Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
April Martin spent nearly 10 years reporting on the 15 African Americans killed by police between 1995 and 2001 for her new documentary, Cincinnati Goddamn. Then another killing happened.
It took six weeks for George Zimmerman to get arrested for killing Trayvon Martin. The police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was never indicted; neither were the cops who killed Eric Garner in New York City. In Baltimore, police have been charged for killing Freddie Gray, hastened no doubt by the violent uprising following Gray’s funeral. At the Black Lives Matter conference in Cleveland this past weekend, a possible worst-case scenario between police and a young, black man was averted when conference participants intervened.
Shortly before that conference, on July 19, 43-year-old Sam DuBose, an African American, was shot dead by a University of Cincinnati police officer who pulled him over for a missing front license plate. It took less than two weeks for a local prosecutor to charge officer Raymond Tensing with murder, and it was done without a riot-scale demonstration prompting it. The University of Cincinnati cancelled classes hours before Tensing’s charges were announced in anticipation of riots, though, and even DuBose’s mother asked that the publicly respond peacefully, if at all.
Cincinnati was riddled with riot anxiety in the DuBose case partly because of the costly violence that occurred in Baltimore and Ferguson. But mostly the anxiety existed because the city understands at a visceral level what happens when the public is left too long without answers in these circumstances. Between 1995 and 2001, 15 African Americans were killed by police. The September 26, 2001, acquittal of Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach, who killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas on April 7 that year, triggered riots that ended up devastating a huge chunk of the city, including the historically black Over the Rhine neighborhood that sits just north of downtown.
The riots there were so destructive that two years later, Over the Rhine was still in shambles, with a 40 percent upswing in crime due in part to police doing less patrolling of the neighborhood—a preview of what happened this year in Baltimore. We’ve been using Ferguson as the starting point to talk about police violence and black community uprise; meanwhile, Cincinnati woke up in the 21st century like this.
Something productive did come out of the ordeal, though: A consent decree was forged between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Cincinnati police department, reforming cop practices top to bottom. Between the riots, an effectively implemented boycott that ended up costing the city tens of millions of dollars, and a collaborative agreement with community stakeholders, Cincinnati was forced to reconcile long-standing tensions with its black communities. And by most accounts, it’s been working. (You can read more about these reforms in Alana Semuel’s article in The Atlantic.)
Cincinnati civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein recently told Cleveland.com that as a result of the consent decree, "Crime rates are down, trust of police is up, dialogue between community and the police is very high.”
Cincinnati native April Martin agrees with this analysis, to a point. Martin spent close to 10 years chronicling the killings of Timothy Thomas, Roger Owensby, and other African Americans killed by police, researching the history behind her city’s racial tensions, and following the work of the organizers whose activism landed the consent decree and collaborative agreement. The result of that is the documentary Cincinnati Goddamn, which she produced with filmmaker Paul Hill and released earlier this year.
Excerpt from the filmPosted by Cincinnati Goddamn on Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Martin studied at the University of Cincinnati and today lives in Oakland, where she continues to film and document the efforts of activists working to expose and stop and police violence. She was part of the collective you may have read about in San Francisco who took to the streets bare-breasted to draw attention to the numerous, though less publicized, black women who’ve died while in police custody—five instances of which happened in the last month alone. She was arrested while trying to help bail some of the collective’s protestors out of jail. And she was back in Ohio last weekend, at the Black Lives Matter conference, when she heard about yet another black man killed by police in her hometown, Sam DuBose.
Martin spoke with CityLab about the DuBose case, her documentary, and what it will take to finally see transformational change among city police:
How did you feel when you heard about the officer charged for killing DuBose, after all the time you spent dealing with the issue of police violence in your city for “Cincinnati Goddamn”?
I woke up that morning to texts from my mother who works at University Hospital (part of the University of Cincinnati system), who told me they were evacuating the university. It felt eerie. You knew it was going to happen again. But for it to happen so heinous, it just took me back. It took me back to all the pain and the trauma of it.
It hurt my heart and soul, that just after closing out this [Black Lives Matter conference in Cleveland] with all these beautiful, amazing, talented black people—the greatest of our generation all there in one place—to get home to Oakland and wake up to this news.
What can you report about the interaction with police that happened at the close of the Black Lives Matter conference?
I was sitting in the grass on the last day of the conference with Rhonda Williams of the Social Justice Institute, and we were having a conversation about what was going to happen next in Cleveland, when someone ran up and said a 14-year-old brother had been apprehended, and there’s a standoff between police and people from the conference. We ran down the street to it, and it was just chaos. Police were spraying people with pepper spray, while others were pouring milk on people’s faces to get the sting out. People were trying to call the boy’s mom, and he wasn’t even part of the conference. But the police were waiting to do something. It was to be expected.
Are you satisfied with how prosecutor Joe Deters has handled charging the officer who killed DuBose?
Let’s be clear: Deters he made this speech, but he is still part of the problem. This isn’t the first time he’s prosecuted this in Hamilton County. Other black men have been killed by police on his watch, but he didn’t come out as strong for them. He said [at his press conference] that this kind of stuff doesn’t happen in America, it happens in Afghanistan. Is he that disconnected? That was shocking to hear him say that. So now what’s going to happen?
It should be noted that the University of Cincinnati police is a separate police department [from the city’s], so they’re not under the current collaborative agreement. So activists like Iris Roley have sprung into action, trying to figure out what they can do about working with the university police and seeing what kind of reforms they can get within that department.
What should the public know about the neighborhoods where the university is located?
Avondale, Walnut Hills—these are black neighborhoods that are being heavily gentrified as the university takes up a huger chunk of real estate in the middle of the city. It’s known for its hospital, given it’s a teaching university, so it has a lot of new buildings going up, taking over those communities. People are getting pushed out.
What did you make of all the cautious steps taken this week to ensure riots didn’t break out after the video of DuBose’s killing was released?
I haven’t lived here in several years, but I don’t see another riot happening in Cincinnati. The organizing there is not as strong and as large as it was back then. Folks were already organized back in 2001, organizing boycotts and pushing back against gentrification. Back in 2001 folks were already going to city hall and the city council, showing up to talk about police violence, and I don’t think that’s happening now. Also, there haven’t been a lot of police shootings in Cincinnati lately. The collaborative agreement did play an effective role in reducing police violence. But the community that helped bring that about has splintered, many of them fatigued and over capacity right now.
I’m seeing some of that same fatigue now, because of work I’m doing here in Oakland. We’ll be in meetings late into the night like slaves plotting their freedom, and currently its been just back-to-back-to-back killings (around the country). So people are burnt out. Remember, we’re not just fighting against violence. It’s also housing, economic issues, school issues we’re dealing with. With gentrification comes more policing and with more policing comes more racial profiling, so its all intersected.So you believe the consent decree and collaborative agreement have been effective in reforming police?
When you see fewer shootings by police, people will say its working, which is a great thing. But we also had a citizens police review board set up. Does it have subpoena power? No. Does it have funding? No.
But when you look at the collaborative work of these activists who came together in Cincinnati to create all of these policies and procedural reforms, you find that those same models have been adopted around the country. You can look at that as a win. Is it perfect? No. But it’s a starting point, right?If you were to go back to Cincinnati right now and get pulled over by police, would you feel safe?
No. Especially since Sandra Bland. Hell no. It’s tough for me to just walk out of my door sometimes. I have no tickets, I have no warrants out of my arrests, but I fear for my life. Because there have been no breaks for us. There’s been no rest from the violence that’s been inflicted on us.