Peter Bronson’s Behind the Line
Peter Bronson’s “Behind the lines : behind the lines of action, between the lines of truth, the untold stories of the Cincinnati riots” presents itself as a history of the April 2001 riots in Cincinnati. Bronson wrote for the Cincinnati Enquirer as a columnist and served as editor of the editorial pages. Journalists can write some exceptional works of history. Alan Moorehead’s The March To Tunis The North African War 1940-1943, is a product of his time covering the war for Australian newspapers. Cornealis Ryan, a journalist by trade, is best known for several histories he wrote after interviewing combatants from the European theater, The Longest Day, A Bridge too Far, and others. Barbara Tuchman was a journalist before writing The Guns of August. Unfortunately Bronson is not even close to writing this caliber of history.
While reading the book I took notes on all the rules on writing history that Bronson broke. Objectivity, fairness, logic, research, documentation are all missing. Bronson flips fairness on its head to support his bias. The match that lit the riot’s fuse was the shooting death of 19 year old Timothy Thomas. As early as the introduction Bronson is telling the readers that Thomas had “more than a dozen” warrants and begins to explain away the riot with, “The cop was white. Thomas was black and unarmed”. (pg 3) Just seven pages later Bronson repeats “…Timothy Thomas, 19, wanted on more than a dozen warrants…” and describes the location of the shooting this way. “On a police map that marked shootings with black pins, the alley where Thomas was shot, at Republic and 13th, would be marked by a dark cluster of pins like feeding flies. Cops called it a shooting gallery, one of the most dangerous streets in the city, behind enemy lines where drug gangs ruled at night and only the brave, stupid, lost or heavily armed wondered during the daylight.” (pg 10) Not bad prose for a mystery novel but in non-fiction it only serves to damn Thomas for being in that location.
One of the most powerful complaints voiced by the community after the Thomas shooting was that Cincinnati police had killed 15 African American men. To debunk this claim Bronson details each killing and gives evidence to justify each death.
“#5 Daniel Williams flagged down police officer Kathleen Conway in 1998, slugged her in the face and shot her four times in the legs and abdomen. … Conway shot him twice in the head in self defense.” (pg 83) “ #10 Adam Wheeler was fresh out of prison in 2001, wanted on three felony warrants when he had a shootout with police… He fired six times at the police. They shot back and killed him.” (pg 83) Bronson even explains less cut and dried shootings in detail until “#15 Timothy Thomas resisted arrest and fled in 2001. He was shot as he came around a corner in a dark alley.” (pg 85). Why no details? Not even a mention of “over a dozen warrants”?
It is not until later we learn that “Police acknowledge there is no proof he was involved in the drug trade.” (pg 106) And that the warrants 14 total, 3 for expired
driver’s license, 4 seat belt violations, 5 for driving without a license, and 2 for obstruction of official business. (ibid.) Is it fair to the reader, or to Timothy Thomas, to leave the impression that Bronson painted of Thomas as a violent drug criminal? The image Bronson painted that image in the first ten pages of the book. He leaves it stand ⅔ of the way through the book before he shares that Thomas did not have any record of drug crimes or of violence.
Is it fair to the reader that Bronson makes us wait to hear that Cincinnati Police Chief Streicher said “I was frankly flabbergasted that he was found not guilty” when asked about the trial of the police officer that shot Thomas. (pg 136) I will try to be fair to Chief Streicher, there were hints in the narrative that he questioned the legality of the shooting. I cannot be so generous with Bronson . His prejudices shine through the pages. He describes a man protesting at a city council meeting as wearing “a garish yellow and black robe with matching pillbox hat”. (pg 23) There is one other mention of clothing, the mayor’s olive green shirt, was noted without judgement. When introducing Assistant Police Chief Ron Twitty the idea that he attained his rank only through affirmative action is repeated with no evidence. It is a fact that there was an order to hire African American officers. Only 7% of the city’s police force was African American even though they made up 40% of the population. In another open demonstration of bias, the chapter titled “Lawless in Cincinnati” Branson gives his account of the problem in the City Council, democrats.
Somehow the author also managed to include comments on slavery and a chapter on the history of riots. His digression into slave history was both misplaced and wrong. He wrote that the opening of the Suspension Bridge in 1866 connected a free and a slave state. The 13th Amendment was ratified December 18, 1865. The new bridge connected two free states in a slave free nation. His trip into the history of riots is even more “riotous”. To support his thesis that riots are only caused by the rioters he invokes colonial protests of the Stamp Act, the 1778 Doctor’s Riot, the Zoot Suit Riot and others. He wrote, “After the Irish churches and schools were burned in Boston in 1844, Philadelphia decided to blame the primary victims – Catholics – for the riots. In 1871 California decided to blame the Chinese who were lynched by a mob shouting “Burn the Chinks”. … More recently the Los Angeles Police were blamed for the 1991 Rodney King riots, and in Cincinnati, the police were blamed for the race riots of 2001, although they never fired a shot of live ammunition and, amazingly, nobody was killed.” Nobody, I have to add, except Timothy Thomas. Bronson seems to have forgotten him.
There was one more sentence in Bronson’s assessment of blame. “And even the trampled mayor of New York City quickly moved to appease the mob and blame the medical student victims for the Doctor’s Riot of 1788.” At the time there was no law against stealing a human body. Grave robbers stripped the body then left the clothes and other grave goods behind to avoid prosecution. Minority cemeteries and paupers graves were most often targeted. There was fear that stealing the bodies of propertied whites could bring legislation making the entire practice illegal and subject to a worse punishment. As it was, a good beating by family of the departed was all they needed to worry about. Dissection was illegal. The medical students waving the severed arm from the second floor window of their medical school were breaking the law. And they were flaunting it. They had the, lets say misfortune, to taunt a young man whose mother had just died with “I have your mother’s arm.” The boy went home to his father and uncles and together with their neighbors they went to retrieve the women’s desecrated corpse from the medical school. How was it not the medical students, and their anatomy professor’s fault? Where except from the vaulted throne of privilege can it be seen any other way?
There are many more points in this book that I want to rant about. This is already my longest review so I will try to show some restraint. Don’t read this book. Don’t read Bronson’s other books. Life is too short to waste time reading bad history.