Cincinnati Riots of 2001
In the spring of 2001, Cincinnati, Ohio, saw a number of civil disorders which resulted from the shooting of an African-American teenager, Timothy Thomas, by the city’s police force. Similar to previous incidents of racial rioting in U.S. history, a condition of great tension existed between black residents and city police officers. The tension had arisen from an extended period of police brutality and profiling directed towards innocent citizens going about their normal business. In the wake of the shooting of Thomas, four nights of rioting, vandalizing, and looting raged through parts of the city between April 9th and 13th 2001.
Backstory and Context
The Over-the-Rhine neighborhood had been traditionally populated by German immigrants who had settled there in the mid-19th century. After that period, property and living conditions worsened over the years. Low income living spaces housed a growing number of the city’s unemployed black population. Many jobs had been lost due to factory closures through the 1990s. Crime was on the rise and many of the arrests were drug related. Through the late 90s, 15 black men, who were suspected of criminal activity, were shot or beaten to death by Cincinnati police. In the months before the riots. Roger Owensby, Jr. died as a result of being placed in a choke hold by police officers. Another man, Jeffery Irons, died after getting into an altercation with police. The CPD also began citing a disproportionally large number of black drivers for traffic violations for a two year period leading up to the time of the riots. Blacks began to feel that they were being targeted.
The shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas on the morning of April 7th 2001 was the incident that ignited racial hatred. Pursued by police, Thomas, who was wanted for 14 misdemeanors and 12 traffic violations, was shot at close range in an alley as he fled capture. The officer who fired on him believed Thomas was reaching for a gun when in fact he had only been trying to pull up his wide leg jeans which had begun to slip off during the pursuit. Thomas died at a nearby hospital shortly afterwards.
Two days later, a crowd of people protesting the shooting approached city hall seeking an explanation. Receiving no information about the case, more crowds went to Police District One Headquarters in Over-the-Rhine and assaulted mounted police officers and damaged a cruiser by hurling stones and bottles. The police station itself was vandalized. The police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, firing rubber bullets and bean bags at protesters. Only a few arrests were made at this time.
The next night, black city residents began rioting violently in Over-the-Rhine, stopping traffic and yanking white people out of their vehicles and assaulting them. Other rioters threw bricks and rocks at cars and at white people along the sidewalks. The 11:00 news ran footage of whites being attacked. Signs with racial slogans were displayed by blacks on the streets rallying for African-American pride and The Nation of Islam. These signs were professionally designed and printed, strongly suggesting the idea that the riots were being organized by outside groups. Store front windows were broken and goods were looted at Finley Market, an area that had once been abandoned but gentrified by wealthy whites in the late 1990s. The new owners of these stores did not understand why their businesses were being vandalized since their establishments had done nothing but improved the economy and conditions in the neighborhood by providing jobs and desired goods. Police officers were also attacked, pelted with bottles from windows above as they entered the area. Some officers were reportedly shot at by persons unknown from various locations at random, yet none were killed or seriously wounded.
The violence continued through Wednesday and on Thursday the Mayor, Charles Luken, declared a state of emergency and a city-wide curfew was put into effect. Bad weather also helped to take the momentum out of the disturbance and the violence lessened quickly. Although no one was killed during the riots, 837 people were arrested, more than half of these for violating the curfew.