Black Lives Matter Cincinnati: A multiracial movement for liberation

Thousands gathered July 10 for a peaceful rally organized by Black Lives Matter Cincinnati to express frustration over police brutality, racism, and economic injustice.

Since it was founded in December 2014, Black Lives Matter Cincinnati has become the leading voice for black liberation in the city, working to mobilize people to demand an end to police brutality, institutional racism, and other injustices.

“It’s a fight for black liberation, but it’s not a black fight,” said Brian Taylor, one of the original BLMC founders and a member of its steering committee. “Just like the fight for women’s liberation is not just a women’s fight.”

BLMC is unapologetically multiracial, despite the frequent misconception that it is anti-white. It is also feminist, queer, non-denominational, pro-immigrant, pro-labor, and pro-union.

Black Lives Matter Cincinnati
The July 10 rally formed next to the police memorial park on Ezzard Charles Drive across from District One police headquarters.

“We mean it when we say anybody who agrees with our principles and is willing to organize their time and effort to fight to achieve them is welcome,” Taylor said. “Those who are less sure are welcome to come and learn and find out.”

BLMC looks to create change from the community level up. Leaders on the ground mobilize people in the streets, about 12,000 in 2016, according to Taylor. “Our real power is in numbers,” he said.

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BLMC’s July 10 rally and march, dubbed Enough is Enough, concluded at the gazebo in Washington Park.

“Racism is the original sin of U.S. culture,” said Meg Bruck, 67, a white resident of College Hill and the great granddaughter of a Civil War era abolitionist. “It deprives white people of our humanity, and it is our responsibility to dismantle it.” Bruck takes that responsibility seriously as a member of Black Lives Matter Cincinnati.

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Meg Bruck and Betty Palme, both members of BLMC, picket outside the office of Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters in Nov.

“We stand in solidarity alongside of the Black Lives Matter Cincinnati movement,” said Rev. Alan Dicken, the white pastor Carthage Christian Church. In 2014, the white, working class congregation decided to become an “open and affirming” church to the LGBTQ community and, after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson later in 2014, a faith ally of BLMC.

“They’re doing some really important work in this city,” said Rev. Ian Strickland, the white pastor of Over-the-Rhine Community Church on Race Street, referring to BLMC. “They do a lot to name problems that people don’t want to talk about, but also offer solutions,” citing the idea of restorative justice in schools. In addition to actions in the street, they’re educational, said Strickland.

For Sam Katz, 22, a student in the jazz studies department at the College Conservatory of Music, BLMC helps fill the void left by many student organizations, such as the Irate 8, whose visible activism on campus withered when its founders graduated from the University of Cincinnati. Katz, who is white, is a member of BLMC.

Black Lives Matter Cincinnati
Brian Taylor, a BLMC founder and steering committee member, speaks Nov. 10 on the steps of the Hamilton County Courthouse to demand a retrial of Ray Tensing in the shooting death of Sam DuBose.

BLMC stands not only for black liberation, but also human liberation. For Taylor, the two are related because the same system, rooted in free-market capitalism, oppresses most people. It pits people against one another, blinding them to the larger systems and institutions that push them down.

This is why he refuses to accept the idea of some activists that all white people are the oppressors who should work separately to dismantle racism.

“It’s easy to think that white people are evil, but it let’s off the hook the system of greed behind the racism and oppression,” said Taylor. Yet, to people of color, he said, the hands of oppression are white and male, belonging to people who are vested in a system that gives them disproportionately more power and economic benefits.

There is a core group of about 25 to 60 people depending on circumstances, said Taylor, who estimates that active members number several hundred. About half are white. The five-person steering team is comprised of four black people and one white person.

BLMC is a volunteer organization. According to Taylor, no one is paid for the work they do, and often the leaders pay for organizational expenses with their own money.

BLMC adopted the name, Black Lives Matter, Taylor said, because the name was inspiring. But he is quick to point out that BLMC is independent of the national movement, with no affiliation and no access to its funding. “The politics of the Black Lives Matter national organization is only a small slice of the black liberation movement, even though the media projects it otherwise.”

For Dicken, BLMC, is appropriately named. “God time and time again reinforces the idea that all lives matter. But we have not done that. We have not earned the right to say that yet. So, until we can say that black lives matter and until we live lives that show that, we cannot claim what our God claims.”

Black Lives Matter Cincinnati and Countdown to Conviction rally
Rev. Alan Dicken of Carthage Christian Church stands in support of Elizabeth Hopkins at BLMC’s Nov. 10 rally.

“Many white people ignore or hide from racism, or they think it doesn’t exist,” said Troy Jackson, director of the Amos Project, a faith-based organization that regularly partners with about 40 of the city’s congregations around issues of race and economic justice.

“Other white people, who acknowledge racism, become paralyzed by the issue, too fearful to talk because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing,” said Jackson. “And then there are the white people, the ‘saviors,’ who think they have all the answers, but really need to listen instead.”

“This is not the time for faith communities to be silent,” said Dicken. “Especially in white communities, many people feel this isn’t our struggle, this isn’t our issue. But when we choose to stay quiet, then we’ve made a choice. Our silence speaks volumes.”

Luke Smith, 19, joined BLMC in November. Smith, who identifies as a straight white male, said,  “It is important that I use my privilege, because I do have privilege whether I like it or not, for good, instead of just using it for myself.”

BLMC formed a city-wide coalition, Countdown to Conviction, in October before the trial of University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, accused of murder in the fatal shooting of Sam Dubose, a black motorist.

“I just can’t think of a more raw expression of the demeaning of black lives, the demeaning of human life, than one person executing another person in the course of stopping them for not having a license plate,” said Bruck.

“To me, this is a pretty clear-cut case of police overstepping their bounds, police brutality, and systemic racism in this country,” said Katz. The inability to convict Tensing represents a fundamental flaw in the system, he said.

“For 400 years, the judicial system has repeatedly failed to hear the cries of African Americans,” said the 12-member board of the AMOS Project in the statement declaring its membership in the Countdown to Conviction coalition.

“Rather than saying we should put our faith in a system that has time and time again shown its bias, we’re going to call for what we believe justice to be [that is, a conviction], and ask the courts to align with that, rather than for us to align with the courts,” said Dicken, whose church has joined the coalition.

Strickland’s church has also joined the coalition. “Being part of the coalition is us saying, there is a problem in our country where unarmed black men are getting shot and killed by the institution that is meant to protect and serve them. And there needs to be some form of accountability, consequence, and ultimately a formal declaration saying this is wrong.”

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BLMC allies and supporters of the Countdown to Conviction coalition march through the streets of downtown Cincinnati in Nov. seeking justice for Sam DuBose.

“Marches, actions, and rallies make a difference,” said Taylor. “People change when they are on the streets with other people in unison demanding something.”

Bureaucracies, in Taylor’s view, also respond when masses of people demand change in institutions like the criminal justice system, and refuse to accept anything less than justice and equality.

By Mike Brown, mbrown.c4ad@gmail.com