The Cincinnati Race Riots of 2001
The Cincinnati Race Riots of 2001
- David Childs
- and Ryan Spence
Timothy Thomas was an African American young man killed by a Cincinnati police officer. His death was the culmination of a string of killings of young African American men in Cincinnati, Ohio between the fall of 2000 and the spring of 2001. His death became the flashpoint for the most serious racial riots in Cincinnati since 1968. When Thomas’s mother and the surrounding community began to probe for answers, a riot broke out within the city, a result of building racial tensions that led to over nine hundred arrests and millions of dollars of damage in the city. As a result, a boycott of Cincinnati by many African American entertainers holding events in the city soon after the riots brought further losses and more public scrutiny to the city of Cincinnati. This riot further illustrated the need for police reform and better community relations in becoming a stepping-stone toward improving relations between the Cincinnati Police Department and the African American community. On a larger scale, however, the events of the 2001 race riots in Cincinnati helped to bring a national awareness to racial unrest that exists between minority groups and civil authorities.
The History of Racial Unrest in Cincinnati
In 1829, when a growing number of African Americans began settling in Cincinnati, a white mob forced an estimated one thousand of them to leave the city. During another incident in 1841, an angry mob, frustrated by job competition with blacks, secured a cannon and began firing upon Little Africa—the black section of town—killing several African Americans. The incident took place on Fifth Street, just blocks from Over-the-Rhine, where Timothy Thomas was killed. In 1929, after exchanging words with two white police officers inside a restaurant, a young black man was shot in the street under the controversial claim that he had attacked the officers with a knife. One hundred white men and boys surrounded the home of two black families in Mt. Adams in 1944 and vandalized the building by throwing stones at it. Between Cincinnati and Dayton three riots sparked by racial tension occurred in 1966, 1967, and 1968, all of which required the presence of the national guard to restore order.
Racialized Police Violence Preceding Thomas’s Death
On 7 November 2000, six months before Thomas’s death, two officers approached Roger Owensby Jr. and put him into an illegal chokehold after he resisted arrest. After placing him in the chokehold, the officers maced him and allegedly gave him a beating that began on the sidewalk and continued while he was unconscious in the police car. He was not given medical attention until it was too late and he passed away. In the ensuing investigation it became apparent that Owensby was misidentified as a drug dealer and that the actions of the officers could have been retribution for an assault that occurred on a police informant. Owensby himself had no police record, had a nine-year-old daughter, and had served eight years as a sergeant in the US Army, as well as had served time in the Persian Gulf War. In January 2001 both officers were tried in highly publicized cases that ended in a mistrial. The officers were acquitted. Owensby was the eleventh of fifteen black men who died while in custody of police from 1995 to 2000 in Cincinnati. Including Thomas, five black men died in the custody of the Cincinnati Police Department in a six-month period between October 2000 and April 2001. Aggravated by the results of the Owensby case, the families of these young black men filed a federal lawsuit in March 2001 against the Cincinnati Police Department. This became a class action lawsuit and ultimately was combined with other pending civil suits dating back thirty years alleging a history of racism and brutality.
Timothy Thomas’s Death
One month later, on Saturday 7 April 2001, an off-duty police officer identified nineteen-year-old Timothy Thomas on the street from a previous traffic stop and proceeded to call it in and pursue him on foot. Thomas had warrants for his arrest for nonviolent offenses, consisting of fourteen misdemeanor counts, twelve of them for traffic violations. Ten officers joined the chase which ended ten minutes later at 2:20 am. Patrolman Stephen Roach shot Thomas in the chest after being surprised by him in a dark alley. Thomas died of his wounds at a nearby hospital. Despite initially claiming that it looked like Thomas was reaching for a gun in his waistband, he later admitted that he had shot Thomas by accident after being startled by him.
2001 Protest and Riots
On Monday 9 April Thomas’s mother, Angela Leisure, gathered with two hundred protesters outside city hall while council was in session carrying signs that read “wear a seatbelt or be executed” and “Stop killing us or else.” The protesters demanded answers for Thomas’s death. When a satisfactory response did not come, the protesters successfully blocked the exits, preventing city council members from leaving the building for three hours. That evening hundreds of protesters marched down to the District One police station in Over-the-Rhine, where they were met by lines of officers in riot gear and on horseback. Using rocks and bottles, the protesters pelted police and pushed their way to the police station. The crowd smashed through the front door of the police station and managed to rehang the station flag upside down. After an hour the police officers dispersed the crowd with bean bags, rubber bullets, and tear gas. This first night of rioting led to ten arrests. This sequence of events were the beginning of the riots.
On the following afternoon a static demonstration of twenty to fifty young black men broke from their standing protest, taking their actions to the streets. Officers followed, wary of more violence, but reluctant to intervene. At one intersection the protesters began throwing garbage and bottles at the officers. When the behavior was repeated at a second intersection, the crowd sensed the reluctance of the officers and began to grow bold. The group began overturning garbage cans, mailboxes, and vendor carts downtown. Before long their activities were upgraded to vandalism and looting. Store and bank windows were smashed. Also many businesses were robbed. Some white motorists were pulled from their cars and beaten. The police temporarily restored order downtown and in the process sixty-six more arrests were made. However, the events of 10 April sparked more violence in additional neighborhoods, although on a smaller scale than what was seen downtown. Violence and looting continued through the night and well into the early morning hours of 11 April.
Businesses picked up the pieces on 11 April and returned to normal operation, only to be met on that Wednesday night by more of the same violence. Police arrested eighty-two more rioters. However, the damage was more extensive than the night before. Businesses were fearful to open their doors on 12 April and many decided to remain closed. Also many downtown workers chose to stay home out of fear of the violence. At this juncture Cincinnati mayor Charlie Lunken declared a state of emergency and placed the city on a curfew between 8 pm and 6 am. This specified that only workers in transit from work would be allowed on the streets during those hours. In addition to this declaration, 125 state troopers were brought in as backup and over 800 arrests were made in violation of the curfew. These actions, along with a cold April rain, brought an end to four days of rioting. The costs of the damage done during the riots were estimated at $3.6 million.
Timothy Thomas’s Funeral
On Saturday 14 April the funeral for Timothy Thomas was held. In response to the request by Thomas’s mother, it was mostly peaceful. Police however were prepared for the worst. Riot officers were positioned two blocks from the funeral, and police helicopters remained airborne during the event. Following the service more than two thousand people joined together in a peaceful protest march downtown. Controversy followed when thirty people broke off from the march at the Elm and Liberty streets intersection. Swat team members and highway patrol officers arrived shortly afterward and began to fire bean bag ammunition into the crowd. Two adults and two children were injured by the bean bags. After these events the police claimed the officers were responding to orders to clear the intersection of a crowd blocking the road. Eyewitnesses say the officers leaped out of their cruisers and fired with no warning, singling out black participants in the crowd.
Boycott of Cincinnati Businesses
These actions on 14 April by police led to the boycott of Cincinnati. Groups that were already active in the Owensby case and the federal lawsuit against the Cincinnati Police Department organized a boycott of downtown businesses as a protest against the city for the firing on peaceful protesters on 14 April. This expanded as black entertainers joined the boycott by cancelling their upcoming events. Notable entertainers such as Smokey Robinson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Bill Cosby cancelled events bringing an estimated additional loss in revenue of approximately $10 million to the city of Cincinnati.
Officer Roach Acquitted
In a case that was never brought to a jury, but was instead arbitrated by a judge, Patrolman Stephen Roach faced charges of negligent homicide five months after the riots. After a lengthy trial Roach was acquitted and brief disorders erupted again. However, these were much smaller and left behind little damage. Officer Roach left the Cincinnati Police Department and was hired in a nearby suburban police department while an independent police review of his actions continued. Those findings showed that Roach lied on an official report, failed to follow firearms protocol, and had not given Thomas enough time to respond to his verbal commands. The current police chief confirmed that had Roach been employed by the police department at the time of the findings he would have been released from the department for not following proper police procedure.
Social Conditions that Led to Unrest
David Waddington, in his book Policing Public Disorder, analyzed the conflict and suggests that the violence was the result of growing tension born out of economic conditions and overly strict police practices and law. In 2001 he pointed out that the average income for Cincinnati residents was $26,774; however for residents of Over-the-Rhine that average was less than a third of that at $8,600. Waddington also points out that Cincinnati, just like New York and Chicago had a policy regarding making arrest quotas. He went on to say that “the problem was that police officers tended to cruise the area with more concern for catching troublemakers than with building positive relationships.” These policies and practices only made the existing racial divide in Cincinnati deeper and wider. It was this rationale in police procedure that was the topic of discussion in the federal lawsuit that led to the Collaborative agreement in 2002. This agreement followed a report from the US Department of Justice criticizing the Cincinnati Police Department. The city agreed to make changes to improve police relations with minority communities.
A Larger National Trend
In the aftermath of the Cincinnati riots some small improvements in city policing were made. A 2011 USA Today ten-year-anniversary article examined changes made since Thomas’s death in 2001. The Citizen Complaint Authority (a group formed in Cincinnati to investigate policing practices) data showed a drop in incidents with police. Furthermore, in the ten years since Thomas’s death six black men lost their lives in confrontations with Cincinnati police officers, as opposed to the fifteen in the six years preceding the riots.
However, other police violence, such as the Samuel Dubose killing in 2015, demonstrated that there is still much improvement that can be made. Furthermore, the Timothy Thomas shooting can be viewed as a part of a national trend of black males dying while in police custody. Indeed, Thomas’s death goes right alongside other high profile cases in other cities, namely the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, as well as more recently, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
- “Cincinnati Riots Anniversary.” USA Today, 3 Apr. 2011.
- “Driving While Black.” Washington Times, 19 Apr. 2001.
- Larson, John. “Behind the death of Timothy Thomas.” Dateline NBC, 10 Apr. 2004.
- Rucker, Walter C., and James N. Upton. Encyclopedia of American Race Riots, vol. 1. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006.
- Waddington, David. Policing Public Disorder: Theory and Practice. Hoboken, N.J.: Taylor and Francis, 2012.