inadequate child and health care, failing schools, and low
rates of minority home ownership.

The upshot was a portrait of Cincinnati as a racial laggard, a point
that two British papers, The Guardian and The Times, drove home by
quoting Mark Twain's famous (but, alas, apocryphal) line: "When the
end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it's always
twenty years behind the times." The big news in Cincinnati was thus
that nothing was new. The subtext was that a conservative stronghold,
one that had previously made headlines for the prosecution of Larry
Flynt and the crusade against the art of Robert Mapplethorpe, was
paying the price for standing pat. Among the few reporters who
acknowledged that perhaps something other than the same old same-old
was at work were Louis Uchitelle of The New York Times, who published
a major takeout on May 1 describing how black contractors had been all
but shut out of a massive waterfront development project just over a
mile from where Timothy Thomas had been killed; and Michelle Cottle of
The New Republic, who wrote on May 7 that rampant gentrification on
the edge of Over-the-Rhine, a black neighborhood bordering
Cincinnati's business district, was injecting a volatile ingredient
into the city's racial stew.

Useful as such reporting may be, what was most notable about
Cincinnati riot coverage was the way it steered determinedly clear of
a development that is new, important, and about as hard to miss as an
elephant perched on a Chippendale chair.

This is the War on Drugs and the increasingly aggressive policing it

Over-the-Rhine, ground zero in the riots, is also ground zero in a
ferocious effort to rid Cincinnati of certain prohibited substances.
Showcased in the recent movie Traffic as the burned-out neighborhood
in which Michael Douglas goes searching for his drug-addicted
daughter, it has a population of just 7,600 people, yet has averaged
nearly 2,300 drug arrests a year since 1995, a level that one city
official properly describes as "staggering." Of course, one could
argue that a huge volume of arrests is necessary to combat a huge
volume of drugs. "A lot of the community's concern is about drug
activity, and they want it to stop," says Cincinnati police spokesman
Ray Ruberg. "Right now enforcement is a big part of our effort,
getting people who buy and sell drugs out of that community." But one
could also argue -- and many in Over-the-Rhine do -- that rather than
helping the community, heavy-handed police enforcement is an example
of how the drug war has devolved into a war against the inner-city

In the aftermath of the Cincinnati riots, this was a debate that the
press seemed determined to avoid.

The exception that proves the rule is the Dayton Daily News, which
published a stunning front-page story on April 22 detailing how, for
more than three years, Over-the-Rhine had been the target of a
draconian local ordinance that "gave police almost unfettered
discretion to banish people" from the community who had run afoul of
the drug laws. The article, by Lou Grieco, Wes Hills, and Rob Modic,
described how a drug arrest could get one banned from the
Over-the-Rhine "drug exclusion zone" for ninety days, a conviction for
a year. It told how one local woman, arrested on a marijuana rap that
was subsequently dropped, had nonetheless been charged with criminal
trespass when she tried to re-enter the community to visit her
children and grandchildren; how a homeless man, busted for possession
of drug paraphernalia, had wound up spending more than a year in jail
for the "crime" of repeatedly returning to the district to obtain food
and shelter; and how a third resident, a thirty-two-year-old Navy
veteran who works at a local recreation center, had been stopped and
handcuffed some thirty times by police checking whether or not he had
a "right" to be in the community.

All told, more than 1,500 people were banished at some point or other
between September 1996, when the drug exclusion ordinance went into
effect, and January 2000, when a federal judge finally struck it down
on constitutional grounds following a suit by the ACLU of Ohio. No
other news outlet followed up. The rioters "weren't talking about
drugs, they were talking about police-community relations," says
Richard Green, assistant managing editor for the Enquirer, "the
perception that the Cincinnati Police Division treats
African-Americans differently than whites."

Yet it requires a form of tunnel vision not to see a connection
between the aggressive policing of the drug war and deteriorating
police-community relations. In the course of an evening stroll through
the neighborhood in early May, for instance, this reporter found a
community fairly seething with outrage over trigger-happy cops, racial
profiling, and an increasingly militarized drug war. "You got so many
cops over here -- even if you're not a black man, they be drawing
guns," said a sixty-five-year-old resident named Nathaniel Bayray, who
believes that conditions have been going downhill since the late
1980s. "I think they should start over with a whole new police force,"
declared Mercedes Harris, an eighteen-year-old high school senior
hanging out with neighbors and friends in a trash-strewn cul-de-sac a
few blocks away. A twenty-five-year-old man who gave his name as "Buck
G." was even more emphatic, unleashing a string of obscenities about
the Cincinnati police: "They can't get out of their car without
pulling a gun," he said.

"We got [police video] cameras on the corner watching people, we got
drug laws excluding them, yet they have no effect in fighting crime,"
says the Rev. Damon Lynch III, a Baptist minister who heads the
Cincinnati Black United Front. "All they do is take away people's
civil liberties." John Fox, editor of CityBeat, the local alternative
weekly, argues that "a siege mentality" has led cops to view the
entire neighborhood as enemy territory. Raymond Vasvari, legal
director of the Ohio ACLU, maintains that measures like the drug
exclusion law are part of "a tapestry of abuses that has led to a
culture of hostility between the African-American community and the
police. It's one more way in which over-policing has brought the
community to the brink."

Fifteen black Cincinnatians have been killed by the police since 1995,
including four since November. The circumstances vary, and in many
cases, the police appear to have acted properly.

But at the same time, the aggressive policing that comes with the drug
war has clearly raised temperatures on both sides of the line, raising
a legitimate question: has the War on Drugs made violence more likely
rather than less?

Cincinnati does not exist in isolation.

With total U.S. arrests now nearly 1.6 million a year, triple the
level of 1980, the drug war's racial cast is increasingly hard to
miss. Where African-Americans were twice as likely to be arrested for
a drug offense as whites in the 1970s, they were five times as likely
by 1988. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated in
1998 that, in all, five times as many whites use illicit substances.
Yet black males are thirteen times more likely to wind up in prison on
a drug charge in the nation as a whole and twenty-eight times more
likely, according to 1996 data, in Ohio alone.

In Illinois, the leader in this category, black males are fifty-seven
times more likely than white males to end up behind bars. These kinds
of facts have not escaped ghetto residents.

There is a good deal of speculation among drug experts as to why the
racial chasm has grown so wide. Police buy-and-bust operations, for
example, are easier in urban neighborhoods where drug transactions are
more likely to take place among strangers in public.

Because inner-city residents have less money, they tend to buy in
smaller quantities, which means more visits to the corner drug dealer.

But the bottom line is that the War on Drugs adds to social
disparities by weighing more heavily on the inner-city poor than the
suburban middle class, while the aggressive policing that inevitably
goes with it is clearly a factor in driving communities like
Cincinnati to the edge.

So why is this an issue that the press seems unable to

Here's a stab at an explanation:

To criticize Cincinnati as mired in the past implies that the past was
bad, the present is better, and the future looks better still.

If Cincinnati is falling behind, the suggestion is that the U.S. as a
whole is moving forward to racial progress.

It's a comforting thought.

Yet, Cincinnati's drug and policing policies are not an anomaly; they
reflect the drug and policing policies of the nation.

If the War on Drugs is seen as a racially biased and destructive
invasion of Over-the-Rhine, then America -- not just Cincinnati -- is
moving backward, not forward, as far as its poorest and most
vulnerable sectors are concerned.

Since this is a good deal more disturbing than we care to admit,
journalists zero in on all the ways that Cincinnati is behind the
times and fail to notice the various ways in which it may be a leading
indicator, the canary in the coal mine. The resulting stories may be
reassuring from the point of view of middle-class readers who never
tire of being reminded of how enlightened and up-to-date they are. But
they are far from the truth.
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