Archive for Sunday, April 15, 2001

Violence lingers as city mourns slain teen-ager

April 15, 2001


— Hundreds of mourners from across this riot-torn city gathered Saturday at an inner-city church to pay their respects to the unarmed black teen-ager who they say became an unwitting symbol of racial profiling.

But no sooner had the funeral motorcade carrying the coffin of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas left the vicinity of the church, police officers wearing helmets and dark sunglasses began cruising the neighborhood and, in one instance, fired shots of thumb-sized bean bags into a small crowd of peaceful protesters, slightly injuring a 7-year-old girl.

The police actions inflamed the crowd, which began marching in large numbers toward police district offices in the city's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, shouting "You're all going to die." When they arrived at the police department, the protesters stopped short of a solid line of officers in front of the building and raised their hands in the air to show they were unarmed.

The standoff ended peacefully, authorities were investigating why the officers fired at the crowd. Many in the crowd said it underscored the still-unresolved racial tensions that over the last week erupted in riots over the death of Thomas. Thomas, who was wanted on 14 warrants for misdemeanors and traffic violations, was gunned down in a dark alley April 7 by a white police officer. He was the fourth black man killed by police since November.

After his death, hundreds of rioters took to the streets in protest, smashing windows, setting fires and, in a handful of instances, assaulting motorists on their way home from work. After several days of the rioting, the mayor declared a state of emergency and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew on Thursday, which Saturday was extended.

"I'm tired, we're all tired," Tonia Jett, 24, who lives in Over-the-Rhine, said as she stood outside the church where Thomas' funeral services were held. "I'm black and I'm scared. I'm scared of the police and I'm scared for my people. Things in this city have to change."

Darren Tolliver, 19, who also attended Saturday's funeral, said Thomas' death "really hit home for me because he was 19 years old, he was a black man and he was unarmed."

"Well that's me," said Tolliver, a political science major at the University of Cincinnati.

Inside the church, hundreds of mourners, both black and white, waited patiently in long lines for the chance to stand before Thomas' coffin, which was strewn with red roses. One woman burst into tears and had to be escorted out by friends as she viewed the young man, whose body was blanketed with hand-written notes and bandannas.

Members of the NAACP, who together with members of the New Black Panther Party helped provide security during the services, estimated that more than 1,000 people attended the viewing, which also attracted prominent black leaders such as NAACP national president Kweisi Mfume and Martin Luther King III. Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and Cincinnati Mayor Charles Luken were also in attendance.

During the services, Thomas' stepfather, Eric Leisure, read a brief poem he had written for the son he said he wished he had known all his life, and drew a standing ovation.

The Rev. Damon Lynch, who presided over the service, told mourners that Thomas' death "was not in vain" and urged the crowd to rise to their feet and "stand up for the black man, stand up for the black children, stand up for justice ... and stand up to be seen."

"Because until the black man is free, America isn't free," Lynch said, drawing chants of support.

Jamil Muhammad, national spokesman for Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, told the gathering that Thomas' death could have happened "anywhere in America ... and that today, it's about whether we're willing to call a spade a spade."

Outside the church, where hundreds stood under the hot sun, many carrying signs, fingers were pointed at Cincinnati's police force, which the critics said unfairly targets young, black males. Thomas was the 15th black man to die at the hands of police since 1995.

Thomas' shooting is under investigation by prosecutors and federal agencies, and the Justice Department's civil rights division has sent lawyers to Cincinnati to study the practices, procedures and training of the police department.

"The cops, they're always staring at us like we're doing something wrong," said Courtne Foster, 21, who is African American. "Even as I was walking down here today with my friends, the cops started putting shells in their guns. It's crazy."

Police said Saturday that the 8 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew would be extended into last night, and that anyone who defied the lockdown would be arrested. On Thursday night, 153 people were arrested, according to police. On Friday night, there were just over 200 arrests for curfew violations.

Luken and Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher have said authorities would evaluate the need to extend the curfew on a day-to-day basis, adding that Saturday's events would be "crucial" in deciding whether to continue it.

The Rev. Robert Harper, who spent much of his time Saturday counseling the crowds outside the church, said he believed that the curfew was simply an outgrowth of this city's "conservative" mentality, and that it was unnecessary "because there is a message of hope here today for young African American men."

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