Some folks just don't get it. After being slapped down by both the Ohio Supreme Court and the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in two separate cases, the city of Cincinnati last week asked a federal appeals court to reinstate an ordinance that banned convicted or accused drug offenders from entering Over-the-Rhine, the inner city neighborhood that erupted in the worst race rioting in the past decade last April.
Passed by the city council in 1996 and in effect until January 2000, when a US District judge ruled it unconstitutional, the "drug exclusion zone" ordinance resulted in more than 1500 people being banned from Over-the-Rhine during that period, according to a Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) report on coverage of the riots. The neighborhood, featured in the movie "Traffic" as the squalid locale where drug czar Michael Douglas searches for his melodramatically and meteorically fallen daughter, has been ground zero in Cincinnati's drug war. Over-the-Rhine, with 7,600 residents, has had a staggering 2,300 drug arrests per year since 1995, according to CJR.
Critics have called Over-the-Rhine, where a police shooting of an unarmed young African-American (the 15th black man to die at the hands of Cincinnati police since 1995) sparked the rioting "over-policed," but the good white burghers of Cincinnati feel they haven't done enough. On February 2, the city asked the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the district judge's ruling that the exclusion zone punishes people twice for the same offense and that it violates First Amendment rights to freedom of association by limiting a person's right to move freely in public areas.
"Governments have not only a right but a duty to remediate areas blighted by drug use," assistant city solicitor Richard Ganulin told the court. "We have to balance the government's interests with the rights of the individual." He said the zone law was needed because Over-the-Rhine made up about 20% of drug-related arrests in the city.
Maybe that had something to do with all the enforcement activity in a neighborhood with gentrification nibbling at the edges. "We got [police video] cameras on the corner watching people, we got drug laws excluding them, yet they have no effect in fighting crime," the Rev. Damon Lynch III, a Baptist minister who heads the Cincinnati Black United Front, told CJR. "All they do is take away people's civil liberties." John Fox, editor of CityBeat, the local alternative weekly, told CJR "a siege mentality" led police to view the neighborhood as enemy territory.
The Ohio American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the lawsuits that led to the law's reversal. Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the group, told CJR the exclusion law was part of "a tapestry of abuses that has led to a culture of hostility between the African-American community and the police. It's one more way in which over-policing has brought the community to the brink."
The ACLU had brought suit on behalf of two Cincinnatians, Patricia Johnson and Michael Au France. Johnson was banned from the neighborhood for 90 days after being arrested, but was never convicted of any charge. Au France was banned for a year after being convicted of a drug-related crime in 1996. The pair's attorney, Bernard Wong, told the Cincinnati Enquirer that Johnson was unable to care for her grandchildren in Over-the-Rhine and that Au France was unable to visit his lawyer's office.
Other accounts of life under the exclusion zone were published in the Dayton Daily News last April. Reporters wrote of one woman, who had been arrested on a marijuana charge but had the charges dropped, yet was still arrested on criminal trespass charges when she tried to visit Over-the-Rhine to see her children and grandchildren. Another victim, a homeless man arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, ended up spending more than a year in jail after repeatedly being arrested for returning to the district to obtain food and shelter. A third person mentioned in the news story, a 32-year-old Navy veteran working at a local recreation center, had been stopped and handcuffed at least 30 times by police checking whether he had the "right" to be in the neighborhood.
For the time being, the exclusion zones are gone, but if the city of Cincinnati has its way, they'll be back.
The Columbia Journalism Review piece on Cincinnati criticized media coverage of the riots for blaming the trouble on the city's backward race relations, when CJR argued that the riots had to be seen in the context of "ferocious" drug law enforcement in the neighborhood. The article's conclusion is worth repeating:
"To criticize Cincinnati as mired in the past implies that the past was bad, the present is better, and the future looks better still. If Cincinnati is falling behind, the suggestion is that the US as a whole is moving forward to racial progress. It's a comforting thought. Yet, Cincinnati's drug and policing policies are not an anomaly; they reflect the drug and policing policies of the nation.
"If the War on Drugs is seen as a racially biased and destructive invasion of Over-the-Rhine, then America -- not just Cincinnati -- is moving backward, not forward, as far as its poorest and most vulnerable sectors are concerned. Since this is a good deal more disturbing than we care to admit, journalists zero in on all the ways that Cincinnati is behind the times and fail to notice the various ways in which it may be a leading indicator, the canary in the coal mine. The resulting stories may be reassuring from the point of view of middle-class readers who never tire of being reminded of how enlightened and up-to-date they are. But they are far from the truth."