Remembering the Kahiki Incident
The 1975 confrontation at the famed restaurant is largely forgotten by white Columbus. But for longtime Black residents, it’s a civil rights turning point, a political awakening and a tale of unchecked police violence that continues to resonate.
The check came to $98.25. Like the $20 counterfeit bill that led to George Floyd’s death 45 years later, the monetary value didn’t match the violence that ensued once police arrived on the scene.
On Friday, May 30, 1975, the two young Black couples were gathered around a table at the Kahiki Supper Club, discussing the evening’s dinner tab. Something seemed off. Only three in the group had eaten dinner at the swanky Polynesian-themed restaurant on Columbus’ far east side, and the tab for drinks had been paid upon being served.
As 11 p.m. approached, Samuel Bryant, a 23-year-old Vietnam War veteran, took up the matter with the waiter, insisting that they could not possibly owe that much, and the restaurant was charging them for items they didn’t order. Unable to resolve the matter, the group left and had reached their car in the parking lot, according to an account given by gift shop employee Diana Tanaka in “Kahiki Supper Club,” a 2014 book by David Meyers, Elise Meyers Walker, Jeff Chenault and Doug Motz about the famed Columbus restaurant. At that point, the group—which also included a 9-month-old baby as the fifth member—was invited up to the office of Kahiki general manager “Chills” Verne to settle the matter once and for all.
By the wee morning hours of May 31, three of the four Black Kahiki restaurant patrons would be arrested and jailed on a variety of charges. All three would have severe facial injuries as a result of being brutally beaten by police while as many as eight officers would claim injuries in the melee that followed.
In the aftermath of the incident, the U.S. Justice Department would launch an investigation, two Columbus police officers would temporarily lose their jobs, the course of a Columbus mayoral election would shift and a popular Black radio DJ would have his life changed forever. Perhaps, most importantly, what came to be known as the “Kahiki incident” would open a gaping wound in the collective psyche of Black people in Columbus, an injury some say has never healed.
“It was the talk of the town and remains the talk of people even now,” says civil rights attorney John Waddy, a Black native of Columbus who was a Capital Law school student in 1975. “People my age and older remember the Kahiki incident. Who can forget it? That was one of those watershed moments showing community relations between the police and the Black community.”
As the tumultuous 1960s gave way to the swinging 1970s, the Columbus Division of Police held a well-earned reputation for a rough approach to policing, particularly when it came to arresting Black people or students demonstrating against the Vietnam War. In a 1975 decision in a class-action lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Duncan found a “pattern and practice” of abuse of their authority when police confronted “student longhairs.” During that trial, 69 witnesses, both white and Black, gave detailed testimony about harassment and beatings by police for minor traffic violations. Prosecutors played an audiotape of Columbus police chief Dwight Joseph Sr. urging his officers to “kick the shit” out of protestors before one particularly violent clash in November 1971. These revelations weren’t surprising to Columbus’ Black citizens. Many considered the city’s officers (frequently ex-military and from longtime police families) the most dangerous and frightening law enforcement group in Ohio, capable of arbitrary violence and arresting Black people for unknown reasons.
In The Columbus Dispatch newsroom in the 1970s, stories about the Columbus police roughing up those being arrested came from Bernie Karsko, a night editor with a no-nonsense flattop haircut and a dozen years under his belt as a cops reporter. “Bernie used to tell stories that if you were considered a bad guy or had given the arresting officer some lip, justice was often meted out in the back of a [police] wagon or on the elevator ride up,” says Mike Curtin, a retired Dispatch associate publisher and former state legislator who was rising through the newspaper’s ranks as a reporter during the 1970s. “It was especially true for minorities who had been arrested.”
Ray Miller, a Black former state lawmaker who got his start in politics in the mid-1970s, says the Columbus police were known to be “brutal” with Black arrestees. “The last place you wanted to be was in the back of the [police] wagon because you were going to get beat up by the time you got to jail,” Miller says.
The local Fraternal Order of Police head during the mid-1970s was Dewey Stokes, a white cop from the West Side who later became a Franklin County commissioner. Asked about the reputation of Columbus police for roughing up those they arrested, particularly in the Black community, Stokes objected. “It was never a case where the African American community was singled out for any kind of enforcement,” he says. “It was just a case where if someone violated the law, they had to answer for it.”
Stokes notes that many white police officers spent untold hours coaching youth sports for inner-city kids at a pair of Boys & Girls Clubs. “You can be a real good cop, and you have one incident, and it reflects back, and now you’re bad all of a sudden,” Stokes says.
At the Kahiki, Samuel Bryant, his 21-year-old companion Jo Anne Johnson (holding her 9-month-old baby Nikki), her brother Jerome Johnson and his young wife, Julia Johnson, made their way into the upstairs office of general manager Verne. They were joined by assistant manager Johnny Gim, police officer Ronald Bentley and auxiliary officer Rocco Eramo. At officer Bentley’s suggestion that the bill be paid and the matter taken to civil court, Jerome paid the bill, and the group departed the office.
Accounts of what happened next depend on who is doing the telling, but officer Bentley testified that Jo Anne—still holding her baby—struck him on the way out. Other witnesses at the scene say the petite woman bumped him with her elbow as she walked by. Jo Anne described the bumping as an accident.
As Bentley turned to arrest her, Jo Anne dropped the baby, who was caught by Bryant. At some point, as Bentley struggled to arrest a noncompliant Jo Anne, the message went out over the police radio as “officer in trouble,” which brought about three dozen officers, including members of the special weapons and tactics team to the scene.
In a scene that was described in court records as a “melee or free-for-all,” the white male officers clashed with Jo Anne, her brother and Bryant as police placed the trio under arrest. Struck by one officer’s flashlight, Jo Anne was alleged to have attacked the officer’s face and bitten his leg. After falling headfirst into a fountain in the foyer, Jo Anne was carried out the front door and placed in handcuffs in the back of a police wagon.
One officer testified that, during the trip to the jail, Jo Anne tried to take his service revolver while wearing handcuffs; another says she bit him. Both responded by punching her in the face. At Champion and Broad streets, officer Robert Stout joined the fray by climbing into the back of the wagon and hitting Jo Anne several times with his nightstick, according to one eyewitness.
Also involved in the Kahiki incident was officer Robert Morgan, who worked at the jail intake desk on the fifth floor of police headquarters. Known as “Machine Gun Morgan” for a notorious incident in 1970 when he killed a Black teenager by shooting him 37 times with a modified M1 rifle during an attempted burglary, Morgan allegedly struck Samuel Bryant in the face during the booking process.
Stokes says Morgan’s job as turnkey at the jail “was not the most sought-after job in the department.” He says Morgan was “kind of a sourpuss” with a chip on his shoulder. “You went up there, and you played by their rules,” Stokes recalls, acknowledging that allegations of police brutality sometimes arose as suspects were being booked.
In any case, Jo Anne was bleeding so profusely that one police officer had to hold her head to the side to keep her mouth from filling with blood on the drive to Grant hospital, where she was taken for medical attention, according to one officer’s account.
In the days before viral videos and social media, word of the Kahiki incident didn’t really spread until white plumber Mike Catron dialed into radio DJ Les Brown’s popular morning program on WVKO-AM, then the city’s sole radio station devoted to the Black community. It was Tuesday, June 2, and polls had just opened to decide a sleepy mayoral primary election. Brown was reporting on a voter registration drive when Catron called in with his eyewitness account of seeing a petite Black woman being beaten while handcuffed in the back of the police wagon at Champion and Broad.
“He was so disturbed, he started crying and saying, ‘This is wrong. This is wrong,’” says Brown, who was also the station’s program director. “I remember playing a record, ‘Peace Be Still,’ and I kept asking Black people, ‘Do we have any pride?’ Evil prevails when good men and women do nothing.”
As Election Day went on, Brown stayed on the air, urging his listeners to head to the polls and cast ballots for Dr. John Rosemond, a Black physician and City Councilman vying with four other Democrats for the right to face Republican Mayor Tom Moody. “I locked myself in the control room and told the other DJs not to come in and stayed on the air, urging people to come out and vote,” Brown says.
A political awakening in the early 1970s transformed Brown from a smooth-talking DJ into a political activist intent on building Black power in Columbus by registering voters. “I think Les had an epiphany and said, ‘This is crazy. I’m going to start dealing with these issues on the radio, and that’s what he did,” says the Rev. Mike Reeves, who worked as a DJ at WVKO alongside Brown for several years in the 1970s. “I think Les saw the power in the microphone, and he used it to inform Black folks what was going on when nobody else was doing it.”
While Black residents made up only about 20 percent of the electorate in 1975, when the votes were tallied in the mayoral primary, roughly one in three had come from Black precincts. Riding this wave, Rosemond triumphed to become the first Black mayoral candidate in Columbus history in the general election against Mayor Moody in November 1975.
Most political observers of that era say Brown’s urging of Black voters to the polls wasn’t a critical factor in the primary win. “It was clear that the white Democrats split up the vote in the white wards, and Rosemond did what he should have done in the predominantly Black wards,” says reporter Curtin.
Pam Conrad, an aide to Councilman Charlie Mentel during much of the 1970s, says she believes Brown did influence the size of the turnout for Rosemond. “Les might have got some members of the Black community to the polls that otherwise would not have bothered to vote. But I think the demographics were such that Dr. John had a good chance of winning.”
With Brown giving the Kahiki incident plenty of oxygen on the airwaves, the Black weekly newspaper, the Columbus Call and Post, jumped on the story in its June 7 issue with a front-page story headlined “Tension Rages in Wake of Brutal Cop Charges,” featuring dramatic photos documenting the swollen, misshapen faces of the trio.
No matter how it started, the three were left with severe facial injuries. The Call and Post story reported that “Bryant’s left eye was swollen shut, and his face was badly mutilated. He also suffered two lacerations of the head, split lips and a fractured nose. Miss Johnson suffered a gash in her left forehead and lacerations to the chin and right temple that required 11 stiches to close. Jerome Johnson suffered a broken nose, fractured skull, severe injuries of both hands and neck and body bruises.”
Recently retired TV news anchor Jerry Revish, who was working as a radio reporter in 1975, says those two Black media sources were “paramount” in getting the story out initially. “You had Black DJs, Black commentators, Black reporters. The Call and Post was being pretty forthright about this kind of treatment at the hands of police,” Revish says. “It really became a cause for Black radio and Black media.”
More cautious in reporting the story was the Dispatch, the establishment daily newspaper that leaned heavily on the official police narrative.
With the Black community now in a full uproar over the incident’s brutality, WVKO’s Brown and a group called the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, led by Rev. Cameron Jackson of the First AME Church, marched to City Hall demanding that the officers involved in the case be suspended, according to a June 14 Call and Post story. “I remember a very confrontational situation at a City Council meeting,” recalls Conrad. “I remember a lot of tension and a lot of pressure on the members of City Council.”
While the Black community was pushing for the officers involved to be fired and for a civilian review board, Conrad says there was little support in the white community for a new disciplinary oversight panel. “Jerry Hammond always advocated for a civilian review board; the question was how hard he could push it without losing his seat,” Conrad says, referring to the charismatic Black councilman who was just beginning to emerge as a force in the city. “Jerry was really between a rock and a hard place.”
In July 1975, following a police internal affairs investigation, officers Stout and Morgan were fired by city safety service director Bernard Chupka. However, the firings were short-lived, as the Civil Service Commission voted 2-1 in September to override the firings and reinstate the officers. Casting the dissenting vote in both cases was David Barker, the commission’s lone Black representative.
Officer Morgan died in 2001, and Stout did not return calls for this story. However, in 2000, he told the Dispatch that “when we opened up the back of that van, [officer Rick] Newpoff was being bitten by this woman, through to the bone. Some other officers restrained the two males, and I went to Newpoff’s assistance. I used the force that was necessary to get her off Newpoff.” (Bryant died in May 2020, and the Johnsons couldn’t be located.)
While Rosemond made at least one statement decrying the violence, he didn’t seize on the Kahiki incident as a campaign issue as the general election approached. A gentlemanly doctor who was once a Tuskegee Airman, Rosemond was a staid campaigner, uncomfortable with throwing jabs at the Columbus police. “Those two guys [Moody and Rosemond] could have been brothers—each was as boring as the other one was,” says Miller, the former Black state lawmaker. “I don’t remember [Rosemond] providing any leadership there,” Conrad says. Rosemond “was caught in a terrible spot” as he tried to navigate the racially-charged incident, Conrad adds.
It was a cold Monday morning in late September 1975, and Les Brown’s key wouldn’t work in the door at the WVKO studio in Upper Arlington. After returning to his car, Brown heard another DJ on the airwaves doing his radio show. “They had fired me without telling me to my face,” Brown says. Not one to take it laying down, Brown talked a co-worker into letting him into the building and stormed into the studio as the substitute host fled. “I said, ‘Hello, this is Les Brown, this is my last day on the air. They changed the locks, and they didn’t have the guts to fire me to my face. There will be no music this morning. I will talk until I get tired.’”
Brown barricaded himself inside the studio as Upper Arlington police were called to get him off the air. As police pleaded with Brown to come out, the broadcaster gave his audience a play-by-play. “I told them, ‘I’ve barricaded myself into the studio, and the police are asking me to move the furniture and chairs. I’ve been fired … and that’s work. I’m not going to work for free.”
Eventually, WVKO management got the studio door off the hinges, and Brown walked out into the waiting arms of the Upper Arlington police. As the police prepared to take Brown out in handcuffs, a quick look at what awaited them in the parking lot changed their minds. “Wouldn’t you know that 3,000 people had filled the field at that radio station. There hasn’t ever been so many Black people in Upper Arlington before or since,” Brown says. Officers took his handcuffs off. “I walked down the steps of the studio and out to my car with 3,000 people cheering, ‘Les Brown! Les Brown! Les Brown!’ And that ended my time at WVKO radio station.”
Brown says station owner Bert Charles fired him for playing too many voter registration public service announcements. After losing his WVKO job, Brown says he was depressed, but that he is ultimately thankful as it led to his running for elected office and winning two terms as a state representative from 1977 to 1981. When his mother became sick in the early 1980s, Brown resigned and moved back to his native Miami to care for her, eventually becoming a top motivational speaker and syndicated talk show host. “It was a pivotal moment in my life,” says Brown, who was briefly married to singer Gladys Knight. “Even though I lost my job, I discovered that change requires patience, perseverance and perpetual optimism. You got to keep the fight.”
Ultimately, Rosemond would lose badly to Moody, earning only 37 percent of the vote. While political observers laid blame on a fractured Democratic party and anemic fund-raising from Rosemond, one-time WVKO DJ Reeves says he thinks the racism of white voters in Columbus played a role. “That was one of the worst elections I’ve ever seen…. At that particular time, Columbus was not ready for an African American to be mayor.”
Council aide Conrad says she does wonder whether the Kahiki incident influenced white voters. “The question is, did it play a role in how badly John [Rosemond] lost to Moody?” she asked.
While Bryant and the Johnsons were eventually convicted of misdemeanor assault and resisting arrest, a 1975 Justice Department investigation into the incident fizzled when investigators were denied access to the police division’s internal records by federal Judge Duncan. However, other important employment class-action lawsuits were successful, leading to the hiring of more Black and female officers as well as promotions for Black officers.
Officer Cheryl Johnson, one of the female class-action plaintiffs who became one of the force’s first Black female officers, says that while she witnessed “a lot of racism” inside the department, the culture did slowly change for the better. “We had an influx of minorities and women, so that you had more mouths and more people who looked like you to speak up,” she says.
While most interviewed for this story give the Columbus police tepid credit for making slow progress in their relationship with the Black community, the Kahiki incident still lingers for some. “That’s a terrible thing to have that scarring and the feelings you get when you remember the officers who did this got away with it,” says Waddy, the civil rights attorney. “I’m still angry after all of these years, and I can tell you for certain that I’m not the only one.”
This story was published in the May 2021 edition of Columbus Monthly, a special issue dedicated to exploring the experiences of Black people in Central Ohio. The issue is available on newsstands through May.