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Do riots lead to meaningful social change? Ask the people of Avondale

Avondale residents say rioting has repercussions for families and generations to come.
Posted: 11:46 AM, Dec 10, 2020
Updated: 2020-12-14 17:52:23-05
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CINCINNATI — The history of Avondale is known for a number of things in the Cincinnati area, but perhaps one of the most notorious, impactful and memorable chapter in the neighborhood’s history are the race riots that occurred there in the late 1960s.

The grainy, jarring images of past uprisings are eerily similar to the visuals America has been confronted with from this year’s race riots, and those similarities have uniquely resonated with the local residents who experienced the earlier scenes of unrest firsthand. The very same Black people of Cincinnati who took part in or passively watched the riots of '67 and '68 have strong opinions on whether riots are an effective tool to be used alongside peaceful protests in the movement for racial justice.

“At the time, I agreed with what they were doing, you know, because they were not being heard,” said former Avondale resident Michael Burks. “[P]eople were not being heard. But as I got older, and look back at it, I disagree with it. Because when Blacks riot, all that does is give the police open season to kill Black people.”

The local unrest that occurred in the summers of 1967 and 1968 was part of an uprising over racial injustice waged by frustrated, long-oppressed Black communities throughout the U.S. It is reported that 159 race riots plagued various cities in 1967, while over 100 cities saw unrest again the following year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. A number of people were killed in Cincinnati, and hundreds others were injured and arrested; approximately $6 million in property damage was reported over the course of the two uprisings.

Burks said he was arrested at 17 years old as an innocent bystander during the '67 unrest. He remembered hearing the sirens of multiple fire trucks fly past his Avondale home and learning of the riots by watching WCPO’s own Al Schottelkotte deliver the 11 p.m. news. Burks could still see images of firemen extinguishing buildings, the policemen trying to protect the firefighters, as well as the thousands of people in the street (some of whom were throwing things at the police).

“Cincinnati had never experienced a riot like that in modern times,” Burks said. “So really, everybody, basically, you know, didn't know what to do or what was gonna come next. It was the first time for everybody.

“Everybody was upset, nervous and, you know, scared.”

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In this 1967 image, the Ku Klux Klan gather in the street with police officers standing nearby in front of Carmel Presbyterian Baptist Church where famed civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael addresses a large crowd. The event has been connected to the riots that broke out in the neighborhood hours later. The photographer who captured this image, C. Smith, says detractors at the scene kept trying to block him from taking pictures.

Avondale was not the only area impacted by riots, as they also sprung up in other nearby, largely Black, communities like Walnut Hills, the West End and Lincoln Heights. Still, Avondale, Cincinnati's largest Black community, was most impacted by the destruction.

“When I moved to Avondale, the residual of the riots was still here," said Sandra Jones Mitchell, the president of the Avondale Community Council. She settled into the neighborhood as a teenager during the '70s. "There were still burned-out buildings. There was still a lack of community participation. There was still a lack of stores."

Development is now on the upswing in Avondale. Last year, the Avondale Town Center, a commercial and housing space with a dedicated plot for a grocery store, opened up at Rockdale Avenue and Reading Road. Over $40 million went into the center to bring food access, amenities, services and economic opportunities to the area's Black residents.

Stakeholders and community leaders have also been working on developing the Uptown Innovation Corridor, a research and tech hub that would connect the University of Cincinnati and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health at the crossing of Martin Luther King Drive and Reading Road. The $2.5 billion project is expected to provide additional office space, hotels, retail and residential units, as well as a connection to the Wasson Way Bike Trail. Organizers say the hub will bring 7,500 jobs.

Given the gentrification of the neighborhood, specifically with new housing options, current and longtime residents have expressed concern over whether they will be able to afford to live in their homes and rental units in the long-term future. Still, the dramatic changes that are coming to the Avondale area are a long time coming from the blight and vacant, dilapidated homes that have menaced the streets since the '60s.

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A manager cleans up outside of his liquor store.

The havoc across America in the late '60s, and the violence that caused it, served as an inflection point in America’s journey of confronting its own pathologies in suppressing Black life. The societal developments that arose during and after this period could arguably be deemed (at least in part) as gains of the riots. Combating racial discrimination, celebrating Black empowerment and creating social equality for marginalized groups became omnipresent themes in the American zeitgeist for decades to come. As a result, fostering social reform by way of things like programs aimed at people of color’s economic and educational advancement became normalized. This was accompanied by an increasingly mainstream intellectual exploration of race theory and Black history, as well as a greater acceptance of Black cultural products and public figures in American pop culture.

Programs like the Community Action Commission (now the Community Action Agency) and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society that were formed in the '60s in the midst of the racial turmoil to end poverty and improving the environment were important in helping Blacks in the Cincinnati area. The unrest also yielded the Kerner Commission, an investigative body instituted by President Johnson to study America’s race problem. The nationwide chaos instigated by Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination also sped up Congress’ passage of the Fair Housing Act, a move considered to be the biggest legislative accomplishment of the civil rights period.

In 2020, unrest appears to have connections to landmark legislative decisions, as well. Back in August, New York City officials decided to cut $1 billion from the city’s police department in response to protests and looting brought on by an onslaught of high-profile police brutality cases. The month prior, Governor Cuomo signed a number of police transparency and accountability bills that included the repeal of 50-a, a civil rights law that blocked access to officers’ disciplinary documents. Today in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed and major riots followed, city council members have approved a budget that would transfer $8 million from the police department over to violence prevention and other programs.

However, observers note rioting’s multiple drawbacks that have undermined the racial justice movement’s progress, as well as the safety and economic advancement of Black people. While there are the obvious consequences of communities facing long-term property damages where rioting can occur, innocent people can also get injured or killed in the chaos. This is especially true when there is greater police presence at riot sites. One researcher argued that visuals of Black people looting stores and burning buildings feed into stigmas about Black Americans being inherently criminal and therefore undeserving of the social changes they were pushing for in the face of unsympathetic white counterparts.

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Two men walk through the devastation in front of the Torf's Drug Store during the 1967 riots.

Reflecting on his research on the subject in an interview with Stanford Magazine, Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, said, "[W]hen protesters engaged in more aggressive resistance to white supremacy, using violent tactics as a form of resistance, whether or not the state engaged in repression, that tended to generate much more negative press that was more focused on issues of crime and riots and that tended to reinforce the coalition intent on maintaining the status quo."

Analysts also say that momentum and increasing support of the civil rights movement sparked a backlash from the Republican Party during the Nixon era touting law and order rhetoric. This unleashed a series of draconian criminal justice policies that significantly extended sentencing for crimes and catapulted rates of incarceration. Black men were the most vulnerable to be locked behind bars than any other demographic. The intensified relationship between law enforcement and marginalized communities of color due to these law and order policies generated more Black rage at the police, despite the more positive reforms that were also taking place.

Furthermore, the other fundamental issues of Black people disproportionately experiencing social ills and disadvantages like poverty, unemployment, housing inequality, inadequate access to healthcare and education, and prejudice in general remained. As a result, scenes of unrest, including crowds rebelling in the streets, storefronts and buildings being burned and looted, as well as police and national guardsmen clashing with and detaining indignant civilians—reemerged years later.

Like Burks, Dwight Patton’s outlook on rioting has also changed over the years. Patton now lives in Pleasant Ridge, but has strong ties to influential figures in the Avondale community. Like Burks, Patton now believes Black people and allies to the racial justice movement need to stick to a strategy that leverages voting and political power.

“[O]ur activism needs to be more constructive, more intelligent, less emotional,” Patton said.

However, despite generally being a well-behaved boy, Patton found himself taking part in the unrest by committing arson and spraying cars during the unrest of the late '60s in Walnut Hills. The “unmistakable” smell of burnt wood wafting through the air as Patton roamed the streets is still carved into his memory. He joined in on the action because his emotions were cut deep by the discrimination and defamation he faced by his white teachers and the parents of his white friends, as well as the “White Only” signs he saw around Cincinnati.

Patton would eventually become president of the Cincinnati Black United Front and played a hand in devising Cincinnati’s 2002 Collaborative Agreement, a plan to eliminate the city police department’s use of excessive force. Its ultimate objective was to provide police reform that would better the police department’s relationship with locals through responding to the criticisms of Black residents, a disproportionately targeted group. The agreement was made after the unrest following Timothy Thomas' death at the hands of Officer Stephen Roach, which infamously set off its own chapters of unrest in Cincinnati history.

As an adult, Patton gained a greater appreciation for African Americans’ political agency, especially within the Democratic Party. He thinks it is more effective for Blacks to use that agency with politicians so that the community’s demands are met, something he feels is evidenced by Joe Biden’s recent election as president.

“They are beholden to us. And I believe that they're going to come, you know, reward us, provide us with a justice that we've been deserving all the time,” Patton said of Democrats. “[W]ithin the politics, we're now positioned to reap some benefits that we could never benefit from just going breaking in some stores and stealing some gym shoes.”

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Photographer C. Smith says he captured a number of scenes like this along on Reading Road, as well as Gilbert and Burnet Avenues while walking during the riots. It was common for stores to post signs saying "Soul Brother" or "Soul Sister" to indicate they were Black-owned and deter looters.

Rev. Damon Lynch Jr. of New Jerusalem Baptist Church made similar points, saying that wider social progress will come through policy and legislation. However, he recognized a tonal shift in this year’s riots and protests in comparison to the ones he previously lived through in the '60s.

“I think that there’s a new day coming,” Lynch, Jr. said. “I can see that the tenor of the people is a little different than it was back in the day.”

Lynch Jr., now one of Cincinnati’s most prominent, celebrated and influential church leaders, was a barber at the time. When the riots broke out in '67, he was separated from his wife and children and had to resort to taking refuge in the barbershop where he worked alongside other Black people who were barred from going back home in the area. The Greater Cincinnati office of the Urban League’s parking lot is located where the barbershop once stood. The harrowing experience of being caught in the unrest was one of the incidents of America’s racial turmoil that has informed Lynch Jr.’s activism as a church leader ever since. He warned that rhetoric and demonstrations will not be enough to sustain the movement once the energy garnered through protests and riots dies out.

Spiritual leaders and community activists of the subsequent generation share their predecessors’ concerns that riots appear to be inefficient for bringing about long-term, sustainable improvements to society. They argue that riots can be counterproductive to African Americans’ efforts to elevate themselves and their economic standing.

Members of the Avondale community WCPO spoke with reminisced about Avondale being an especially attractive area prior to the riots. The neighborhood had a wide range of businesses including bars, markets, theaters, groceries, restaurants and stores that provided virtually anything locals could want or need. However, the sweeping destruction of the riots upended that, and Avondale has yet to fully rebound.

The riots not only left Avondale as a depressed area for years afterward, but it left a void for Black businesses—dealing a major blow to African Americans’ efforts to generate wealth and fortify their legacies.

“Protesting has its place,” said Rev. Ennis Tait of New Beginnings Church of the Living God. Tait moved to Avondale in 2003, just after the height of the unrest and organizing around police reform following Timothy Thomas’ death. Even though it was decades after Avondale’s riots, he could readily pick up on how those events continued to rob the neighborhood of its vitality.

“Rioting is when you go overboard, and when you go overboard, we think that there are no repercussions. But the repercussions are seen in other things. Maybe not to you, but to those families and generations to come.”

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This photo was taken a few days into the 1967 riots. A number of residents WCPO spoke with recall the National Guard being stationed in the streets.

Photographer C. Smith was in the streets capturing the riots with his camera. He said that while white and Jewish businesses were hit hard by the unrest, it was Black people who ultimately suffered the brunt of the damage and failed to recover. A number of establishments on Burnet Avenue and Reading Road lacked insurance and never came back. Many of those businesses were thriving, Black-owned entities that financed Smith’s old publication, Ghetto Magazine.

“It was a 128-page book and it was monthly," he said. "And we had over 100 advertisers, Black businesses that paid me money every month. And now, those businesses are gone.”

Rev. Damon Lynch III, the pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in Roselawn and the son of Lynch Jr., acknowledged riots as a valid, functional tool for oppressed people to express their anger and draw awareness to their frustration. Lynch III believes it is important to remember that violence waged by marginalized groups during riots is a response to the violence that has long been projected onto them by other oppressive people and forces. To him, solely focusing on the violence waged by oppressed people is shortsighted.

“For those who lament the fact that, you know, 'Why do we always burn down our own community?' The operative word is 'own,'" Lynch III said. "Nobody burns down their own community. If you don't own anything, it's not yours. It's just seen as part of, you know, the daily oppression that you face."

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The Abraham Lincoln statue in Avondale has been standing at the intersection of Reading Road and Rockdale Avenue since 1902.

Mitchell also pointed out the disadvantage local Black residents faced in not having a strong enough stake in the neighborhood. That disenfranchisement not only contributed to the rage that spawned the riots, but it continued to weaken their positioning in Avondale during the years that followed.

“[W]e didn't secure the land like we should have," Mitchell said. "I mean, when you're at 95% of your community, you have to be able to own some of the community, need to own the land. I think the churches have done a good job in securing the land, but residents, most of them moved out or are now renting their homes.”

Mitchell went on to say that institutions were easily able to buy up property, displacing people and businesses that could not afford to stay.

Despite these challenges and frustrations, Lynch III is a student of nonviolence and does not advocate for engaging in behaviors like burning buildings, looting stores or throwing rocks through windows. He also pointed out rioting’s undesired impact on the Black community over the long term, such as the detrimental effects it had on African Americans’ financial station at large.

“If it does anything, it brings attention or greater attention to the pain and the suffering. It doesn't alleviate it," Lynch said. “It may be a cathartic reaction for the people doing it. But I think there's ways to impact the system and the powers that be without that short-lived reaction, cathartic reaction.”

Just like his father, Lynch III has his own memories of Avondale’s riots in the late '60s, although he was only 8 years old when the unrest over King’s assassination occurred. He recalled driving along Reading Road with his father when they were stopped by the National Guard and told to go home. Lynch III stayed at home with his mother and sister while his father went out and was active in trying to quell the violence that was billowing in the streets.

Decades later, as a grown man in 2001, Lynch III was in the streets himself, demonstrating against the notorious police killing of Timothy Thomas in Over-the-Rhine. Lynch III had by then been the pastor of New Prospect (which was located in Over-the-Rhine at the time) for over a decade, was a leader of the Cincinnati Black United Front, and another one of the forces behind Cincinnati’s 2002 Collaborative Agreement.

Lynch III recognized that the nationwide unrest of the '60s attracted aid through social services and research aimed at advancing Black America like the Great Society and the Kerner Commission. However, he argued those social programs created a safety net but did not help grow or strengthen the community. Lynch said Black people need to take more initiative in and ownership of their own spaces to see real change.

He predicted there will be more uprisings in the years ahead, but believes that progress will at least continue to come in incremental changes. He said engaging ways to resist racial oppression that cannot be criminalized or easily contained will be crucial to continuing that progress.

“I really don't want to take part in an action that those who are oppressing me have the power to stop,” Lynch III said. “You can't stop the movement. You can't stop my voice...You can't stop my boycott other than if you come to the table and we figure this thing out.”

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In this photo dated June 14, 1967, a crowd gathers on Reading Road close to Forest Avenue before the sun goes down.

As they look to the future, community members listed a number of things they feel will be necessary, better alternative tactics for Blacks to employ for self-empowerment, protection and eradicating racial discrimination. These themes included exercising political power, galvanizing to build businesses and invest in real estate, leading smarter and more inclusive conversations about how to bring Black America forward, and reparations.

For Avondale, specifically, Mitchell said pushing for inclusion and motivating people will be key to driving that progress.

“We need to do some intentional acts, and including folks in the process so that they can be a part of something bigger than them,” Mitchell said. She wants local residents to recognize that Avondale belongs to them, to encourage their participation in the community, and to find ways to give more to young people who will make up the next generation of residents.

“We have more community institutions that are willing to come to the table now. We need to take advantage of that,” Mitchell said. She wants to change the dynamic for community development so that residents are brought into the process, so that: “When I’m long gone, I’m 90 years old, I can say, I helped create that. And the same way with our kids. Give them that opportunity.”

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.