People sat outside an eatery sipping beer near the alleyway where Timothy Thomas was killed by a police officer 20 years ago. Bright lights beamed onto the streets. And a few blocks away at Washington Park, a yoga class had just finished when demonstrators arrived, Wednesday night. Organizers who were among the first to respond to Thomas' death 20 years ago say the gentrified neighborhood and continued police violence against Black people are in stark contrast of each other.
"Now, let's go back 20 years and let's think about how this particular space looked," said Mona Jenkins, director of development and operations at the Homeless Coalition. "What were the sounds? What were the people? What were the activities going on? How do people feel? Do they feel safe? Did they feel comfortable? Were they scared? These are the thoughts that run through my mind as I reflect on Timothy Thomas. I imagine he was scared."
Thomas, a Black man, was 19 years old when he was shot and killed by a Cincinnati police officer in 2001. He'd run from police who tried to arrest him for past nonviolent misdemeanors, mostly traffic citations. Officer Stephen Roach and Thomas both ended up in an alleyway near Republic Street. Roach says he thought Thomas was reaching for a weapon, but a weapon was never found.
His death, and the killing of other Black men by Cincinnati police in the months prior, sparked days of civil unrest and longer-term boycotts in Cincinnati. It also was a driving force for the historic Collaborative Agreement, a community-driven and court-ordered document that gives the public some accountability and transparency over policing practices.
"We thought that Black life was of value and mattered then," said Iris Roley of the Black United Front. "It wasn't no hashtag. It was real. And it still is."
Roley held a cellphone to the microphone so Timothy's brother Terry Thomas could speak to the crowd.
"My brother lost his life 20 years ago. To be honest, it ain't nothing that I can say about it…. He was 19. He was just a kid who lost his life outside of plenty other young Black brothers that done lost their life from these same type of people," he said.
Terry Thomas called for people to come together to protect each other and create change in their communities, something Roley also pushed people to do.
She saw the mass number of white people who attended local rallies for former President Donald Trump. And Victoria Straughn, of Concerned Citizens for Justice, recalled going toe-to-toe with the Ku Klux Klan at Fountain Square in the 1990s. They carry that historical burden with them while they continue to do work for communities. But people who aren't Black can help fight for change within systems, too.
"We can't fix privilege and white supremacy." pic.twitter.com/OLhnAhWEWg
— Jolene Almendarez (@jalmendarez57) April 7, 2021
Roley says people need to have conversations with their friends and relatives about where they stand on racial, economic and housing justice.
"We can't fix privilege and white supremacy," she said. "I didn't create it. I don't use it. I can't. So I'm asking. So it don't take another 20 years to fix a system that's ill."