Black woman

Cynthia Brown

When we recently spoke with Cynthia Brown she was driving around town on a sunny Saturday morning visiting “every activist event” in Central Ohio that day.

Brown is seeking roughly 1,000 signatures needed by the Ohio Attorney General to approve ballot language for a 2022 initiative she is proposing to end qualified immunity for Columbus and Ohio law enforcement. If the language is accepted, Brown knows she will need a small army to gather the 400,000-plus signatures to get approval for a statewide vote.

Disheartening was how some state level and City of Columbus office holders talked tough during the summer of 2020 about ending qualified immunity, which they could do themselves, but as usual so found their promises were empty. 

Brown has taken it upon herself to end qualified immunity, her passion since her nephew Kareem Ali Nadir Jones was shot and killed by Columbus police in 2017. He was harassed for no good reason and ordered to get on the ground. He was then tragically shot in the face, neck, and in the back while on the ground by two white officers. Both are still with the Division.

“The ballot initiative is going to end qualified immunity for all government workers,” said Brown who is director for the De-Escalate Ohio Now! Heartbeatmovement. “We are asking them to clarify the true meaning of qualified immunity. That’s the only way we are ever going to get accountability. I have come to the conclusion that you can train them all you want, but if they are going to kill in a split second you are going to get the same result if you don’t try to de-escalate the situation first.”

Nationally, the dominos are beginning to fall. In addition to New York City, the states of New Mexico and Colorado have also ended qualified immunity, which disallows filing a civil lawsuit against government officials who believed they were performing their duties sincerely and correctly. Police officers can avoid liability even if their actions violate a person’s civil rights.

Qualified immunity arose out of the Deep South to protect racist cops. During the Freedom Rides of 1961, a group of priests, both black and white, were arrested and sentenced to jail for protesting at a Mississippi bus terminal. A US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the arresting officers, and to this day a ruling that shields countless numbers of police brutality cases. 

Brown’s ballot initiative is named Accountability Now Ohio. She was inspired after a series of bills seeking to end qualified immunity died late last year in the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly.

Now it’s become a grassroots effort led by the parents, families and friends of those deceased by police violence. Their mission is this: “Eliminating the use of qualified immunity as a defense in Ohio’s civil courts is absolutely necessary to ensure no one is above the law.”

“I think we are beyond holding up signs and chanting names. That accomplished nothing. It has to come from policy change or nothing changes,” says Brown. “New York ended qualified immunity because they have paid out nearly $1 billion in lawsuits. Until that officer loses his pension, home or bank account, they don’t care because the taxpayer is picking up the financial costs of their police brutality or murder.”

“Like the civil rights movement, it’s going to take law to change things.  The civil rights movement changed a lot as far as my parent’s generation, when they couldn’t vote or go to certain restaurants, hospitals or drinking fountains. That’s how you change things,” she said.

Brown says her nephew’s shooting was the City’s first ever body cam case. When the City went to implement Andre Hill’s law in December, which mandates officers to have their bodycam on, she told the City to “back up and tell the truth.”

“My nephew’s case was the first case. The next thing we know, [then-City Council President] Shannon Hardin reached out and said Kareem’s name was going to be on that bill with Andre Hill and Casey Goodson. They only have three names on it because I raised so much hell,” she said.

Brown remains a Bernie supporter, but stresses that Accountability Now Ohio is bipartisan. Nonetheless, from today until November 2022, she faces a daunting challenge. Get the amendment on the ballot and convince Ohio – a state that has become more and more MAGA red – to vote yes.

“We are still waiting for a meeting [with Ohio Republican leadership],” she says. “They are going to keep on bullshitting and do nothing, and we are going to have to put it on the ballot. They don’t care. They are trying to pass four or five bills that will hold protesters accountable, that can send you to jail or give you heavy fines. Who does that?”

Brown says she will need several million to fund her effort. She’s eyeing the National Football League and other potential donors for money. For anyone wishing to help Cynthia Brown end qualified immunity in Ohio there are volunteer opportunities.