CINCINNATI — The rioting that blistered Cincinnati this week was a long time coming, local residents confess. Because from its earliest years, this has been a city divided--by race, by class, by fear.
Along the Ohio River, the downtown sizzles: There's a new football stadium, a new baseball park is in the works, and a multimillion-dollar chic urban center of condos, restaurants and shops is planned.
Just a few miles north, though, historic neighborhoods sag: Hundreds of vacant brick buildings crumble, untended, on exhausted streets. Frustration among the poor, mostly black, has been building inexorably.
And while no one wants to say the riots were good, there was on Friday an undeniable sense of relief that the mayhem--the kids hurling stones, shooting at police, dragging innocent motorists from their cars with pounding fists--had laid bare Cincinnati's fissures. Now, perhaps, there could be progress, rich at last paying attention to poor, white to black, cop to civilian.
"You don't condone violence," said Ken Lawson, an attorney who has made a career of fighting police brutality. "But it took violence to get the attention of the city. I hope they hear the cry."
The city was mostly peaceful Friday, the second day of an 8 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew imposed after three days of rioting triggered by the shooting death of an unarmed 19-year-old black man by a white police officer on April 7. But officials fretted aloud that violence could flare at today's service for the victim, Timothy Thomas. The curfew is expected to continue until Sunday.
Police did report 26 arrests for curfew violations Friday night. And two trash containers were set on fire in a low-income neighborhood near downtown.
But officers said they had encountered no major problems.
U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft announced that the Department of Justice would probe the "practices, procedures and training" of the Cincinnati Police Department and that the FBI would investigate Thomas' death. A grand jury was to hear evidence in the case next week.
And police critics scored a victory when Safety Director Kent Ryan, who oversees police and fire operations, announced his resignation. Ryan has been a target of wrath in the African American community.
Cincinnati has struggled with race and racism since before the Civil War. This city, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, was a hub of the Underground Railroad; abolitionists worked heroically to help escaping slaves make it onto the free soil of Cincinnati and from here push farther north to greater safety.
Yet there was also violent anti-black sentiment, and the thousands of free blacks who lived here faced constant persecution. In 1841, for instance, whites dragged a cannon into the black neighborhood--which they called "Bucktown"--and fired it again and again as police stood by and watched.
"This city was both Northern and Southern at the same time. It was very conflicted," said Ed Rigaud, president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which will break ground next month on a $45-million riverfront museum. "There were race riots. Fights in the street. It was a turbulent time."
The tensions persist to this day. Even before the riots, Mayor Charlie Luken had ranked improving race relations his No. 1 priority, arguing recently that "the future of this city depends more on our ability to treat one another fairly than on any single economic issue." He added: "I think we have a long way to go."
Indeed, though Bucktown is no more, Cincinnati remains a fairly segregated city, with blacks clustered in neighborhoods to the west and north of downtown. African Americans say they face small but stinging examples of prejudice every day, such as being ignored by store clerks.
More flagrant provocations also flare.
Last summer, for instance, some downtown merchants said they would close their shops during an African American street festival, drawing fury--and a boycott. And each December for the last five years, Ku Klux Klan members in white robes and hoods have erected a cross in a downtown plaza as city police have stood guard to protect it from vandals.
Even efforts to improve troubled areas strike some African Americans as racist--or, at the least, divisive. City officials have tried for years to spark revitalization of the largely black Over-the-Rhine neighborhood where rioting started this week; once a vibrant entertainment hub, it has slumped into a desolate, half-deserted community. Yet residents have viewed efforts to revive it with suspicion, fearing that gentrification will price them out of their homes.
Similarly, a program to replace a tumble-down public housing project with a mixed development of market-rate and affordable homes has drawn ire from the hundreds of families, mostly black, who will be displaced during construction.