The morning after the Ferguson grand jury decision was announced, I heard about the demonstration planned for that evening in downtown Cincinnati. Though I don’t like these events, I thought I should add my support to the people trying to effect positive change. I took the bus, which encountered, besides the usual rush hour traffic, a long truck full of groceries, perpendicular to street, blocking traffic while it maneuvered back and forth, trying to back into a tiny inner city parking lot. By the time I arrived at the Federal Building, the proceedings had already begun. I crossed the street and joined the hundred or so people standing around and listening to someone speaking into the microphone.
I was soon reminded why I don’t like these events. A few yards away from the main speaker was another man with a bull horn, saying that the people in charge weren’t interested in hearing what he had to say, but he was going to make himself heard anyway. To tell the truth, I couldn’t really understand much of what he said. He seemed angry, and he succeeded in making enough noise that I really couldn’t understand the main speaker either.
Just behind my left me ear was a man who was even angrier, with an impressive set of lungs. In the beginning, he would yell “All you’re doin’ is jus’ talkin’ ”, or later, when someone lead the us in the Lord’s prayer, “This is jus’ brainwashin’ ”. I had the feeling that he wasn’t going to be happy unless he could inflict some pain. Soon he was joined by a young man with a scull on his shirt and a bull horn, adding to the “Listen to me” cacophony.
At one point, I thought a fight was going to break out. There was some shoving, but the two young men who were not really interested in fighting. I didn’t hear the full exchange of words, but one said, “But not when your bull horn is pointed directly at my ear.” Earlier, my ear had gotten a piece of that bull horn in my ear, and I could imagine that anyone who received the full blast suffered real pain.
A few people wore Guy Fawkes masks, which I think were recently popularized by Anonymous, the hacktivist group. I have some sympathies with some of what Anonymous does, but I was at the demonstration to be seen, to be recognized, to take personal responsibility for my role in the community. These masks, which obscure personal identity, seem more appropriate for someone engaged in criminal activity, someone who wants to escape personal accountability. These masks run counter to the spirit of a peaceful demonstration.
Eventually, the rabble calmed down enough that I could hear a little of the substance of what was being said. The best speaker, in my opinion, was Alecia Reece, my state representative. There have been two police killings in Ohio recently where the victims (black of course) were handling toy guns. Reece has responded with a bill, named for one of the victims, requiring toys sold in Ohio to be easily distinguished from deadly firearms. She spoke briefly, in a clear voice tinged with fire. (The heckler with the loud voice yelled, “We don’t need no laws!”).
Damon Lynch III gave the most substantive speech. He said that he was not surprised by the grand jury decision or the violence that followed, just disappointed. He also spoke about the collaborative agreement that emerged in response to the Cincinnati riots in 2001. He said “Cincinnati is far from perfect, but it is a lot better than many other cities in this country.” In my opinion, this agreement should serve as a model for what to do in Ferguson, and Lynch is doing quite a bit to help make that happen.
Our master of ceremonies, Bishop Bobby Hilton with the Cincinnati Chapter of the National Action Network, also spoke about the persecution of Tracy Hunter, a judge who was recently indicted on a half dozen counts, and convicted on one. I was not happy to have this added to the list of grievances covered by the protest. Blacks have suffered injustices, but I do not think the prosecution of Tracy Hunter is one them. I am glad that she is off the bench.
Others were introduced to the microphone: Cecil Thomas, the state senator whom I had canvassed for; a white guy, booed before he began, whose introduction I did not hear, but turned out to be the mayor; a hispanic man expressing solidarity with people of color.
Occasionally, someone would lead a call and response: “Hands up!: Don’t shoot!” or “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”. It was not a venue for thoughtful exposition.
I realized that I was in a particularly noisy wing of the group. I made my way over to my right along the edge the crowd, and settled down, standing beside a black man about my age with a bemused look on his face. It was much more pleasant.
A woman recited a poem, “Black man, I am not afraid of you.”
Toward the end, Hilton harped more and more on what was to him the most important message: “We are having a peaceful demonstration.” He then repeated the words “a peaceful demonstration” over and over, in the same way he had earlier led some of the chants. Then he thanked us and wished us a safe journey home.
The rabble rousers were having none of that. They started walking in the middle of main street, blocking traffic. Most of the crowd followed. So we walked a couple of blocks north, turned West for a couple of blocks. Some people started north on Vine, but the bulk of the crowd decided to go south. I heard a policeman speaking into his radio, “headed south on Vine! I repeat, south on Vine!” Then we headed back east, and then north again. Which ever way we wandered, the police were in front of us, blocking traffic, allowing us to have the street. When we were headed against the traffic, some drivers showed support by honking their horns in rhythm to the chant, or reaching their hand out the window for a high five.
The chants were the same we had been shouting when gathered across from the Federal Building. I enjoyed them. They give a rhythm to the walk and a sense of togetherness to the crowd. One was I was reluctant to join: “No justice! No peace!” I hope for peace in any case, and think peace is the shortest route to justice. However, when a young kid was leading this chant, I was happy to join in support of his enthusiasm, regardless of my reservations about the message. Unlike the dreary gathering standing around listening to speeches, I was enjoying the event.
At one point, I saw some people lying down in an intersection. However, most of us wanted to keep moving, and we knew that lying down was going to force hand of the police.
Someone with a bull horn suggested we head to Washington Park, which seemed to me to be a good destination. I think he was pastor of a church near there, with food for visitors. Washington Park is in front of Music Hall, and near the drop in center. Having been recently renovated, it is symbolic of what is happening to that neighborhood: the improvements are loved by those who want to see the area revitalized, but not by the poor and homeless being displaced. However, we did not go to Washington Park.
We did not turn west until we reached Liberty, which is several blocks north of the park, and we didn’t turn back south until Central Ave. Somebody was saying that we were going to City Hall; another was asking “Why are y’all going to the police station?”. When we got to Ezzard Charles, some tried to continue south toward City Hall, but people instead gathered in front of the Police Station. When nobody seemed to pay attention to their “Go This Way” cries, these self appointed leaders joined the crowd in front of the police station and soon headed on down Ezzard Charles toward Museum Center in the old train station, an iconic Cincinnati building, a picturesque place to conclude the march. However, the museum center was closed and out of the way, so nobody really wanted to go there.
Instead, their goal I-75, the major North South corridor though the city. The police were again way ahead of us. When we got to the intersection with the access road, the police, as usual had traffic blocked off. Then I noticed that they had the entrance ramp to the highway (I75 North) blocked off, and that beyond that, there was no traffic! The police had cleared the throughway before we arrived. At this point, I had to see what was happening. Police cars about a half mile south of us were stopped, blocking a highway full of traffic. Going south, the traffic, as it often is, was slowed by the bridge and was going about 5 miles an hour. Many of us walked onto the highway. Some knelt down, or laid down in the middle of the empty northbound lanes. Some crossed over into the south bound traffic, and managed to bring that to a halt. The police decided that they needed to act. They warned us to get off the highway or be arrested. Rather suddenly, lots of police appeared. They might have been wearing vests under their uniforms, but there was no riot gear and no tear gas. They seemed to be engaged in a normal police action to uphold minor violations of the law. Most of us left the highway. Only about half a dozen were arrested.
As we left, one young man said, “It’s not over yet!” I suspect that he was one of those who went across town to I71 to try to shut that down. Several more were arrested there. It was quite evident that they were going to continue doing stuff until the police arrested them. However, the crowd had dwindled. It lost all sense of cohesion. I was done.
As we left the highway, I came by a discussion between a black woman in a Guy Fawkes mask and a black police officer. I did not hear the beginning of it, but I presume that she had accused the man of being a race traitor, or something of that ilk. In any case, he had taken offense, and he was insisting on expressing his point of view. Catching the middle of it, “I am all for Dr. King and peaceful protest, but it makes no sense go burning down your own neighborhood. That’s not a way to change anything. What you need to do is become part of the system and change it from within, to help make it become what it should be. That’s how you make positive change on the world.”
She continued, “Weren’t we peaceful? Why did you arrest us.”
“They were breaking the law. We need to uphold the law.”
After she left, I shook his hand and thanked him for the professional way that the police had handled the entire affair. He was still a little hot about what the woman had said to him.
“I’m black”, he asserted.
I answered, “You don’t look black to me.” He smiled. In fact, he is a very dark skinned man, one for whom the word ‘black’ might actually be descriptive.
This brings me to a less public aspect of the rally. After we had walked a little ways, I realized that I had a new smart phone that could take pictures. So I pulled out my new smart phone, which I am obviously clumsy with, and took some pictures, perhaps to use in this blog. In a little while, a young man came to me and asked to borrow my phone to call his grandmother. I let him do this, but was wary, keeping him between me and the crowd. He did not get his grandmother. So we walked on together, up to Liberty, around the police station, and all the way to the highway. “This is crazy!” he said as we walked onto the highway. As we walked back, I gave him a couple dollars to catch the bus, and he tried his grandmother a couple more times. I called my wife. We were walking back to the bus stop, and there was no more crowd. I let him try his call again, and he ran off with my phone. Stupid me. At that point, we had spent an hour together, him playing me for a mark the whole time. I walked back to the police station and filled out a report. When I got home, instead of talking pleasantly with my wife, or writing this up, I was changing passwords, and checking status of my digital items that could conceivably have been compromised.
After leaving the police station, I walked across town to the bus stop. There, an inebriated man insisted that I talk with him. He was all up in arms about the death of that young boy in Cleveland, killed for playing with a toy gun. He wanted to know how I judged the guilt of the police in this matter. I tried to deflect him, saying I didn’t know much about that incident. He pressed me. I tried to end the conversation by saying that the police are scared, that scared people do not always make good decisions, that black people are dying, and that is what I was protesting just this evening. Fortunately, my bus arrived. As I got on, he said “Who’s side are you on? That’s what I want to know, who’s side are you on?” I replied, “Our side.”
The Cincinnati demonstration was peaceful. Those of us who participated were just part of that peace. The other part was the police, who did everything they could to make it likely that the demonstration succeeded in remaining peaceful. They consistently treated us with respect. They protected us from any crazies who might have been driving in the blocked traffic. They allowed us to make our point, only acting to arrest people when it was clearly called for. When they came out in force, there was no sign of riot gear or military style weaponry. As we left, several thanked us for remaining peaceful. From the planning that evidently occurred before the rally began until the end of the evening, from every interaction between the police and the public that I witnessed, the Cincinnati Police proved itself to be a professional, civilian police force, dedicated to maintaining the peace and protecting all of its citizens.
Unfortunately, real peacemaking is not stuff of headlines.