A Tale of One City: “Cincinnati Goddamn”




IN 1964, Nina Simone wrote a protest song addressing the civil unrest in the United States. Its very title, “Mississippi Goddam,” conveys the exhaustion felt by Simone and an entire movement concerning issues of racial disharmony and staggering violence inflicted on blacks. The song’s lyrics are still achingly relevant today as police brutality and discrimination continue to bruise the country. “I think every day’s gonna be my last,” Simone sings in her sweet, raspy contralto over a high-spirited rhythm that contrasts ominously with the gravity of the subject matter. “Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We’re all gonna get it in due time / I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” The song is where Cincinnati Goddamn, a new documentary retracing Cincinnati’s 2001 race riots from filmmakers April Martin and Paul Hill, takes its name.

If riots are the “language of the unheard,” a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr. that has recently reentered the public sphere after the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, Cincinnati Goddamn serves as an act of translation. For many who saw the protests last year as something other than revolt — a lack of control, an example of broken laws, an excuse to pillage and burn — the film offers a deep evaluation of the contexts that sparked Cincinnati’s race riots and how the uprising eventually helped reshape policing in America. Martin and Hill deftly interpret three days in downtown Cincinnati through both a personal, immersive approach and a detached one, alternating methods in order to probe the degree of over-policing and urban decay in the city in the years leading up to the protests.

In 2001, April was Cincinnati’s cruelest month. Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man, was killed by Stephen Roach, a white cop, in the predominantly black neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine. Thomas had come around a corner and, while reaching to pull up his pants, was shot in the chest. The incident came after several particularly violent episodes of police brutality against blacks in Cincinnati, including the death of Roger Owensby Jr., another unarmed black man, the previous winter. Three cops beat Owensby Jr., a veteran recently back from a tour, mistaking him for a criminal who had run from the police. After they pepper-sprayed him at point blank range and pulverized his body, he was left to die in the back of the police car. Four months later, after police failed to answer the questions the community had about Thomas’s death, three days of rioting in Over-the-Rhine physicalized the anger and helplessness the black community felt toward police brutality. A bold line was drawn between whites and blacks, police and civilians. The historians, journalists, and community members interviewed in the film all reinforce the idea that the divide that Cincinnati experienced, and still does, was a symptom of a broader racial discord in the country.

Along with the ways that this divide forms in political, educational, economical, and religious spheres, the film examines how it is also, and perhaps most dangerously, perceptual. Reverend Damon Lynch III, a Cincinnati activist and community leader interviewed for the film, says that many problems stem from two ways of interpreting the same picture: “White Cincinnati says ‘Why did he run?’ Black Cincinnati says ‘Why did they shoot him?’” This surfaced in the media’s coverage when several news outlets used mug shots to identify the victims. This problem of seeing may be the most complicated thing for our broader culture to change. Was it not painfully evident with #BlackLivesMatter, when a vast portion of the nation failed to see the implied “too”?

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It’s worth considering that “riots” are a crucial part of Cincinnati’s history from its very beginning. The earliest, in 1792, four years after the city’s founding, is the only riot out of the 10 since to not be catalyzed by friction with police. We inevitably gravitate to symbols during times of unrest, and an image from 1884 — after over 50 people died during protests fueled by the public’s fury over a rigged verdict surrounding the killing of a white man — is an easy one to interpret: the husk of the courthouse after it was set on fire, its charred debris and ash scattered in a wreckage on the floor. It’s a clear representation that conveys how riots seek to collapse existing power structures — literally, in this case — in the hopes of remaking them to perform more justly. It was this riot that prompted The Cincinnati Enquirer to briefly rechristen the city as the “College of Murder.”

People, too, are symbolized for a cause. But Martin and Hill are interested in reaching beyond symbolism to explore not only unjust systems and processes, but the families they impact. The documentary relays the complex feelings of helplessness and grief through interviews with the parents of Thomas and Owensby Jr. We watch as the camera lingers on Owensby Sr. standing in front of city hall with two photographs, one taken before his son’s death and one after. “This is not my son,” he says, distraught, pointing to the postmortem photo. “This is what they left me with.”

At its core, the approach Martin and Hill take is a juridical one. They treat viewers like jury members, asked to contemplate the actions of the officers involved in the deaths. Interviews with defense attorneys and footage shown of the officers explaining themselves seem to briefly portray the other side. The result is a portrait of a torn city, one during a time of confusion, vulnerability, and upheaval. We see people holding signs that read “STOP KILLING US” and “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.” We see Thomas’s mother, Angela Leisure, address mayor Charlie Luken. “This is my other son,” she says, taking the hand of Thomas’s brother. “Is he going to die too?”

A collage of broadcast news, dash cam footage, video from the riots, and extensive interviews from 2001 to 2006 lets us examine the texture of the grueling violence that was occurring in the city. The documentary’s grainy cinema vérité style can make it feel like a horror film at times; its seething tones, when soundtracking nighttime b-roll, seem to hint that anything can happen at any instant. Martin and Hill refuse to sensationalize the riots. Rather than overwhelm us with strong imagery, a few minutes represent the turmoil: cops lobbing tear gas grenades, volleying bean bag bullets, forming borders with riot shields; people shattering glass, pillaging properties; a blaze of fire behind storefronts and in dumpsters. The film spends more time tracing how a lack of transparency from the city eventually led to riots and then change, with cooperation between the city and community activists helping to create the Collaborative Agreement, a set of reforms and protocols that is now a model for police around the country. In good liberal fashion, it seems to claim that it is not institutional systems that are wrong, but our institutional systems. The film makes clear that while the city lost millions to repairs and a crippling boycott, the greatest price of all was paid by the men who died, by their mothers and fathers who have had to learn how to live again.

A particularly intense moment unfolds when Patrick Caton, one of three police officers who had beat Owensby Jr. on the night of his death, attends an arbitration hearing that results in his reinstatement to the Cincinnati Police Department. Footage following officer Caton’s hearing conveys the feeling of powerlessness the Owensby family felt while trying to achieve justice for their son through the judicial system. “You know who I am, don’t you?” a frustrated Owensby Sr. says to Caton as he is leaving. Caton mumbles something inaudible. The subtitles tell us: “I don’t give a fuck who you are.” The camera then cuts to a crowded hallway, Owensby Sr. clearly in distress. His other son has apparently been placed under arrest for disorderly conduct, his wife has fainted. The film cuts to a crowded and noisy elevator. Owensby Sr., on the verge of collapsing, is held up by his supporters. The immediacy of the editing — jump cuts, uncomfortable zooms, an utterly shambolic mise-en-scène, and quick pans — renders a claustrophobia that immediately calls to mind that horrifyingly perfect slogan for protestors, those last words of Eric Garner and quite possibly the last thought Owensby Sr.’s son had that balmy night in November: I can’t breathe.

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The film chooses not to explicitly agree or disagree on whether or not the riots were “justified.” In retrospect, it seems inevitable, a broken bone needing to be reset. But that implies that Cincinnati has been cured, something the documentary makes plain is not true. Despite a glossy PR campaign to close a dilating public eye, Cincinnati remains one of the most segregated cities in America. Cincinnati Goddamn suggests that the fractured bones of America can only heal if communities are willing to fight to change the systems that control them.

This July, Cincinnati was again brought into the national spotlight when Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing during a traffic stop. Immediately, the city was expecting riots to follow the release of the body camera footage. The university canceled classes, barricades were set up in the area, and armored cars sat on empty streets. But they weren’t needed. Nobody rioted that day. Instead, peaceful protests gathered as various media outlets said that Cincinnati had learned its “lesson” from 14 years ago. The footage of the shooting, released after The Enquirer filed a lawsuit against Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, played a crucial role in providing the transparency the community needed.

The body camera tape, which divided local news stations — some felt it was the public’s right to view it, others were hesitant to air such violence — attests to the power that not just cinema, but footage has concerning the unique potential to engage a community. When film, a medium uniquely positioned to become an instrument of unbiased arbitration, is fused in its perspective to a body, it becomes more than just a transcription of unfolding events. It becomes testimony itself.

Perhaps that is why the body cam footage is so shocking. Dexter Thomas, in an article for the Los Angeles Times, described viewing it as akin to playing a video game, a comparison that helps us reconsider its impact cinematically. As Thomas explains, this is a rare chance to inhabit the perspective of a police officer, trading our usual role of detached observer to something closer. Watching the footage implicates us, the viewer. It’s an angle radically different from a documentary, where we are being told or taught something. Watching the body cam tape, we are convinced that we are committing something. The camera no longer acts as mediator, but as our own eyesight. It gives viewers a chance to see the situation, in some ways, both as subjectively and objectively as possible. But this is not first-person, but second, an implied you creating an important distance between viewer and subject. Thomas writes that we become “players” — forced, if we watch, to carry out the motions of a killing, ultimately challenged to banish our own disbelief about the tragic realities of violence. This angle helps frame the incident in a more familiar way aesthetically, but also risks shifting the accountability from where it belongs.

Today, videos of police misconduct go viral within minutes, and citizen journalists play an increasingly pivotal role in holding those in power accountable. Social media, a new engine of activism, has made these documents of violence readily accessible and unfiltered, curated by hashtags. Watching Cincinnati Goddamn, it’s hard not to imagine how things would have been different if smartphones and the internet had existed as they do now. The culture of activism following Cincinnati’s unrest relied on community gatherings, dialogues, peaceful protest, and word of mouth. For example, to reinforce a lawsuit against the police, the Black United Front arranged for hundreds of blacks to relay instances of racial profiling and brutality, encouraging them to tell their stories. A woman describes 10 officers aiming guns at her body when she was nine months pregnant. A young boy telling his account is seen with tears streaking down his face. These testimonies resulted in what activist Iris Roley calls a “resounding feeling of helplessness.” It is in many ways the same feeling that is felt today, though the testimonies exist online, refracted through thousands of posts on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms. Anyone can be a documentarian in the digital age, capable, of course, of manipulating the internet’s pliable shape with misinformation, but also mapping out a narrative long ignored or unbelieved.

“What answers do you have?” Leisure asks at one point in city hall, but the camera cuts away before we get an answer because, of course, there weren’t any clear ones. The community had to search for answers again this summer, and in many ways we are still searching. Wisely, Cincinnati Goddamn doesn’t end in closure. That would be impossible. Cincinnati’s wounds are far from healed, but, the documentary subtly suggests, a tale of two cities may finally become a tale of only one. Words from the late historian and social critic Manning Marable, who was interviewed for the film, foreshadows the events our country has seen in recent years. He views the 2001 riots as a microcosm for a United States willing to ignore the “lessons of our own history,” one that has too often drastically marginalized its minorities. “There will be many Cincinnatis over the next decade,” he vows in the film’s final words. “I promise you.” The synecdoche is pessimistic and risks ignoring the role Cincinnati’s historical identity played in the unrest, but it deserves to be. That oath is of course eerily prophetic now, at a time where what could be on the other side of its ellipsis feels, both frighteningly and encouragingly, unformed.

“This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet,” Nina Simone explains halfway through “Mississippi Goddam,” recorded live to a mostly white audience. A scatter of (nervous? confused?) laughter is heard from the crowd. It’s a haunting statement that could easily get lost in the shuffle on first listen. What does she mean, exactly? What is she imagining as the show? Has the show already been written in blood? The augury she seems to possess seems less vatic when reflecting on the stills from 2001’s uprising; desaturate them and they become indistinguishable from those taken during race riots over three decades earlier. Whatever Simone’s vision was for America, it is clear the show is unfinished. Yet films like Cincinnati Goddamn are willing to help us write it, painful line by painful line.

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Zack Hatfield is a freelance writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio. His essays, criticism, and journalism have appeared in Electric LiteratureThe Rumpus, and Full Stop, among other publications.


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