[ExI] LA Times: Unlimited space for untold sorrow
pjmanney at gmail.com
Tue Feb 5 05:54:46 UTC 2008
Today's Column One article is about The Los Angeles Times Homicide
Report, an unusual experiment in American newspapers where each and
every homicide in Los Angeles County is researched by a single
reporter and documented on a website which allows readers to post
comments. Often the posters are their friends and families of the
victims that our culture would prefer to forget.
I have been aware of journalist Jill Leovy's website for some time now
and it's a site of great power. But why am I posting it here?
Because it demonstrates how the Internet can increase empathy, as
opposed to the stultifying effects of many supposed social networking
sites, which often only create compatible subgroups already inclined
to hold the same world views.
The Homicide Report makes the unseen seen and tells their story, even
if that story is only the end of the story. It allows the unheard to
grieve, their voices heard at last. Take some time and read the
comments. They will make you weep.
This site flies in the face of the economics of attention, a battle
newspapers wages daily in the melee with the rest of the media, ad
space fighting for editorial space and the desire of advertisers
overriding the desires of the community. It reverses the terrible
trend that values entertainment over bearing witness. And the fourth
estate does its job -- finally.
And as Leovy points out, it reveals to the public the underlying
patterns of murder that our society would like to keep hidden. But
why is it hidden? Because it doesn't sell advertising or papers or
increase real estate values or get politicians elected.
Leovy had the hardest job in journalism. I hope the new journalist
that is replacing Leovy can do as fine and empathetic a job as she has
for the last year.
>From the Los Angeles Times
Unlimited space for untold sorrow
As a Times reporter's online list of each L.A. County homicide grew,
overlooked patterns of race and place evoked anger and empathy.
By Jill Leovy
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 4, 2008
This newspaper typically covers about 10% of the homicides in Los
Angeles County each year. They are often the most sensational or
shocking: a baby hit by a stray bullet, or a celebrity murder.
But for the last year, the paper's website, latimes.com, has recorded
every homicide. It was my idea. I reported on crime for the paper, and
I wanted readers to see all the killings -- roughly 1,000 violent
deaths each year, mostly of young Latinos and, most
disproportionately, of young black men. The Web offered what the paper
did not: unlimited space.
So the Homicide Report, as it was called, began with the simplest of
journalistic missions: exposing a painful, largely unseen problem.The
first list of homicide victims, published just over a year ago,
contained the names of 17 people. Eight were Latino. Six were black.
Two were of Cambodian descent -- killed in a double homicide. None
were white. Most were in their 20s.
Readers responded strongly. "Oh my God," began one of the first posts
by a reader. "The sheer volume is shocking," wrote another. "Almost
like they're disposable people," wrote a third.
Two or three homicides occurred in the county per day, on average. As
the report developed, I filled notebooks with police jargon, scrawling
the same details over and over. "Male black adult" or "Male Hispanic"
-- accompanied by addresses in Compton, Florence, Hawthorne, Boyle
Heights or Watts.
The coroner provided a basic list of victims. But much of the
information about the killings had to be wrung from police agencies
spread across 400 square miles, or from crime scenes or victims'
families. I worked mostly out of my car, fanning to the south and east
of my office.
Many agencies were not used to releasing details. One police press
official was surprised to learn that victims' names were public
information: No reporter had ever asked him for that, he said.
When I first presented a list of victims to the state Department of
Motor Vehicles for photos, the clerks were baffled. Twenty young
people every week? "What is this?" one asked. "Did a plane crash?"
One could know the numbers in the abstract yet still be unprepared for
the sheer volume, similarity and obscurity of the victims. Los Angeles
County's homicide rate was on the decline, and 2007 was destined to be
one of the least violent years in a generation. Yet the concentration
of killings remained the same -- a pocket epidemic of violent death
among black and Latino men in neglected corners of society.
There was Manuel Perez, 17, whose homicide I chanced to hear mentioned
in a detectives' staff meeting. As soon as I put his name on the site,
a comment was posted: "I miss you so much, Manuel."
There was Fernando Tello, 15, Latino, stabbed, who took a week to die
at a hospital. Isaac Tobias, 23, black, had no DMV record. Valdine
Brown, 28, also black, seemed to have disappeared altogether: The
coroner had a record of his death in a hospital, but the detectives
had never heard of him. Eventually it was revealed that Brown's
killing was filed under one of his many aliases.
At a crime scene in the Los Angeles Police Department's Newton
Division, lifelong friends of a victim said they knew him only by a
nickname. At another scene, a family had no recent photographs of
their 19-year-old son. For some of those victims, a police mug shot
was the only record of their presence in the world. A detective in
Watts once asked me to run a photo of an elaborate norteño-style belt
buckle, the only clue to the identity of a victim whose body had been
Detectives routinely admitted that the names and ages they had
recorded for victims were, at best, conjecture: Many victims,
including illegal immigrants or career criminals, had lived entirely
Sweeping characterizations about homicides, so prevalent in media
coverage and public discourse, fell apart. A term such as
"gang-related" had a dozen meanings.
Once, three police officers, all working in the same division and all
claiming personal knowledge, gave me three assessments of the same
young man. One described him as a violent gang member; the second said
he was a gang member who had committed no serious crimes; the third
said he wasn't a gang member at all.
Each death, however, limned ruined lives and ravaged communities.
"This is killing me," a slight woman named Althea Mizell sobbed during
an interview in October. Her son, D'Angello Mizell, 36, had been
killed a year before in the LAPD's 77th Street Division. He was a
textbook unsympathetic victim, a gang member who had never been out of
prison more than a year in his adult life.
Since the slaying, his mother talks to almost no one and rarely leaves
her tiny apartment. She eats, sleeps and agonizes. Though a religious
woman, she has reconciled herself to going to hell because she harbors
so much anger, so much lust for revenge. It's worth it, she said.
About her son, she has no denial. He is the failure she can't recover
from. When the interview ended, she said: "Think of me sometimes."
In June, Vicky Lindsey, whose 19-year-old son was killed in 1995,
helped organize a vigil for one of the more anonymous victims on the
Homicide Report: Anthony Jenkins, 46, a black man killed by gunfire,
whose relatives authorities were slow to locate.
The organizers came together for a man who was a stranger to them
because they too feel unseen.
"It is as if we are buried with our children," said Lindsey, who has a
sticker on her car that reads: "My son was murdered."
The vigil took place at dusk, at the place where Jenkins was shot.
They lit candles and taped to a wall a printout of the Homicide Report
chronicling Jenkins' death. Passersby watched, talking among
themselves about murder, the police, the media.
"Ain't no one coming to help us 'cause they just say, 'They killin'
each other,' " a man remarked.
A black man in a long brown Cadillac slowed down to look, then drove
off. The group began to pray. A few minutes later the same Cadillac
pulled up to the curb. The driver emerged, weeping. His 21-year-old
son had been killed recently, he said.
"I went up the road and the tears just started and I couldn't keep
going," he gasped.
Memorial messages stacked up on the blog's comments section. They were
often written in the form of a letter to the deceased, sometimes in
Spanish, once in Armenian.
"Every night I dream about the different ways I could have said,
'Please don't go,' " wrote one victim's sister. "Where did you go? Why
did they take you? What did they do to you? Why? Why?"
The more the killings stacked up on the blog, the more absurd the old
media criteria for selecting one homicide over another seemed.
Thirteen-year-old boys nearly always made the headlines of The Times'
print edition, but 14-year-olds were a tossup. Sixteen- and
17-year-olds were more likely to make the cut if they were girls.
In February, Joseph Watson, a 17-year-old black youth who was a
running back on his high school football team, was slain in Athens.
According to his parents and police, he had long fought to avoid being
"jumped in" by his neighborhood gang.
His killing attracted no media attention, other than on the Homicide
Report.Swept under the same rug was Timothy Johnson, a 37-year-old
black man, nicknamed "Sinister." His death in Watts in November closed
another homicide investigation in which he was the primary suspect.
The March stabbing death of 17-year-old Alex Contreras-Rodriquez was
big news because it happened on the campus of Washington High School,
but two double homicides committed a few feet from school grounds were
One of those happened in May. Two Latino men, each 23, were working on
a gutter across the street from Elizabeth Street Elementary School in
Cudahy while classes were in session.
It was execution-style, a girl of 9 or 10 explained to me at the
police tape. They had tried to run, leaving their ladders in place.
One of the men had once been a documented gang member. But the day he
died, he was working for hourly wages, wearing long sleeves to cover
Shortly after the killings, schoolchildren watched as the parents of
one of the victims were led to the coroner's van to view his body. The
father, an elderly Latino man in paint-spattered work boots, made it
back to the car, then collapsed. The children behind the police tape
stood motionless, their faces blank.
Sheriff's Capt. Mike Ford vented his frustration to me about media
coverage of homicide.
"Certain incidents capture the attention," he said. "But how do you
value one life over another? You shouldn't."
Media coverage matters. In September, news broke that a 23-day-old
baby had been killed by a stray bullet in the LAPD's Rampart Division.
More than twice as many detectives were assigned to work that one case
than to the division's 15 other 2007 homicide cases combined. Arrests
were quickly made in the baby's killing. But as of January, some
three-quarters of those other Rampart cases remained open.
The Homicide Report made no distinction between a celebrity and a
transient. Each got the same typeface, the same kind of write-up. If
you were the victim of a homicide, you made the blog.
The report included the race of each victim. Newspapers traditionally
do not identify homicide victims by race. But failing to include race
also served to disguise the disproportionate effect homicide has on
blacks and Latinos.
I had met many people -- most of them black -- who had been bereaved
not once, but twice -- and, in a couple cases, three times -- by the
slaying of an immediate family member. Giving readers anything short
of a full and accurate picture of this surfeit of bereavement seemed
indecent. Some readers, though, were critical. The practice "just
feeds into stereotyping of minorities," one wrote.
The blog's readership slowly grew. The death of "Sinister" drew more
than 100 emotional posts at the end of the year as readers segued from
grief and anger into an impassioned debate about race and murder.
Police agencies gradually grew more cooperative. A sheriff's deputy
who throughout the year had been exceptionally helpful sent an e-mail
in December praising the effort. He closed: "My younger brother was
murdered . . ."
In December, The Times asked me to turn the blog over to a colleague,
Ruben Vives, and move on to other things. The Homicide Report has been
a humbling experience. None of the more ambitious stories I'd
previously done for the paper seemed quite as effective as simply
listing victims, one by one by one. The Homicide Report did not seek
to distill its subject into a digestible shape or explore some angle
of an issue to help people understand it.
It was just about facts, about reporting homicides -- 845 of them
recorded so far for 2007 -- in a straightforward, comprehensive way.
One reader complained that the project had provided no depth, no
explanation, of the problem it revealed. So many slayings documented,
yet still "I don't understand it," he wrote.
Maybe, in sum, the report has merely skimmed a problem whose true
depths couldn't be conveyed. And in anintimate sense,too, the coverage
nearly always felt inadequate.
The same month as the Anthony Jenkins vigil, I congratulated myself
for finding time to look for the family of 21-year-old Richard
Mitchell, a black man who died on the operating table 10 days after he
was shot. The family had left town to bury him. A neighbor answered
questions with a strange weariness.
At last, she explained: "My son was killed too." He was 15 and black.
It was an unrelated homicide, a year prior. A pause as she regarded
me, reproach in her eyes. She was surprised to see me, she said. No
reporter had come to ask about her son.
jill.leovy at latimes.com
Times researcher Jacci Cenacveira contributed to this report.
More information about the extropy-chat