'It's Really Clear That Things Are Out of Hand'

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Police arrest a demonstrator in downtown Cincinnati

TIME.com: Give us the background quickly.

AT: Since 1995, 15 black men have died at the hands of police, and four since November. The latest, Timothy Thomas, was 19 and unarmed and was shot and killed by a white police officer on Saturday.

The trouble started Monday night, when Thomas's family went to a City Council meeting to demand an explanation, and the police chief and the mayor were brought in and did not want to give details while the investigation was ongoing. A black councilwoman took up the family's side, and the public overran the room, standing on tables and blocking the council members from leaving. That turned into a march down to police headquarters, and everything sort of grew out of that.

What is the situation Thursday?

AT: Last night the rioting spread out of Over-the-Rhine, a predominantly black neighborhood, to other black neighborhoods to the north and east. More businesses were damaged, windows were broken, some stores were looted. A police officer was shot — his belt buckle apparently saved his life — and another man was hit in the leg by a stray bullet.

The mayor, Charles Luken, believes that who he calls the New Black Panthers are responsible, and he's blaming the continuing violence on "outside agitators." And Wednesday night's rioting did start out of a "rally for peace" held by the Black Panthers. Now Luken says he may have the governor send in the National Guard.

What kind of rioting is it? Has it just become indiscriminate, just an excuse for looting and violence?

AT: It's hard to characterize. There hasn't been a huge amount of looting, but people are also pulling white motorists out of their cars — it's hard to call that protesting. There's a lot of anger in these neighborhoods, and there are other exacerbating factors: The Cincinnati public schools are on spring break, the weather's been nice. There are a lot of teenagers hanging around outside, willing and able to join in.

Cincinnati doesn't exactly have a reputation for this sort of thing. How bad is it in terms of the city's history?

AT: It's pretty bad, the worst it's been since the race riots in 1968 after Martin Luther King was here. More recently, there was some protesting here recently for the Trans-Atlantic Business Conference — the Seattle crowd — and there were some windows broken, but then there were businessmen standing around watching on their lunch break, watching.

This time, it's very surreal — the rioting, so far, is confined to a small part of the city, so most Cincinnatians aren't really affected. But nobody's standing around watching this time.

Cincinnati has been sort of a city in denial about race relations — it's very proud of its conservative Midwest values, but it was always on the dividing line. In the days of segregation, if a black person went to the train station and went south, he had to sit in the black-only car. If he was headed north, he could sit anywhere he wanted.

Civil rights leaders are saying that it's a sign that problems from that era were never really solved. And with the string of shootings of black men by police, this really has been brewing for some time. Thomas, in particular, was unarmed, young, and his criminal background was not serious — he was wanted for 14 misdemeanors, 12 of which were traffic violations.

In the past incidents, 911 tapes and police videos were released very promptly, which gave people some kind of an explanation for why it happened. That hasn't been the case this time. The sense is that there have been no answers or action forthcoming from city officials, and this — rioting and violence — seems to be the only way to get their attention.

Any sense out there of what could be done longer-term?

AT: Well, with the exception of some talk radio shows that are mostly aimed at black audiences, there isn't any public discussion of race relations. If the mayor started talking about it more, holding public forums, that might help. And some people are looking at the way Cincinnati chooses its police chief.

Currently the chief is chosen on the basis of his score on a civil service exam, and he reports to the safety director, who reports to the city manager, who reports to the mayor. If he was a political appointee, and was accountable to the mayor, there might be a feeling that the police would have to be more responsive to the people.

Any end in sight for now?

AT: Not at the moment. It's really clear that things are out of hand. No one's listening to the ministers, community leaders and city councilmen from these neighborhoods. The policeman who was shot was hit from the roof of a building — that's a bad sign. In the newsroom, we're all wondering, what do we do now?

The next thing is Thomas's funeral on Saturday, which his family decided would be open to the public. If it's nice weather, it could get bad again.