Meet the Columbus Activists Converting Outrage to Action
The emerging voices forcing Central Ohio to reckon with the racism in its midst
It was not the Columbus Way.
For a city that values civility and collegiality above all, the protest at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast was an uncomfortable experience. Two activists disrupted the January 2020 gathering—a massive affair packed with Columbus movers and shakers—to draw attention to the December 2018 killing of 16-year-old Julius Tate Jr. by Columbus police. Interrupting a speech by Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther, they shouted “Justice for Julius” and “he deserved to dream.”
As police officers dragged the protesters from the hall at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, bishop Timothy Clarke, the senior pastor of the First Church of God in southeast Columbus, declared that all Americans have the right to protest but not the right to be rude. It was an ironic statement at an event honoring the country’s greatest activist—someone who called riots “the language of the unheard”—but it wasn’t too surprising in Columbus, a town that loves to get along.
Well, that rudeness didn’t go away. Racial justice has continued to dominate the public conversation over the past year—and it didn’t happen through the traditional, top-down, Columbus route. Instead, grassroots activists have forced the city to reckon with the racism in its midst. And they did it by being outspoken, confrontational and, yes, rude—a boldness that has awakened the city to new ideas. Without the street protests, impolite social media posts and uncomfortable moment after uncomfortable moment, it’s doubtful that police accountability would have risen to the top of the city’s civic agenda. It’s doubtful that a new, independent Civilian Review Board investigating police misconduct—an idea that was going nowhere fast until thousands took to the Downtown streets—would have finally been embraced at City Hall. Perhaps it’s even doubtful that Ginther would have felt compelled to demote his hand-picked police chief, Thomas Quinlan, following the fatal December police shooting of Andre Hill, whose life was eulogized at a public funeral held at Clarke’s church.
In this collection of articles, you’ll meet a diverse sampling of the emerging voices of this new era of activism in Columbus. Speaking in a prerecorded message at this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast (which was held virtually because of the pandemic), Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin called these individuals—including the people who disrupted the MLK event the year before—part of a first wave of change sweeping across Columbus. “And guess what? Many folks aren’t comfortable with that first wave because a first wave hits hard,” said Hardin, who was pepper-sprayed by Columbus police at the protests in the summer. “It hits us in our back. But I believe these ones are creating waves of change, and this change is pushing us forward to a brighter future, a more just future.”