“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” Nope, not the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This time it’s a frumpy white man, depicted by editorial cartoonist Jim Borgman in the July 22 Cincinnati Enquirer, facing Cincinnati’s new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with arms raised, unshackled from his ball and chain of “‘Racist City’ stigma.” As the cartoon suggests, Cincinnati–scene of urban unrest three years ago following the shooting death of a black teenager by police–still doesn’t get it.
The $110 million Freedom Center, billed as a “museum of conscience” and a “beacon of freedom for all people,” opened August 23 with ceremonies featuring a Who’s Who of celebrities, First Lady Laura Bush, national media play and a $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner with 1,500 paying guests. The ceremonies did not go by without comment, however. As guests dined on gold-rimmed china and linen from Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s canceled wedding, a few blocks away about 200 gathered on Fountain Square to view “The People’s Freedom Center: A Living Museum of the Missing Pages of History and Contemporary Struggle.” The photographs, paintings, posters and banners, which show how the fight for freedom among Cincinnati’s poor, blacks and other disenfranchised groups is a constant battle, rebuked the government/corporate orthodoxy that the Freedom Center signals all is well in Cincinnati.
In fact, Cincinnati remains the country’s eighth most segregated large city. Nine blocks from the Freedom Center lie communities of devastating poverty. Police brutality and racial profiling occur too frequently. Homeless men, women and children survive amid changing city policies that turn toward the punitive. In May 2003 the City Council passed its second law on panhandling, this time requiring panhandlers to register and carry a license. In November 2004 the National Coalition for the Homeless ranked Cincinnati as the “third meanest city in the United States,” up from sixth last year. In the city’s Empowerment Zone, composed of nine neighborhoods primarily of color, the black infant mortality rate ranges from 24 to 30 per thousand births, compared with a rate of 10 per thousand for the rest of the county in which Cincinnati sits. Children’s Hospital, ranked eighth in the nation in pediatrics, lies in the center of the zone.
Because these conditions persist, a class-action racial profiling lawsuit was filed against the city in 2000; it resulted in the historic 2001 “Collaborative Agreement” among the Cincinnati Black United Front, the ACLU, the City of Cincinnati and the Fraternal Order of Police to improve police-community relations. A boycott of downtown travel and tourism, initiated in 2001 by a coalition of several groups, continues to this day. This past March the Center for Constitutional Rights called the boycott a “focal point of national attention in part because the fight against police brutality and misconduct, economic apartheid and political disenfranchisement in Cincinnati is one of the most important racial justice struggles in the country.”