Why six years after police killed an unarmed black man and the city was rocked by riots, has everything in Cincinnati come down to the building of a jail? How did the liberals’ darling Todd Portune end up joing hands with cnservative moral crusader Sheriff Simon Leis? Why has the Democratic Party placed all of its chips on 800 more jail beds in a city and a county with a declining population? Why have not only Democrats and Republicans, but also the corporations and the labor unions joined together to build a jail that is opposed by the NAACP and most black Cincinnatians? How did what began as a search for racial reconciliation lead to a jail that is to many here the emblem, that is, both the symbol and the reality of racial discrimination?
In April 2001 Cincinnati was shocked by a police officer’s killing of 19-year-old, unarmed black man named Timothy Thomas and then convulsed by an inner-city riot with arson and looting, a black urban rebellion much like one that had taken place thirty years before. The city-suddenly shaken by the realization that in three decades it had made no progress whatsoever in race relations-came all at once to its feet with gasp. Pastors, priests and rabbis summoned their congregations who prayed for understanding, reconciliation and peace.
The city council showed sudden new interest in long-neglected issues of poverty and housing. Mayor Charles Luken created a blue-ribbon commission charged with improving police-community relations. After a suit by the Black United Front and the ACLU, a Federal judge took charge of overseeing the reform of the Cincinnati police under the Collaborative Agreement. There were promises of summer jobs for youth and pledges to bring economic development to the old, inner-city neighborhoods of Cincinnati.
African American groups, with little faith in such promises, called for another boycott of Cincinnati-in addition to the one already enforced by the gay community-until the local government could create economic and social justice for the Cincinnati’s black people. City Hall responded with a public relations campaign proclaiming that Cincinnati was all the things they wished it were and that we knew it was not. The gay and black boycotts continued for years, until gays won and blacks gave up, but by then the white power structure had tasted victory at Taste of Cincinnati and Oktoberfest and blacks had forgotten the boycott and returned to the Black Family Reunion.
Progress and Poverty
For the last six years the city has wrestled with its identity, and there was some undeniable progress. The notorious city ordinance prohibiting gays and lesbians from invoking civil rights law to defend themselves from discrimination was overturned in a referendum. In what was clearly a vote against the old white power structure, the city elected Mark Mallory, an African American, to be its mayor, defeating Councilman David Pepper. SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign brought union organization, higher wages, and health benefits to some of the city’s lowest paid workers. We even passed by referendum a no smoking ordinance for bars and restaurants to protect the health of workers and the public, despite the tobacco lobby’s attempt to confuse us with a look-alike proposition,
Yet after six years, things had not improved much in the neighborhoods, and in some ways they have gotten worse. Cincinnati and Hamilton County employers continued to move further out into the surrounding suburbs in both Ohio and neighboring Kentucky. Cincinnati’s unemployment rate is now 5 percent and black unemployment over 10 percent, while unemployment for black teenagers has reached a staggering 30 percent. Poverty seems to have become endemic.
In 2007 Cincinnati, a city of 317,000 people, 53 percent of them white and 42 percent black, won the title of third poorest city in the nation after Detroit and Buffalo. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that Cincinnati had 27.8 percent of its residents living in poverty, up from number 8 in 2006 with 25 percent among the poor, and up from number 22 in 2004 with 19.6 living in poverty. In many black neighborhoods the poverty level is much higher than almost one third in poverty in the city.
The poverty hits children hard. The river city has a scandalous infant morality rate of 13.1 per 1,000-about the same as Jamaica and French Guiana. The Hamilton County is not far behind with a rate of 10.5, far worse than that for Ohio at 7.6 or the United States at 6.8 per 1,000. (Just to put things in perspective, the rate for Sweden with a national health care system is 3.2 per 1,000.) Cincinnati’s high school drop out rate is reported between 50 or 75 percent, depending on who’s counting and how. Students who were once dropouts, for example, have now become part of the virtual education program that has yet to prove it works.
Interestingly, according to the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services, violent crime in Cincinnati rose at the slowest rate in the state in 2006, just 1.2 percent. But, while other violent crimes were down, murder in Cincinnati went up an alarming 10 percent-presumably driven by the violence of drug gangs-though that 10 percent was less than half the increase in Cleveland and Columbus where murders rose by over 20 percent. With these sorts of problems, perhaps it is not surprising that Cincinnati’s population has been declining for decades and Hamilton County’s for the last several years as people have moved to distant counties or across the state line to Kentucky where the past of the segregated city is mirrored in the present of the big houses and green lawns of the segregated suburbs.
Now It Has All Come Down to a Jail
As is apparent to all, Cincinnati and Hamilton County have many problems-yet strangely enough as we approach the November election the one problem that occupies center stage, the one issue that has been the focus of attention is not education, employment, improving race relations, or that vague but inspiring notion of social justice, but rather the building of a new county jail. The construction of a new Hamilton County jail has become the central issue in local politics and the focus of an unprecedented cooperation between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Urged on by David Pepper, son of a Proctor & Gamble CEO, Democrat Todd Portune of the County Commission, has embraced the notorious right-wing sheriff Republican Simon Leis, and the three together have pledged to build a new jail come hell or high water.
Other things are going on of course. There has been Operation Vortex/Operation Take Back Our Streets a joint effort by the Cincinnati Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriffs to drive criminals out of Over-the-Rhine in order to make the area more attractive to investors and developers. Those developers, led by 3CDC, the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, which has more or less replaced the city’s defunct planning department, smile upon the removal of poor blacks to make way for the creative class, the young, the hip, the childless, the folks with surplus expendable income. The operation has turned Vine St., Over-the-Rhine’s principal thoroughfare, into the main street of a ghost town and has driven crime into nearby communities and even into the suburbs. A new arts center has become the anchor for investors, developers and the creative class-but most of them have yet to arrive.
Then too there’s the decade old off-again, on-again Banks Project, a multi-million dollar commercial and residential development project planned to be built on the Ohio River. The city’s elite and investors debated whether or not to have 30-story towers along Second Street that might block the view of corporate leaders sitting in the mahogany rooms of an older generation of skyscrapers. The Banks-if it ever gets built-will be an expansion of Cincinnati’s downtown meant to attract Fortune Five Hundred companies and to employ that creative class that if all goes as planned will live among the boutiques and trendy restaurants of the new Over-the-Rhine where once German immigrants, the Appalachians, and African Americans lived.
But the central struggle isn’t being fought over 3CDC’s makeover of Over-the-Rhine, nor over the multimillion dollar Banks Project. Like a chess match where for several moves everything seems focused on what might otherwise simply be an insignificant pawn, so in Cincinnati all of the powers-that-be and all of the people that oppose them have focused their energies on the issue of the new Hamilton County Jail that-in a city and county with declining population-would add 800 prisoner beds.
The Odd Fellows: Leis-Pepper-Portune
Sherrif Simon Leis, a conservative moral crusader who closed down Last Tango in Paris when it was to be shown at a Cincinnati theater in 1972 and convicted Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine of obscenity in 1977, is the heavy in this drama. Leis’s central role in closing down the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1990 brought him national notoriety and the opprobrium of artists, intellectuals, and those who valued First Amendment rights. Several months later a jury found the Maplethorpe photographs were not obscene and a decade later Mapplethorpe’s photos were shown in Cincinnati in a retrospective. The times had changed and even Cincinnati had changed, but Leis held on to his power and sought to expand it. At the center of his ambitions was a new county jail that he has fought for throughout the last 15 years.
Leis and his various Republican and Democratic allies have argued that the jail is necessary to replace or supplement already existing jail space, some of it older space renovated only a few years ago and some of it relatively new, including the modern Justice Center finished in 1985. The immediate principal beneficiary of a new jail would be Leis who would oversee the new expanded facility and a much larger budget. The Sheriff’s opponents counter that the county has enough jail space if only it were properly administered. The jail they point out regularly houses alcohol and drug abusers accused of pissing in the park, the homeless found sleeping on the streets, the mentally ill found wandering the city lost in their psychotic fears and fantasies, and many poor people who would be released if they could make bail or if there were a functioning night court. Leis, however, wants a bigger jail not a better run one.
Last year Leis’s fellow Republican Phil Heimlich put forward the plan for a bigger jail with the 800 additional beds to be paid for by a regressive sales tax. Carl Lindner, the multimillionaire, former owner of Chiquita Brands, and dominant figure in the Republican Party, backed up Leis and Heimlich. The County Commissioners-then two Republicans and one Democrat-put the issue to the voters as a referendum on the November 2006 ballot. But the people didn’t want it. Conservatives argued that it cost too much, while progressives argued that the jail was no way to fight crime and the regressive sales tax was no way to pay for it. Cincinnati Progressive Action, a small group of local activists, created No Jail Tax PAC and carried out an educational campaign stressing the need for education, jobs, and facilities for mental health and drug and alcohol addiction. While Lindner and other backs of the jail put up $250,000, No Jail Tax opponents raised about $1,000 to oppose it. Voters left, right and center went to the polls in large numbers and defeated the jail tax.
Hemilich’s jail went down to defeat, so did Heimlich himself, and former mayoral candidate Democrat David Pepper, Jr., a Cincinnati City Councilman who had originally introduced what became one of the country’s harshest anti-marijuana laws, was elected to the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. Leis, Pepper and Portune then took up the jail issue anew, now adding some modest mental health and drug treatment programs for jail prisoners, but still calling for the additional 800 beds. And, as with Heimlich’s jail, the new facility would be financed by a regressive sales tax-an even larger tax-falling heaviest on working people and the poor. Portune and Pepper then passed the measure at the three-member Board meeting over the contrary vote from Republican Pat DeWine, imposing a new jail on citizens who had only a few months before rejected a similar proposal. Two white men had voted for a jail that if built would, like every other jail and prison in the country, house an inordinate number of black people. Voters, however, still had the right to put the measure on the ballot, and immediately the organizing began.
Furious that the commissioners had voted for the jail when only a few months before it had gone down to defeat in a county-wide referendum, critics of the jail tax launched a campaign for another referendum. Opponents of the jail were led by the NAACP and included Cincinnati Progressive Action and the Green Party on the left and COAST (Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes), various Republican officials, and the Libertarian Party on the right. Those groups created a tacit alliance and cooperated in circulating petitions to give citizens the right to vote on the jail in the November 2007 election. Leis, Pepper and Portune responded by taking their case to dozens of groups around the county, urging voters not so sign the petitions which, they said, would only delay the inevitable. But citizens rushed to sign the petitions at local church fairs, block parties, and summer festivals. The opposing groups, led by the NAACP’s grassroots activists, collected over 54,000 signatures, with 38,961 of them declared valid, 10,000 more than the number needed to put the issue on the ballot.
The Jail: The Democratic Party Stakes All its Chips
The Democratic Party has decided to make the jail the issue of the election, invoking party to discipline to keep the unions, the social service agencies, and new city council candidates in line. Pepper and Portune prove to be a potent pair, the Janus face of the Democratic Party. Pepper’s face turns toward the corporate powers. It was Pepper, son of a P&G CEO, who played a crucial role on the Cincinnati City Council in multimillion dollar concessions to keep Convergys and Kroger from leaving Cincinnati. Portune’s face turns toward the social service agencies and other do-gooders who have depended upon him during the Republican lean years to keep them afloat. Pepper and Portune, having added some in-jail mental health and substance abuse programs, claim that building a new, bigger jail is now a progressive measure. Now known as Issue 27, the jail proposal, would raise the county’s sales tax a half-cent for eight years, lower it a quarter-cent for seven years and then eliminate it after 15 years. The tax would build a new $198 million, 1,800-bed jail an $11 million juvenile detention facility. Hamilton County, its population still declining, would have the biggest jail in Ohio.
The Democratic Party plays a powerful in Cincinnati’s labor and social movements-not in providing leadership, but in exerting discipline over those that might get out of line. Democrats have told the unions that they must not only support the party’s candidates but also its jail tax. So unions that one might expect to a progressive position-such as the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers or the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists-have toed the line. The Building Trades, of course, can be counted on to support building anything so long as it provides jobs for their almost all white membership. Similarly Todd Portune has made it clear to social service organizations that serve the poor and that he has often lobbied for that he expects them to support the jail. Liberal Democratic City Council candidates have also been told that they will be expected to support the jail or loose the party’s support.
The only major organization in the city that has had the courage to stand up to the Democratic Party on this issue is the NAACP chapter led by Christopher Smitherman. Smitherman, a stockbroker, a fiscal conservative and a former city councilman, infuriated the establishment and especially the police department when he attempted to use his seat on the city council to examine the institutional racism of the city. Smitherman’s demands for answers to police killings and his suggestion that the police department was controlled by an old white boys network of former graduates of the once-white West Side’s Elder High School Hamilton led to accusations by County Prosecutor Michael K. Allen that Smitherman himself was involved in “racial profiling.” Shocked an angered by the reaction to his attempts to get at the truth of Cincinnati’s racism, Smitherman became the council’s angry young man. The media turned on him and Smitherman went down to defeat in the 2007 elections.
More determined than ever to fight the racism of the white establishment, Smitherman then ran for president of the NAACP promising to make the organization a more aggressive presence in the region, winning only after a bitter organizational and legal battle with his opponent Edith Thrower. Smitherman, whose moderate politics were long ago overtaken by his sense of indignation at the racist treatment of African Americans in Cincinnati, has proven to be one of the few people in the city with the courage to speak out and to act, no matter what the establishment thinks, conservative or liberal. At the same time his essentially conservative political views make it possible for him to work with the right-wing Republican anti-tax crowd led by Pat DeWine. Smitherman seems not to realize that his conservative worldview and his search for racial justice are at odds, but thankfully it is the latter that seems to drive him.
Smitherman speaks for many black Cincinnatians when he says, “Until the justice system is fair in Hamilton County, the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP cannot support building a new jail. The NAACP knows well that the sentences and punishments for African Americans are harsher and longer. It is this disparity in the justice system that underscores the discrimination of African-American people in Hamilton County and across the nation.” (Kevin Osborne, “Jail Break,” City Beat, Sept. 12, 2007.)
The Cincinnati Democrats, locked in the embrace of Republican Sheriff Leis and apparently oblivious to the racial divide that they are exacerbating, have turned the jail into the central political issue for November. What explains this strange turn of events? Some speculate that Portune and Pepper must believe that their alliance with Leis on this issue will make it feasible for them to portray themselves as the party of law and order and therefore to win enough independent and Republican votes to turn their two-to-one majority on the County Commission into a permanent state of affairs. Portune will certainly find it a lot easier to run for office in the next election if he doesn’t have to contend with Sheriff Leis and Carl Lindner.
In any case, Pepper and Portune seem to be able to count on Cincinnati’s Democratic Party which during the last national election became a much better organized and more disciplined outfit. Whether or not that democratic organization can deliver the voters, particularly black voters remains to be seen. As they take the case to the people, the new liberal activists of the party organization may wonder if a Democratic Party victory on this issue is really worth it if in the end it means that Simon Leis has a bigger jail and a bigger budget and that black Cincinnati feels betrayed. What will Cincinnatians say to themselves six years after Timothy Thomas was killed and the riots broke out, that we have a bigger jail? And here we thought all that soul searching had something to do with racial and social justice.
DAN La BOTZ is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer and activist. He is a member of Cincinnati Progressive Action (CPA) and No Jail Tax PAC (nojailtax.org).