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Reason and peace are inadequate to confront the inherently irrational, like racism.

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New Black Panthers bring out the coffin of Timothy Thomas to a waiting hearse after funeral services at the New Prospect Baptist Church in Cincinnati, April 14, 2001. Neal Lauron

Cincinnati, USA:
The Lunacy of Race

by Kelly Cogswell

April 18, 2001. By now, you probably know that in the early hours of April 7, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas saw a couple of white cops coming after him, took to his heels, and was fatally shot by officer Steve Roach, who claimed he thought the young black man was drawing a gun. None was found.

You probably also know Thomas was the 15th African-American man killed by Cincinnati police since January of 1995, and the fourth since November. And that the big-deal warrants out for his arrest were all misdemeanors, mostly traffic violations of the kind police write up when they're profiling young black men and have nothing else to pin on them.

The only reason you know all this is because peaceful protests after Thomas's death turned into violent, cinematic riots complete with million dollar property damage. As often happens in race riots, a couple of white motorists were dragged from their cars in black neighborhoods.

There were arsons, assaults, looting, and the burning of a police substation. A police officer was shot, though saved by his belt buckle. And last Thursday morning, Cincinnati's Democratic Mayor Charlie Luken took the extreme step of declaring a state of emergency, and a city-wide curfew.

If he hadn't, and the violence had died down anyway, Cincinnati and Timothy Thomas's death would just be a blip on the national radar screen.

After all, Cincinnati, Ohio is no different than a lot of towns. It has about 331,000 residents, almost 43 percent black, living in black neighborhoods that are mostly poor and underserved. The rich, white sections are tree-lined and pristine, just like where Michael Douglas lived in the movie "Traffic." And in this city without subway, never the twain shall meet, unless it's a white cop and a black profilee.

You understand a lot when you read the April 11 Cincinnati Post editorial entitled "Plea for Peace and Reason," asking rioters not to frighten "innocent people, tar this city's image." Even if you have cause for outrage, act peacefully. Be a credit to your race.

Only a newspaper inhabiting a white neighborhood of the mind would miss the obvious point so entirely—that reason and peace are inadequate to confront the inherently irrational, like racism, especially when negrophobes are carrying guns. The most amazing thing about the riots is that there hasn't been one in Cincinnati since the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.

The only option left to the powerless and meek is lunacy and violence. But even our militant models are compromised by idiocy. Just a few days before Thomas was shot, the New Black Panther Party held what one black journalist, Kathy Y. Wilson of Cincinnati's CityBeat, characterized as a "diluted and delusional" rally where volume compensated for content, and silly hate-speech like the "Jewniversity of Cincinnati" was standard.

Her point was that it's no good trading one set of unimaginative bigots for another. I wonder what she thought about the rhetoric this week. By all accounts there was a bonanza of it at Thomas's Saturday, April 14 funeral attended by the omnipresent NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, and the Rev. Martin Luther King III. Malik Zulo Shabazz of the New Black Panther Party was also there. New York's Al Sharpton wasn't, but parachuted in the next day, to make up for lost time.

I heard a segment of it on TV, none of it ground-breaking. Young Martin mouthed all the words like any huckster in the family business. Shabazz made the dead 19-year-old a "rallying point," an opaque cliché that is to community activists what "fruitful negotiations" is to diplomats.

Take the "rallying points" in gay civil rights. Since Mathew Shepard's torture and death made Americans instantaneously aware of anti-gay hate crimes, it seems the lead of every gay fund-raising letter is a gruesome murder. Instead of making us care more, each new corpse paraded to rally us banalizes the horror instead. So the next dead gay man, the next dead black man like Thomas, is even less useful as a symbol unless somebody with extraordinary vision and persistence takes charge.

The obstacle to changing our morbid tactics is the very nature of the problem. Racism, like homophobia, seems vague and abstract, while a dead black man can suddenly become as real as a living white cop. You can put words in their closed mouths, glorify their uncomplaining bodies. You can attack a tangible cop target. It doesn't even matter that on one level these deaths are irrelevant, because they are only symptoms of a problem, like an AIDS lymphoma. It may kill you, but curing it won't save you when the overall disease goes undefeated.

Isn't that our true failure? By constantly burdening the dead, by confining our symbolism to corpses, we turn our eyes from the prize. We, the living, ignore what is far more frightening than frightened white cops with guns: America. Where racism pervades every breath, and every myth so completely that you can't end racist violence without a culture war.

Which means we—all of us—must unleash our violent, creative lunacy not only against racist cops, corporations, The Man, The System, the magazines, the music, the street signs, activist cons, and dead-weight clichés, but against those untouched arrogant corners in ourselves where (I know) hate grows.

Related links:

For the Cincinnati Post's Plea for peace and reason.

For Kathy Y. Wilson's April 12 Negro Tour Guide column Prison for Bad Pigs.

For the hopeful Black Youths in Cincy Demand Change.

For Complete Coverage of U.S. politics

For Complete Coverage Race/Class

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