It's been 20 years since a Cincinnati police officer killed Timothy Thomas, an unarmed Black teen in Over-the-Rhine – at the time, one of many deaths of Black men by police in the city – sparking demonstrations and protests. Last summer, police use of force was pushed into the national spotlight again after officers killed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Earlier this month, several young people spoke in a roundtable discussion about how the 2001 civil unrest intersects with similar calls for justice now.
Amir Shackelford, Aubrey Jones and Noah Hawes are all age 20 or younger and agreed to meet at Elementz, a hip-hop cultural arts center not far from where the 19-year-old Thomas was killed in 2001. Most of them weren't born then, but having grown up in Cincinnati, they each know a few different things about the unrest.
Officer Stephen Roach shot and killed Thomas in a dark alley as he ran from police. Roach said he thought Thomas was reaching for a gun, but reports later said Thomas was likely pulling up his baggy pants. Thomas was being arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors, mostly traffic citations.
Roach was eventually acquitted of negligent homicide during a bench trial. Less than a year later, he was hired as an officer in Evendale.
That narrative — an unarmed Black man, killed by police who allegedly feared for their lives — is familiar now after a culmination of outrage from the deaths last year of Breonna Taylor during a no-knock warrant in Louisville, and George Floyd in Minneapolis. A viral video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, now on trial, kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes led to protests around the country, including throughout Hamilton County.
"When I watched it, when I saw it, I had never felt that anger before," 18-year-old Shackelford said. "And I didn't understand that at first. And I still feel it now. And I definitely still feel the tension."
Shackelford was active in the protests last summer, marching and going to City Hall. He's a senior at the School for Creative and Performing Arts and does theater with Aubrey Jones.
"One of the biggest causes of anger was the lack of accountability for the police officers," Jones said. "There are people who get killed by cops and we've come to accept that as a society, unfortunately."
Jones, 17, helped organize some protests and spoke at a few rallies. She's biracial and says she's scared for the safety of her two older Black brothers because the current justice system isn't designed to protect them.
"If you work at a grocery store, and you are, like, throwing eggs at people, your union's not going to say, 'Oh, you get to keep your job,' " she said. "So the nature of the police union and the 'thin blue line' mentality of 'If one of us admits weakness by saying yes, there are bad cops, we are admitting to the fact that we are a corrupt institution.' And so the strength of those unions and the lack of accountability is a massive issue."
'There's A Silver Lining Somewhere'
That same issue of accountability was raised 20 years ago.
Gamma LeBeau is 34 and a mentor to some of the kids at Elementz. He remembers the 2001 civil unrest and was friends with Thomas' younger brother, Terry.
"Initially, it was like everybody was running all over the place, kind of vandalizing stuff, but then they got stronger. And, you know, they had leaders and activists there who set a mission in motion - a plan - so that something constructive could be done instead of damaging things," he said. "But yeah, I'm real familiar with this. Man, it brings back a whole bunch of memories. It's shocking we still got to go through it, but I believe [there] is a silver lining somewhere."
LaBeau is talking, in part, about the Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement between the city, Fraternal Order of Police, ACLU of Ohio and the Cincinnati Black United Front. It's a living document that calls for police and community members to collaborate on reform and transparency. After the city adopted it in 2002, it became a model for other cities around the country.
Despite Distrust, Dreams Remain
Despite hard-earned progress, there's a feeling the justice and governmental system still isn't working well, especially for Black people. But Noah Hawes, 20, says despite not trusting officials, it helps bridge the gap to see diversity in the city's leadership.
"I definitely would never trust every politician of any sort," he said. "Sometimes it's hard to trust politicians in general. But it's easier for me to trust politicians who grew up in an area similar or [in] the same area where I grew up. Because they know firsthand what it's actually like. So whatever changes that they're trying to make, they know what the impact will actually be, as opposed to kind of having some kind of hypothesis or something that'll sound good to get people to vote for them. It's like they actually know."
Despite distrust in "the system" and the ability to watch brutal violence against Black people online (something one couldn't easily do in 2001), they all said it's possible to imagine living in communities with less injustice. But they might have to look toward each other to find that kind of resolve.
Jones says encouraging people to put trust in their communities and work for change is essential. She recounts what she said during a demonstration in Clifton last summer.
"The best thing that you can do is to hold the people around you accountable — to educate your peers; to educate maybe that uncle at Thanksgiving who says something weird; educate your outdated grandma; have those conversations with your friends…"
Those seemingly micro changes — one-on-one conversations and challenging people you know — fuels these young people's belief that a more equitable and just future is possible.
Watch the entirety of the conversation below and skip to different parts of the video by clicking below:
- Reflecting on the killing of George Floyd and the 2020 demonstrations
- The major issues during the summer of 2020
- How they got involved
- Do you all trust that your local officials and the local police have made changes for the better since last year?
- What do you know about Timothy Thomas and the 2001 civil unrest?
- Tell me how you and your peers of different races have experienced the racial divide in policing.
- Do you think the 2001 and 2020 civil unrest have moved people closer to a more just society?
This article is part of WVXU's special series looking back at the civil unrest of 2001 on the 20th anniversary of the event. Read more here.
We acknowledge in 2001 it was common to call what happened in Cincinnati April 9-14 a "riot." So why aren't we calling it that now? Through re-examining the events of 2001 and similar occurrences over the past 20 years, we acknowledge "riot" is a racially fraught word that doesn’t depict the full complexity of these multifaceted situations. We believe words like "civil unrest" or "uprising” better reflect what occurred in Over-the-Rhine in terms of many people mobilizing to seek structural societal changes following the killing of Black men by Cincinnati Police.
To learn more about how Cincinnati Public Radio is addressing racism and inequality in our coverage and in our community, please see our Statement on Diversity and Inclusion, and share your feedback by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.