The Two Columbuses

Last Thursday evening in his State of the City address, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther touted the successes of the first year of his administration, said a lot of good things about investing in communities that have not yet shared in the city’s prosperity, and made an appeal to the value of partnership (and a backhanded rebuke of President Trump) toward the end of his speech. He said, “I do not stand before you tonight to tell you that ‘I alone’ have the solutions to all our challenges. On the contrary, I am here to tell you that it will take all of us working together to reach our goal to make Columbus America’s Opportunity City…. It will take all of ‘US,’ united, to work together to chart a better future.”

Among the ways he suggested the city was charting a better future was through increased funding for the Columbus Police Department. He talked about the two new police classes to be added in 2017, and highlighted the city’s $10 million outlay for body-worn cameras “to help protect our officers, the public, and the public’s trust.” Then he informed the audience of the city’s intention to turn the controversial Community Safety Initiative from a summer program to a year-round one.

I believe Mayor Ginther’s heart is in the right place, and I’m sure he is sincere about his stated desire to fight poverty, reduce infant mortality, and spread the city’s good fortune around to every neighborhood in Columbus. I recognize that a Mayor, like any elected official, must balance competing priorities, spend taxpayers’ money responsibly, and keep from alienating the powerful people and companies he needs to kick in money for public-private partnerships that will get done the good things he wants to do. I also realize that public figures will always face criticism from some quarter, no matter what decisions they make or policies they espouse.

" Cityscape 016: Columbus, Ohio " by  Stephen Wolfe  is a Creative Commons image, licensed under  CC BY-NC 2.0

"Cityscape 016: Columbus, Ohio" by Stephen Wolfe is a Creative Commons image, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

But I heard other voices that night that painted a very different picture of the state of our city. Interspersed with chants and songs with words like, “We want justice / for the lifeless,” speakers at the prayer rally held outside the police academy building where the Mayor was about to give his address told about their experiences with discrimination, police brutality, and unresponsive officials in their efforts to participate fully in the Columbus Mayor Ginther talked about. As I had observed before, they told a tale of two Columbuses with two different standards of justice.

The mother of Henry Green and the grandmother of Tyre King both spoke about the difficulty they have had getting answers about the shooting deaths of their loved ones. Mrs. Green has been waiting nine months for the investigation to be complete to see if the men who shot her son will be held accountable. Mrs. King has been waiting since September to learn what, if anything, will happen to the officer who shot her thirteen-year-old grandson in the back as he was running away. President Trump’s border wall could have already been built if he had put the stonewalling experts in the CPD and the Franklin County Prosecutor’s office in charge.

But the one that really raised my ire was the report from an activist who accompanied the family of Jaron Thomas to CPD headquarters last month to get some answers about his death. Back in January Thomas, who suffered from schizophrenia, called 911 to request an ambulance to take him to a medical center he frequented, because he had begun hearing voices. This had happened before, and the EMTs knew the drill. This time, however, the 911 dispatcher sent the police instead, and the next morning Jaron Thomas was dead. He appeared to have been beaten severely.

Thomas's family went to the police to request information. It was 2:00pm on a Saturday, but they found the building locked. When they looked up, however, they could see police personnel in the windows looking down on them and mocking them. They pretended to be sobbing and wiping their eyes, and they laughed at this bereaved and hurting family.

People of goodwill can disagree about policies, about the leniency and discretion it is appropriate for the police to exercise, about the relative justice of the police targeting poor neighborhoods populated predominantly by people of color, but I defy anyone to justify the shameful behavior of the “public servants” in those windows. A number of different people witnessed their disrespectful actions, and they have complained to the Chief of Police, the Mayor, and the City Council. It remains to be seen if any disciplinary actions will result. I’m not holding my breath.

As a citizen of Columbus who enjoys the benefits that accrue to those who live in the prosperous and safe Columbus, I am troubled by these reports. As a follower of Jesus Christ, as one who is committed to justice and prosperity and security for all, it makes my blood boil.

Those who have read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow have seen the overwhelming evidence that law enforcement and the criminal justice system in our country treat white people differently than black and brown people. Those of us who benefit from that preferential treatment can accept these disparities blithely, or we can speak out and demand equal justice for all.

I for one choose to speak.