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Riot-torn Cincinnati may be more like Richmond than you'd think.

Twin Cities?

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Cincinnati is going through hard times, and it shows. Back in April, a police shooting of an unarmed youth sparked days of racial riots and a still-simmering state of civil unrest. Since that spring day when 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was shot while running from police who were seeking to arrest him, there have been over 60 shooting incidents in or around Cincinnati, claiming about 80 gunshot victims. It is a war of violence; it is a war of nerves. Will the next shooting be the one that triggers riots again?

Cincinnati is clearly off-balance, shaken to its core. The city is questioning and doubting itself. It is apologizing for itself. At the same time, the people from both official and everyday Cincinnati reach out to visitors and ask whether things aren't the same all over.

People there are in search of steady footing on high ground, but they find themselves caught up in a swirl of unpredictable events, each day as likely to serve up more violence as to finally bring their long-awaited peace.

I was in Cincinnati as a representative of Richmond's Human Relations Commission, to take part in the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies conference. The conference had been planned for Cincinnati for some time. Circumstances brought human-rights and human-relations agency officials from all over the country together in a time and place of great unrest. There was more irony in the fact that a huge law-enforcement conference was being held at the conference center down the street, and police cruisers from cities and towns far and wide filled the downtown streets. In a way, it felt like we were all there as witnesses. We were supposed to bring back a report and a warning to our own communities. So here is mine.

My visit to Cincinnati was in mid-July and I was there almost a week.. I was there during the weekend of the Cincinnati jazz festival and the Ujima street festival. These are usually filled-to-overflowing events, but not this year. Blacks stayed away in large numbers, it was reported. Whites stayed away almost entirely from what I saw. Part of this was an effect of the economic boycott that some groups have sought to promote against Cincinnati itself. A lot of it was that fear was all around.

One promo line for the street festival called it the "Cinci-bration." But Cincinnati was not really celebrating this time. It seemed to be going through the motions, hoping to hold things together without incident through the weekend, and then get back to figuring out its problems.

Cincinnati has been tagged by Time magazine as a "model of racial injustice," and this label has spread quickly. At one of our conference dinners, the speaker, Sharon Zealy — formerly U.S. attorney for the district including Cincinnati - spoke of the city as the present day "epicenter of racial injustice."

The mayor of Cincinnati, Charlie Luken, appeared at the opening session of the second day of the conference and asked everyone to pray for and help Cincinnati as it struggled to right itself and lift itself up as a community. The Rev. Aaron Wheeler, a powerful speaker and chairman of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, then announced to the gathering that he was taking it upon himself to meet with his fellow ministers in Cincinnati that evening to tell them that even within the church ministry, egos and line drawing were hurting the community and its efforts at reconciliation.

Meanwhile, the collective appeal for the violence in Cincinnati to stop hit home to our Richmond group in a direct and awful way. One of the Richmond participants, who happened to have grown up in Cincinnati, got an early-morning phone call. The latest Cincinnati-area shooting victim was a relative of hers. Right away the questions were whether the shooting had been in the city limits or outside, whether the people involved were black or white. Was this the shooting that would bring the riots back? As it turned out, it wasn't, but another family had lost its child. Another young man had become the victim of senseless violence.

From there, the conference and its focus on community well-being took on an immediacy, an urgency. What could be done here in Cincinnati? And what could we do when we got back to Richmond? If Cincinnati is the "model" of racial injustice, I have to believe that Richmond is made from the same mold.

As a white man traveling about in Cincinnati, I was told by other whites that the races had just always been pretty separate and had never gotten along. Cincinnati? Richmond?

I got the word, on the sly it seemed, from a white hotel employee who said Cincinnati had just always been a conservative city and was having trouble dealing with things that you have to deal with today. Cincinnati? Richmond?

I heard, again from the former U.S. attorney, that a lot of Cincinnati's problem was due to the fact that low-income kids were growing up in such a "hardened" environment by now that they saw little hope for the future, so they had little concern for the present. Cincinnati? Richmond?

I didn't come back from Cincinnati with any magic answers. But I sure saw the importance of working for racial justice and racial reconciliation. The time is at hand. In Cincinnati. And right here in Richmond.



Mike Sarahan is a local lawyer and community activist. He is a member of the Richmond Human Relations Commission

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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