I‘ve covered murders from Savannah, Georgia, to San Francisco — domestic disputes, revenge slayings, a mother drowning her own children. But the killing a couple of Thursdays ago in Los Angeles was different.
I spotted the familiar signs of a killing as I bolted from the truck and made a beeline toward the scene: the yellow tape, the covered body, the cops who would tell me what happened. But something else was on display in the gas-station parking lot in the 4300 block of South Western Avenue. Rage.
A camera even in a culture that has them everywhere from Al Roker’s stomach stapling surgery to virtually any college kid‘s dorm room can make people lose it. While reporting stories around the country I have had people make bunny ears behind my head, honk car horns in clave rhythm; one person even tried to moon the entire San Francisco Bay Area on live TV until my crew threatened to spray his butt with a fire extinguisher.
As I made my way through the crowd of onlookers to the police captain, I suddenly heard a woman shouting behind me, ”Don’t put me on TV! Don‘t put me on fucking TV!,“ which surprised me, since not only had I not seen her, but my photographer was still back in the truck, raising the microwave mast. Her screams were drowned out only by the shouts of a man demanding, ”This shit BETTER be on fucking TV. Ya’ll always show it when a white person get kilt, but you don‘t never show it when it’s a black person.“ Heard it before. But it is a criticism that always stings me, a black, female reporter who is acutely aware of how race and gender are or are not represented in the media.
According to L.A. Police Captain Jim Miller, the media rarely cover these killings. He told me the scene is repeated throughout L.A. — almost every day — and that only now has the city, after 17 murders in six days, started paying attention. The body count for 2002 did not near 600 overnight, a number already higher than the total for the year 2000.
At the time, the captain had few details about the killing, the 595th in L.A. this year. But while everyone waited for the coroner, I did pass on what little information there was to anchors Laura Diaz and Harold Greene. About 10 seconds into the live shot, an extraordinary thing happened. Another woman, standing just a foot or two away, started shouting at me: ”Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you, fucking bitch!“ It wasn‘t the words that startled me. I’ve heard worse in my 10 years as a reporter. It was the venom with which she injected them.
It was rage so poisonous and hot you feel it dislocating air. It was kinetic. It was dangerous. It cut through everything, the whump whump whump of the helicopter hovering overhead, the producer in my earpiece, my concentration. I was momentarily suspended, and thought, ”What am I doing here?“
That is a question I did not ask in 1996 when heavily armed Peruvian soldiers momentarily pointed their weapons at our car as my crew and I headed toward the scene of a hostage crisis in Lima. It is a question I did not ask in 2000 when a small group of Cuban exiles was following me down Calle Ocho in Miami, yelling at me to change my coverage of the Elian Gonzalez custody case. But I did ask it in the 4300 block of South Western Avenue — on the 5 o‘clock news. Why was I there? I answered my own question when I glanced across the street. There, on the sidewalk, next to Magee’s Donuts, was my answer. There, behind a low gray screen and under a sheet, was a young man.
I am not naive. Believe me, I am just as jaded as the next smart-asspushed-to-the-point-of-snappingpressure-cookedbeen-there-done-that journalist. But despite the blame — some deserved, some not — the media can sometimes serve a noble purpose. We can put the word out when a child is snatched out of his or her home, and that could lead to his or her safe return. We can rattle off the number of a license plate that could lead to a sniper‘s arrest. We can tell the stories with words andor pictures that just might inspire or shame those with real power into helping better our city.
I, for one, do care about 14-year-old Clyve Jackson, who lost his life on that sidewalk. Like many I often feel powerless to do anything to help, so maybe saying his name, that police do not believe he was in a gang, that he was an honor student, that he was well-liked, that he played basketball for Crenshaw High, is my tiny little contribution. I broadcast to all who will listen that Clyve Jackson was here and he mattered.
After some guy flashed gang signs in front of the camera near the end of my report, we wrapped up fast, and my photographer Martin was once again maneuvering Unit 14 back to the station. Sensing my troubled spirit, he gave me some advice. ”Just stay detached,“ he said. ”I try not to take this stuff home with me or it’ll drive me crazy.“
Often I try to do the same. On that Thursday night I failed. I went home and cried for Clyve Jackson — and for me. Tears of sadness. Tears of frustration. Tears of rage.