On April 7, an unarmed black man named Timothy Thomas was shot by a white police officer in Cincinnati. By April 9, riots had engulfed the city, leading to a total of 598 arrests and scores of injuries. Yet most major media did not begin to provide significant coverage of the events until several days later. We believe that riots of this nature in a major American city should be of pressing concern to Americans, and the story should not have been kept so quiet for so long.
Officer Stephen Roach had pursued Thomas, 19, because of 14 outstanding warrants for misdemeanor charges and traffic violations. Thomas attempted to flee from Roach, and at one point, Roach told authorities, Thomas moved his hand towards his waistband as if reaching for a gun. Roach then shot Thomas in the chest. No weapon was found, and a grand jury investigation as to whether Roach used excessive force will begin this week.
The shooting, the 15th incident in which a black man was killed by city police since 1995 and the fourth such incident since last November, strained relations in Cincinnati beyond the breaking point. On Monday evening, riots broke out in Over-the-Rhine, the impoverished, primarily black area where Thomas lived. The unrest spread to other neighborhoods and intensified Monday night, when police attempted to quell the violence with rubber bullets, beanbags and tear gas. As of April 14, a week after the shooting, more than 60 people had been injured and over 25 had been admitted to a hospital. On Thursday, Mayor Charles Luken imposed a nighttime curfew, which appears to have restored a degree of calm.
Yet as the city convulsed, attention by the national media was scarce. After the second night of violent riots, The New York Times ran only a 94-word brief from the Associated Press—right next to a similar brief on the South Carolina lottery. CNN did not begin reporting until Wednesday, and the Washington Post carried only 172 words the following day.
The public was not well-served by their silence. Though a full investigation of the shooting will be dearly necessary, greater questions were raised by the incident that the mass media failed to cover during the early days of the riots. Community leaders have demanded an explanation for the deadly force used against Thomas, and residents have long complained of racial profiling. In March, the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of black civil rights groups filed a lawsuit accusing Cincinnati of a “30-year pattern of racial profiling,” alleging that blacks are routinely singled out for minor offenses more than whites and that excessive force is common. On Wednesday, the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. attorney’s office in Cincinnati joined the FBI in a civil rights investigation.
Over the past week, Cincinnati has sustained more civil unrest than it has at any time since the rioting prompted by the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. We are saddened by the media’s disinterest, and we urge President George W. Bush to use his bully pulpit and seize this opportunity to bring these riots to national attention. Bush had expressed ardent verbal opposition to racial profiling throughout his campaign and asked the Attorney General for a report on the subject soon after taking office. We encourage Bush to continue with this process. The profound antagonism between the police and many urban communities must be resolved, but for that to occur it must receive Americans’ sustained attention.