Mob City: How Cincinnati Became The Poster Child for Unstable Race Relations in America

In the early morning hours of April 7th, 2001, a familiar scene was being played out in the Over-The-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. A 19-year old black man, Timothy Thomas, was walking past a nightclub called “The Warehouse” when he was spotted by two off-duty Cincinnati Police officers who recognized him as someone who had open warrants out against him. Almost immediately after the two officers approached him, Thomas ran off. The two off-duty cops gave chase to Thomas and they were soon joined by several on-duty officers, including Officer Stephen Roach, who chased Thomas into an back alley. Within moments of his entering the alley, Officer Roach fired his weapon at Thomas a single time as the young man was running away from him. The bullet fired by Roach pierced Thomas’s heart, a wound which would prove fatal less than an hour later. Roach initially claimed in an official statement that he fired at Thomas because he thought he saw the young man reaching into his waistband for a gun, but would later admit that the shooting happened because he had been chasing the 19-year old with his finger on the trigger when Thomas startled him by coming around a corner, causing him to inadvertently fire a shot off.

The off-duty cops who initiated this tragic sequence of events did so because Timothy Thomas had a total of 14 outstanding arrest warrants against him, a backlog that sounds rather impressive until you find out that 8 of those 14 warrants were for driving without a license and another 4 were for driving without a seatbelt. The other two outstanding warrants on him stemmed from charges for “obstructing official business”or, in layman’s terms, running away from the cops because they wanted to arrest him for prior traffic violations. Put simply, Timothy Thomas was about as much of a criminal as someone who habitually jaywalks or litters. There are no drug charges on his record. He was never arrested for shoplifting or domestic violence charges. Hell, for the most part he wasn’t even a bad driver. Thomas was never pulled over for speeding or running a red light or making a rolling stop at a stop sign. The two main traffic offenses that led to Thomas’s outstanding warrants, driving without a license and without wearing a seatbelt, are not moving violations. The only time that a law enforcement officer can legally charge someone with either of those violations is after he or she has already pulled the driver over for a separate incident, the reason for this being that no police officers, no matter how good they are, can tell if a car is being driven by a licensed driver by watching it drive past their cruiser at 35 miles an hour.

092601_nicoleBA young woman holds up a protest flyer in support of Timothy Thomas in Cincinnati City Hall (2001)

The absurd collection of traffic violations accrued by Timothy Thomas over the course of about a year show the extent to which the Cincinnati Police used racial profiling while out on patrol. During a 65 day period of time in the spring of 2000, Thomas was issued a staggering 12 citations by Cincinnati Police officers. On both March 6th and March 10th, he was pulled over twice within a 6 hour period, with only one of the 4 stops being conducted for a moving violation. If ever there was a more glaring example of getting a ticket for “driving while black”, I’ve yet to see it. This past summer, when I went on my 39 day, 13,000 mile trip around the United States, I’d venture a guess that I drove at an average clip of 10 miles over the speed limit, made roughly two dozen illegal U-turns, ran about 10 red lights and made somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 illegal lane changes. I was pulled over exactly zero times. I am also unmistakably white. These two things are very much related to one another.

All anecdotal evidence and societal perception aside, the vast majority of studies done on racial differences in traffic stops and arrest rates show that blacks and latinos are disproportionately targeted by police officers in relation to whites and that those increased targetings correlate to a much higher search rate as well. As you might expect, young men of color are particularly singled out for profiling, with young black men bearing the lion’s share of the damage. The typical setting of the encounters with law enforcement vary greatly depending on race and age, with young black men being far more likely to be pulled over while driving on city streets in the evening, situations which lend themselves to an increased likelihood of the driver being searched. And, to make matters worse,a study conducted in the years immediately preceding Thomas’ deathshowed that Ohio had a particularly deep-seeded problem with racial profiling, as blacks in the state were on average 2.5 times more likely to be ticketed than whites.

Timothy Thomas’s death was not a freak accident or a lapse in a singular officer’s judgement. It was an inevitable byproduct of a police department that routinely displayed a racially charged vigilantism that was responsible for the deaths of 15 black men under the age of 40 in the span of 6 years. For the residents of Over The Rhine and for many black Cincinnatians, this was the breaking point. What could they do but riot? What peaceful avenue was theirs for the taking that would stop the wanton disregard for the rights and lives of their brothers and sons by the very people who were supposedly sworn to protect them? If a people are grievously wronged, shall they not revenge? So, with some further urging from bean bag guns and tear gas bombs, they did. And I got out of school for a day.


Even though I lived within the Cincinnati city limits, the riots and unrest of 2001 barely register as a blip in my memory. I certainly don’t remember hearing about the shooting of Timothy Thomas on the day it took place, and any reaction to the uprising itself was tempered by a detached bemusement. I think there were rumors that someone in my younger sister’s class who lived in the economically stratified East Walnut Hills neighborhood had their windows broken by a brick, but that was about it. I want to say that my school sent us home early on the Monday after the shooting and that school was cancelled on Tuesday, but I honestly can’t remember because it didn’t affect me.

If you ask anyone over the age of 60 where they were the moment that JFK was assassinated, they will be able to tell you without batting an eye. Ask a baby boomer what he or she was they were doing when they heard the news that John Lennon was killed(1) or when the Challenger exploded and they’ll know instinctively. For my generation, the biggest of those “where were you when” moments was the terrorist attacks on 9/11. I can still remember with picture perfect clarity where I was when I heard that the first tower had been hit. It is embedded in my mind’s eye as a sort of tableau; each detail as crystal clear to me today as it was twelve and a half years ago when it happened. I remember these things because I am hardwired to do so. Studies of the mechanisms through which our brains process information have shown that there is a biological explanation for why people remember horrible events in their lives more than pleasant ones. Functional Magnetic Resonant Imaging has shown that, during a negative event, our brains experience more cellular activity in the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala, the two portions of the brain responsible for emotional processing. Stimulation of these areas leads to greater memory retention, which means that the more frightening an event is, the more likely the brain is to remember it.

In retrospect, it seems as though living through the worst American race riot of the past 20 years(2) should have formed some sort of lasting memory in my mind, but there’s simply nothing there. I can’t recall having any meaningful discussions at my school about the riots or their causes. I was never gathered together in social studies class and asked to consider why it was that my private school on one side of the I-71 on-ramp was nine-tenths white while the public school on the other side was 90% black. For those of us who had inherited the white privilege of our parents, it was a profoundly teachable moment; a chance to ask one another why it was that the world we inhabited was so markedly different from that of kids in impoverished and predominantly black neighborhoods like Mt. Auburn and Avondale. Of course, none of the teachers and adults around me made use of that teachable moment and pretty soon the only effect of the riots that I was privy to was that it caused Bill Cosby and a few other entertainers to boycott the city.

An graphic representation of the current racial segregation in Cincinnati from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

As far as I knew, public figures like then Cincinnati City Council member Jim Tarbellwere right when they claimed that the 2001 race riots were without precedent. It was only later in life that I would discover that this type of racially charged unrest is not the exception in Cincinnati so much as it is the rule. In fact, Cincinnati’s reputation for being a haven of racially charged violence was built almost just as quickly as the city itself, quickly garnering “the unenviable sobriquet of ‘Mob City.’” As you can see in the timeline below, the nickname was well earned:

1829: After watching the free African American population of Cincinnati quadruple in the course of a decade, pro-slavery whites in the city enforce an archaic black law that demands all blacks pay a $500 bond ($11,000 in 2013 dollars) within 30 days in order to be a legal Ohio citizen. When the city’s black population can’t pay, mobs of whites attacked black neighborhoods, demolishing houses and beating their former residents. 50 to 70 percent of the city’s black population would emigrate within the week.

1836: The establishment of an anti-slavery newspaper, The Philanthropist, by noted Southern abolitionist James G. Birney led to a series of small riots that broke out sporadically over the spring and summer of 1836. Encouraged by the city’s pro-slavery mayor and  Jacksonian political establishment, numerous black residences and shops were burned to the ground while their occupants were savagely beaten and the offices of The Philanthropist were destroyed twice by mobs in an attempt to stop the publication’s continued existence.

1841: In what was arguably the largest pre-Civil War race riot in American history, a large white mob attacked a black neighborhood near 6th Street and Broadway, beating an undisclosed number of black Cincinnatians to death and razing some black owned businesses. The black community responded with an armed resistance, pushing the rioters back for several hours until the white mob got their hands on a six-pound cannon and began firing it into the neighborhood. The next day, armed guards penned 300 black men into the square at intersection of 6th & Broadway before hauling them off to jail while the city descended into anarchy. By the time the mob had dispersed, the offices of The Philanthropist had been destroyed for a 3rd time in 5 years and much of the black community’s private property had been destroyed.

1843: Mob action was taken after an enslaved 9-year old girl managed to run away from her Louisiana “master” upon reaching Cincinnati, having been told by her mother that she could gain her freedom if she quickly sought protection. The riot itself was mostly bluster, but an abolitionist confectioner’s shop was damaged and surrounded by an angry group of slavery supporters for several hours.  While relatively uneventful, the event is noteworthy if only for the accounts we have of it from the diary of a local banker, who remarks on the widespread societal acceptance of such racially motivated vigilantism, noting that, “the mob of Cincinnati must have their annual festival – their Carnival, just as at stated periods, the ancient Romans enjoyed the Saturnalia, and our city dig-nitaries [sic] must run no risk of forfeiting their ‘sweet voices’ at the next charter election by any unceremonious interference with their ‘gentle violence’ – their practical demonstrations of sovereignty.”

1853: In a move that greatly upset the city’s prominent German population, the Archbishop of Cincinnati received Cardinal Gaetano Bedini as his guest during what was the first diplomatic visit from a Papal emissary in the United States. Upon Bedini’s arrival, several hundred German residents marched towards the Archbishop’s residence and clashed with a large detail of policemen that were assigned to guard the house. All in all, 2 people were killed during the riot, and a further dozen wounded.

1855: Tensions in Cincinnati between Nativists and German immigrants came to a head during the April elections of 1855. With Nativists putting their support behind the anti-immigrant Know Nothing party and newly arrived Germans backing the Democratic party, the election quickly devolved into mob rule that spread throughout the city. The Know-Nothings, who imported over 300 rogue Kentuckians to help them “watch the polls,” went about heavily German wards, trying to destroy as many ballot boxes as they could while the Germans themselves set to building up a resistance, eventually erecting makeshift barricades on all of the bridges connecting their neighborhood to the center of the city. After 3 days of prolonged fighting and an unknown number of casualties, the conflict finally subsided and would serve as the last hurrah for the Know-Nothings in the Queen City.

1862: Amidst the turmoil and racial unrest at the beginning of The Civil War,an argument between two groups of black and Irish stevedores turned violent and ushered in a week of intense rioting throughout the city. Most of the destruction was contained to the city’s largest black neighborhood, the pejoratively named “Bucktown”, and after a week of escalating vandalism and assault virtually the entire black population of the city had dispersed to the country to escape danger.

1884: With Cincinnati seeing increased crime rates and a perceived paucity of capital punishment, the city erupted into one of the largest riots in American historyafter a German immigrant named William Berner was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for the lesser charge of manslaughter in the murder of his employer, William Kirk, despite the fact that Berner had already confessed to the murder itself. Outraged at the injustice, thousands packed into the city’s Music Hall to make their displeasure known. Predictably, order was quickly lost and a vast mob poured out onto the streets, looking for vengeance. Over the course of three days, the more than 10,000 rioters set fire to the city jail and to the courthouse, fighting with a Ohio National Guardsmen in battles so pitched that they were actually compared to the assault on the Bastille. When the rioting finally died down, 56 men had been killed and over 300 more injured. A racially tinged side note is that Berner’s accomplice, a biracial man named Joe Palmer, was tried separately for the murder and was later hanged.

1967: The longest riot free period in the city’s history ended during the Long Hot Summer of 1967, as several black neighborhoods erupted in protestation and violence in response to an oppressive socioeconomic climate that hadn’t changed much during the 20th century. As with many of the 159 riots that took place that year, the unrest in Cincinnati began when a black man was unjustly arrested, in this case for protesting a guilty verdict that had been handed down against his cousin, who was convicted of raping and murdering six white women despite a complete lack of physical evidence. The rioting, which was finally quelled by an influx of National Guardsmen after raging for four days, resulted in one death, over 400 arrests and property damage in excess of $2 million.

An illustration showing the destruction wrought by the 1884 Cincinnati Riots

1968: After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the already strained racial tensions in the city snapped for the second time in under a year.As demonstrations were going on to memorialize Dr. King and condemn white society for its role in his death, a local black jeweler accidentally shot and killed his wife while protecting his shop from an attempted robbery. By the time the story began circulating in the black community, the accidental shooting had erroneously transformed into the murder of a black woman by a white police officer. Rioting ensued shortly thereafter and continued for several days. When the dust had settled, two people were dead, hundreds more were arrested and about $3 million in property had been destroyed.

2001: The police shooting of unarmed 19-year old Timothy Thomas precipitates the largest race riot in 21st century American history.

In short, Cincinnati is the poster child for unstable race relations in America. What else would you expect from the largest city straddling the Mason-Dixon Line? From its very founding, Cincinnati has struggled with a schizophrenic identity that is simultaneously northern and southern. Ask an Alabaman and he’s liable to tell you that Cincinnati is chock full of city-living Yankees. Pose the same question to a New Yorker and she’ll probably say that Cincinnati is nothing more than a kissin’ cousin of the Confederacy. Both answers have a bit of truth to ’em, but only in the same way a Pop Tart has real fruit filling in it. The reality is that the definition of what a Cincinnatian is or what a Cincinnatian believes is wholly dependent on the neighborhood that Cincinnatian happens to live in. The city itself is speckled with a hundred little racial fault lines that separate the city on a block by block basis, making the Queen City the 8th most segregated city(3) in the country.

Cincinnati is a city of extremes. With 10 Fortune 500 companies calling the city home, Cincinnati can boast more of these big earning businesses per capita than New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. And yet, despite this abundance of wealth, more than 50% of Cincinnati’s children are living below the poverty line. Such Dickensian levels of income inequality and corporate greed have left Cincinnati with a score on the Gini index of 0.555 and the unenviable distinction of being the 10th most unequal city in America. Just to give you an idea of just how bad a score that is, consider this: If Cincinnati were its own country it would have the 10th highest rate of income inequality in the world, making it more economically stratified than the likes of Thailand and Zimbabwe.

Like everything else in Cincinnati’s history, the burden of all this economic inequality is born predominantly by the black community. For example, unemployment rates for white Cincinnatians in and around the Great Recession were pretty decent, clocking in at 6.1%, which was nearly two percentage points below the national average at the time. Black Cincinnatians, on the other hand, suffered unemployment rates of over 17% during the same period. Oh, and remember how I was saying that more than half of Cincinnati children live below the poverty line? Well, I guess I misspoke. What I should have said was that more than half of Cincinnati’s black children—55.9% to be exact—live below the poverty line. The number of white Cincinnati children living in poverty is actually below the national average. In fact, pretty much any metric for judging the economic standing of an individual or a family will show that whites in Cincinnati are at least twice as well off as their black counterparts, and all this is without including the hundreds of thousands of white families that fled the city for the well-manicured nirvana of the suburbs.

Welcome to the new front in Cincinnati’s racial inequity. As you can see, all of the colored buildings in the graphic are under the control of 3CDC, a “private non-profit” who has led the gentrification effort in the city’s historic Over-The-Rhine district. Affordable housing is quickly becoming a distant memory in OTR and the demographics have begun to swing from lower class black to upper-middle/”creative” class white.

An extreme example of this exodus of wealth and whiteness lies in the suburb of Indian Hill, which I had mentioned earlier as being the locus of the city’s old money elite and ground zero for the Bush-Cheney campaign’s fundraising activities. According to 2010 US Census data, the median household income for white families living in Indian Hill is $219,333 per year,or almost 10 times the median household income of blacks living in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, the US Census bureau was unable to juxtapose the median household income of white Indian Hill residents with that of black Indian Hill residents. I have a feeling this might have something to do with the fact that the US Census says Indian Hill only has 4 black residents.  


After visiting the city of Cincinnati on his journey through America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote to his mother back in France with some of his impressions of the city itself and the American West in general. Of Cincinnati and its neighbors, Tocqueville wrote, “All that there is of good or of bad in American society is to be found there in such strong relief, that one would be tempted to call it one of those books printed in large letters for teaching children to read; everything there is in violent contrast, exaggerated.” Fast forward 182 years and his assessment only rings truer. There is very little  moderation in Cincinnati, just as there is little moderation in America. Even the most ardent American patriot would have to admit that restraint and temperance have never really been our strong suits. We’re the nation of go big or go home; a place where chicks dig the long ball and second place is always the first loser. When we look back on the declaration of our forefathers that all men are created equal, our first instinct is not to interpret such a statement as validating the pursuit of an equitable society, but to take it as a justification for individual achievement regardless of external circumstances.

We condemn the poor and failure-hardened masses for explaining away their misfortunes through the inferiority of their circumstances, yet heap laurels upon the foreheads of the well-to-do and wealthy for their singular achievements, conveniently overlooking the head start given to them by dint of winning the birth lottery. George W. Bush was C student who got into an Ivy riding his daddy’s coattails and playing the prodigal son until he hit 40, racking up DUIs and disorderly conducts like his pops did Distinguished Flying Crosses during World War II. You live out George W Bush’s life in 99% of American families and the end result is going to be somewhere in between a long stint in state prison and a job in middle management. Had George W. Bush been born into the poorest 20% of households in a city like Cincinnati, his chances of reaching the top 20% as an adult would be 5.5%. If you’re an unmotivated kid with a drinking problem in inner city Cincinnati you wind up on parole with a cop chasing you down a dark alley at 2 in the morning for a bunch of traffic violations. It’s a damn shame Timothy Thomas wasn’t born to a rich white woman in suburban Connecticut. He could’ve been President.


(1) Actually, if you were of old enough to know who John Lennon was and why he mattered, the odds were pretty good that you found out about his assassination from Howard Cosell, who announced his death during Monday Night Football that evening, reminding viewers that football was ultimately just a game and describing in detail how Lennon was shot twice in the back outside his apartment on the Upper West Side before being rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, where Cosell said with his iconic pregnant pauses between each word, that he was, “Dead…On…Arrival.” In 1980, Monday Night Football had a 20.8 share of the Nielsen Ratings and was seen by an estimated 16.5 million households.

(2) It is worth noting that the riots in Los Angeles that were spurred on by the LAPD beating of Rodney King occurred during the spring of 1992, falling just outside of the relatively arbitrary 20 year timeframe I chose. The fact that both riots sprang from the police brutality against unarmed, young black men in the community is not a coincidence. With the exception of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle (1999) and the Blackout Riots in New York City (1977), every major US riot since the emergence of the civil rights movement has been sparked by an act of police brutality against a minority or by escalating racial tensions within a city or community.

(3) The list of Most Segregated Cities in America according to 2010 US Census data are as follows: 10) Los Angeles, 9) Philadelphia, 8) Cincinnati, 7) St. Louis, 6) Buffalo, 5) Cleveland, 4) Detroit, 3) Chicago, 2) New York City, and 1) Milwaukee. Interestingly enough, not a single Southern city broke the Top 10.

Categories: Book Excerpts/News, Race, Social Justice

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