CINCINNATI — Long-standing relationships. Credibility. Lofty aspirations. Presidential politics and Ohio’s critical swing-state status. A good experience eight years ago.
Bolt those factors together and you have a pretty good handle on why the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People decided to hold its 107th annual convention in Cincinnati from July 16-20.
Selecting Cincinnati as the site for a convention that’s expected to attract some 8,000 people – primarily African-American – may seem noteworthy to those who know the city has experienced its own police-community tensions in recent years.
One indelible image dates back 15 years, when the national spotlight focused on the city and racial unrest for several days after an unarmed black teenager, Timothy Thomas, became the 15th black man to be killed by Cincinnati police over a six-year period.
More recently, the city received unwanted national attention a year ago after a University of Cincinnati police officer shot and killed an African-American motorist who had been stopped for a minor infraction. And back in February, Cincinnati Police shot and killed Paul Gaston, a black man, who was later determined to be armed with an airsoft pellet gun that looked like a lethal weapon.
But as headlines from Dallas, Baton Rouge, Cleveland, Chicago, Baltimore and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, all indicate, Cincinnati could be the perfect place for a convention that revolves around a theme of “Our Lives Matter – Our Votes Count.”
“We’re a microcosm of the country,” said Jason Dunn, vice president of Multicultural and Community Development for the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau and one of the key members of the team that brought the convention to Cincinnati. “We’re not the only city that has had police relationship issues.”
Robert Richardson, president of the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP, agreed.
“We’re not the only city in the country that has had these issues. We have them – too many of them,” Richardson said. “It’s good for the city (to host the convention) and as far as race relations go it’s good to bring attention to the issue because a lot of things still have to be done.”
There’s more than a hint of irony in the role that Dunn played to bring the convention to Cincinnati this year and eight years earlier, when then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was battling to become the first African-American to run for president under a major party banner.
When he was a student working on degrees in political science at the University of Cincinnati in 2001, Dunn said he was the president of two organizations that played prominent roles in the protests over the shooting of Thomas, whose death ignited several days of riots and ugly confrontations between police and demonstrators.
In 2004, a few years after leading the Dynasty Club and ECHO, which pushed for more opportunities for minorities in higher education, Dunn was hired by the convention bureau to focus on attracting multicultural conventions.
“So the bottom line is it took credibility," Dunn said. "You have to have people who have relationships and who are proven and tested and people can vouch for."
He stressed that the relationships he and other people with the convention bureau, the city and other local organizations have built with the National Association of Black Meeting Planners was critically important to the NAACP decisions to bring its convention to Cincinnati in 2008 and again this year.
To a degree, the decision to bring the convention here this year was based, in part, on the straightforward pitch that had been made before the 2008 convention, Dunn said.
“We were deliberate. We were forthright. We didn’t run away from the facts. We didn’t turn away from what had happened. We didn’t try to gloss over it,” Dunn said of the strategy that Cincinnati used to land the 2008 convention. “We said this is what the city is trying to do as a collective body. We believe that the resources that you (the NAACP) have can help us meet our goal, and we made the appeal (for assistance).”
At the time the convention decision was made — 2006 — the city and its police department and their critics had been working together under what became known as the “collaborative agreement” that settled a federal court lawsuit that had raised questions about how the police department operated.
“Police reform and the collaborative agreement were critical in the 2008 pitch and the collaborative agreement was seen as a model for police-community relations,” Dunn said.
Leon W. Russell, of Tampa, chairman of the 2016 convention committee and vice chairman of the NAACP’s national board, and Dunn both said that holding the convention in Cincinnati in 2008 provided an opportunity for the organization to assess first-hand what kind of an impact the agreement had made on police-community relations.
But Russell stressed that a number of other factors – none as lofty as an assessment of police-community relations -- were critical in the NAACP decision to select Cincinnati as the convention site both years.
The city’s central location, a hotel infrastructure that could handle thousands of visitors and Ohio’s importance in the presidential elections were important factors that were weighed by the NAACP site selection committee.
“The relationships that we had and the experiences that people had in 2008 were all discussed before the decision was made for 2016,” said Russell, who emphasized that the 2008 event was “very successful.”
Dunn, a member of the black meeting planners’ national board, said the Cincinnati pitch for the 2016 convention built on the positive experience of 2008, when the city stressed the importance of Ohio in presidential politics.
“Las Vegas had been selected (as host city) for 2008,” Dunn recalled. “We did some lobbying again and appealed to the conscience of the organization, saying, ‘Look, 2008 is an election year. We need you to be in the state of Ohio, which is a swing state. Your purpose is for voter registration and equality and we’re saying that we need you here in Cincinnati. Nothing against Las Vegas, but the message is just much more relevant here rather than in Las Vegas.”
A similar message was made two years ago when Cincinnati sent a contingent of heavy hitters to Las Vegas — the 2014 convention site — to make a pitch for this year’s convention.
Dunn said the group included Dan Lincoln, convention bureau president and CEO; State Rep. Alicia Reece, president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus; former Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell; Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Tyrone Yates; Sean Rugless, former president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African-American Chamber of Commerce, and Ishton Morton, former president of the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP.
Richardson, a vice president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said he played a supporting role for the group as a representative of the Ohio NAACP, which also was represented by Sybil Edwards-McNabb, president of the organization’s Ohio conference.
Yet another factor that proved to be important to the NAACP was the willingness of major corporations to help sponsor the event by underwriting some of the costs.
Procter & Gamble, for example, volunteered to be the lead sponsor for the host committee, Dunn said.
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley will host a reception for some of the NAACP’s top officials, deliver welcoming remarks and attend the banquet that will honor retired U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Nathaniel R. Jones, whom Cranley described as “one of my heroes.”
Cranley made it clear that he believes the presence of the NAACP in Cincinnati while Cleveland hosts the Republican National Convention, which opens July 18, will draw plenty of attention to the cities and the state.
“There is a heightened focus on civil rights issues nationally,” Cranley said when asked about the significance of bringing the convention to Cincinnati. “We went through a major crisis in 2001 and we came out with the collaborative, which is widely held up as a role model on these issues.
“And I believe that helped us land the NAACP in 2008…the fact that they’re coming back in two presidential years — (President) Obama in 2008 and Hillary (Clinton) this year — is pretty incredible to get the NAACP during two major presidential elections….
“I think it’s not the only reason (the NAACP chose Cincinnati) but I think it’s part of the reason why we were selected because we had tried to make the city better and a role model for police-community relations,” the mayor said.
During U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s visit to Cincinnati in May of 2015, the mayor said Lynch strongly endorsed the city’s approach to mending tattered police-community relations.
“I certainly think that having the NAACP come here twice in eight years is a sign that they believe that this is a welcoming place that’s committed to racial justice,” Cranley said.