Wexner Center Will Screen Documentary About Police Shootings in Cincinnati

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

In April 2001, riotingbroke out in Cincinnati after a police officer shot and killed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, who was the 15th black man killed by white Cincinnati Police Department officers since 1995. No white suspects had been killed by the CPD in the same time frame.

At the time of the riots, April Martin was working as a production assistant at Cincinnati ABC affiliate WCPO. She had a front-row seat for the media's coverage of the events.

"No one was talking about the deeper problems of anti-black racism," Martin says. "I decided I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to go deeper. What was happening in my community that caused it to erupt into a rebellion?"

From there, Martin-a documentary filmmaker, photographer and activist-let the community be her guide. For the next few years, she filmed protests and court proceedings and asked community organizers whom she should interview and which events she should attend. In 2006, she brought hundreds of hours of footage to Paul Hill-a filmmaker and studio editor at the Wexner Center for the Arts-who became co-director of what would eventually become the documentary "Cincinnati Goddamn."

"We didn't imagine that we'd be working on it nine years later, but it took nine years after I got on," Hill says. The film homes in on the deaths of Thomas and Roger Owensby Jr. and the resulting trials, which took years to unfold. "I think the story of the 15 black men encapsulates a larger systemic problem," Hill says. "We weren't going to go into every story of the 15 men, but we wanted to go into the ones that highlighted the overarching problem in the city."

On Sept. 2, the Wexner Center will screen "Cincinnati Goddamn" for the first time in Columbus, followed by a panel discussion with the directors and activists.

"I wanted to tell a story that was as hard-hitting and effective as it could possibly be, and get an audience member enraged enough that he or she would want to take action," Hill says. "One of the things we're struggling with is, what to do with the anger the film raises. We're still trying to figure that out. Universally, people have been really sad and angry. People have walked out in the middle of the screening because they couldn't watch anymore."

Martin, who moved to Oakland in 2013 and is enrolled in film school in Chicago, wants the audience to feel the weight of that sadness and anger the way she feels it. Last year, for example, when a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, who died that summer after an NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold, it was too much for Martin to take.

"I remember breaking down and crying for a whole night," she says. "I realized I hadn't even healed from the trauma of making the film. All of this takes a toll on your spirit and soul as a black person, constantly seeing this state violence and the way in which it manifests in your own neighborhood. You can walk out your door as a black person and be shot and killed by the police for no reason whatsoever other than being black. We are in a state of emergency, and people need to realize that. And people need to figure out what they can do."

But what can they do? And what good can come from a screening? Martin and Hill say the film is not merely a vehicle to raise awareness and start conversations, although they hope both of those things happen. It's also a call to action.

"There are ways to volunteer, to share resources, to join in protests and actions. There are ways to tap into networks and groups that people can volunteer with," Martin says. "What are some of the policies and procedures in your community that are affecting the lives of black people? What type of reforms do we want to see for the police? How do we push these politicians? There are ways. This is a critical, historic moment that we are living in."

Considering the interviews in "Cincinnati Goddamn" take place between 2001 and 2006, the film is a devastatingly accurate foreshadowing of what was to come in other American cities. Historian Manning Marable, who died in 2011, gives a particularly prescient analysis toward the end of the film.

"I think that Cincinnati's 2001 uprising is a harbinger of the future," Marable says in the film. "We should transform the relationship between the police and the community." Police should be an organic part of the community and should patrol on foot, not in cars, he adds. All of that should be coupled with a restructuring of the court system-"so that cops don't view black juveniles as simply felons who aren't in prison yet," he says.

"I was finishing the film exactly when Ferguson broke out," Hill says of the 2014 riots in Missouri and nationwide protests after white police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man. "It really helped cement everything we were doing these past nine years. It's the same story over and over again."

About the Documentary

Of the 15 black men killed by police in Cincinnati from 1995 to 2001, "Cincinnati Goddamn" focuses mostly on the deaths of Timothy Thomas and Roger Owensby Jr.

On Nov. 7, 2000, 29-year-old Owensby, a military veteran and father, was stopped and questioned by police at a gas station in the Roselawn neighborhood. When Owensby, who was unarmed, tried to run, Cincinnati police officers chased him, sprayed him with mace and landed blows while pressing him into the ground. Owensby was then taken to a police cruiser and left unattended. Later, he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. The coroner ruled Owensby died by asphyxiation.

Two white police officers from the altercation-Robert "Blaine" Jorg and Patrick Caton-were charged in Owensby's death. Jorg was charged with felony involuntary manslaughter and misdemeanor assault, while Caton was charged with misdemeanor assault. In separate trials, both were found not guilty. Jorg quit the Cincinnati Police Department and went to work as an officer in the suburb of Pierce Township. Caton was fired from the CPD in 2003 but later accused the city of firing him unjustly. He won his job back, plus 15 months of back pay.

On April 7, 2001-five months after Owensby's death-police officer Stephen Roach shot and killed unarmed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in a narrow alley. Thomas became the 15th black man killed by police since 1995. Riots erupted in Cincinnati, especially in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, followed by many protests. Roach was indicted in May 2001, but was acquitted of two misdemeanor charges four months later.

After investigating the policies and procedures of the Cincinnati Police Department, the U.S. Department of Justice found fault with the department's use of force, monitoring and supervision of suspects and training of police officers. In 2002, the CPD, Fraternal Order of Police and American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio entered into an agreement to improve the relationship between the police and the community. (It also incorporates a previous agreement between the CPD and the DOJ.) This collaborative agreement became a model for other police departments across the country.

Owensby's case is now in the federal law books and is cited in similar cases in which people in police custody aren't given medical attention.