As riots continue across America’s cities after the killing of George Floyd, local law enforcement and leaders struggle to stop the violence. Today,  Ken Blackwell, the former mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio, and a board member of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, joins the show to discuss how state and local leaders can keep the peace

Blackwell also challenges Americans to remember our history in order to see the progress we have made and to rid our nation of racism once and for all. 

We also cover these stories: 

  • Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin now is being charged with second-degree murder and the three other involved officers are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. 
  • Defense Secretary Mark Esper says he doesn’t endorse using military force to quell riots and looting if governors fail to take the initiative. 
  • Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general, walks back his decision to green-light FBI spying on a former Trump campaign aide. 

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Virginia Allen: I am joined by Ken Blackwell, the former mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio, and a board member of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. Mr. Blackwell, thank you so much for joining me today.

Ken Blackwell: It’s so good to be with you.

Allen: Now, you were born in Ohio in 1948. You witnessed firsthand America’s journey through the civil rights movement. I want to begin just by asking you to share a little bit of your own story and what you’ve seen firsthand as you’ve watched America over the years really fight against racism.

Blackwell: Well, when my father came back from World War II, there was still vestiges of segregation in Cincinnati. There was a housing shortage. I lived the first few years of my life in a public housing community.

A great American story, later in life, I became one of the undersecretaries at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under Jack Kemp, dealing with how do we expand market housing and how do we use vouchers to make sure that we created a market system for people to break out of projects and high concentrations of low-income families. I’ve been blessed in that way.

Maybe three-fourths of a mile from that public housing community, there was city hall, and I became the mayor of my city.

But I’ve watched over the years, having been a member of the Congress on Racial Equality, better known as CORE, and a young member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when it was under the leadership of James Farmer, it was quite an experience to see the changes that took place in public accommodations and systemic discrimination with legislative action.

I grew up appreciating that there were four levels of activity that affected major cultural and societal change. The first level I learned was direct action. There were peaceful protests, people who spoke to injustices, even in the face of hostility.

But then there was legislative action, great bipartisan efforts in the Congress that brought about major civil rights legislation in the mid-’60s and late ’60s.

Then you had court action. You had courts that broke down systemic racism and segregation.

But the other area of activity was person to person, whether it was neighbor to neighbor, family member to family member, church member to church member. It was a genuine dialogue that brought about meaningful action.

I came to realize that great nations are not the products of great governments. The great nations are the products of good people doing great things together.

It’s no mystery to me why, over 240 years, we’ve gone from the institution of slavery to, in 2008, electing a black man president of the United States. Even if I didn’t agree with his policy initiatives, what I saw in [former President] Barack Obama’s election was that there was a continuous breakdown in racism being a barrier to opportunity.

Whether it’s been The Heritage Foundation or my work with Jack Kemp, my own personal experience has put me on the side of creating and expanding an opportunity society as opposed to initiatives that expand the welfare state and the role of government in our lives.

This starts with a basic understanding that that family unit that I was a part of, that family unit was the incubator of liberty in my life and gave me an appreciation for individual initiative and hard work. That’s what I’ve tried to do in terms of my public activity.

I will just tell you, that’s what breaks my heart when I see businesses being burned down, when I see some of the most vulnerable in our society not having access to badly-needed prescriptions when their CVS or their Walgreens are looted and burned.

Allen: Yeah. Well, I’m glad that you brought that up because I want to discuss that further with you.

First, I just want to say thank you for providing us with that history. I think it’s so important to look back, and we need to see where we’ve come from and how far we’ve come in order to see the work that still needs to be done. That’s so important to look—at this pivotal moment in history—from that broader historical context.

I want to ask you about a piece that you wrote in Fox News discussing the violence and the role specifically that mayors play in keeping peace in their cities. Speaking as the former mayor of Cincinnati, how would you recommend mayors handle the riots that they’re seeing in their cities?

Blackwell: Firstly, you have to realize that they are on the tip of the spear. The reality is that if you look at the land mass covered by the United States of America and you look at the size of our population, over 225 million people, there’s just no way that we’re going to create a context of peace and civility, a context that’s necessary for positive political and cultural change from the White House or from the governors’ mansions.

It takes place in our neighborhoods, in our cities, and mayors and local leaders are at the point.

One, at the moment of the outrageous taking of George Floyd’s life—and people started to speak to the vivid imagery that they saw on their TV screens—the ability to address this in public protests and civil discussion was very, very important, and it’s a legitimate part of the American experience.

Believe me, that was working. It was across party lines. It was across ethnic lines. It was across geographical lines.

And what happened is that a sluggish government response picked up steam, and you had the firing, you had the arrest, and you had an accelerated effort to construct a vigorous prosecution strategy.

Now you see that the other officers are being arrested. That was progress. That was constructive. That was the sort of action that you want to see in America in 2020.

But then you had those who saw it as an opportunity to disrupt and destroy and divide.

At a moment when we should have been turning to one another, these forces had us turning on one another because what they want is a disruption of civil society so that they can advance their agenda, which is to take America off of the track that we’re on, where we are the most diverse, the most prosperous constitutional republic in the history of the world.

That is not to say that we are perfect. It’s like what [former President Abraham] Lincoln said, we are not a perfect union, but we are perfectible.

It goes back to this person-to-person community action level in using the subsidiarity motto, where the action that’s most meaningful is at the lowest level. In this case, that action is in families and communities and cities.

Allen: In recent years, many people have argued that police treat African Americans unfairly and that there’s really a problem of police brutality toward African Americans. What do you think about that? Do you think that that is correct?

Blackwell: Well, there [has] been that history, but things have gotten better.

If you look at the trend line of excessive use of force and deaths that have resulted, and you look at it in terms of race, if you look at it in terms of death per thousand, what you find is that there have been more whites that have died as a result of the excessive use of force from police officers than blacks.

Yeah, if you look at the numbers, it doesn’t fit with the proportion of the American population that blacks are compared to whites, but the trend line has come down.

As a former mayor that dealt with the reviewing of action by police officers that resulted in citizens’ wrongful death, what I have seen across this country, working with police unions, community activists, is that we’ve seen a trend line where it is rapidly coming down.

Do you have individual actors who act on the basis of racial prejudice? Yes. And they must be rooted out just like a tooth with tooth decay.

But to say that America is the most racist country on the face of the Earth or that we are a racist country, which the 1619 Project hosted by The New York Times wants to say, it’s just flat-out wrong. You have to have the imagination of Jonathan Swift to buy into that.

We’ve, in fact, seen progress. This is not a matter of whether or not we still experience bad actors. We do, is our response. That’s why it is so heartening to see what the response is in Minneapolis today.

Allen: You mentioned that, as Americans, we have come a long way. I think you’re so right, that we’re in this critical moment. Do you see what’s going on right now in the wake of George Floyd’s death as an opportunity for further progress, that we could actually move even further toward eradicating racism in our nation out of, really, a tragic situation?

Blackwell: I think, one, there’s been decade after decade of breaking down the racial divide. The whole notion of e pluribus unum, “from the many, one,” it really does pivot around our buying into transcendent ideals. There is this confrontation between those moral absolutes and moral relativism.

Dr. [Martin Luther King Jr.], in his effort to bring about a better union, a better United States, understood that it was organizing around those universal values, those moral values, that actually gave us the basis that we could effect change, because if relativism wins, you don’t have equal justice.

Those that would like to choose policies and practices of division and subtraction, if they had their way, it gets harder and harder to bring about the sort of community action that’s necessary to totally and substantially eradicate any vestiges of racism that is reinforced by any institutional practice. We’ve come a long way.

Again, we will always have idiots who act on motives of race, but we, in fact, have a history of creating opportunities and reducing any institutional practice of race. …

We have to look at data. A lot of the officer-citizen deaths through excessive use of force, a nice percentage have been black officers on black victim.

We have to understand that those of us who went on the line to integrate our police forces now are just as concerned about making sure that those folks who we depend on to keep our communities safe and our properties protected, they, in fact, must be respected and protected.

Allen: Given your experience on the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund board, I want to ask you, just circling back to the riots and the protests, how you think that police have been handling that. Do you think that they’re using the correct level of force, or do you think that in some cases they should adjust their methods?

Blackwell: No, I think they have. What I’ve been able to witness, I’ve seen some line officers being willing to take abuse, and that’s crazy.

The issue here is there are techniques. Make sure that there are corridors where public protest can take place. Yes, if you have to use curfews, use curfews. If you have to use schedules where protests and voices can speak their concerns to those in authority, do it that way.

But there is no reason for anybody to accept bottles being thrown at police officers and, here in Cincinnati, a firearm being shot and hitting the equipment of a police officer.

Let’s go back, there have been police officers that have taken not only gunshots; there have been police officers killed.

We really have to make sure that we are looking at data and understanding that these police officers have a job to do, and their first obligation is to keep us safe and provide their resources to make sure that we have an atmosphere of civility, where we can disagree, but we disagree to disagree, and we can bring about justice through genuine dialogue.

We’re starting to see that play out in Minneapolis, but for some folks, any progress is no progress because they have a false standard of progress.

Allen: I certainly want to encourage our listeners to go to Fox and read your op-ed that was so well-written and so well-articulated on this subject. Mr. Blackwell, I just really want to thank you so much for your time and your insight today.

Blackwell: Well, God bless you. It’s good to be with you.