Thousands turned out Saturday for the opening of a city festival despite calls from some black activists for a boycott of the event to protest a police shooting that ignited days of rioting.
Small groups of demonstrators moved through the crowds at the 22nd annual Taste of Cincinnati festival event passing out leaflets and chanting, “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.”
The demonstrators said a boycott would pressure city officials to address racial tensions heightened by the April 7 shooting of a black man, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, by a white officer.
But the demonstrators were greatly outnumbered by crowds who munched food, drank beer and moved between music stages and amusement rides set up along a four-block area closed off for the three-day festival.
Soul singer James Brown, signed as the event’s opening act after two musical groups backed out under pressure from boycott supporters, said he came to Cincinnati to urge blacks and whites to work out their differences for the sake of the city’s children.
“The payback is when we get together and put our heads together and make it better for the kids,” said Brown, 68. “I want to make it better for the kids.”
Mayor Charles Luken and the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, which produces the festival, had urged Brown to give the event a boost. They said Cincinnati needed some fun after weeks of tension and debate.
Damon Lynch III, president of the Cincinnati Black United Front, said the city should not celebrate until it had addressed its problems. He said he didn’t understand why Brown came to Cincinnati.
“I think the whole idea is to get black folks dancing and get them to go away,” said Lynch, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church.
Brown performed just one song before leaving the stage to go to another appearance in Washington, D.C. He led the crowd in a hand-clapping chant, singing “Killing is out, school is in.”
Thomas’ shooting sparked three nights of rioting before a curfew restored order. It was the worst racial violence in the Ohio River city since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. Dozens of people were injured and more than 800 were arrested.
Police said Thomas was wanted on traffic violations and charges of fleeing police. Officer Stephen Roach, 27, told his union that he shot Thomas because he felt threatened.
Roach was charged with negligent homicide and obstructing official business.