Videotaped Beating Of Chicago Youngster Stuns Community
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, the glamorous world of fashion. For fashion icon Beverly Johnson, it was not just about strutting the catwalk. It was also about breaking down barriers. She joins us for our Wisdom Watch conversation to talk about her historic Vogue magazine cover and what she's doing now. That's a little later in the program.
But first, to a very different type of story. The beating of a Chicago teen who was walking home from school was captured on a cell phone video camera and made its way onto television and computer screens across the country. It happened last Thursday, in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood.
Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old high school sophomore honor student was on his way home from school and literally walked into a fight that had nothing to do with him. The fight apparently stemmed from an earlier shooting in the same neighborhood. The video shows a group of teens viciously beating Albert. At one point, he's struck on the head with a two-by-four. And after trying to get up, he is struck again and kicked repeatedly.
Derrion Albert became the third Chicago student killed just since the start of this school year. And that is in addition to the 34 Chicago school-aged children who were killed during the last school year. We want to know many things. We want to know why does this keep happening? What would make a difference? And later, we want to know, what it means that this killing was captured on videotape and why at least shown apparently without much debate? We thought about this because the images of the deaths of American soldiers in war zones has been (unintelligible) manner of discussion of late. So, we'll have that conversation in a few minutes.
But first, I'm joined now by Bob Jackson, the executive director of the Roseland branch of CeaseFire. It's an anti-violence organization based in Chicago. We're also joined by Alex Kotlowitz. He is author of the bestselling book, "There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America." He's written extensively about violence in the streets of Chicago, violence by and suffered by young people. His most recent book is "Never A City So Real," a collection of contemporary stories from Chicago. And he's also producing a documentary about CeaseFire. So, I welcome you both. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. ALEX KOTLOWITZ (Author): Thanks for having us, Michel.
Mr. BOB JACKSON (Executive Director, Roseland Branch, CeaseFire): Thanks a lot, Michel. Appreciate your having us here this morning.
MARTIN: Bob Jackson, I want to start - I understand that you've been in contact with Derrion Albert's family. How are they doing? And how are you doing since the whole purpose of your organization is to try to stop things like this?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, actually we've been - the family is doing the best they -right now that they - you - under these circumstances because no family is prepared for death of this type. The family is also - still grieving and with the media and everyone they just - they're just kind of in a daze, just on autopilot. We're working to try to get the burial arrangements ready for this Saturday with the family and making sure that the proper state funding is in place to help them bury their loved one right now.
Mr. JACKSON: As far as...
MARTIN: What is this about, though? What is this - and thank you for that and, of course, our condolences to the family and - and I should have started with that but what was this death about in - in your opinion? Why did this happen?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, actually this has been going on within Fenger School for quite some time. We were involved in this since last year with the Altgeld Gardens and the local residents in the (unintelligible). They've been having this rivalry going on. The kids from Altgeld Garden has to be, they're bused in every day via the public transportation.
However, there was a plan that was supposed to be implemented this - starting this school year, where the Altgeld Gardens would have had charter buses, which would pick those various kids up, and brought them to the doorstep, and then at the end of class take them back to the Gardens, which would stop them from going through the communities. However, as it was told to us this past weekend, it was an economic issue why that didn't happen.
MARTIN: But I'm sorry, what does that - I mean, lots of kids get bused to schools outside of their neighborhoods and they don't beat each other to death, so....
Mr. JACKSON: Well, this is a...
MARTIN: What does that have to with it?
Mr. JACKSON: ...little different. This is an ongoing rivalry. Plus, anyone who knows the history behind Altgeld Gardens, they have their own level of violence to scorn on in that gated community.
MARTIN: I see.
Mr. JACKSON: So, now you're taking kids who's used to violence deal with another set of kids who are used to violence. Most people don't know that Fenger is a melting pot of all the kids who have been basically put out of the other schools, they all go right there to Fenger.
MARTIN: I see.
Mr. JACKSON: So, you have all the high-risk kids in one location. And courts...
MARTIN: And - I'm sorry, I just want to bring Alex Kotlowitz into this conversation because you've written - you've written, many people have written a lot of words about violence in Chicago with school kids. What's your take on this? Why is this happening? Why so many kids are being killed? I know, oftentimes people say guns are at the root of it. But this - there are no guns involved in this particular...
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: No, I know, I mean, yeah, you're asking me a sensible question. I mean, I've been writing about this now for some 25 years. And I've got to tell you that I'm somewhat beguiled by the stubborn persistence of the violence. You see other things change. You see the tear down, for example, you know, in the city or public housing, you see, you know, school reform. And yet, the violence just is - it has become a part and has distorted the culture and it's disturbing. I mean, you're right to ask the question. I mean, kids could get bused to schools in different neighborhoods all the time, and yet we don't have this kind of violence.
And I'm always reminded of what Tio Hardeman says, who helps run CeaseFire. And that's, you know, it kind of make sense of the madness. And it is madness. And sadly, it's not only the youth. I mean, in fact, the youth make up actually a very small percentage of the homicides and shootings in the city. So, I've become convinced over the years - I used to think, you know, somebody would say to me, you know, what do we do about all this? And I'd say, well, it's seems obvious, you know, you provide jobs, build their housing, build new schools. And I think, all of that is absolutely necessary. But I think that somehow we've got to directly tangle with the violence. And this is for me a perfect instance. I mean, in talking to Bob, it was clear that there were similar intentions at Fenger, this young man had complained about...
MARTIN: Fenger is a high school, for those who haven't figured out what we're talking about, it's a high school.
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: No - Fenger High School, I'm sorry, right. And - so this young man had been harassed, he had complained about, in fact, the morning of the beating, there actually somebody had fired a shot outside the school.
Mr. JACKSON: Right.
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: So, we knew that it was all simmering. And so, somehow we've got to get in the mix of that and try to somehow disrupt and diffuse those tensions before, you know, they erupt into what we saw on that video.
MARTIN: And, Bob, could you talk a little bit about that. That's in part what your organization does. And you said, you were working in this area with - you were already working in the area. What do you think would have made a difference? And believe me when I say I'm not holding you responsible for this from not being there. But what do you think, based on your experience, might have made a difference?
Mr. JACKSON: I think it's...
Mr. JACKSON: ...in this case, one, to listen to kids like Derrion that 80 percent, that 75 percent of kids who are not at risk. These are the kids that's just going by - going back and forth to school. This young man had been complaining that his book bag has been taken, he had been vandalized, beat up before. So, for him this is nothing new, it's just escalated. I think a lot of it goes back to the parents. I think that we need to address the parents, not only hold their parents accountable. But at the same time, the parents - it's not like the parents of old, where the parents actually got involved. It was really a village raising the kids in that village.
The kids, I mean, we have a lot of dysfunctional families out there right now and they're hurting and they're crying out. The epidemic of rock cocaine from the '80s, this is the product of what we see now, 20 years later of this epidemic that was going on in the '80s and the kids and the families are still suffering from it. And no one has addressed the fact that a lot of these kids are coming from addicted parents who've gotten their lives together, but their parents weren't parents. So, they don't have the parenting skills to deal. And the kids don't listen to the parents, I mean, totally not listening to them.
MARTIN: There's another element to this story that I want to talk about now. And I want to ask both of you to stand by, if you would. We're speaking with Bob Jackson. He's executive director of the Roseland branch of CeaseFire, it's an anti-violence organization based in Chicago. We're also speaking with bestselling author and journalist Alex Kotlowitz, who's written extensively about youth violence. We're going to ask them both to stand by for the next part of our conversation.
We wanted to talk more about this question of just what it means that this -this beating was videotaped and the fact that it has been widely shown. And we wanted to talk about whether this serves a constructive purpose or not.
So, I wanted to call two people who have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about these questions. Here with me, in our Washington, D.C. studio is NPR's Ombudsman Lisa Shepard. Also with us, Eric Deggans. He's TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, and he's in St. Petersburg. I want to thank you both for joining us.
LISA SHEPARD: Glad to be here.
Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (TV and Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Thank you.
MARTIN: Lisa, one of the reasons we called you is that you recently wrote in your column about the debate over whether still photographs of an American soldier, whose death was captured on camera in Afghanistan, should be shown. still photographs. In fact, there was a huge debate about this.
MARTIN: The defense secretary, Robert Gates, was very offended by this and asked news organizations not to show this, but I don't recall that there was any similar debate about this. And so I wanted to ask your view of this, the showing of this videotape.
On the one hand, the organization who obtained the tape did make it available to police - which seems to have aided in the arrest of the people responsible. On the other hand, there are those who say this is like pornography.
SHEPARD: Well, I think you always have to ask: What is out journalistic purpose? And is the purpose to put these tapes out to titillate, or is it to inform and to educate? And you asked this question: What was his death about? Well, this video will help us deal with this issue. Alex said we knew all along that this was simmering.
I didn't know that. Maybe this will draw national attention to the problem. That's the only thing that you can hope that will come out of showing something so disturbing.
MARTIN: Eric, what do you think?
Mr. DEGGANS: I think we're at a point now, with particularly the cable news outlets and local TV news outlets, that they will show any video that is not overtly disturbing and that people will watch.
I think 10 years ago that TV stations would not have shown this video. But we're in a different media environment now. It's much more competitive, and I think it's important to note that there is really no blood or gore in the video. So they were able to show it without offending people's sensibilities in that way.
MARTIN: Which is crazy.
Mr. DEGGANS: There is a political dimension to this, of soldiers, and when you have the secretary of defense denouncing showing these pictures, that takes the debate to a whole different level. And this child does not have an advocate that powerful pushing TV stations to not air the video.
MARTIN: Well, let's ask Bob. Do you know whether the - what is the family's view of this video being shown now? It's been, at least online, at least two million times by now.
Mr. BOB JACKSON (Activist): Right. Both the grandfather - the biological grandfather and the mother had view it, as well as the rest of the family, and their take was if it was going to help bring the perpetrators of the crime to justice, then they were all for it.
MARTIN: But they could have accomplished that goal by showing it to law enforcement, not showing it publicly. So but they feel that it does serve some useful purpose, showing it publicly?
Mr. JACKSON: Yes, I think they did. From what the grandfather was saying, as well as the mother, the grandfather was saying okay, it's out there. If you know any of these kids, see it. I mean, law enforcement really, if these kids, like - the perpetrators didn't have records. So how would they know who these kids were? And by that coming forth, other people saw their images, knew the kids, they told the police who they were. So they were able to go through the school files, identify them from school photos and say okay, that's where they are, that's where they live and got a handle on them.
MARTIN: I see. There was another element to this. This was discussed in the online publication theroot.com today, where one writer said: This is like the Emmett Till beating and this is a wake-up call to society that this is happening. For people who don't know that this is happening, this is happening. And this writer likened to - for those who don't know, Emmett Till was a teenager who was beaten to death in Mississippi in 1955, and his mother insisted upon an open casket to draw attention to the brutality of some of the circumstances in the apartheid South. Eric, do you buy that argument?
Mr. DEGGANS: Certainly there is a dimension of that to this, but I think it's possible to have shown what was going on. There's a lot of footage of the conflict that does not include the death of the child. And so I think it was possible to show parts of the video that give you a sense of how awful what was happening was, without actually showing the moment of his death.
Now, I also say that media outlets are at a point now where, as one of your other panelists said, the video is out there. It's going to show up on YouTube. It's going to show up in all these other outlets. So if you're the one TV station that doesn't show it, you're just the one TV station that doesn't have the video that everybody wants to see. And we've reached a point in our society, I think, where people capture video almost without thinking.
I have a feeling that the people who filmed this video didn't know that they were filming somebody's death until it was done.
MARTIN: I would be interested to know who filmed it and why. What was the motivation? And I don't know that that is relevant. Alex, what's your take on this? You are a journalist. You're also a person who cares very deeply about these issues.
On the one hand, there have been a number of people in Chicago like Father Flagler, who has decried the fact that he seems to feel that nobody really cares outside of the communities most affected and has been doing lots of things to draw attention. On the other hand, again taste questions, which is, you know, if this person had more advocates, if he were middle class, would this be so widely seen without any discussion?
For example, the death of Daniel Pearl - the journalist Daniel Pearl - is widely available online. I don't know that any reputable broadcast outlet has shown this. So Alex, your thoughts, briefly if you can?
Mr. ALEX KOTLOWITZ (Journalist): Well, yeah, I mean, it's a very disturbing video. I mean, I think we can all agree on that, and yet a necessary one. I mean, you look back...
MARTIN: You're saying necessary.
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Necessary, I mean, because look, we've had - in the past 20 years in Chicago, we've had 15,000 homicides, an extraordinary number, four times the number of combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. And this is the first time that I have seen one of those murders. And as you've suggested or alluded to, I mean, it's been very easy for the rest of us to turn away from these communities.
I mean, the sad and discomforting fact is that most of these homicides and shootings are taking place in poor African-American and Latino communities and makes it very easy for the rest of us to turn our heads. And this is a moment, I think, when you have to look, you have to confront it.
Whether it will make a difference, I don't know. And I mean, I also agree with Eric that it's - you know, that the issue of whether TV new should show it seems to me kind of moot one, because whether they do or not, something like this is going to make it onto YouTube. I mean, we're living in very different times. It's so much easier to distribute.
MARTIN: That's true, and in fact - and Lisa, final thought to you - because it's not just television stations who confront this dilemma. We as a broadcast outlet have an online component where we could or could not show this. May I ask you: What's your take?
SHEPARD: I would advocate talking about it, linking, letting people go out on the Internet. I did want to just quickly throw out the idea that the video of the young boy in Oakland over New Year's where the transit officer shot him, what difference did that make?
MARTIN: What do you think?
SHEPARD: I'm sure, at the time, that was sensational. It went all over the Web, and yet I don't know whether it made the difference.
MARTIN: NPR ombudsman Lisa Shepard was here with me in our Washington, D.C., studio, along with Eric Deggans. He's TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. We caught up with him in Florida. We were also joined by Bob Jackson, executive director of the Roseland branch of CeaseFire, an anti-violence organization in Chicago; and bestselling author, journalist Alex Kotlowitz. They were both with us from Chicago. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Mr. DEGGANS: Thanks for having us.
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Thank you.
SHEPARD: Thank you.
Mr. JACKSON: Thank you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Coming up; before Tyra, before Iman, before Tyson, there was Beverly Johnson, the first black supermodel to grace the cover of Vogue.
Ms. BEVERLY JOHNSON (Former Supermodel): It's every model's dream to be on that cover; and once you've been on that cover, you have arrived.
MARTIN: That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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