The Common Good

The Cincinnati Riots and the Racism That Remains

Ten years ago, Timothy Thomas died from a gunshot fired by a police officer in Over-the-Rhine -- a neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. Thomas was 19 years old and was fleeing police when he was shot. Officer Roach later said he thought Thomas was reaching for a gun, leading him to shoot first. It turned out that Thomas was unarmed.

Thomas's death sparked four days of rioting and upheaval here in Cincinnati, in what proved to be the largest example of urban unrest in the United States after the 1992 upheaval in South Central Los Angeles, California.

The riots were not a response to one death, however. Between 1996 and 2001, 15 African Americans died at the hands of Cincinnati police in just over six years. Three of these were unarmed, including Roger Owensby, who died via asphyxiation or suffocation at the hands of Cincinnati police a few months before Thomas's death. During those six years, no whites died at the hands of the Cincinnati Police Department.

Over the past ten years, Cincinnati has made progress, but a recent election battle for a juvenile judgeship demonstrates that our city has a long way to go to achieve racial justice. Currently, the Hamilton County board of elections is working vigorously to insure that several hundred ballots cast by African Americans are not counted, votes that might give the African American candidate a victory (the votes were cast at the wrong precinct due to poll worker error).

Meanwhile, the city continues to struggle to employ a representative number of African Americans on public works and construction jobs. Having lived in Cincinnati for nearly two decades, I realized quickly that every gain for African Americans in this city comes through struggle and vigilant effort. Cincinnati has a long way to go.

And there are signs of hope. My friend Chris Beard, who pastors an Assemblies of God church in Cincinnati, has taken what a decade ago was a nearly all-white congregation located in an African American neighborhood and helped turn it into one of the most ethnically and racially diverse and inclusive congregations not only in Cincinnati, but in the nation. Through blood, sweat, and tears, First Christian Assembly of God is a beacon to what is possible when we live out Jesus' heart for unity and for justice.

This month, Cincinnati Faith & Justice is launching the first of what we hope will become a regular part of the effort to make Cincinnati a city of biblical justice with what we are calling "Justice Night in Cincinnati." When we planned this event, we were unaware that the first of these monthly events, which will attempt to bring together people working for and passionate about justice in our city, was on the tenth anniversary of the death of Timothy Thomas.

But perhaps this is appropriate. If we are to make Cincinnati a place of justice, we need to remember the injustices of the past by working tirelessly to "let justice flow down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." (Amos 5:24)

Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his PhD in United States history from the University of Kentucky. He is author of Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century) and a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing project in Ohio.

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