UNPACK: No Land is Innocent

“This was not an academic exercise. The depth of frustration between police and community was very sobering. And battle lines were drawn there very quickly,” says Cranley. “In some ways we were all naive to the depth of the problems on both sides.”

By Sarah Stankorb - Good Magazine

Billie Holiday famously condemned the South in the tearless sob “Strange Fruit.”

“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”

As Midwesterners to the north hearing Holiday’s lament, it’s a song that wraps history in its rightful cloak of pain. Pointing a finger to the South, it reverberates: We remember Jim Crow, white lynch mobs, and slavery. You did this.

But recent months—years really—show the vile legacy of racism alive in the swift trigger-fingers and the violent chokeholds of police in cities from Staten Island, N.Y., to Oakland, Calif.—Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and Beavercreek, Ohio included. A child with a toy gun, shot by police before the cruiser even stopped. A college-bound kid described as a “demon” by the officer who fired at him. A man killed at a Walmart for carrying around a pellet gun he picked up off the store’s shelf.

Decades ago, it was the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a ruthless act of white supremacist terrorism that left four little girls dead. It was Selma, Ala., and Bloody Sunday, leaving the world horrified by images of state troopers charging protestors on horseback and beating them down. These injustices and many others became so palpable that the worst could not be ignored. That time, and the years leading into it, was the crucible that birthed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as well as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its first president Martin Luther King Jr.

The wave of die-ins and protests that recently cropped up around the nation are again a response to horror—to too much being too much. Just as Selma was but one extreme, shocking example of police brutality that plagued blacks in the South, the ensuing media coverage of the senseless deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and John Crawford has once again put the intersection of racism and abuse of authority in the public spotlight, but this time the focus is on the Midwest.

While it may be tempting to think of the slayings in Ferguson, in St. Louis’ Shaw neighborhood, in Cleveland, and in Beavercreek as recent examples of particularly troubled forces—or, in the case of the Cleveland Police Department, subject of a scathing Department of Justice report in 2014, the ne plus ultra of biased and excessive policing—the truth is these Midwestern cities have legacies of prejudice as old as slavery in the United States. Nowhere is this more apparent than Cincinnati, the site of the nation’s most recent race-related riots prior to Ferguson—a metropolis that, as recently as 2012, was still being called one of the most racist cities in the country. But, then again, according to voices ranging from mayors to civil rights leaders, no Midwestern city offers a clearer path toward reconciliation, either.

How Midwestern Racism Was Institutionalized

Cincinnati grew up with divisive race relations. A city along the Ohio River, it nudged the border between slavery and freedom, with a flow of anti-abolitionists, slave catchers, and fugitive slaves (whose stories inspired Toni Morrison’s Beloved) crossing the water from Kentucky. A first stop to freedom along the Underground Railroad, the wildly growing pork town was also home to cycles of race riots. The early riots typically consisted of bands of white anti-abolitionists attacking and killing black settlers. In 1829, whites drove half the city’s black population out of town. In 1836 there was a rash of white attacks on black Cincinnatians. Another clash in 1841 was one of the most severe pre-Civil War urban outbreaks of violenceagainst black people, during which whites fired cannonballs into a black neighborhood.

But whether in relatively peaceful cities to the north like Cleveland or in already-tense areas like Cincinnati, the early 20th century changed race relations forever in the Midwest. During the Reconstruction period between 1865 and 1877, many blacks sought to escape disease and violence in the South, and by 1916, another massive wave of black Southerners moved north to fill labor shortages created by World War I. In what would come to be called the Great Migration, which spanned into the 1970s, 6 million rural, black, Southern families moved to cities elsewhere. The New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore notes: “It was bigger than the Gold Rush. It was bigger than the Dust Bowl Okies. Before the Great Migration, 90 percent of all blacks in the United States lived in the South; after it, 47 percent lived someplace else.”

When Cleveland—which historian Kenneth L. Kusmer notes, prior to 1870, treated black people as “almost equal”—saw its black population grow 300 percent between 1910 and 1920, the city implemented new discrimination and segregation decrees in theaters and restaurants, and some city parks were only open to blacks on designated days. Job discrimination on the basis of race increased; available, affordable housing grew slim. 

In reaction to the new arrivals, Midwestern and Northern cities, including Cincinnati, used race-based deed restrictions at first, and later “steering” and “blockbusting” by realtors once such deeds were determined to be unconstitutional in 1948, to create black ghettos, while predominantly white suburbs sprung up as bedroom communities. In St. Louis, notes Colin Gordon, a historian at the University of Iowa who studies the city, “If a realtor sold to an African-American outside of those zones, they lost their license.” Black homeownership was compared to nuisance land use—like glue factories and slaughterhouses—that would bring down property values. The result was racially and economically segregated communities.

By the 1980s, the Cuyahoga County Regional Planning Commission, which serves Cleveland and its surrounding metro area, determined Cleveland was the second-most segregated area in the nation. Similarly, Cincinnati bled its wealthiest white residents out into large suburban tracts starting in the 1930s, and as recently as 2011 was also considered to be one of the 10 most segregated urban areas in the country.

This housing pattern has continued even as the Great Migration has reversed, with legions leaving segregated Rust Belt cities for economic opportunity along the Sun Belt. As political scientist Daniel DiSalvo noted, this great reverse migration “also testifies to the liberal North’s failure to integrate African-Americans into the mainstream.” For instance, the previously mentioned list of segregated cities includes two Northern cities, one Western city, one Southern city, and six Midwestern cities.

The most deadly result of this “failure to integrate” is that cops often police neighborhoods they otherwise have little contact with, leaving many of them operating in fear. And that fear puts both the police and the communities they are sworn to protect in mortal, perpetual, and unnecessary peril.

Policing by Bullet and Blood

In November 2000, Roger Owensby Jr. was at a Cincinnati Sunoco gas station when two off-duty officers approached him. They had misidentified Owensby, an Army veteran, as a drug dealer.

A Sunoco surveillance video shows Owensby lifting his shirt, evidently to demonstrate he was unarmed, then fleeing. The police pursued. Owensby was eventually held down. One of the officers, Robert Jorg, held him around the head. (A police cruiser camera recorded Jorg telling another officer afterward: “I had his head wrapped the whole time. My arms were across his forehead ... trying to hold him down. I was trying to hold him down.”) The other officer, Patrick Caton, was observed punching Owensby. A chemical irritant was sprayed directly at Owensby’s face. Later, blood and fluid on Jorg’s sleeve—cut off at the scene and later found in Jorg’s cruiser trunk—were ruled by the coroner to be from Owensby’s lungs, and it was determined that he died of “mechanical asphyxiation” as a result of a chokehold or piling of restraints, or both.

Both officers were indicted, however each argued the other was responsible, and neither was convicted.

“We believed black lives did matter then,” says Iris Roley, a local businesswoman and active member of Cincinnati’s Black United Front. “Roger Owensby Jr., that was just the one for us—it was too much collateral damage … We needed to get some accountability.”

Owensby was the 12th in what would be a string of 15 black men to die in custody or confrontation with Cincinnati police within a six-year period (with no other deaths among other races during this time). Around the time of Owensby’s death, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Cincinnati’s Black United Front filed a suit in which they pointed attention to the 30 years of racial profiling by the Cincinnati police. Accompanying the litigations, Roley and others gathered more than 400 accounts of bias expressed by Cincinnatians to share with the federal court. READ MORE

Illustration: Matt Chase