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Rev. Jesse Jackson Boycotts Kroger; Talks West End Stadium, City Manager Feud In Cincinnati

Tana Weingartner
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, surrounded by supporters and fans, talks about why he's leading a boycott of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson is leading a national boycott of Cincinnati-based Kroger following the company's decision to close two stores in predominantly black Memphis neighborhoods and a third in Clarksdale, Miss. He elaborated on the boycott Tuesday while standing outside the former Walnut Hills Kroger, which was closed last year when the University Plaza Kroger opened in Corryville.

"This is a pattern across the country," the civil rights leader says. "There are enough mouths to be fed and people to be served for Kroger to stay in the community." Furthermore, if the company chooses to go anyway, it should offer the community a chance to buy the property, he says.

"We shouldn't have to follow them, they should be following the people," and not creating food deserts, he adds. Kroger offered a shuttle to the new Corryville store, though according to Principal Zena Vaughn with Life Skills High School, a nearby charter school, it didn't work well. Her students came out to tell Jackson about the community garden they started to help fill the void.

[Note: Kroger operates a shuttle, which it says is popular, between the former store and the new one for senior citizens on Wednesdays. A free bus token system recently ended.]

Kroger cited low sales for prompting the Walnut Hills store closure, but that argument doesn't impress Jackson. "We're not convinced that's true," he says. "Clearly, you look around, people live here who eat, who buy groceries. Is it a management issue or a consumer issue? People clearly are consuming."

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
The Rev. Jesse Jackson (right) meets with Kristal Howard (seated at left, black blazer), head of corporate communications, in the lobby of the Kroger headquarter building in downtown Cincinnati.

For its part, Kroger says the company has been a longtime supporter of Jackson's Rainbow Push Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes social justice, civil rights and political activism. Spokesman Keith Dailey says of Kroger's roughly 2,800 stores, 50 were closed in the last 12-18 months for underperforming. "Only about 10 percent of those stores operated in communities that some may call underserved."

On the same day as Jackson's visit, Kroger announced it's hiring an estimated 11,000 positions nationwide, including more than 530 locally.

"We certainly understand how hard it is on communities anytime we close a store, and when we have to make that tough decision, we always try to do it in a way that is respectful of both the community as well as our associates," Dailey tells WVXU. He adds job growth and economic opportunity are two areas where the sides have common ground. "We believe that the best way for Kroger to expand access to fresh food and to keep prices low, is by growing our business in a sustainable way. That starts with profitable stores."

During his visit, Jackson met with Kroger Head of Corporate Communications Kristal Howard. Afterward he said a meeting is being planned with Kroger's president, and that the boycott is going forward in the meantime.

Jackson's larger issue is poverty. "It's not just about Kroger, we need a plan to fight poverty - and white and black alike, I might add."

Local leaders like former mayor Dwight Tillery, Cincinnati Councilman Wendell Young, and various pastors say they plan to reestablish a local Rainbow Push chapter. Jackson wants to see "massive" voter turnout for the next elections and a strong voter registration effort.

On A Possible Soccer Stadium In The West End

During his visit, Jackson addressed the possible building of an FC Cincinnati soccer stadium in the West End, calling it gentrification. Dwight Tillery is among those against the stadium, and Jackson echoes Tillery's objection. People shouldn't have a soccer stadium they don't want imposed on them, he says.

"Our priorities are affordable healthcare, housing, food, and jobs that pay, and lower tuition for our children. That's our priority," he says, not sports stadiums. The problem isn't limited to Cincinnati, he says downtowns across the country are seeing the same issue.

Jackson spoke with Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley Monday evening and called the conversation respectful. He says those opposed to the stadium want to work together on a solution.

On City Manager Harry Black

Jackson briefly addressed the feud between Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black and Mayor John Cranley, saying he's concerned about the way Black is being treated, and calling on the city to increase the number of contracts it has with African-American companies.