It has been 20 years since the 2001 riots in Cincinnati

Some people believe the tension between Cincinnati’s black community and the city police started one night in April 2001 when a white police officer chased a 19-year-old black man into a dark alley over the Rhine and killed him with a single shot in the heart .

Nothing is further from the truth.

The fact is, the shooting of Timothy Thomas by then-officer Stephen Roach was the burning match thrown into a flammable cauldron of suspicion and anger that had steamed for years and led to six days and nights of civil unrest that struck the city terrified.

In the six years before Thomas was shot, 15 black men had died in confrontations with police.

There was growing outrage in Cincinnati’s black community, and tensions between people in African American neighborhoods were high.

Just a month before Roach shot the unarmed Thomas in that dark alley above the Rhine, the ACLU, Black United Front (led by Rev. Damon Lynch III and community activist Iris Roley) joined a 1999 federal lawsuit filed by A Black Cincinnatian, Bomani Tyehimba, alleged Cincinnati police had discriminated against African American citizens for more than 30 years.

And in March, before the Thomas shooting, then Police Chief Thomas Streicher made surprising recognition for many when he said that some Cincinnati police officers did indeed discriminate against blacks in their policing.

The lawsuit in 2002 resulted in what is known as a collaboration agreement between the ACLU, the Cincinnati Black United Front, the City of Cincinnati, and the fraternal police force, which required the police to conduct community-based policing. A federal monitor monitored compliance with the agreement for six years, and there is general agreement that police-community relations have been much better – not perfect, but better – in recent years.

In April 2001, the city experienced the worst crisis in more than a century for almost a week. Days and nights that were marked by violent clashes between demonstrators and police, peaceful demonstrations on the streets, willful vandalism and fires in the night sky in Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and other parts of the city.

The violence and vandalism caused then mayor Charlie Luken to impose a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. More than 800 people were arrested for violating the curfew. Of those arrested in the riot, 63 were charged with criminal offenses in the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.

Finally, Roach – who had left the Cincinnati Police Department to join a suburban police force – was acquitted of negligent murder, which sparked a few isolated incidents of unrest.

The spark

The spark that lit the flame in Cincinnati 20 years ago was a police shot that took place in the heat of the moment and, by objective standards, should never have happened.

Just after 2 a.m. on the morning of April 7, 19-year-old Thomas was chased by Cincinnati police on foot through his hometown Over-the-Rhine. A police officer had informed the officers that Thomas was wanted for 14 open arrest warrants. What the dispatcher didn’t say and none of the officers involved in the chase knew that Thomas’s pending arrest warrants were mostly based on misdemeanors and traffic violations – not violent crimes.

Thomas, followed by Officer Roach, ducked into an alley on Republic Street. A single shot rang out almost immediately. Thomas lay dead in the alley and shot through the heart.

Roach later said he believed he saw Thomas reach for a gun in the waistband of his pants, but no gun was found.

It was a shootout that probably never would have happened if the cooperation agreement had existed, as one of the reforms was to have police cruisers equipped with computers and any officer involved in tracking Thomas to see the teen’s record of minor violations and make decisions to stop the persecution and pick him up at your home later.

But that was not available to Roach or other officers involved that night.

The fire

The boiling point of frustration and anger didn’t come until April 9, two days after Thomas was shot. When it happened it sparked six days and nights of civil unrest, mostly centered in the Rhine and downtown areas.

That afternoon, a group of 200 protesters – including Thomas’ mother Angela Leisure – gathered outside Cincinnati City Hall, where John Cranley, then a new councilor, was holding a meeting of the Justice and Public Safety Committee. They requested the results of the shootout investigation but were told it was not complete.

Council members were essentially trapped in town hall for three hours when protesters received no response to their demands.

In the early evening, several hundred protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the Cincinnati Police District 1 on Ezzard Charles Drive in the West End, where they were greeted by dozens of police officers on horseback and in police cruisers. It got violent when people in the crowd started throwing bottles and stones at the police and smashing the building’s front door. Police fired back tear gas, bean bags, and rubber bullets, which eventually dispersed the crowd. There were 10 arrests that night.

The next afternoon, after a peaceful protest in Fountain Square, a group of about 30 African Americans, mostly very young, moved up Vine Street towards Over-the-Rhine. They were followed by the police on horseback and in cruisers.

At some point, part of the group turned around and went back downtown to get more support along the way. In the central business district, they walked the streets and overturned vendor trucks, newspaper boxes and trash cans. Then they started breaking shop windows and ransacking the shops.

The police retired on horseback or with bandaged arms and began firing sacks of beans, tear gas, and rubber bullets. The police arrested 66 people that night.

But they needed help as vandalism and rioting broke out in other mostly black neighborhoods like Avondale and Walnut Hills. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s MPs were called in to help out in the rest of the city. In the early hours of April 11th, the crowds dispersed across the city.

The night of April 11th brought more of it into the city center and across the Rhine.

Other companies were devastated and looted. Another 82 were arrested.

By April 12, most of the shops in the city center were closed. Many of their employees were just too scared to go to work. That night there was more destruction and looting.

On the morning of April 13, Mayor Luken imposed his curfew – the entire city should be closed from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Only those who had to travel to work were allowed on the streets. The investigator, who sent people out 24 hours a day to report on the riot, printed out large yellow “MEDIA” signs that were stuck in the windows of their private cars to identify themselves to the police.

Luken also declared a “state of emergency”. He sought and received the help of 125 Ohio Highway Patrol soldiers to keep the peace in the city. About 800 people were arrested for violating the curfew.

The Simmer

On the morning of April 14th, Timothy Thomas was buried in Over-the-Rhine after a funeral. After that, about 2,000 people conducted a peaceful march downtown.

The worst violence was over. However, the damage persisted – an estimated $ 3.6 million in private property. The Cincinnati Business Courier reported that the riots cost the city of Cincinnati $ 1.5 million to $ 2 million in personnel and equipment, as well as damage to city facilities.

In the months following the riot, the Cincinnati Black United Front launched an economic boycott of the city that cost an estimated $ 10 million in canceled conventions and animators who canceled performances in Cincinnati.

In the coming year, it was a difficult road the parties to the federal lawsuit had to negotiate in order to be able to sign a cooperation agreement on April 12, 2002 – just a year after the death of Timothy Thomas.

It’s been a strained relationship over the years. In 2003, the FOP asked to withdraw from the agreement, but a federal judge refused.

By 2015, the use of force by the police had been reduced by 69%.

It has been a rocky road at times, but the cooperation agreement with its focus on community-based policing stands. In 2017, the parties undertook a “refresher” to update the agreement and find new ways to improve police-community relations.

“Cincinnati isn’t afraid to look at itself and self-reflect,” said then city manager Harry Black at the time the update was announced. “This is another example of the city’s commitment to continuous improvement.”

This article is part of the WVXU special series that looks back at the 2001 riots marking the event’s 20th anniversary. Read more here.

We acknowledge that in 2001 it was common to refer to what happened April 9-14 in Cincinnati as “riot.” Why don’t we call it that now? By re-examining the events of 2001 and similar events over the past 20 years, we recognize that “riot” is a racially charged word that does not reflect the full complexity of these multi-faceted situations. We believe that words like “riot” or “riot” better reflect what happened in Over-the-Rhine when large numbers of people are mobilized to search for structural changes in society following the murder of black men by the Cincinnati police.

To learn more about how Cincinnati Public Radio is tackling racism and inequality in our reporting and community, please read our Statement on Diversity and Inclusion and email your feedback to [email protected].

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