Invisible Kid

Invisible Kid
Sentenced to life in prison at 16, Adolfo Davis hoped a Supreme Court ruling would give him a chance at a new beginning. But nothing about freedom turned out as he expected.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 114


Maddy Crowell has written for Harper’s, The Guardian, and The Point. She lives in New York City. Hear more about “Invisible Kid” and the Atavist redesign on the Creative Nonfiction podcast.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl

Published in April 2021.


INCARCERATION

1.

Sometime after he had given up hope and then recovered it, Adolfo Davis began writing letters from his prison cell. Around 1999, he bought paper and pens from the commissary and wrote one letter after another, three times a week. He wrote on his bed, a squeaky metal frame with a lumpy loaf of a mattress, under the ugly glare of a fluorescent light bulb. There was nothing much to look at in his cell, just gray walls and a burnt-orange door made of steel, with tiny holes drilled through it. Muffled sounds from the hallway helped him figure out what time of day it was, when it was mealtime, which guards were working.

“My name is Adolfo Davis, and I’m trying to get home and regain my freedom,” he would write. “I didn’t shoot nobody. Please, help me get a second chance at life.” He sent a letter to nearly every law firm in Chicago, and after that, to every firm he could find in the state of Illinois. Most of the time, the letters went unanswered. Occasionally, he received a curt apology: “Sorry, we are at capacity.” Or simply: “We can’t, but good luck.”

Adolfo was in his early twenties when he started writing the letters. He had a boyish smile, a light mustache, and a disarming charisma that could fold into stillness when he felt like being alone. In 1993, at the age of 16, he’d been convicted as an accomplice to a double murder that took place when he was 14. He claimed that he was there when the killings happened, but that he didn’t pull the trigger. For that he was serving a mandatory life sentence, without the possibility of parole.

Prisons in Illinois were teeming with cases like his—Black men who’d been locked up as teenagers. Few would ever be freed. Over the years, Adolfo watched friends become optimistic and then have their hopes dashed by the courts, by politicians, by their own lawyers. He once saw someone make it to the front door of the prison after a ruling was issued in his favor, only to be sent back to his cell when a state’s attorney made a last-minute phone call to a judge.

Sometimes Adolfo felt like he was trapped at the bottom of an hourglass, the sand piling up around him: Every falling grain meant another day of his life lost. Except that he wasn’t sure exactly what he was missing. He’d been free in the world for only 14 years—about as long as it takes some woolly bear caterpillars to become moths. What he remembered best was the small slice of Chicago’s South Side where he grew up. He remembered selling drugs on street corners, and coming home to find no food in the house. He remembered being evicted 11 times in 12 years, and sleeping in apartments crammed with other kids, aunties and uncles, friends. He remembered doing wheelies on his bike, showing off to the other kids in his neighborhood. He remembered getting up early on Sundays to get a Super Transfer—a bus ticket good for an entire day—and riding downtown, where skyscrapers towered above him. He and his friends would spend the day shining shoes or breakdancing for money.

The letters continued into Adolfo’s thirties. At some point, he began to wonder if he’d be writing them for the rest of his life. He would if he had to, because despite the terms of his sentence, the only thing that sustained him was the thought that he might eventually be released. So he kept writing; the months bled together, and the years did, too.

One day in 2009, Adolfo got a letter from the officials at Illinois’s Stateville prison, where he was incarcerated, notifying him that a lawyer would visit him the next day. Her name was Patricia Soung, and she was from the Children and Family Justice Center, a legal clinic run by Northwestern University, in Evanston, just outside Chicago. Adolfo had no idea what her visit was about, but he felt a sudden buoyancy.

When he met Soung, he could tell right away that she was, as he later put it, “an alpha”—professional and direct. Yet she seemed to care about him as a person, too. She and her team were working on juvenile-justice cases in Illinois, she explained, and they’d come across his. She wanted to take it on pro bono. Was he interested?

In more than a decade of writing letters, Adolfo had never sent one to Soung or the Children and Family Justice Center. This offer of possible salvation came entirely out of the blue.

2.

At the time when Adolfo met Soung, the United States was the only country in the world that sentenced children convicted of certain crimes to life in prison. In Illinois, as in many other states, adolescents as young as 14 could be transferred to an adult court, allowing prosecutors to circumvent a juvenile-court system that was considered more rehabilitative than punitive. If a child was convicted of a double murder in adult court, the mandatory sentence was life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—judges were barred from taking into account the circumstances surrounding the crime to lower the sentence. The year Adolfo was arrested, 2,500 other adolescents across the country were serving mandatory life sentences.

Individuals convicted of certain crimes before they were 18 could also be sentenced to death, until a 2005 Supreme Court decision, Roper v. Simmons, abolished that option on the grounds that it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The decision was based in part on the idea that adolescents had an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” and were “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure.”

A coalition of activists and lawyers decided to use Roper to try to bring an end to mandatory life sentences for minors. The group was led in large part by Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama lawyer who saw an opportunity in the ruling: If the Supreme Court agreed that adolescents’ brains were fundamentally different from adults’, he reasoned, then why should a child ever be sentenced as an adult? Stevenson began searching the country for test cases—people serving life sentences who’d been locked up as kids. He had nearly 2,000 to choose from.

Stevenson zeroed in on 35 cases, spread over 20 states. They mostly involved the youngest adolescents condemned to die in prison. Stevenson filed an appeal in each of the cases, and two of them eventually reached the Supreme Court. In the first, Miller v. Alabama, a man named Evan Miller was 14 when he beat his neighbor and then set fire to his trailer, killing him, after a night of drinking and drug use. In the second, Jackson v. Hobbs, Kuntrell Jackson, also 14, robbed an Arkansas video store with two older teenagers, one of whom killed the store’s clerk.

In 2012, the Supreme Court delivered a monumental five to four decision in favor of Miller. It ruled that it was unlawful to hand a child a mandatory life sentence that failed to take “into account the family and home environment … no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.” As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it during oral arguments, “You’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope. I mean, essentially, you’re making a 14-year-old a throwaway person.”

Adolfo Davis at age 15

The ruling was groundbreaking in that it compelled judges to consider a child’s background in determining sentencing. But it also left open the question of whether the decision could apply to older cases, ones that had already been litigated. Soung’s team at Northwestern wanted to use Adolfo’s case to set a precedent, cementing that the Miller ruling could be applied retroactively. In 2014, they brought his case before the Illinois Supreme Court, and to Adolfo’s amazement the judges ruled in his favor: Based on Miller, he could appeal his life sentence. The decision didn’t set him free, but it cleared a path for that to happen.

Suddenly, Adolfo’s story garnered national attention. He found himself on the front page of The New York Times—a photo of him in an oversize brown prison uniform appeared above a story about his case. “A Murderer at 14, Then a Lifer, Now a Man Pondering a Future,” the headline read. Journalists from the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and WBEZ contacted him, asking him to share his story. “‘I’m just praying for a second chance,’” one headline declared, quoting Adolfo.

By then he was 38. He’d spent nearly a quarter-century—most of his life—behind bars. With every letter he sent and every prayer he whispered, he’d been waiting for this moment. The possibility of release softened the harsh edges of prison, made them tolerable. At the same time, he was wary of what might happen when his case went back to court. The system had always been against him. Why should anything change now?

His resentencing hearing was scheduled for April 13, 2015. When the day finally arrived, Adolfo felt too jittery to eat breakfast, but he tried anyway, forcing spoonfuls of lukewarm eggs into his mouth. From a friend in prison, he’d heard that his assigned judge, Angela Petrone, was tough; she’d been a  prosecutor before taking the bench, and tended to give the state the benefit of the doubt. Adolfo feared that the outcome would not be good.

His attorneys understood that fear. They, too, knew Petrone was often conservative in her rulings. Still, any sentence other than life in prison would open the door to Adolfo someday being free.

“Are you ready?” Soung asked when Adolfo sat down at the defense table in the courtroom, dressed in slacks, a light-pink shirt, and a purple tie. It was the first time he’d worn civilian clothes in more than 20 years. Adolfo nodded. His face was calm, but every cell in his body seemed to quiver.

A team from Channel Seven, one of Chicago’s largest news stations, showed up to report on the hearing, along with writers from several major newspapers. It was a big case in Illinois. The courtroom was packed, and activists from around the country were watching closely. To the defense team, the question was not whether Adolfo deserved punishment—his conviction would stand no matter what—but how much time was enough, given the challenging environment he grew up in and his age at the time of the crime. For the prosecution, the hearing was a fresh chance to prove that Adolfo deserved to spend his life behind bars.

The state prosecutor, James P. McKay, was familiar: He had argued the case against Adolfo 22 years earlier. A white man in a black suit who moved restlessly around the courtroom, McKay spoke first. “It took a jury all of three hours to find [Adolfo] guilty,” he said in his opening statement. “Make no mistake about it, this defendant was not a 14-year-old naive, scared, merely present lookout, despite what some people out there want the world to believe. Make no mistake about it, Judge, this defendant was a shooter. The ripe old age of 14, this defendant was a shooter, an executioner. They might have been young, but they were violent.”

While McKay spoke, Adolfo exhaled softly. It was going to be a long day.

3.

Adolfo Davis was born in 1976 and raised in various neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago, including the Back of the Yards. The area got its name for its proximity to the former Union Stock Yard and Transit Co. It had once a major meatpacking hub, but the industry dried up in the decades following World War II, and by 1990, after many of the neighborhood’s Slavic immigrants moved away, Black and Latino families had moved in.

Adolfo’s mother, Karen, was only around in physical form. As Adolfo remembers it, she “loved drugs more than her children.” When he was a toddler, his grandmother Fannie became his legal guardian. Fannie had migrated to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1950s, but she found life in the city just as challenging as it was in the South: She tried to support her 11 children, and then their children, but she never earned enough money to feed everyone.

At school, kids teased Adolfo for smelling bad and for wearing the same clothes every day. He would beat up anybody who made fun of him. He got into so many fights that he was kicked out of middle school without ever learning to read or write. To cope with feelings he couldn’t understand, he discovered new ways to harm himself, pouring alcohol on his head and setting it on fire, or burning himself with his mother’s cigarettes. He once played Russian roulette with a friend’s loaded gun. For fun, he and some older boys in the neighborhood scaled roofs and jumped the gaps between buildings, with the street 30 or 40 feet below. At night he wet the bed and suffered from insomnia, sleep terrors, and hallucinations. “I stayed out of the house as much as I could,” he recalled. “I just felt like I didn’t ever want to be born. All the time, I’d look at other kids who had good mothers or fathers, and I wished I had what they had.”

To get money for food, Adolfo and his brother walked to a Shell station five blocks from their house and pumped gas for a few quarters. Because that didn’t always earn them enough, they learned to steal what they needed. One day, Adolfo was shivering with hunger when he saw another child, a girl, step out from a corner store with a sandwich in her hand. Adolfo tried to snatch it from her. She fled with the sandwich but dropped three dollars’ worth of food stamps and 75 cents in change. Adolfo picked it all up and treated himself to a large soda pop, hot dogs, and fries. A few days later, he was arrested for robbery. The police took him to a station, with plans to release him that night. But nobody came to pick him up, so officers sent Adolfo to the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center, also known as the Audy Home. He was nine.

When he got to Audy, for the first time in his life, Adolfo was given three meals a day and a room with a bed to himself. After he was released, he tried to get himself locked up again anytime he grew tired of worrying about where his next meal would come from. Audy became his home away from home. From 1986 to 1990, he was taken to a police station on 20 occasions, and he was sent to Audy in half of those instances—anytime the charge was relatively serious, like when he stole a car.

His frequent arrests caught the attention of the Department of Family and Children’s Services. When a probation officer visited his home in 1990, the officer noted that he had a “mother reeking of alcohol.” According to a DFCS report, the home had “cockroaches climbing on the walls,” no kitchen table, and as many as 15 children inside. The caseworker recommended that Adolfo be “removed from his home environment.” But nobody ever came to get him after that visit. 

Adolfo found a family in the streets instead. The two warring gangs in his neighborhood were the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples, which at one point had been a single gang—the Black Gangster Disciples—before splitting into factions. The Gangster Disciples, or GD, dominated Adolfo’s block. Founded in the 1960s by Larry Hoover and David Barksdale, the GD was one of the largest street gangs in the country, claiming up to 30,000 members. In its heyday, according to Illinois state prosecutors, the GD generated up to $100 million a year in drug sales. The gang was believed to be responsible for hundreds of murders in Chicago in the 1980s, at the peak of the crack epidemic. It recruited young boys from all over the city.

One day when Adolfo was 11 or 12, he was walking with a friend, Eugene Bowman, when a group of older teenagers approached them and asked if they wanted to make $250 a week. All they had to do was stand on the corner and keep watch for police cars. If they saw cops, they were instructed to shout code words—like “1151” or “Suzy!”—to raise the alarm. He and Eugene accepted the offer immediately. Soon after, Adolfo got a tattoo of his new gang’s symbol on his forearm—a six-pointed star with devil horns, with a “G” inscribed in the center.

For the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged somewhere. He didn’t have to worry about being fed, or about loneliness. Gang members took care of him; they gave him food and brought him into their homes. As he got older, he was handed a gun that he was never taught how to use, and introduced to designated street corners where he was supposed to sell drugs.

Then one night, everything went terribly wrong. It was October 1990, a particularly dangerous time in Adolfo’s neighborhood. There was an ongoing war over drug territory, and someone from the Black Disciples was rumored to have tossed a Molotov cocktail at a GD leader’s house. Adolfo, who’d turned 14 two months earlier, met up with Eugene Bowman and Allen Caffey, another gang member, who intended to retaliate by stealing drugs from their rivals. The three teenagers, all armed, caught a taxi to 56th and Calumet, a notoriously contested area where they knew about a drug house controlled by the Black Disciples. When they reached the house around 1 a.m., they saw someone walk out. They pointed a gun in his face and told him to show them where the drugs were kept. When someone opened the front door, shots flew.

The details of what happened next are murky. A prosecutor would later argue that all three boys—Adolfo and his two friends—fired their guns. Adolfo says his gun was knocked from his hand as soon as he entered the apartment. Four men were shot. Two of them were killed instantly, including Keith Whitfield, a teenager who used to eat lunch with Adolfo on the roof of his building. Adolfo felt numb. He fled the scene just as sirens began screaming in the distance.

The next day, October 10, 1990, the fact that four men had been shot, and two killed, on the South Side barely made the news. In the Tribune, it was lumped together with several other weekend deaths under the headline: “Columbus Day Weekend Adds 13 Chicago Killings.”

4.

The shootings occurred as the tough-on-crime era was getting into full swing. Four years earlier, President Ronald Reagan had signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which allocated funds to build prisons and introduced the idea of a mandatory minimum sentence for selling drugs. The presidential election in 1988 saw the release of the infamous Willie Horton ad, which peddled racist stereotypes and helped sink Democrat Michael Dukakis’s bid for the White House. By 1994, there were over a million people incarcerated in the United States—three times more than in 1980.

The same year, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included the three-strikes statute requiring “mandatory life imprisonment without possibility of parole for Federal offenders with three or more convictions for serious violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes.” Adults weren’t the only targets of new legislation. In 1996, Hillary Clinton gave a campaign speech for her husband in which she warned of a threat facing the nation. “These are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators’: no conscience, no empathy.” (Clinton apologized for the remark in 2016.) By the end of the decade, all but four states had passed laws that made it easier for children to be tried in adult courts.

Two days after the murders at 56th and Calumet, the police showed up at Adolfo’s grandmother’s house looking for him. He wasn’t home, but when Adolfo saw his grandmother later that evening, she told him that he needed to go talk to the police. He didn’t think much of it: He hadn’t shot anyone, so why should he worry? Because he was a minor, the police said that his mother had to accompany him to the station. Though she was intoxicated at the time, she obliged.

As soon as they entered the station, according to Adolfo, he was taken to an interrogation room and handcuffed to the wall, and he wasn’t read his Miranda rights. (During his trial, police officers disputed this: They claimed Adolfo was read his rights, and that he was not handcuffed. No evidence exists to corroborate either account.) Because he couldn’t read or write, Adolfo recalled, the police offered him a statement they’d drafted and told him that if he signed it, he could leave. They read it out loud to him. Adolfo’s mother urged him to sign so they could go home. He did. “I never thought that signing that paper meant I wouldn’t be back home for 30 years,” he said.

Adolfo remembers being removed from the interrogation room. His bail was set at $100,000, which his family couldn’t pay, so he was taken to the Audy home until his trial, which was held three years later.

At Audy, Adolfo’s grandmother came to visit him at least once a week. They played cards together, and she snuck him candy and snacks. She never asked him what happened the night of the killings, but Adolfo could feel how much it weighed on her. She was the only person he felt loved him, and he had let her down. A new pain began burning inside him. He felt like he was a burden to her, to everyone.

One day not long after his 15th birthday, when his grandmother had just left after one of their visits, Adolfo climbed onto the bed in his cell to peek out the window. He saw her crying at the bus stop outside. It was too much. He attached the sheet from his bed to a pipe above him, tied it around his neck, and jumped. Even though he was only five feet tall and little more than 100 pounds, the pipe collapsed under his weight. He sat on the floor crying, thinking, I’m so stupid I can’t even kill myself. He was placed on suicide watch.

When it finally came time for his trial, in March 1993, Adolfo joined his state-appointed lawyer, Mark Kusatzky, at the Cook County courthouse. “Guns, gangs, drugs, and murder, that’s what this case is about,” the prosecution’s opening argument began. “And more simply, that is what Allen Caffey, Adolfo Davis, and Eugene Bowman were about.”

About a dozen witnesses spoke—detectives who’d been at the scene of the crime, forensics experts, a doctor, a firearms examiner, police officers who’d interrogated Adolfo, and two men who’d survived the shooting that night, Alfred Weeden and Lamont Baxter. Both of them pointed Adolfo out to the judge and said he’d fired a gun. Bullets from the weapon Adolfo was said to be carrying were never recovered from the shooting, but in the end, whether he fired a weapon or not hardly mattered. According to Illinois law at the time, if someone was convicted of participating in a double homicide, even if they didn’t actually kill the victims, the mandatory sentence was life.

Adolfo was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder, and home invasion. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. On the trial transcript, his name was misspelled in the case title: The People of the State of Illinois v. Addolfo Davis. Nobody had bothered to correct it.

5.

In 1994, Adolfo was transferred to Stateville Correctional Center, an imposing maximum-security prison spread over 2,200 acres of land and surrounded by 33-foot walls. Adolfo was still small in stature, and he was not yet 18, making him one of the youngest people incarcerated at Stateville. The moment he walked in, he saw a prisoner wearing a Chicago Bulls collectors’ cap and a Duke University hoodie, with a flashy chain gleaming on his chest. The man was mopping the floor. Adolfo couldn’t believe that someone in lockup was allowed to dress like that. When he approached, the man asked Adolfo if he was in a gang.

“GD,” Adolfo said. The guy held out his fist to bump. He was GD, too. Soon after, Adolfo met a GD kid he grew up with, who showed him around and introduced him to more gang members. There were hundreds of them. Adolfo was surrounded by family.

The rivalries from the streets seemed to be exacerbated inside the prison walls. There were dozens of gangs: the Black P Stones, the Latin Kings, the Almighty Saints, the Spanish Cobras. Stateville was virtually lawless. Adolfo smoked weed, partied, drank, got a 20-year-old pregnant, and was involved in so many fights that he was repeatedly sent to an isolation unit. While he was in isolation one day, a guard humiliated him by trying to take away his belongings. As revenge, Adolfo hid a can of tomato paste inside his laundry bag. When the guard came to unlock his door, Adolfo swung the bag straight at the man’s face, splitting his cheek. Another time, when he was 19, he hit a rival gang member in the face with a pipe. He assaulted guards and other prisoners so often that finally he was sent to Tamms, a supermax prison.

Adolfo arrived there in 1998, with his hands and feet shackled. Located 350 miles from Chicago, Tamms was the farthest Adolfo had ever been from home. He was taken to a 70-square-foot room that held a toilet, bed, and sink. He was kept in his cell, alone, for 23 hours a day. It was there that he finally began to experience the full weight of his sentence. “Time felt slow, slow, slow,” Adolfo said. “It wasn’t getting no better. When you’re in prison, you’re stuck there all day. Nothing to do but stare at the walls. You try to sleep all day, but you wake up and it’s the same day.”

At first he felt suicidal again. Then angry. He began writing poetry—he’d learned to read and write early in his sentence—that came out in floods of rage directed at his mother. “How could you bring me into this world / When you knew you wasn’t ready?” one early poem inquired. Another went: “I wish I could have died at birth, / so I would have never seen your face, / and you could have felt the pain / that you have given me.”

Adolfo had few visitors. Over the years, friends and relatives showed up in spurts, but just as Adolfo became hopeful that they would be a steady presence in his life, they’d stop visiting altogether. In 2002, he was removed from Tamms and sent from prison to prison across Illinois—a dizzying experience. In 2010, back at Stateville, he began to have one regular visitor, someone he knew from his earliest days in detention at Audy: Father David Kelly, a 54-year-old priest who ran an organization in the Back of the Yards called the Precious Blood Ministry.

Kelly, who moved to the Back of the Yards in 2001 and never left, was a revered figure in the neighborhood. Precious Blood was just down the street from one of Adolfo’s childhood homes, though he wasn’t aware of it at the time. It was meant to be a place where young boys could intern at the woodshop instead of dealing drugs—where they could be mentored by older men and women who had served time in prison and were eager to help others avoid the same trajectory. In some cases, Precious Blood helped kids with bail and temporarily housed men and women who’d recently been released from prison.

Adolfo’s days in prison remained long and empty. The hope of getting out became his only lifeline.

When Adolfo was on trial, Father Kelly had showed up. He later wrote letters to Adolfo, and Adolfo wrote back, telling him about his days and what he was thinking. Sometimes Adolfo sent Father Kelly his poems, which Kelly put in a Precious Blood newsletter and shared with kids in the neighborhood. When Kelly began visiting Adolfo regularly at Stateville, they met in the visitation area, which had vending machines full of snacks Adolfo didn’t often get to indulge in: chips, soda, hamburgers, popcorn, Twinkies. As they ate, Kelly asked Adolfo about his life, about what he might still do with it, even from behind bars. They talked about what it would mean for Adolfo to become a positive force in the world. Sometimes, Kelly arranged phone calls with younger boys in the Back of the Yards so Adolfo could tell them about the things he wished he’d done differently at their age.

With time, Adolfo learned how to pace his days. He started playing chess with a friend, who went by the nickname Rip, across the courtyard from his cell. He’d step up to a window the size of an air vent in the corner of his cell and signal his move with his hands. Rip would repeat the signal through his own window to confirm, then they’d both jump down and move the pieces on their respective boards. A single game could take up to seven hours. Rip was agonizingly slow. When they had a chance to meet in the courtyard for an hour one day, Adolfo asked him why he took so long to complete a move.

“I’m praying,” Rip explained.

Rip, who was also serving a life sentence, was a Muslim. One day, he brought a copy of the Koran to Adolfo. Adolfo found its teachings to be a revelation. “There was a peace to it, a unity, a patience,” he said. He started praying five times a day, and one night, after cleansing his entire body, he recited the Shahadah, the Islamic declaration of faith, alone in his cell. “There is no God but Allah,” he whispered. “Muhammad is his final messenger on earth.” He felt tranquility. 

But even with faith, Adolfo’s days in prison remained long and empty. The hope of getting out became his only lifeline. The legal climb was a slow crawl—even after Soung offered to help him get a new sentencing hearing, it was difficult for him to keep his spirits up. And then one day, unexpectedly, Adolfo fell in love.

It was Valentine’s Day in 2012, and he was making a routine call to his cousin in Chicago, who was getting a haircut at the time. Adolfo heard a woman’s voice in the background, and he asked if he could speak with her. When the woman came on the phone, Adolfo found her voice warm and open and strong. She didn’t ask him why he was in prison. She didn’t seem to judge him. Her name was Everlena McCoy, and they soon began speaking every day. They talked for hours about her life, her kids. He told her about his days, and his childhood, and how it was hard for him to trust anyone.

When Everlena visited him in prison, she nervously towed her three small children along with her. She was the most beautiful woman Adolfo had ever seen—tall and dark, with a big, toothy smile and brown eyes that narrowed when something didn’t wash with her. He got up the courage to propose on the anniversary of their first conversation. He had nothing to offer her, he said, getting onto his knee in the visitation area, except a lot of lonely nights. She didn’t care. “Yes!” she said. “Oh, my God, yes!”

When Adolfo was in court for his resentencing hearing, Everlena was there. Maybe he could offer her more after all. It no longer felt impossible that they’d be able to share a real life together.

6.

Adolfo’s hearing lasted from eleven in the morning until ten that night. His lawyers called nearly a dozen witnesses who’d known him in prison, each of whom testified about his reformed behavior. His entire life, people had said bad things about him—that he’d never amount to anything, that he was a murderer, a criminal. Prison guards had reiterated this, beating him down, sometimes physically. Now people were insisting that the opposite was true, that he was a person who mattered. In a strange way, it was like watching a eulogy being delivered at his own funeral.

Father Kelly was called to the stand.

“Do you remember your first interaction with Adolfo?” Soung asked him.

“I do, because it was a serious case. People were talking about it, but also [about] how young he was when he came in,” Kelly said, referring to the period when Adolfo was in juvenile detention. “I, you know, felt that, I felt his youth.”

Adolfo watched the judge’s body language closely during the trial. He felt like she hardly ever looked at him, and often seemed bored or annoyed with the defense’s witnesses. McKay, the prosecutor, would interrogate the witnesses during the cross-examination, which Adolfo found confusing. At times he felt like he’d woken up in 1993, and he was on trial for murder again.

Everlena anxiously watched everything unfold from her seat behind Adolfo, in the first row of the crowded courtroom. After the hearing concluded, all they could do was wait for the ruling. Days passed, then a week. It was excruciating. Everlena remembered how excited Adolfo had been before the hearing, how when he called her, he swooned over all the things they could do together if he got out. But neither of them felt like the hearing had gone well. The judge hadn’t seemed interested in the witnesses who’d praised Adolfo, and McKay had worked hard to prove that he’d pulled the trigger in the murders.  

Everlena McCoy

A few weeks later, everyone returned to court to hear Judge Petrone’s decision. When she began delivering it, she failed to notice that Adolfo wasn’t in the room. Soung interrupted her—Adolfo was in the bathroom and would be there in a moment, she said. When he arrived, Petrone started reading again from her 18-page ruling.

The judge had considered the factors brought before her—Adolfo’s age at the time of the crime, the circumstances of his childhood, his actions during incarceration—as required by the Miller ruling. “Defendant’s acts showed an aggression and callous disregard for human life far beyond his tender age of 14. This sentence is necessary to deter others,” she said. “It is necessary to protect the public from harm.”

Petrone resentenced Adolfo to life in prison, on all counts, without possibility of parole. It was a heavy blow to advocates’ efforts to apply Miller in a way that meaningfully changed the lives of people convicted of crimes as children. It wouldn’t be the last: In April 2021, the Supreme Court affirmed that judges are allowed to sentence minors to life without parole, so long as it is a discretionary sentence and not a mandatory one. The same month, an Alabama judge resentenced Evan Miller to life without parole.

After hearing Petrone’s decision, Adolfo dropped his head onto the defense table. Later, he sobbed in a corner near the courtroom where nobody could see him. The character witnesses, the media fever, his own transformation, and most of all his hope—what had it all been for?

7.

Soung promised Adolfo that her team wouldn’t stop fighting for him. She’d moved to California by then, so she passed his case to a new lawyer—an energetic public defender named Heidi Lambros, who urged Adolfo to appeal his resentencing. He was reluctant; being sentenced to life without parole a third time was almost too brutal to imagine. Then again, what choice did he have? To accept that he would die in prison? Everlena insisted that he keep pressing forward.

In December 2016, Lambros filed a 67-page brief with an appellate court, arguing that, at the resentencing hearing, Petrone had effectively discounted Adolfo’s youth at the time of the crime. “Not [only] did Judge Petrone ignore Miller’s constitutional imperative,” Lambros wrote, “she showed contempt for Miller, finding that its central precept—that adolescents have a ‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking’—was based on pure ‘speculation.’” Yet again, Adolfo waited for his case to inch its way through the justice system.

A few months later, Everlena was driving home from playing bingo when she got a call from Lambros. “The state’s attorney’s office is willing to make a deal,” the public defender said.

The same year Lambros filed the brief, Kimberly Foxx had been elected Illinois’s state attorney. A product of Cabrini-Green, one of Chicago’s public housing projects, Foxx had come into office determined to undo the consequences of the policies passed during the tough-on-crime era. While Foxx could not overturn Petrone’s decision, she could offer Adolfo a deal. What Lambros had called to tell Everlena was that Foxx had agreed to reduce Afoldo’s sentence to 60 years. Because of his good behavior, he would only need to serve 30—and that meant he could walk free in 2020.

Everlena was giddy. “Yes, yes, yes, you can accept that deal!” she told Lambros.

Everlena drove home and anxiously waited for her fiancé to call, which he usually did around 5 p.m. When he heard the news, Adolfo dropped the phone and started weeping. “Hello?” Everlena said. “Hello?” She thought he’d hung up on her.

After a long pause, Adolfo picked the phone back up. “I’m doing it, baby,” he said to her. “I’m finally getting out.” He said that he had to call her back, though—he didn’t want the other prisoners to see him crying.

Adolfo spent every day after that phone call preparing himself for—and fantasizing about—his release in 2020, which was then nearly three years away. He worked out every morning and dreamed of being able to walk freely outside, to stroll down city streets, feel the cool air blowing off Lake Michigan, see the seasons change. He imagined writing bestsellers; he would embark on book tours and sit on panels to tell people about the wrongs of the criminal justice system, how prison could break you if you let it. He wanted to sell his poetry as well as the artwork he’d painted behind bars. He wanted to transform the Back of the Yards, to show kids that there was another path. He wanted to buy a house. He wanted to feel what it was like to ride a bike again.

Just before Adolfo was released, Father Kelly called him with a warning. “You need to get counseling first, when you come out. You have these visions of how things are going to be, as though everything will fall into place,” Kelly said. “The outside world is not how you think it is.”

Adolfo Davis
Adolfo in April 2021

FREEDOM

1.

On March 21, 2020, Adolfo put on a black Nike track suit and a pair of Air Max sneakers. He packed up the only things he owned: a few family photos and a folder full of legal papers. Then he walked through the metal door leading out of Jacksonville Correctional Center in central Illinois. A lieutenant told him good luck after handing him a disposable face mask. “Thanks,” Adolfo muttered. He didn’t turn around.

There were piles of crusty snow on the earth, which in the distance was peppered with farms and factories. A vast white sky went on for miles. He hadn’t seen anything but a square of it, from the confines of a prison courtyard or a transport van, in three decades. He sucked in the cold air. Finally, he thought to himself. Finally!

Everlena was there to greet him. He held her hand, enjoying a strange sense of privacy as they walked, very slowly, away from the prison. Adolfo was terrified of going too fast—he worried that the warden would call him back, or shoot at him, if he moved too quickly. He felt paranoid that the whole thing was some sort of ploy, that he’d suddenly be returned to his cell, like that fellow prisoner he’d known years before who never made it out the front door.

His sister Traci was waiting in the visitors’ parking area. When he reached her, he pumped his fists toward the sky. She started clapping and crying. They pulled each other into a tight hug.

“Something is about to happen,” Adolfo said to nobody in particular as they drove away. “This can’t be real. Is this real?”

Everlena laughed. “It’s real,” she promised.

They had a nearly four-hour drive ahead of them, past alternating patches of auburn and white fields. Traci pulled into a gas station, where Adolfo picked out three different kinds of Gatorade, a Skor bar, and a Snickers. There were so many more candies and flavors than when he was a kid. If he’d had enough money, he would have bought everything on the shelf.

They drove around the edge of Springfield, the state capital, heading north. They scrolled past flat plains and exit signs with the symbols for gas stations, McDonald’s, and Subway. Eventually, Chicago’s skyline emerged. The city began to flood through the darkening car windows. Adolfo blinked. He thought he was dreaming: An advertisement on a billboard was suddenly alive, dancing and flashing colors. The streets, by contrast, were deserted.

Just one day earlier, Governor Jay B. Pritzker had announced that Illinois would be under complete lockdown for the time being. All nonessential businesses were shuttered overnight, and all parks, paths, and lakefront trails were closed. Adolfo had heard about COVID in prison, but he didn’t know what to believe. Now, driving through the city’s empty streets, the pandemic seemed very real. Still, Adolfo found it oddly comforting, like the city had been vacated for his arrival—like it was all his, for just a little while.

They exited Lake Shore Drive, entering the South Side. This was home. They turned west on 55th Street and drove past Washington Park, where Adolfo used to sell drugs. He stared at it. Someone had built a diving board over the public swimming pool, but everything else looked exactly the same.

That night, at Everlena’s house, Adolfo lay in bed, jumpy and exhausted all at once. He’d played the possibilities of what this day might be like over and over in his head. Now he stared at the ceiling, scared that if he fell asleep, he’d wake up back in prison. He turned onto one side, then the other; he fidgeted, trying to get comfortable. Finally, around dawn, he shut his eyes. The world dissolved from view.

2.

A lot about the world had changed over the previous 30 years. Cell phones were sleek and pocket-size, and they functioned like personal computers. Cars were fancier and glided all but noiselessly through Chicago’s streets. Politics seemed to be changing, too. America had elected a Black president—twice. Adolfo remembered the night of the 2008 election, how he had stared at Barack Obama’s face on a prison TV screen and thought, Maybe he will make a difference for us.

But the years went by, and prison stayed the same. Adolfo felt let down. He’d heard about the Black Lives Matter movement before his release, and he wondered whether it would make a difference. Would Black kids raised on the South Side of Chicago have a future to look forward to, something better than what he had?

When he got his license, Adolfo drove past his old haunts. He went alone, blasting the watery vibrato of jazz-gospel singer Tevin Campbell on the car’s speakers. Houses he remembered being lived in were boarded up or had shattered windows. Pipes were broken, and paint peeled from apartment buildings. Whole blocks that were once home to grocery stores and arcades were now entirely empty, their lots overgrown with weeds and littered with cigarette butts. Kids younger than 14 were out selling drugs, even during the pandemic.

A spot he kept returning to was the last apartment he’d lived in with his grandmother: a three-story brick building down the street from a corner store. A sign hung from it, geared toward investors who might want to purchase the property: “100% NO MONEY DOWN! NO CREDIT CHECK.

“It’s like in prison, you have to look strong, smile, and keep your back straight, but on the inside you’re dying,” Adolfo said. “That’s how I looked at that building. The foundation was still strong, but inside, the spirit was dead.”

At first, Adolfo didn’t believe Everlena when she told him that he couldn’t walk leisurely around the neighborhood. “When people don’t know you,” she explained, “you’re like a target. They’ll think you’re from a different place, a different gang. They’ll shoot you if they don’t know you.” She instructed him to hide the GD tattoo on his forearm. He covered it with a bandage whenever he went out, and waited for tattoo shops to reopen so he could get it removed. Sometimes he wondered if he’d been safer in prison.

Gun violence in Chicago was surging. By July 2020, more than 1,300 people had been shot and 320 killed. In one two-week span over the summer, nine children were murdered. Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, declared that the city’s violence needed to be treated as a public health crisis. Activists said it wasn’t enough.

In July, ten blocks away from where Adolfo and Everlena lived, a car drove past a funeral procession for a deceased gang member, and shots were fired indiscriminately into the crowd of mourners. Fifteen people were hit, and all of them were hospitalized. Tamar Manasseh, who founded the anti-violence group Mothers Against Senseless Killings Chicago, said she’d requested that law enforcement increase nearby patrols ahead of the funeral. “I told the police they were going to shoot up the funeral, AND THEY JUST DID!!!” Manasseh posted on Facebook. “Please tell me how this happened AFTER the police had been notified that it would?”

Adolfo and Everlena talked about what it would be like to leave Chicago, to go somewhere safer than the South Side, where they could walk the streets without looking over their shoulders. The daughter Adolfo had never met, the one conceived early in his prison sentence, was now 24 and living in Las Vegas. Maybe he and Everlena could go there. They threw out other options over dinners: Iowa, Georgia, Missouri, maybe the suburbs, or a smaller town in Illinois—places where they could get a modest house and live a quiet life. But a nagging feeling kept Adolfo from making any real plans. He felt haunted by the lack of progress he saw, watching kids on street corners and hearing about friends of friends being shot.

“I spent thirty years depending on other people to help me live,” Adolfo told Everlena one day. “Now it’s time for me to give back.”

Father David Kelly and the Precious Blood Center

3.

The Precious Blood center is a tired-looking orange-brick building that spans half a city block. But when Adolfo started going there, it felt different than the surrounding neighborhood. Posters reading “Black Lives Matter” hung from the chain-link fence next to peace signs. A full-length basketball court was available at all hours for kids to practice. There was a peace garden—a labyrinth of stones neatly configured into a giant swirl—and a vegetable patch where volunteers grew tomatoes, zucchini, herbs, and carrots.

It felt like a sanctuary. But as Father Kelly liked to remind people, “It’s not a bubble at all.” There were no locked gates separating Precious Blood from the rest of the community, a decision intended to send a welcoming message: Come as you are. Gang members were not prohibited. “That’s the point. That’s who’s invited. That’s who it’s for,” Kelly said. “This would be a huge failure if it were an oasis that kept people out. The whole idea is to bring them in.”

Kelly had promised Adolfo a job at Precious Blood when he was released. What began as an internship became formal employment in May 2020. Adolfo spent most of his time figuring out how to log into Zoom seminars, where he shared his story with hundreds of strangers. “Sitting in prison, thinking about my life, I think, man, I was messed up,” he said during one panel with the Iowa-based Fountain of Youth, a community-building nonprofit. “How did I make it this far? God put me through all that to put me here right now. Yes, it hurt. That’s why I dedicate as much time as I can to show the young that, man, it’s gonna hurt. But they got people who genuinely care for them, who have their back.”

Sometimes kids who hung around Precious Blood would watch Adolfo speak. A teenager named Curtis Dixon even took notes when Adolfo starting talking about how nothing had changed since he was locked up. Curtis hadn’t realized how neglected their neighborhood had been, and for how long.

Everything about Curtis reminded Adolfo of his own story: Curtis was raised in the Back of the Yards by an overworked mom with four kids. He grew up not knowing who his father was. At home the power went on and off. There was no heat in the winter, no furniture to sit or sleep on, and food was sometimes scarce. They were evicted four times in four years. “We basically raised each other,” Curtis told Adolfo. 

When he was in third grade, Curtis started “going outside,” which meant hanging out with older kids. When he turned 14, he dropped out of school and began getting into arguments with his mom. When he was 16, he got his girlfriend pregnant. Not long after, he left home. By the time Adolfo met Curtis, he’d moved into Precious Blood, where he was trying to turn his life around. He had dreams of one day owning a boxing gym. He spent his days running on a treadmill, lifting weights, and practicing his jabs. Curtis felt as if all the pent-up anger inside him came leaking out when he exercised, like air escaping an overfull tire.

Father Kelly monitored Adolfo closely, making sure he was taking care of himself. Once, Adolfo attended a three-day training program for what’s called Truth Circle, a restorative-justice practice adopted from Native American rituals and intended to promote healing and foster relationships within communities. (At Precious Blood, staff often employ the technique when bringing families together—for instance, when one family has had a loved one killed or injured by a member of another because of a gang rivalry.) The training took place in a darkened room, with soft music and candles. Adolfo joined a circle of about 15 people seated around a patchwork quilt that held various objects: shells, stuffed animals, a miniature cauldron. A woman named Pamela Purdie led the session. “Whenever people ask me what I do, I tell them that I create safe spaces,” she told the group. The training was designed to teach people exactly what that meant.

Purdie asked if Adolfo wanted to stand up and tell his story. Adolfo spoke quietly, like he wasn’t sure what the volume of his voice should be, how much was too much. He said he’d just gotten out of prison and that he wanted to help new generations of boys and girls on the South Side. “We have to teach them how to focus, how to be from here to here,” he said, raising his hand from a low position to a higher one. “We have to show how to return them to citizens and get they lives together.” The people in the circle around him offered silent nods.

Purdie asked the group to leave the room and, in private, to each draw a picture of the place where they felt safest in the world. Everyone disappeared, but Adolfo remained where he was, toying with his phone. When the group returned to the room, carrying drawings of beaches and forests and homes, Adolfo was asked to share first. He held up his name tag.

“My safe space is me—Adolfo,” he said, pointing to his heart. It was something he’d learned in prison: The only security and comfort he had was himself.

4.

Adolfo didn’t know where to concentrate his energy. He moved restlessly from one kid in need to another, one crisis to the next. It felt like every day, he heard about a new shooting, sometimes within a short distance of Precious Blood. The pandemic torpedoed the above-board economy the neighborhood still had; small businesses were constantly going under, and more people than ever were out of jobs.

After George Floyd was murdered, Adolfo helped pick up broken glass in the neighborhood. He couldn’t grasp why everyone seemed so focused on one man’s death when people were dying violently every single day. He felt like some of the deepest problems in Black neighborhoods were ignored. He wasn’t convinced politicians were the answer to making a difference. The real work had to come from within communities. “If we don’t do it for ourselves,” he said, “nobody else is gonna do it for us.”

One day, Adolfo had an idea. He wanted to organize a bike ride through Back of the Yards. He would call it Pedal for Peace. He hoped that it would be the start of a movement in the neighborhood to bring an end to gun violence. He brought it up with his colleagues at Precious Blood, and everyone was enthusiastic. Together, they mapped out a six-mile route through the neighborhood and set a date in September. Adolfo designed T-shirts that read “Pedal for Peace,” and a local bicycle shop donated a few dozen used bikes and helmets.

On the morning of the march, Adolfo awoke early, picked up Everlena’s eight-year-old niece, Niya, and brought her to the basketball court at Precious Blood. She’d never learned how to ride a bike, so Adolfo spent an hour trying to teach her. Niya pedaled for a second and then fell, repeatedly, until it was decided that she’d ride in the Precious Blood van, which would be at the front of the procession.

Niya was annoyed. “Why are no girls riding?” she asked Adolfo, her face framed by long braids. The court was starting to fill up with mostly young boys from the neighborhood, many of them not much older than her. They rode in restless circles, doing tricks with their bikes. “Do we have more boys than girls in the world?” Niya continued.

Frances, a black terrier owned by a member of the Precious Blood community, had trotted over to Adolfo by then. Francessss, Adolfo cooed, opening his palm to reveal some of the dog treats he always kept in one of his pockets. He scratched the dog’s side.

“This is what I was made to be doing. This is it.

The event’s scale didn’t resemble the high-profile racial-justice protests that took place over the summer: Around 50 people showed up. Adolfo recognized nearly every face from the neighborhood. A lone police officer arrived in a squad car to lead the group, and kids on bikes started pulling away from Precious Blood. The facility’s van followed, bearing hand-painted signs that read “Spread the Love,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Pedaling for Peace.” The siren of the squad car echoed through the still streets, and people came out onto their porches to see what was happening. A few cars honked in support as the group crawled forward. Younger boys riding their bikes with no hands urged the police officer to speed up. They were having fun.

Adolfo alternated between the front and back of the procession. It went down 51st Street, jolting some neighbors awake with cheering, cut through a corner of the 60 acres that make up Sherman Park, and looped back to Precious Blood. By then Adolfo was sweaty and glowing. “This is what I was made to be doing,” he told his friend Joe Joe, bumping his chest with his hand. “This is it.

5.

The exhilaration wore off quickly. Life on the outside was harder than Adolfo anticipated, and unexpected things pulled him down. Bills kept flooding in; his weekly paycheck seemed to empty into a black hole of rent, groceries, internet, and electricity. He tried to start his own business selling books of his poetry and T-shirts printed with his paintings, but he only sold a few. COVID made it hard to see his friends and family. Under the pandemic lockdown, unable to visit loved ones, Adolfo sometimes felt like he was still a prisoner.

Anytime someone asked how he was doing, he’d nod his head, which was often shaded by a slightly askew baseball cap. He was “cool” or “good,” he said. He seldom let on how he was really feeling, even to Everlena. The bike ride had been a high point—it made him feel like he could marshal the goodness and energy necessary to help his neighborhood. But afterward nothing seemed to change, and the number of shootings in Chicago increased one by one.

Adolfo and Everlena had hoped to buy the house they were living in, but with his low credit score and her out of work because of COVID and a 2018 brain aneurysm, it didn’t seem possible. Adolfo began looking for a second job, and he got one with Amazon, packing boxes from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., three nights a week. The work wore him down, until he could barely function. He had to quit. A few months later, he took a job as a night-shift security guard. Still, he felt like it got harder to save money, not easier.

Everlena worried about him. When she tried to guide him through something that had passed him by when he was in prison—for example, how to know which emails and phone calls were spam—he sometimes snapped at her. When she gave him driving directions, he occasionally did the opposite of what she said, just because. He seemed to never sleep, to never stop moving. At a barbecue he hosted in their backyard, Adolfo disappeared just as it was getting started. He’d run out to wash his car, or his stepdaughter’s car, or maybe to the grocery store. Nobody knew for sure. An hour later he returned, just as abruptly as he’d left. “What are you doing?” Everlena asked him.

“Washing the car,” he shrugged.

“Why?” she asked, laughing.

“He treats me like I’m his warden,” she explained to a friend at the party. “He’s been in there since he was 14. He still has that mentality that he’s locked up and I’m trying to be his warden. It makes me want to say, ‘Well, just mess up all you want.’”

Adolfo started using his Facebook page to express himself. Often this took the form of video confessionals as he drove, his phone recording his face from beneath the steering wheel as he mouthed the lyrics to songs or talked about his childhood. One day, instead of sharing a video, he wrote:

I love what I do. But inside I am still dealing with a lot…My life has been a journey I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I am still trying to figure out reality from dreams. I am tired but I have to push through it. I have no choice because I have to pay bills. I never had the opportunity to just enjoy life. My life has been an ongoing struggle and fight just to exist. But nothing has changed. I just want to not have to fight to exist anymore and not have to be the strong one all the time. I’m tired.

More than 50 people responded, sending virtual hugs and words of encouragement. One commenter quoted Angela Davis: “Freedom is a constant struggle.” Another wrote, “God gives the toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.” Friends who’d been incarcerated warned him of the “adjustment period” and the “ill affects of the cell.” He needed to be patient.

Father Kelly noticed how thin Adolfo was stretched—he’d go from running errands for family members, to giving kids at Precious Blood a ride to wherever they needed to go, to delivering clothes to a homeless shelter every day after work. It was as if Adolfo was afraid that the only way to make his life work, for everything to come together and make sense, was to keep his foot on the accelerator. “It’s OK to say no sometimes,” Kelly told him one day. “You have a 14-year-old’s vision of how things were going to be, as though everything was just going to fall into place. But if you want to do this work, it’s not a sprint. You need to be asking: How many days am I going to be able to do this?”

Adolfo nodded. He knew he needed to slow down, he just wasn’t sure how. He worried, too, that it might keep him from becoming the role model he wanted to be. Telling his story didn’t feel like enough. Just being there didn’t, either. What if slowing down meant helping fewer kids than he wanted to help, or none at all?

6.

To clear his head, Adolfo took long bike rides out by Lake Michigan. One day, he invited Curtis Dixon to come with him. It wasn’t long after Curtis’s 18th birthday, which had taken him by surprise—he never thought he would live to be an adult. Now that he was one, he didn’t have a clue what came next.

Adolfo picked Curtis up in the morning, treating him to a McGriddle sandwich and orange juice from McDonald’s. Then they coasted out of the neighborhood, heading northeast, toward a part of Chicago Curtis had only ever seen a few times in his life. He’d never realized how easy it was to leave the streets he knew, how limitless the city could suddenly feel. After about 30 minutes of pedaling, Lake Michigan extended out to the horizon, a lapping green sea buoying sailboats like they were toys. Heavy spring rains had caused water from the lake to spill onto the bike path. “It’s slippery!” Adolfo called over his shoulder to Curtis. “Be careful!”

“I got this!” Curtis shouted back, holding his phone with one hand, filming the lake, and the handlebars with the other.

Just then his front tire skidded out from under him. The entire left side of his body was wet and covered in dirt. Blood dribbled down his elbow. Adolfo stopped and came running back to help. Curtis brushed the fall off, and before long they were riding again. They pedaled past a bank of yachts, deposited in a marina that was off-limits to the public.

“Hey, how much you think one of these cost?” Curtis asked Adolfo, slowing to examine the boats.

“These yachts cost over a million dollars,” Adolfo said, speeding up. “Maybe five million!”

When they got closer to downtown, Adolfo thought of all the times he’d come here as a kid, stealing money or shining shoes so he would have enough cash to eat. This part of the city looked different than he remembered it, fancier and more modern—a result of the hundreds of millions the city had spent reconstructing its lakefront for North Side residents and tourists.

In Millennium Park, home to the modern pavilion at the center of the downtown facelift, Adolfo led Curtis toward the Bean, the famous 110-ton stainless-steel mirror shaped like a massive legume. They stared, as if in a fun-house attraction, at dozens of versions of themselves—some close, some far away. They stood in silence, watching each other’s distorted bodies and the cityscape behind them.

As the afternoon sky mellowed into early evening, they hopped on the South Shoreline train to go home. With Adolfo in the lead, they boarded in the wrong direction. Realizing their mistake, they switched trains. Adolfo stood at the window. He pulled out his iPhone to record the city as it passed, blurry behind the grime on the window. Curtis stretched comfortably in his seat, watching Adolfo film the world with childlike joy.

The train rocked through the city, and the skyscrapers became smaller and smaller, until they were just receding specks in the distance. Finally, the South Side greeted them, looking the same as it had earlier that morning—and, to Adolfo, almost exactly how he remembered it as a teenager, back before he spent 30 years imagining how things might be different if he ever managed to return home. What had changed was his reflection in the window.

The train pulled into the 51st Street station. The doors opened and, side by side, the two men stepped forward.


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction

Inside the ‘Epoch Times’: How an aspiring poet in Brooklyn became a tool in a right-wing propaganda blitz linked to Falun Gong.

By Oscar Schwartz

The Atavist Magazine, No. 108


Oscar Schwartz has written for The Guardian, The Baffler, The Atlantic, and Wired, among other publications. Originally from Australia, he is now based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter: @scarschwartz.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Photographer: Jonno Rattman

Published in October 2020.

*Indicates a pseudonym.

I.

“Blame it on the Falun Gong / They’ve seen the end and you can’t hold on now.”

This lyric from the title track of Guns N’ Roses’ album Chinese Democracy popped into Steven Klett’s head as he rode the New York City subway one sunny Wednesday morning in March 2016. Klett, 27, was on his way from his apartment in Brooklyn to a job interview at a newspaper. He was wearing a green button-down shirt, a suit jacket, and black pants. His shoulder-length auburn hair was tied back in a tight, low ponytail. He needed this job desperately.

The position—breaking-news web content writer—was not his ideal gig. Klett had an MFA in poetry, and his chapbook A Field Full of Mirrors had been published in 2015 to some acclaim. He had dreamed, however briefly, of being a full-time poet. Now he was spending his days writing freelance copy for a public relations firm, earning $10 per article. He was a tidy, proficient writer, and had applied to jobs at venerable media outlets like Mother Jones and Slate. This was his first interview.

Before encountering the listing online, Klett had not heard of the Epoch Times. He browsed articles on its website, mostly brief reports cribbed from other news sources. The opinion section leaned conservative, offering takes that might appeal to Klett’s father. Klett considered himself something of an anarchist. But, as with his poetic aspirations, he was ready to set aside his political beliefs in order to make rent without having to skip meals.

One detail about the newspaper that seemed peculiar was its extensive coverage of human rights abuses in China. In particular, there were numerous reports about an organization called Falun Gong. Klett had not heard of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement whose followers, his cursory research showed, had been targeted for persecution by the Chinese government. As the subway rattled beneath the East River and Guns N’ Roses played in his mind, Klett wondered: Blame Falun Gong for what?

Klett arrived at the 12-story brick building on West 28th Street and took the elevator up to the fifth floor. He was greeted by the newspaper’s human resources manager and two senior editors—Cindy Drukier, who had a subtle Canadian accent, and Jasper Fakkert, a tall, slim man with a ginger beard that he scratched nervously. Drukier began the interview by noting that the two writing samples Klett had submitted concerned politics. She asked where he got his news. He said The Atlantic and The Washington Post, eager to veer as close to the ideological center as possible. The editors nodded.

After asking about his education, his work experience, his writing skills, and his poetry, the conversation turned to current events. The previous evening, Donald Trump had convincingly beaten his Republican opponents on Super Tuesday, and the prospect of his candidacy was being taken more seriously. Hillary Clinton had edged out Bernie Sanders. Klett, like many Americans, believed she had a real shot at the presidency.

Fakkert, who had a Dutch accent, explained that he was only interested in hiring reporters who would be able to cover the news in a fair and impartial way. “Here at the Epoch Times,” he said, “we are a nonpartisan news source.” Fakkert asked if Klett could write from a perspective that conflicted with his own views.

Klett had prepared for this question. He explained that a few months earlier he’d been asked by a manager at the PR firm where he freelanced to write a short blog post about Trump’s appearance hosting Saturday Night Live. Personally, Klett found Trump unfunny and self-aggrandizing, but the manager told him that Eric Trump, one of the candidate’s sons, was a client at the firm. “I was taking as neutral a position as I could,” Klett said of the post he ultimately wrote. “I thought of it as an exercise and a challenge to take my opinion out of the article.”

The editors smiled and thanked him for coming in. Later that day, they offered him the job.

As the subway rattled beneath the East River and Guns N’ Roses played in his mind, Klett wondered: Blame Falun Gong for what?

At a sports bar on a cold evening in December 2019, Klett leaned forward on his stool so I could hear his gentle, droning voice above the obnoxiously loud Christmas music. His long hair was magnificent, voluminous, excessively brushed. It lent him a strong resemblance—but for a long scar running down his forehead—to Axl Rose. He had a meticulous memory and offered keenly observed details about his experience at the Epoch Times. The outlet, Klett learned during his tenure there, did much more than cover Falun Gong.

Since coming to global attention in the late 1990s, Falun Gong has flourished precisely because its adherents use print and digital media to reach sympathetic audiences beyond China. Falun Gong simultaneously spreads news of its plight and amplifies the worldview of its charismatic founder, Li Hongzhi, who claims that his teachings are rooted in ancient beliefs and practices and promise believers health, freedom, and moral fortitude. But where some see a virtuous community, others see a cult: Critics say that Li is a narcissistic charlatan who enlists guileless followers to adopt his conservative social views.

Falun Gong practitioners insist that this portrayal is false, concocted by Beijing to tarnish Li’s name because the Communist regime perceives his movement as a threat. But while it is true that China’s state media routinely depicts Falun Gong as deviant, the movement’s positive image emanates largely from its own information apparatus. When reporting on Falun Gong, Western journalists tend to draw on both characterizations, presumably in the name of objectivity. If each is a fabrication serving divergent ideological ends, though, can the result be anything but a collage of propaganda?

The Epoch Times is a key player in the ongoing information war between China and Falun Gong. Indeed, the newspaper is the cornerstone of a media empire that the spiritual movement has built over the past 25 years. It publishes editions in 36 countries and 22 languages; most of the bureaus are run by Li acolytes. In the United States, it reportedly reaches 250,000 weekly print readers, with 34 million monthly page views online. (The Epoch Times and the editors named in this story did not respond to multiple requests for interviews and comment.)

Klett didn’t know any of this when he was hired. Nor was he aware that the Epoch Times was becoming embroiled in yet another power struggle, this one in the United States. As the 2016 election approached, the newspaper morphed into a pro-Trump bullhorn. Writing on his personal blog, Klett would later compare the work he did at the paper to that of Russian bots, which “sow discord in the name of activism, and reduce talking points and political agendas to the conflicts that they engender and narratives that they inhabit.” In the lead-up to the 2020 election, the Epoch Times has pursued this strategy more vigorously than ever. An NBC investigation found that, in the first half of 2019, the newspaper laid out $1.5 million for some 11,000 pro-Trump Facebook ads—the only organization that spent more was the Trump campaign itself. More recently, the newspaper has peddled narratives about COVID-19 that cast China as the pandemic’s chief villain and Trump as a potential savior.

Klett is no longer employed by the newspaper, but he sent me documentation from the period when he worked there and contact information for friends and former colleagues who could corroborate his account. The story of how he became a cog in a burgeoning propaganda machine—and why he stayed on even as the paper’s history and biases became clear—offers a glimpse into the right-wing news industry that has upended the media landscape. It’s a story about the perils of clickbait journalism and disinformation, and the consequences of apathy and alienation. It’s also about the Byzantine collection of interests that helped usher in the Trump presidency.

Klett said that during his stint at the Epoch Times, he had a front-row seat to the epistemic crisis triggered by Trump’s ascendancy, one that has made distinguishing truth from political fiction increasingly difficult. “In that first interview, I was being honest when I said I could be neutral. I really believed that was possible,” Klett admitted, hands shoved deep into his pockets as we walked down a Brooklyn street in search of a quieter bar. “By the time I left, just a few days before the election, I realized what everyone is still coming to terms with.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That there’s no difference between the news and propaganda. That objectivity is about who has power.”

II.

The ubiquitous newspaper boxes of New York City—those colorful plastic and metal shells that, day in and day out, once served up the latest information about the world—today look like relics of a bygone media heyday. The red ones from which generations of New Yorkers grabbed the Village Voice stand empty. The blue and white dispensers of The New York Times are often vandalized beyond recognition. The containers that still offer the city’s free dailies are largely ignored by commuters staring at their social media feeds—unless they’ve been repurposed as receptacles for takeaway coffee cups.

The Epoch Times is an exception. Its bright yellow boxes adorned with royal blue text sit on street corners and near train stations everywhere from Chinatown to midtown Manhattan to Flushing, Queens. They are well maintained and frequently restocked, offering passersby a weekly tabloid for 50 cents. If the vast majority of New York’s dilapidated, graffiti-covered newspaper boxes offer a tangible symbol of the death of print, the Epoch Times containers, which are often secured firmly to the ground with metal chains, signify the newspaper’s staunch if quixotic mission to reach the largest possible audience by all available means.

Klett was told that his role at the paper would be to expand its reach on social media. As part of a new digital team, he would generate fast-paced, engaging news articles designed to increase traffic via Facebook and Twitter, where audiences were orders of magnitude larger—and even more chaotic—than on the bustling streets of New York. As was the case with his other writing jobs, clicks would be the metric by which his performance was assessed. He would be paid $2,500 per month, with the expectation that he’d get 100,000 hits per week. Anything over that would earn him a bonus.

Klett’s title was political reporter. At the time, he was following politics with obsessive focus. Like many of his friends, he was fascinated with Bernie Sanders’s campaign and spent many nights in bars talking about whether democratic socialism would ever come to America. Klett’s friends, like Klett himself, were mostly overeducated, underpaid, and downwardly mobile, snapped out of political apathy by the prospect of a revolution “for the people.” Klett was horrified by the spectacle of Trump’s campaign. He knew that there was an America that greed and bigotry appealed to, but it felt far away from his present circumstances in Brooklyn—far away, even, from the mostly white, middle-class town where he grew up.

Born in the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Klett was raised in Clifton, New Jersey, in a two-story house on a dead-end street with a well-kept lawn and an aboveground pool. His father was quiet and worked a job that he only ever described to his family as “middle management.” Klett’s mother stayed home to take care of him and his brother. His father was a Republican, his mother a centrist Democrat. But they didn’t talk much about ideologies or affiliations. Politics were private, a matter of personal taste.

From a young age, Klett understood that he perplexed his parents. Where they sought to find a frictionless path through their suburban existence, Klett, though withdrawn, always seemed to stick out. He was an avid, precocious reader with a predilection for classic novels. In elementary school, he read Moby Dick. In middle school, he insisted on carrying around a copy of War and Peace. He rejected his parents’ Christianity and could quote Friedrich Nietzsche from memory. In high school, when his mother pushed him to join the marching band, he agreed begrudgingly, then complained that the conductor was an authoritarian. Klett made few friends and spent a lot of time in the counselor’s office.

His two salves were rock music—Soundgarden, Nirvana, Iron Maiden—and his grandmother. She lived on the lower floor of the family home. When Klett was fighting with his parents, he went downstairs to watch MSNBC with his grandmother or listen to her read from The New York Times. Sometimes she told him stories about when she worked as an air traffic controller in the Mojave Desert during World War II. She made the world feel bigger than Clifton, New Jersey.

After high school, Klett went to the College of New Jersey, just over an hour’s drive from home. He joined the track team in an attempt to make friends, but he found the hypermasculine culture of competitive sports menacing. He didn’t drink or do drugs, and he was still a virgin. He wasn’t invited to many parties, and he probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. Klett stayed up late in his room reading William S. Burroughs and writing poetry, imagining himself as one of the lost souls of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, outsiders “who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish.”

In addition to studying philosophy and literature, Klett enrolled in a journalism class. His teacher, an adjunct who also worked at a Philadelphia newspaper, was idealistic about the function of journalism. She told her students that more important than learning to write a good lede was developing a keen, unflinching interest in the pursuit of truth. Bob Woodward was the paradigm for which they should strive—a Republican in his private life whose yearning for truth was so pure that he wrote stories that brought down a Republican president.

Several weeks into the semester, Klett’s instructor was assigned to cover a mass shooting. A 32-year-old man had stormed a one-room Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, shooting 11 students and killing five, all of them girls. When the instructor returned to class a week later, she looked as if she hadn’t slept. She told her students that no one in the Amish community would speak to her—her editor was expecting a story, but she had nothing to work with. Standing behind the lectern, she cried.

To Klett, it seemed that she had absorbed the trauma of the people she was covering. He empathized. As a child, he had on occasion become so deeply engrossed in stories that the boundaries between his life and other people’s blurred. In fourth grade, when he first learned about the Holocaust, he became severely depressed; he knew that his family had German ancestry, and he felt implicated. His mother demanded that Klett stop watching coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial after he confessed to having visions that he was the one who’d murdered Nicole Brown Simpson.

As the semester continued, Klett experienced a familiar muddling of his internal world and external reality. He had considered becoming a journalist but now realized he was ill-equipped to deal with other people’s pain. The future felt uncertain. Klett kept to himself more than ever. He stopped eating and interacting with other students. When a concerned peer told an RA that Klett hadn’t left his room in several days, the college called his parents. Klett never received a clear diagnosis, but doctors prescribed him a long list of pharmaceuticals.

The rest of college passed at a steady, medicated cadence. Klett spent the weekends at home and found his parents overbearing. As a diversion he started a band, the Undercover Rabbis. He met a woman who invited him to live with her and some friends at a winery in Pennsylvania, an offer he accepted after graduating in 2010. The group worked at Whole Foods Market during the day and threw raves at night. Klett used drugs and drank and slept with women and men, all for the first time. He identified as queer, first with trepidation, then with joy—the word itself helped explain why he had always felt so different.

In 2011, Klett received a transfer to work at a Whole Foods in New York City, where he lived for a time in an apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. His grandmother, who had recently died, had left him a small amount of money, which Klett used to pay for an MFA in poetry at the New School. When he wasn’t packing boxes or swiping items through the checkout at Whole Foods, he composed poems that were more controlled than his college writing. His final portfolio, exploring the boundaries between madness and inspiration, intimacy and abuse, was chosen by his professors to be published. “My favorite sex position is the Van Gogh,” one poem begins. “I won’t draw you a picture but it ends with you cutting off my ear / We can only do it twice.”

If Klett was succeeding creatively, his personal life was in disarray. He was trying to leave an abusive relationship and struggling to keep his job. Shortly after graduating, he was fired. He wrote copy for content farms to make rent on a Brooklyn apartment he shared with Martin*, a young housing lawyer and professed Marxist who lectured Klett about the failures of the Obama administration and how the impending Clinton presidency would be more of the same.

Klett listened to Martin, who seemed to know more about political theory than he did. He too felt alienated from what he called “the liberal elite.” But he also remembered the night Obama won the 2008 election. Fireworks outside his college dorm lit up his room, and he could hear spontaneous renditions of “We Shall Overcome” in the hallways. It was a time when Klett was feeling stable, and optimistic about the future. Now he was broke and bored, obsessively following the news and skipping meals. He could feel his reality once again begin to tremble.

When he received the offer from the Epoch Times, which on the surface appeared to offer stability and predictability, along with a regular paycheck, Klett felt a profound sense of relief. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

Klett wrote copy for content farms to make rent on a Brooklyn apartment he shared with  a young housing lawyer and professed Marxist who lectured him about the failures of the Obama administration.

Klett settled into the rhythms of working life. He awoke around 6:30 a.m., switched on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, smoked a joint with Martin, and then headed into the office. He scrolled through his news feeds while drinking a large iced coffee and jotted down story ideas for Fakkert, the digital team’s editor. Fakkert arrived each day at 9 a.m. and squeezed a red stress ball while listening to the day’s pitches.

There were five other journalists on the digital team. A man from Staten Island with tattoos on his arms and contacts at local police precincts; he worked the crime beat. There were two women from Brooklyn, one who had studied journalism and specialized in human-interest stories, and another who covered celebrity gossip and entertainment. A third woman was from Queens; she had previously worked on NBC’s breaking-news desk. Lastly there was Jenna*, a sharp-tongued, perpetually ironic philosophy student who covered science and technology. She and Klett became friends.

Their work was like that of any number of millennials paid to generate content to feed the insatiable appetite of social media. Each team member sat in a small cubicle and churned out content, trying to reach 100,000 clicks per week. It seemed like a huge number, but their bosses assured them it was achievable. The stories they wrote were short and required no original reporting—they were rewrites or pastiches of existing articles and press releases. The work was not particularly absorbing, but the atmosphere in the office was comfortable. After being assigned his stories— “Former Russian World Chess Champion Criticizes Bernie Sanders’s Revolution as ‘Dangerously Absurd,’” “Fox News Poll Gives Hope to Kasich, Discourages Rubio”—Klett would put in his earphones and write as quickly as possible, pausing only to grab a burger or sushi for lunch with Jenna. He headed home at 6 p.m., and prepared for the next day by reading the latest news on social media before going to sleep.

Klett noticed a stark division in the office. The digital team sat together in a small room, apart from the writers, editors, and designers who worked for the print newspaper. The bathroom and kitchen were shared, but the print staff generally kept to themselves. When Klett tried to engage, they were friendly but impersonal. They steered most conversations to the stories he was working on that day.

Whereas the digital team was made up mostly of people who grew up in or around New York, the print staff was geographically diverse, hailing from China, Europe, Canada, and Australia. Many of them seemed to be married to or seeing someone else on staff. They were workaholics, arriving each day before the digital team and leaving well after. Stranger still, many—if not all—of them were followers of Falun Gong.

The relationship between the spiritual movement and the newspaper had been touched upon briefly during the digital team’s orientation. Stephen Gregory, the paper’s publisher—a large, balding man who favored khakis and polo shirts—had explained in a lilting voice how the Epoch Times was founded at the turn of the millennium to inform the world about Falun Gong’s persecution at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP. (The new hires were later shown an hour-long film featuring a Chinese man, a Falun Gong practitioner, sitting in a blossom-filled garden talking about how he had escaped to America to live a life of peace.) Gregory said that the paper had since expanded its mission, striving to offer objective, independent reporting on current affairs and world news. While the paper was no longer explicitly connected to Falun Gong, it shared certain values with the movement. These were encapsulated in the Epoch Times’ motto: “Truth and Tradition.”

The digital team was also given a tour of the two floors immediately above the newsroom, which were the headquarters of New Tang Dynasty Television, a cable channel with the same mission as the paper. They were greeted by a senior executive, a Chinese-American man, who guided them to a large room filled floor to ceiling with monitors. The network broadcast programs in dozens of cities around the world, including several in mainland China, where viewers used circumvention tools to bypass firewalls and censors. It was necessary work, the new hires were told. The network had to tell the people of China the truth.

III.

In “golden monkey splitting its body,” the arms form a straight line with the shoulders, stretching toward the horizon on either side of the body. In “two dragons diving into the sea,” the arms reach forward. In “bodhisattva touching the lotus,” the arms are positioned diagonally with the body, hands pointing toward the ground. These movements are part of the recommended hour-long physical routine that many Falun Gong practitioners perform every day. The exercises are serene, deliberate, symmetrical; often they’re done with eyes closed. From New York to Toronto, Sydney to Bangkok, groups of people—many wearing yellow shirts—gather in parks in the early morning to do the movements together.

If you ask a devout Falun Gong practitioner, they might say that the exercises are physical expressions of wisdom dating back to a divine, prehistoric culture, discovered and revived by a spiritually gifted leader to help humanity reconnect with a godly essence. If you ask a historian of China, they’ll likely trace the origins to the 1950s, when the ascendant Communist regime was manufacturing a new national character—one that was modern and scientific, superior to the feudalism of the past, yet still maintained a distinct Chinese identity. Among other things, this immense project demanded a new medical paradigm that preserved traditional healing practices while rejecting their religious and spiritual foundations. Such a paradigm presented itself when a young government clerk wrote a report claiming to have cured himself of various ailments with slow exercises and breathing methods later called qigong, or “energy cultivation.” The report caught the attention of high-ranking officials, who found it useful for their purposes. Medical authorities studied the clerk’s “cultivation system,” as the exercises became known, and used them throughout the late 1950s in specialized clinics and sanatoriums to help people manage pain and sickness.

With the dawning of the Cultural Revolution came a reversal: Qigong was denounced by the state as “feudal superstition.” The government clerk was jailed for being “the creator of the poisonous weed.” The exercise regimen disappeared from public life until the late 1970s, when the paranoia of the “ten-year catastrophe” began to recede.

Qigong experienced a grassroots resurgence in parks throughout Beijing. Amateur teachers who had continued practicing in private during the purges began offering their own particular cultivation systems. State authorities gave tacit approval, and charismatic teachers expanded their followings. By the early 1990s, qigong fever had swept the country. The most popular teachers, or “masters,” became national celebrities. This spurred aspiring spiritual leaders from the provinces to travel to Beijing in the hope of launching their own qigong schools. Among them was Li Hongzhi, who arrived in the capital in 1992 with a cultivation system he called Falun Gong, meaning “the way of the dharma wheel.”

Like other qigong masters, Li had an instinct for self-mythology. He claimed to have been born on the same day as the Buddha and to have been a spiritual prodigy instructed by the most learned Buddhist and Daoist teachers in northeast China. By adolescence, the story went, he had acquired supernatural powers and a lucid comprehension of the ultimate truth of the universe—insight that, as an adult, he synthesized into Falun Gong. His regimen of simple, fluid exercises proved popular, and he rapidly found a following.

What distinguished Li from other qigong teachers were certain spiritual and moral elements he considered necessary for cultivation. In addition to exercises and meditation, Falun Gong demanded personal conduct of its practitioners that was consistent with what Li defined as the three moral axioms of the universe: truth, compassion, and forbearance. He also subscribed to a cyclical view of history, characterized by periods of moral decline followed by apocalyptic redemption. The modern world, Li believed, was in a degenerate state, which manifested itself in popular culture and loose social mores. In long, tangential lectures, he railed against drug use, homosexuality, miscegenation, sexual freedom, and “the demon nature that bursts forth on the soccer field.” He claimed that it was his task to help as many people as possible realize the folly of their ways through Falun Gong, so that when the moment of redemption arrived—and Li asserted that it was coming soon—they would be saved. He called this process “Fa-rectification.”

By 1994, Li had become a major star of the qigong world. His rise, though, came at a moment when the CCP was growing suspicious of qigong’s popularity. Sensing that the cultural tide was turning, Li announced that his mission in China had come to an end. In 1995, he departed for an international lecture tour through Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Australia, where his teachings were popular among Chinese diaspora communities and some white New Age types. The tour turned into a permanent relocation. Eventually, Li settled in upstate New York.

In July 1996, China’s Central Propaganda Department banned the publication of Li’s writings, including the Zhuan Falun, the Falun Gong bible. Several newspaper articles accused Li of being a swindler who spread superstition and pseudoscience. From New York, Li connected with practitioners in Beijing on websites and email lists, where he encouraged them to peacefully protest the suppression of their movement. Over the next few years, Falun Gong acolytes staged some 300 demonstrations in China.

The protestors, who often sat cross-legged and silent, were mostly tolerated by the authorities. That changed on a Sunday morning in April 1999, when some 10,000 practitioners gathered outside the Western gate of Zhongnanhai, the guarded compound near Tiananmen Square where the CCP is headquartered. The protestors were quiet and calm, but the intimidating scale of the demonstration unnerved CCP leader Jiang Zemin, who behind closed doors declared Falun Gong the most serious political threat to party authority since the student demonstrations a decade earlier. (Li claimed to have more than 100 million followers at the time; scholars put the figure between 20 million and 60 million.)

State-run media launched a full-scale propaganda war, classifying Falun Gong as a cult posing a danger to the nation. Li rejected the characterization. “We do not oppose the government,” he once said at a conference. “We do not involve ourselves in politics.” The Chinese authorities intensified the crackdown, demanding that government officials who had practiced Li’s cultivation style renounce their affiliation and arresting people considered to be the movement’s key organizers. Falun Gong has since alleged that many of its practitioners were tortured while in custody and that hundreds died as a result. (Some human rights organizations have repeated this claim; Chinese authorities deny it.)

Li largely retreated from the public eye. Falun Gong purchased 427 acres of land in the hills of Deerpark, New York, where it built an expansive, ornate, high-security compound known as Dragon Springs. As well as providing Li with new living quarters, Dragon Springs became a spiritual base for his movement. It has a large temple and is now home to a private high school and college. Over the years, neighboring communities have raised concerns about the compound’s growth. Meanwhile, rumors of abuse and cult-like behavior have circulated, based on testimonials from former Falun Gong practitioners.

The task of defending the movement has fallen largely to North American followers, who unlike their counterparts in China face no risk of imprisonment for their support of Falun Gong. They are often middle-class professionals; many are Chinese immigrants. Among them is John Tang, an émigré with a doctorate in theoretical physics from the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2000, Tang founded a small newspaper and named it the Epoch Times—a reference, perhaps, to Li’s frequent insistence that the turn of the millennium would bring “a new epoch.”

Li claimed that it was his task to help as many people as possible realize the folly of their ways through Falun Gong, so that when the moment of redemption arrived they would be saved. 

At first the paper was written, edited, and printed by volunteers—Chinese and non-Chinese followers of Li’s teachings, few of whom had any experience in media. It was funded almost exclusively by donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners. The goal was to provide an alternative narrative to China’s propaganda about the movement. The first edition, published in Chinese, appeared in May 2000; an online edition followed later that year.

Participating in the media arm of Falun Gong quickly took on a spiritual dimension. Writing or editing for the Epoch Times became an extension of Fa-rectification, the cosmic mission of saving souls. Li made clear that personal cultivation now included acts of hongfa, which roughly means “clarifying truth” to the wider world. But the paper didn’t always get the facts right. In October 2000, it reported that Jiang Zemin had caught a “strange, fatal disease” requiring his leg to be amputated at the upper thigh, a demonstrably false claim. Other stories were murkier. In 2001, after Chinese state media claimed that Li had incited a group of Falun Gong practitioners, including a 12-year-old girl, to self-immolate in Tiananmen Square, the Epoch Times countered by insisting that the event had been staged by Chinese authorities. International media and human rights groups were unable to verify either side’s version, or anything in between. The Washington Post’s attempt to do so produced an article headlined “Human Fire Ignites Chinese Mystery.” The truth of the matter has never been settled.

For the Epoch Times, funding from a growing diaspora of Falun Gong practitioners and other Chinese dissident communities led to explosive growth. By the mid-2000s, it was publishing editions in dozens of cities and several languages around the globe, including an English version in New York. It joined other Falun Gong–associated media outlets, including New Tang Dynasty Television, under the umbrella of the Epoch Media Group. The paper published special editions, such as 2004’s “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,” a quasi-McCarthyist screed that claimed the CCP was the real “evil cult,” one that “destroyed traditional culture” and “oppose[d] the universe.” And it promoted any allegation of human rights abuses in China, including regular updates regarding accusations that the government was harvesting organs from thousands of Falun Gong prisoners. (While it is beyond dispute that China has forcibly removed organs from prisoners, it is not clear that Falun Gong believers have ever been singled out for this practice.)

While the newspaper was clearly aligned with Falun Gong’s interests, its senior executives worked to publicly minimize the connection. “The paper’s not owned by Falun Gong, it doesn’t speak for Falun Gong, it doesn’t represent Falun Gong,” Stephen Gregory, who in addition to being the publisher is a longtime Li follower, told an Associated Press reporter in 2007. “It does cover the persecution of Falun Gong in China.” Meanwhile, in online commentary, Li—whose connection to the paper was always kept vague—continued to emphasize the spiritual function of what he called “our media.” In 2009, he delivered an address in the Epoch Times New York newsroom, congratulating the staff for successfully raising awareness of his movement’s struggle and its worldview. He said that they’d had a “major impact in Fa-rectification.”

Staff rarely speak publicly about the newspaper’s affiliation with Falun Gong. Several current and past employees did not reply to my interview requests. Some who did expressed distrust of mainstream media. Those who agreed to speak, including people who worked alongside Klett, preferred to do so anonymously.

On pureinsight.org, a Falun Gong website, I found a testimonial about the experience of working at the Epoch Times, written by someone who referred to himself as a “disciple from New York, USA.” The anonymous writer, who said he began working at the paper in 2012, described waking up at 3 a.m. to distribute 5,000 newspapers across Manhattan, first on foot and later by bicycle. His manager would strap bundles of papers onto his back before he peddled away. Even in the middle of winter, when it was freezing cold and often raining, the writer said he was filled with great joy, knowing that he was on a noble mission.

He eventually moved up at the paper—to the sales department, to editorial, and finally to a digital-side role focused on boosting subscriptions. He confessed to having moments of doubt, wishing for more recognition of his work and questioning the wisdom of his superiors. But they always passed. “I see that in the coming years the amount of work will be daunting as the Epoch Times is expanding across the US and the world,” the disciple wrote. “However, I feel that Master has arranged the wind to be in our sails, and that he is guiding every step in both my and the whole media’s development. As long as I don’t impede Master, there shouldn’t be anything that we can’t do.”

Writing or editing for the Epoch Times became an extension of Fa-rectification, the cosmic mission of saving souls.

By the time Klett was hired, the paper was a purportedly objective outlet with an unconditional bias made obscure to outsiders. One way that bias manifested was in prohibitions on certain content. “Truth and Tradition” meant that reporters could not cover modern music or art, only the classics. Stories about the LGBTQ community were to be avoided—Gregory reportedly told the new digital team that it was a controversial topic that conflicted with the family-friendly position of the paper.

Besides joking about it with Jenna—she liked to say that they’d been hired by a weird cult—Klett didn’t think much about Falun Gong or how it shaped his job. It wasn’t his goal to empathize with the movement’s belief system, which, as far as he could tell, was at odds with his own. He just wanted to reach his weekly target of 100,000 clicks.

Klett achieved this convenient detachment through an intellectual sleight of hand. In college, he’d read postmodern theories by thinkers who seemed to drive a wedge between language and meaning—to insist that words had a multiplicity of possible interpretations that exceeded the intentions of any author or speaker. Klett, who in conversations with me made reference more than once to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, imagined himself as a kind of postmodern information worker: He generated “content” the meaning and significance of which had nothing to do with him. It was a formal exercise, one that he was getting better at every day.

A contemporary of Klett’s preferred theorists was Paul de Man, a Belgian national who was a professor of literature at Yale. His controversial, yet influential, thesis held that a text was a paradox no one should seek to resolve; language always contained contradictions, and it was the task of the reader to identify them while resisting the impulse to privilege one interpretation over another. When it was revealed in the years after his death that, during World War II, de Man had written some 200 articles for several Nazi-controlled newspapers—and that some of what he’d published had been anti-Semitic—his acolytes were forced to reckon with his legacy. Some disavowed him. Others tried to redeem him with evidence of good behavior; they pointed out, for instance, that de Man sheltered Jewish friends in his apartment during the war. Derrida went one step further: On close reading, he argued, de Man’s writings revealed a subversive, anti-anti-Semitic interpretation.

For his longtime critics, the disclosure of de Man’s past was vindicating. By reveling in contradiction, they argued, de Man had adopted an essentially nihilistic mode of critique. As one writer put it, he was a “connoisseur of nothingness”—a phrase that could easily apply to Klett during his stint at the Epoch Times.

Still, there were moments that rattled Klett. On June 12, 2016, a gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others. The story broke over the weekend. When Klett arrived at work Monday morning, he noticed that none of the accounts of the incident on the Epoch Times’ website mentioned that Pulse was a gay club. He strategized how he could pitch a story to his editors that acknowledged the facts while bypassing the newspaper’s vague prohibition against covering LGBTQ issues.

That day he was working with an editor named Henry Bevington, a perpetually chipper Australian man with a wispy black beard who wore paisley button-down shirts. Bevington brought Klett tea each morning, pouring it from a red kettle. He was more visible in his allegiance to Falun Gong than some other staff; he once came to work dressed in the movement’s trademark yellow T-shirt after attending a demonstration to raise awareness about persecution in China. Klett realized Bevington might be wedded to the values that determined the paper’s coverage.

Klett pitched a story about the shooting that focused on a speech that Trump, who was still seeking the Republican nomination, had made in the aftermath. Trump split with other Republicans by expressing solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Klett figured that because Trump’s stance on other issues was conservative, the approach might work. Plus, stories Klett had written about Trump had generated a lot of clicks, including one about a Mexican restaurant owner who tripled her business after Trump brought her onstage at a rally. But Klett received a curt no.

Usually, he might have complained to Jenna about the incident and moved on. But he felt pained by the attack on the LGBTQ community, and angry that it hadn’t been acknowledged at his workplace. He sent Fakkert and Bevington an article from a left-leaning blog pointing out how some Republican responses to the shooting had erased the identities of the people targeted. According to Klett, Bevington approached his desk and, with a smile, told him that he didn’t understand the point of the article. “Some people don’t believe in that,” Bevington said, seeming to refer to homosexuality. “You can’t fault someone for not saying something.”

Klett excused himself, walked to the bathroom, and splashed cold water on his face. When he returned to his desk, he sat down and started writing an article about the Orlando shooting that didn’t include the word “gay.” It focused on how, in the wake of the tragedy, President Barack Obama hadn’t used the phrase “radical Islam.”

That words could have multiple, sometimes contradictory interpretations was an idea Klett had found fascinating in a theoretical context. It had been useful in his studies and personal writing. Now, though, it seemed as if he was being asked to use that idea to make real-world events seem uncertain, contested. In retrospect, it was a harbinger of what was to come.

IV.

By the time Trump became the Republican nominee, in the late summer of 2016, the digital team had morphed. Jenna had been laid off for failing to generate sufficient clicks; the reporter who covered crime had been let go, too. Klett, meanwhile, had been promoted. Now earning an extra $500 a month, he wrote his usual number of digital stories as well as the occasional feature for the print newspaper.

When Trump promoted the outrageous lie that Obama and Hillary Clinton were “founders” of ISIS, Klett wrote a story without critical evaluation; the fact of Trump’s comments, rather than their veracity, was what mattered. This seemed more or less in keeping with the Epoch Times’ professed commitment to unbiased coverage and its desire to ramp up page views—inflammatory comments by public figures drive clicks, after all. Other developments, however, made it hard to ignore that an unspoken enthusiasm for the Republican candidate had taken hold in the newsroom. There had been a palpable shift in the paper’s editorial direction, and it seemed to come straight from the top.

While other media outlets reported on Trump’s outlandish and incendiary Twitter behavior, Klett said that his editors discouraged him from covering it. After submitting a story comparing Trump’s and Clinton’s immigration policies, he received an email with feedback from Stephen Gregory; it was important, the publisher explained, to note that Trump was the only candidate addressing the fact that an “open border” allowed gangs, criminals, and terrorists to enter the country. Overall, Gregory said, Clinton’s policies would amplify the power of the executive branch and diminish that of Congress, continuing the legacy of Obama’s presidency.

In another instance, Klett was asked to read over a colleague’s story comparing Trump’s and Clinton’s economic policies. There was one line that caught his attention: “Trump seeks to revive American greatness with policies aimed at kick-starting economic growth.” Klett told his colleague that the word “greatness” was biased and a regurgitation of Trump’s campaign slogan. The colleague, according to Klett, said that Gregory had inserted the line.

Klett noticed that a number of journalists from the print side—mostly young men who practiced Falun Gong and had worked at the paper for a while—were becoming more brazen in their support of far-right ideas. One colleague shared a video by internet pundit Stefan Molyneux, whose YouTube channel promoted scientific racism and white nationalism. Echoing boilerplate language from the right-wing internet, staff said they didn’t necessarily believe everything they circulated in the office, but at least it was an alternative to the lies propagated by mainstream outlets. With blithe arrogance, most U.S. media used the cover of objectivity to conceal liberal bias. Truth tellers—like themselves, even like Molyneux—were pushing against this hegemony, courageously pursuing fair reporting and highlighting ideas that the corrupt media elite would not.

A number of journalists from the print side—mostly young men who practiced Falun Gong and had worked at the paper for a while—were becoming more brazen in their support of far-right ideas. 

Maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising, given its roots, that the Epoch Times would employ people suspicious of establishment forces, or that its socially conservative ethos would make it a natural mouthpiece for Trumpism. Nor, perhaps, should it have shocked anyone that the paper, created with the explicit goal of waging an information war, would thrive in a propaganda-rich election season rife with conspiracy theories. Still, given its affiliation with Falun Gong, the outfit was something of an unexpected player in the right-wing media ecosystem emboldened by Trump’s candidacy. Where its role made the most sense was with regard to China. The paper boosted Trump’s pledges to get tough on Beijing if he was elected. An article Klett wrote about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump wanted to leave and Clinton wanted to strengthen, was syndicated by Infowars.

Klett discussed with his parents the option of quitting. They told him that just because the work was difficult wasn’t a reason to leave, that the time had come for him to accept the reality of adult life, that it would show strength of character to persevere under challenging circumstances. He also discussed his dilemma with Martin, his roommate. At the time, Martin was using his law degree to represent landlords in the Bronx. Just as Klett disliked writing pro-Trump propaganda for a fringe newspaper, Martin didn’t want to evict families from their homes. That millennials had to do work at odds with their political values wasn’t their fault; it was a sign of a fundamental failure of “the system,” Martin insisted, proof of how neoliberal hegemony and late-stage capitalism destroyed the soul. A political revolution was necessary.

This made sense to Klett, and helped him justify going to work every day. He also found it difficult to quit the paper because of how nice everyone in the office was, how misaligned their personal conduct seemed with their political motivations. His editors were helpful, attentive, supportive. They often congratulated him on the work he was doing and rewarded him with longer-form assignments, sometimes even front-page features in the print paper. They knew that he didn’t necessarily share their views, but they were convinced of the basic goodness of their mission and, it seemed to Klett, assumed he’d eventually come around.

Perhaps that’s why, on September 15, 2016, Fakkert asked him to attend a speech Trump was giving to the Economic Club of New York at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Klett arrived at 9:30 a.m., stoned, wearing a vest and a magenta shirt—Fakkert had told him to dress nicely. He met Valentin Schmid, a journalist from the print side. They were ushered to an upstairs press gallery where a few dozen journalists sat staring at their phones. The attendees in the ballroom were dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns—extravagant, Klett thought, for a lunch event. After taking their seats, the guests were served plates of chicken.

Mike Pence appeared on the ballroom’s stage, gave a brief address about economic prosperity, and then introduced Trump. The candidate spoke of his strong polling numbers in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, about jobs and manufacturing, immigration, the failures of the Obama administration, and, finally, the corporate tax cuts he was planning to roll out. Klett noticed that Schmid was the only journalist who clapped along with the crowd, prompting other reporters to look at him incredulously, which made Klett feel paranoid.

After the event, Schmid took Klett out for lunch at a bistro on 57th Street. Schmid, who was from Germany, wore polo shirts with upturned collars and had a lazy eye. He was among the coterie of young men on the print side who had taken a liking to Trump and his messaging. As they sat eating—Klett a burger, his colleague a steak—Schmid held forth about why Trump appealed to his libertarian sensibilities. To him, Trump was unafraid to speak the truth. The people who feared him most were those in the liberal mainstream media and political elites accustomed to pulling the strings of power in their own favor.

Klett had heard all this before—talk of absorbing bullshit from a broken system before seeing the light, recognizing who the real villains are. He knew that many on the print side were seekers, people who had been on tumultuous, sometimes strange personal journeys before finding Falun Gong and, through that, the Epoch Times. Some had lived in hippie communes. Others had partied as a way to distract themselves from their inner dissatisfaction. In a way, Klett thought, they were not unlike other people from his life: fellow loners in college, the queer community in Pennsylvania, the poetry freaks at the New School, the leftists he met in Brooklyn bars, his roommate. They all felt alienated from reality and wanted a radical change.

Schmid asked Klett about his own political ideology. Klett said he didn’t really have a coherent one, but that he had anarchist leanings. “Aha, so you want what I want,” Schmid replied, taking a bite of his steak. “I want to tear down the system, like you.”

V.

Around then, in September, a group of interns arrived at the Epoch Times. One afternoon, Klett walked into the kitchen to find one of the new arrivals busy on her laptop. She was tall, with straight black hair tied up in a bun; a single blue streak matched the color of her eyeshadow. Klett introduced himself. She looked up and, in a heavy accent, said her name was Gaia Cristofaro. She had just arrived from Italy and was interning with the newspaper’s design team. Klett said that he wrote about politics for the digital side. She said that she didn’t like politics. “Nobody does,” he replied.

Three days later, he again crossed paths with her in the kitchen and decided to sit down for a longer chat. Often he found conversations with people from the print side awkward. Not with Cristofaro. They spoke about art and music and literature. Both had strong opinions about Derrida and Franz Kafka. Both listened to the band Thee Silver Mt. Zion. Both admired the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Cristofaro showed Klett some of the sketches she was working on for the design team. He was impressed. He found her captivating.

They started taking lunch breaks together. Cristofaro—who did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story—was 33 and an artist. She had grown up in Florence, right by the Duomo. She had been rebellious in her younger years, but it left her feeling discontented and lost. She came across one of Li’s books. She had been raised Catholic, and the strict morality and spiritual teleology of Falun Gong resonated with her, as did Li’s supposition that the modern world was degenerate. Cristofaro had since maintained a strict cultivation practice and given much of her spare time to the Falun Gong community. She had organized an art exhibition in Florence on behalf of the movement. And now she was in New York, ready to help in the service of hongfa, before one of the most unusual elections in U.S. history—one in which the candidate the Epoch Times had all but endorsed was turning the very notion of truth on its head.

At lunch one day, Klett noticed that Cristofaro had not touched any of her cucumber sushi. She had dark circles around her eyes, and her hands were shaking. Klett asked if everything was OK. Cristofaro apologized. She hadn’t got much rest, she said, since arriving in the city. Her work schedule—Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.—on top of exercise, meditation, and reading groups with other Epoch Times employees, meant that she had almost no time to herself. Moreover, the room where she was staying in Jersey City, which had been assigned to her by the newspaper, was in the same building where other staff lived. It was more like a big dorm than an apartment complex, she said. She found it uncomfortable and dirty. There was no privacy. She couldn’t sleep.

To make matters worse, Cristofaro had initially been promised that she’d contribute illustrations to the paper, but her superiors now insisted that she work on formatting and other menial tasks. Cristofaro put her head in her hands. “What am I doing here?” she asked Klett.

Cristofaro and Klett began to meet outside work hours. One Sunday, she told him that she was in the United States on a vacation visa and that she wasn’t being paid for her time at the paper. According to Klett, Cristofaro said that uncompensated work was common among Falun Gong practitioners—a claim echoed in news reports and first-person accounts by former acolytes that I read during my reporting. Believers could volunteer at one of the many organizations around the world associated with the movement: an Epoch Times bureau, New Tang Dynasty Television, a magazine called Taste of Life, or the Shen Yun dance company, which is based at the Dragon Springs compound and infamous in New York City for its ubiquitous advertising. Cristofaro had done other internships and enjoyed them, but so far this one had been mostly unpleasant.

Klett wanted to help but didn’t know how. His colleagues on the digital team teased him that he was moving over to the dark side. “Just watch out, or she’ll make you join that group,” one told him. On a Friday afternoon, as Klett was getting ready to clock out, Fakkert asked for a minute of his time. He said that Klett was spending too much time exchanging messages with Cristofaro on the office’s internal chat system. They needed to focus more on their work.

After the encounter, Klett asked Cristofaro who else knew about their friendship. She said that her immediate boss and maybe one other colleague did. Later she sent Klett a message. “Now that I think about it better,” it read, an editor “told me not talk with you too much, he said that very casually.”

“Ciao have a good weekend,” Cristofaro said, “and forget about that.”

Cristofaro had been raised Catholic, and the strict morality and spiritual teleology of Falun Gong resonated with her, as did Li’s supposition that the modern world was degenerate.

Klett decided to keep his distance from Cristofaro in the office. Outside work, however, they saw each other more often. One day in October, they went to Radio City Music Hall to see the Icelandic group Sigur Rós perform. They arrived at the venue early and took their seats. When the music started—ethereal, ambient—they kissed for the first time. Over the next two weeks, they hung out in bars in the West Village after work. As they talked about their lives, or when they kissed by the station where Cristofaro caught a train back to Jersey City, she would remind Klett that she was leaving in November, when her visa expired.

Everything was hurtling toward November. When he wasn’t with Cristofaro or thinking about her, Klett was ensconced in political news and polls. Every time Trump made a shocking new claim—the system is rigged, Hillary is sick, what about her emails?—Klett would observe as the mainstream media reacted with disbelief. This is not America, he heard liberal pundits say. Wasn’t it, though? Plenty of people reading his articles were Americans who liked Trump. It seemed to Klett that divisions ran so deep in America’s collective psyche that one side could no longer see the other.

Living and working amid so much bifurcation was exhausting. Klett was looking forward to the time after the election when things would return to normal. But then, in the last week of October, something changed in the office. Without warning, Fakkert began ignoring the digital team, not hearing their pitches or assigning them articles. They went from pumping out several pieces a day to more or less sitting idle at their desks.

On October 27, the HR manager summoned them into a small office. He told the group sympathetically that digital journalism was more difficult to break into than the paper had first imagined. Other publications were laying people off. The Epoch Times simply couldn’t afford to keep the team on any longer. Their employment was being terminated.

Based on the paper’s web traffic, this didn’t immediately add up to Klett. What’s more, the election was only a week away—it seemed absurd that the paper would get rid of him, a politics reporter. Klett wondered if there was another reason the team was being let go, one he couldn’t see.

He walked out of the room in a daze. Standing there was Fakkert, who took him by the shoulders and cried. Klett started to laugh.

The election was only a week away—it seemed absurd that the paper would get rid of him, a politics reporter.

The next week passed in a blur. Klett watched the news and checked the latest polls, now without purpose. He messaged Cristofaro, trying to arrange times to see her, but she was always caught up with work or cultivation. Finally, in early November, Klett received a text inviting him to dinner in Chelsea. It was her going-away party. She was leaving the next day.

When Klett arrived at the restaurant, Cristofaro was already there with a few other Epoch Times employees and a man she had befriended in a park while doing Falun Gong exercises. They ate pizza and then got gelato. The man from the park did most of the talking, spouting conspiracy theories that he said he’d learned about from Infowars.

Eventually, Klett and Cristofaro walked to the Strand bookstore, then to a movie. Afterward, Klett accompanied Cristofaro to her train. They kissed. He asked if she would consider coming back to his place, to spend one night together. She said no. She told Klett that he wasn’t “virtuous” enough. Cristofaro had hinted before that it was somehow immoral for them to spend time together, that it contravened a code of behavior expected of her by Falun Gong. If Klett wasn’t a practitioner, they couldn’t be together.

Three nights later, with Cristofaro back in Florence, Klett opened a bottle of wine with Martin and sat down to watch the election results. Despite everything he’d seen as a politics reporter—from the shrewd manipulation of content at the Epoch Times, to the devious fearmongering at Breitbart News, to the full-blown conspiracy peddling of Infowars—he still believed that Clinton would win. As he watched the results trickle in, he realized his error. Martin opened another bottle of wine. “Goddammit, I don’t want to have to see Donald Trump’s fucking face for the next four years,” he said.

Klett was silent. He told himself this wasn’t his fault—he was just a lowly worker at an obscure newspaper that had a curious affiliation with the rise of Trumpism. He felt a familiar sensation, one he’d had when he worried about his family’s German ancestry and saw himself holding the knife used to kill Nicole Brown Simpson. Reality was wobbling. But whether Klett was ready to admit it or not, this time his imagination wasn’t to blame. By writing the news, he had become part of the story.

VI.

Klett was unemployed until the following June, when he was hired by the International Business Times. Again he was a digital content writer, required to generate as many articles as possible to get as many clicks as possible. Coincidentally, IBT had been linked to a controversial religious sect known as the Community, a fact that Klett wasn’t aware of when he was hired. In a corner cubicle near Wall Street, he trawled Twitter looking for trending news he could repackage for the website—a celebrity feud, Martin Shkreli controversies, Trump’s Twitter meltdowns. His performance was measured by software called Chartbeat, which his editor monitored assiduously. Klett told me that he was fired after six weeks for not meeting his click quota.

He found a job writing copy for a vaping company. At the time, he was also working on his second poetry collection, The Book of Gaia. After saying goodbye to Cristofaro in early November, Klett thought they’d never speak again. But she’d messaged him the next morning—a cell phone video shot from her plane as it took off, Manhattan receding into the clouds. They’d been texting and making plans to see one another ever since. After a few months, Klett had accrued enough miles on his credit card for a trip to Italy. In September 2017, he boarded a plane, shaking and giddy. It was his first time traveling to Europe.

Klett stayed with Cristofaro in her mother’s apartment in Florence. They took long walks, and Cristofaro was knowledgeable about the city’s heritage. She was also angry at what she perceived as intruding vulgarities—commercialism, tourism, even contemporary art. One afternoon, as they passed the Duomo, Cristofaro stopped in front of the cathedral and wept. It was offensive, she said, that people would simply gawk and take pictures of the building without understanding its context.

Klett learned about Cristofaro’s daily Falun Gong cultivation practice. She meditated at six-hour intervals—dawn, midday, dusk, midnight. He would sit with her and hold her hands while she did it. The thought occurred to him that if he started practicing Falun Gong, their relationship would deepen. “Why don’t you just do it?” a friend asked him. “You could have it all!”

It wasn’t an option, though. Klett didn’t want cosmic answers for everything in his life, and he didn’t like cultivation. He had become more politically active since leaving the Epoch Times. He now volunteered with the Democratic Socialists of America. There was no way he could square his political beliefs or his identity with Falun Gong, even for the person he loved.

Klett worked up the courage to ask Cristofaro how she reconciled the supposed morality of Falun Gong with what she said had happened in New York, the way she’d been exploited at work. She said that she felt like some people in the newspaper office had been corrupted by America, that they had lost their way and were no longer engaging dutifully with Li’s teachings. Klett suggested that maybe Falun Gong had lost its way. Cristofaro became angry and, through tears, told him that as a non-practitioner he had no idea what he was talking about.

Despite the disagreement with Cristofaro, after arriving back in New York, Klett began planning for a return to Italy. He saved money and enrolled in an English-teaching course, hoping to find work in Florence. But then, just a week before Klett was set to fly back in February 2018, Cristofaro told him that she’d changed her mind; she was seeing someone else. It was best if he didn’t come.

In a corner cubicle near Wall Street, Klett trawled Twitter looking for trending news he could repackage for the website—a celebrity feud, Martin Shkreli controversies, Trump’s Twitter meltdowns.

Klett retreated into himself. He worked from home, writing for the vaping company. In his spare time, he read about the Mueller investigation. He began imagining himself back at the Epoch Times as a bot, mindlessly churning out words that became tangled in algorithms that pushed disinformation. When Klett published a blog post on Medium about his experience at the newspaper, he expected it to go mostly unnoticed.

In the spring of 2019, however, he received a message from an investigative journalist at NBC who wanted to talk to him about what he’d written. Klett agreed to meet at the NBC office in Manhattan. By coincidence, the appointment was scheduled on World Falun Gong Day. When Klett got off the train at 47th Street, he found himself surrounded by practitioners marching in celebration. Among the sea of yellow shirts, Klett thought he spotted Valentin Schmid. He lowered his head and made his way into the halls of NBC.

A few months later, NBC News published an online exposé about the Epoch Times’ rise as a right-wing media outlet. It revealed the paper’s massive spending on pro-Trump Facebook ads. It also identified employees who had splintered off to create hugely popular YouTube channels, including Edge of Wonder, which had hundreds of thousands of subscribers. The channel’s upbeat hosts pushed the QAnon conspiracy theory with a smile. Klett recognized them from the paper’s print side.

The NBC investigation wasn’t the first to describe the relationship between the Epoch Times and far-right forces. In 2017, a journalist went undercover at the paper’s Berlin office and found strong support for Alternative for Germany, the country’s nationalist party. The next fall, BuzzFeed News detailed how the paper had pushed the debunked “Spygate” conspiracy theory, which proposed that the Obama administration had infiltrated Trump’s presidential campaign. Then, in May 2019, the progressive nonprofit Acronym identified the Epoch Times as one of the biggest spenders on pro-Trump video content on Facebook.

The NBC investigation went further, emphasizing the connection between the Epoch Times’ political bias and Falun Gong’s apocalyptic worldview. “Former practitioners of Falun Gong told NBC News that believers think the world is headed toward a judgment day, where those labeled ‘communists’ will be sent to a kind of hell, and those sympathetic to the spiritual community will be spared,” the article read. “Trump is viewed as a key ally in the anti-communist fight.”

Stephen Gregory published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal describing NBC’s reporting as “agenda-driven journalism” that was “in line with Beijing’s propaganda.” He claimed that the Facebook ads in question weren’t pro-Trump—they merely spotlighted the newspaper’s work in order to boost subscriptions. “Because we’ve taken the lead in reporting on Spygate … these ads often feature articles reporting on President Trump. That doesn’t make them ads for Mr. Trump,” Gregory wrote. He denied any direct connection between Falun Gong and his newspaper. Klett noticed that some of his former colleagues took to social media to say that no one accused The New York Times of being a Jewish newspaper despite the many Jewish people on staff. (An Epoch Times contributor made similar comments to me in an interview.)

The newspaper started running online ads under the auspices of entities with names like Pure American Journalism and Best News. This went against Facebook’s transparency rules, and in August 2019, the platform banned the Epoch Times from advertising. The paper found other avenues to spread its message. A website called the BL, or Beauty of Life, created a network of phony Facebook profiles, including some with computer-generated faces, which were used to amplify the reach of pro-Trump content. Gregory denied ties between the BL and the Epoch Times, but in December 2019, Facebook told the technology news website The Verge that BL executives “were active admins on Epoch Media Group Pages as recently as this morning when their accounts were deactivated and the BL was removed.”

Meanwhile, at least one news report suggested that the paper’s digital media strategy was influenced by Chris Kitze, an entrepreneur who a decade prior essentially invented the idea of using conspiracy theories to generate viral content with his website BeforeItsNews.com. Kitze happened to be a longtime Falun Gong practitioner.

VII.

There is a slogan inscribed on the main gate of the western wall of Zhongnanhai: “Long live the great Chinese Communist Party.” After 10,000 Falun Gong devotees gathered in protest next to the compound in 1999, China scholars and observers had to wonder: Where did this spiritual movement, which claimed millions of followers in a country that demanded faith only in the ruling party, come from?

One explanation, according to some historians, was that Falun Gong was best understood as a modern incarnation of the White Lotus society, a secretive Buddhist sect that emerged within Chinese peasant communities in the 14th century. Its adherents, said to practice esoteric rites under the cover of night, were considered religious zealots who prophesied the imminent arrival of a messianic bodhisattva who would usher in an era of universal enlightenment. When news of the White Lotus reached the ruling class, the group was deemed a cult. Its rituals were banned, forcing the White Lotus underground. Practicing became a political act, radicalizing segments of society that went on to participate in the bloody rebellions that brought down the Yuan Empire. Over subsequent centuries, fearing the populist power of the spiritual movement, imperial forces responded to reports of White Lotus activities with claims that the group was evil and dangerous.

The hypothesis offered by some of the first scholars of Falun Gong, and repeated by Western media, was that the conflict between Li’s followers and the CCP was, in essence, another cycle in the long history of state versus cult. When I began reporting this story, that struck me as a good framework for understanding Falun Gong and its motivations. But then I found the work of Barend ter Haar, a Dutch professor of Chinese history and religion. He believes that it’s possible much of the primary documentation about the White Lotus—police inquiries, court proceedings, reports, even individual confessions—was fabricated by ruling forces. In other words, the White Lotus might be a myth used by the elite to strike fear into the public and, when convenient, to inculpate political dissidents in a nefarious cabal. It might be fake news.

While reading ter Haar’s research, I felt something akin to the sensation Klett had described, of reality wobbling. It wasn’t the first time a factual bedrock seemed to fall away in my reporting. Researching Falun Gong and the Epoch Times was like holding a sieve. I would establish what I thought was true, only to find enough contradictory information to raise a doubt in my mind. Facts were hard to distinguish from ideological constructions. The layers of spin and myth seemed endless.

I wanted a concrete truth, however tangential or unlikely, to round out my reporting. On a warm Friday evening in late June 2020, Klett pulled up outside my apartment building in a dark blue Toyota Sienna. I got in the back, pushing aside empty cardboard boxes and coffee cups. Klett introduced me to his girlfriend, Arielle, who was sitting up front. He apologized for being late; he had just clocked out at his job delivering pharmaceuticals around Brooklyn, which he’d picked up at the start of the year to earn some extra money. It had been deemed essential work as COVID-19 rippled through the neighborhoods he served.

The pandemic had been a boon for the Epoch Times. When the coronavirus first hit, the paper ratcheted up its anti-China content. It was among the first outlets to spread the story that COVID-19—“the CCP virus,” as the paper dubbed it—was bioengineered and released from a Wuhan research laboratory. In April, the paper unveiled a 54-minute documentary on a subsidiary YouTube channel, “exposing” the “origin of the CCP virus.” It also produced an eight-page special edition entitled “How the Chinese Communist Party Endangered the World” and sent it unsolicited to tens of thousands of mailboxes in the United States, Canada, and Australia. On July 4, it would publish an article promoting the practice of Falun Gong as an antidote to pandemic-induced stress.

Klett and I had been speaking on the phone at night, nailing down the details of his story. He seemed less interested in the Epoch Times’ pandemic propaganda or the impact of his work at the newspaper than in whether there really was a compound in New Jersey where Falun Gong housed overworked acolytes. I had found an online testimonial that described “dorms” provided for practitioners working at the Epoch Times. I asked Klett if he had any way of determining the location of Cristofaro’s old apartment. He had a vague sense that it was near Journal Square in Jersey City. He also had an idea: What if we waited outside the newspaper’s office in Manhattan and, when an employee came out, followed them home?

That’s what we set out to do that Friday. After crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, we approached an exit to Chinatown. Klett pointed to a large billboard featuring a woman leaping into the air, her legs in a split and parallel to the ground, white skirt fanned out against a bright shade of emerald. The copy read, “2020 Shen Yun. 5,000 years of civilization reborn.”

“It’s like I can’t escape them,” Klett said.

We identified two young employees—both wearing cream-colored chinos and blue shirts, with Epoch Times lanyards around their necks—emerging from the newspaper’s office on 28th Street and 7th Avenue. We followed them to New Jersey. In Hoboken, we saw them enter a three-story apartment building. I checked the names on the mailboxes. Nothing stood out. A cardboard box left outside held a dozen secondhand books about Frank Sinatra, including His Way, an unauthorized biography that claimed to go “behind the iconic myth of Sinatra to expose the well-hidden side of one of the most celebrated—and elusive—public figures of our time.”

If a compound for Epoch Times staff existed, this wasn’t it.

As we drove back to Brooklyn, fireworks exploded overhead. There had been a relentless barrage for the past few weeks, colorful explosions beginning each night at sundown and not letting up until early morning. Some New Yorkers were frustrated by the disturbances, while others speculated about their origin in increasingly conspiratorial terms.

Arielle said that she had read—on Twitter somewhere—that there was a man in a white SUV driving around neighborhoods handing out fireworks to young kids. Setting them off was intended to cause chaos and push civilians into a heightened state of alert to prepare for an upcoming military takeover. I stayed silent. Klett laughed.

“At this point,” he said. “I’d believe anything.”

The Epoch Times was among the first outlets to spread the story that COVID-19—“the CCP virus,” as the paper dubbed it—was bioengineered and released from a Wuhan research laboratory.

It’s hard not to empathize—at least to some degree—with Klett’s credulity. We live in a world where a kaleidoscope of information sources compete for our attention, making truth seem relative and waking life feel like an epistemic free-for-all. Journalists have unwittingly promoted or generated propaganda. In September, reports emerged that the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency had hired U.S. reporters to contribute content to a site targeting left-leaning voters with misinformation.  

Trust is eroding, ambivalence is soaring, and, for many people, seeking is becoming a steady state of being. For some, like Klett, detachment—from responsibility, from consequences, from facts—is a defense mechanism. But what does that mean for questions of rightness and moral conviction? Often they are sidelined by apathy and languish, unanswered.

The ultimate beneficiaries are ideologues and megalomaniacs willing to manipulate people’s grasp on reality, along with the opportunists who glom onto their rise. The Epoch Times is an example of the latter: It has capitalized on Trumpism, hoping to promote its versions of truth and tradition and to tip the balance of power in Falun Gong’s information war with Beijing. In a sense, the paper is succeeding. In June, the State Department released a statement designating the U.S. operations of China Central Television, China News Service, the People’s Daily, and the Global Times “foreign missions.” It continued, “While Western media are beholden to the truth, PRC media are beholden to the Chinese Communist Party.” Meanwhile, the Epoch Times was cozier than ever with the Trump administration. Its reporters received special treatment in press briefings, alongside alternative outlets like Gateway Pundit and One America News. In Falun Gong’s decades-long quest for Fa-rectification, there is arguably no more resounding success than having the attention of the White House.

By the end of the summer, a paywall ad promised that, for $77 a year, the Epoch Times’ online subscribers would “get real news other outlets don’t report” from “one of the few media that report factually on President Donald Trump.” As of this writing, the paper routinely mixes pro-Trump messages with anti-China ones. Its daily email newsletter has implied more than once that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might be in league with the CCP for his family’s own business interests. Trump, meanwhile, is portrayed as committed to protecting America from China’s influence.

Many editions of the newsletter feature glowing quotes from subscribers in praise of the outlet’s mission and values. After witnessing “the contempt for America and its people [that] oozes from mainstream news sources,” one woman says, the Epoch Times “restored my faith in journalism.” Another quote describes the newspaper as “the bible of journalism.”

“Thank God for the TET,” it concludes, “providing truth in a world blinded by fake news.”


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

The Free and the Brave

THE FREE AND THE BRAVE

A patriotic parade, a bloody brawl, and the origins of U.S. law enforcement’s war on the political left.

By Bill Donahue

The Atavist Magazine, No. 106


Bill Donahue has written for The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and Harper’s, among other publications. He is based in New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter: @billdonahue13.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: John Lee

Published in August 2020.

I.

American flags lined the parade route, and more than 200 men in shined boots stepped into formation. The date was November 11, 1919—a proud occasion, the first Armistice Day. It had been exactly one year since Germany signed a pledge to stop fighting Great Britain, France, the United States, and other allies, thereby ending World War I. If ever there was a moment for solemn patriotism, this was it. And if ever there was a town suited to express rock-ribbed, God-fearing devotion to America, then Centralia, Washington, was the place.

Centralia was a tidy and prosperous logging town of 7,300 set amid the primeval forests of the Pacific Northwest. Its municipal fathers had taken special pains to ensure that their town stood head and shoulders above other, less civilized western outposts, with their dingy saloons and whorehouses. Centralia had concrete sidewalks. It had streetlights and streetcars and a sewer system. It had a volunteer fire department and a newspaper that dutifully championed the decency and civility of the town’s leaders as they shaped Centralia into a bona fide municipality.

The morning of the parade, that paper, The Centralia Daily Chronicle, reminded readers that Armistice Day was not a party. It was, rather, a holiday “warning against any efforts to interrupt the natural development of Christian Civilization.” The largest perceived impediment to “Christian Civilization” in 1919 was Bolshevism, which had reached full flower two years earlier during the Russian Revolution and found a foothold in America by way of a growing labor movement. A Red Scare was in full swing, and the Chronicle’s editorial homed in on that newfound American obsession. “We can sing and shout and march to the tuneful music of the fife and drums and the martial bands,” it read, “but in all we must not forget the battle is not all won until the disease spots have been eradicated.”

The Armistice Day marchers believed in the righteousness of that battle. Members of the local Elks Club were there, along with a contingent of Boy Scouts and some Marines. Centralia was also home to a newly minted chapter of the American Legion, a national veterans’ group. The Grant Hodge Post was named after a local Army lieutenant who died in France’s Argonne Forest. Eighty of its Legionnaires brought up the rear of the parade.

They were led by a young veteran and lawyer named Warren Grimm. Solidly built and fair, with thinning dark blond hair, Grimm had played football at the University of Washington a decade earlier. As a freshman, he earned himself the nickname Wedge by playing the starring role in a brutal hazing ritual: He led 50 classmates to victory over a sophomore squad in a no-rules skirmish by forming them into a wedge and charging. Now Grimm, 31, led a different kind of configuration. As the Legionnaires divided themselves into eight platoons of ten men each, a marching band played the popular World War I–era tune “Over There.” The lyrics went:

Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun
Make your daddy glad to have had such a lad
Tell your sweetheart not to pine, to be proud her boy’s in line.

The parade kicked off at 2 p.m. and followed Centralia’s brick-paved main thoroughfare, Tower Avenue. At the north end sat Centralia’s grandest edifice, the Union Loan & Trust Building, a three-story brick structure replete with a Doric arch over its doorway and a belt of white stone running the length of the facade. Many of its hundred or so windows were elegantly domed at the crest, and the building’s size and heft clearly identified it as the seat of all rectitude and power in Centralia. A men’s clothing store selling dress suits occupied the building’s ground level, exuding respectability. The president of Union Loan & Trust kept his office on the second floor, while the third floor was home to the Elks Club. At one point, the Chronicle was housed in the basement, where it served as a pep squad for the town’s elite and the resource-rich county over which they held dominion. “There are more opportunities to the square inch,” the paper once proclaimed, “than in any other place in the world.”

Just a half-mile away from the Union Loan & Trust Building, the view from the north end of Tower Avenue was harder and grimier. It featured a clutter of low-rent boarding houses that drew itinerant loggers who felled trees in the forests surrounding town. Two stories high, with a warren of small rooms equipped with cold-water sinks, the hotels were home to a constellation of weary and solitary men who typically arrived in town with just a few bucks to their name. There was the Arnold, the Avalon, the Michigan House, the Queen, and the Roderick.

It was in front of the Roderick that Centralia’s Legionnaires suddenly stopped during the parade. Warren Grimm raised his arm and shouted, “Halt, close up ranks!” It was a strange command. The Armistice Day marchers were spaced out by then, with Grimm’s men well behind the rest of the procession. By halting, the Legionnaires would only widen the gap.

Facing the veterans on the Roderick’s ground floor was a 1,000-square-foot space that served as the union hall for the local chapter of the Workers of the World. A large storefront window bore the initials IWW, three letters that evoked the purported evils of Bolshevism or the virtues of economic brotherhood, depending on who was reading them. Grimm’s men stood motionless for a moment. The crowd that had gathered to view the parade waited for the Legionnaires’ next move.

So did several armed Wobblies, as IWW members called themselves. The Wobblies were hidden from view, prepared to attack if anyone tried to eradicate “disease spots.” They wouldn’t let that happen—not again.

II.

Centralia was in some ways a wholesome idyll—the kind of place that in November 1919 ran a news story about “seven boys charged with Hallowe’en pranks” who appeared “before Police Judge Hodge yesterday evening.” (The boys, the Chronicle reported, were “given a lecture by the court and ordered to repair the damages they did.”) But the town was also plagued by troubles that would seem familiar today. The influenza epidemic cast a shadow over everything. In the fall of 1918, it had killed eight people inside of 36 hours in and around the nearby town of Chehalis, and just a few weeks before the Armistice Day parade, the Chronicle had intoned, “Many medical men say we will probably have another epidemic this fall.” Influenza masks were everywhere, and the paper carried advertisements for a dubious elixir, cascara quinine bromide, said to kill the flu if swallowed.

Meanwhile, America was riven by a political divide that deepened sharply in 1919, cutting into small towns like Centralia. The American Legion was founded that March by a contingent of World War I veterans who aimed, according to their constitution, to “foster and perpetuate a 100 percent Americanism.” The group’s language would soon be picked up by another growing movement devoted to patriotic purity: The Ku Klux Klan, revived by a Methodist minister in 1915, also began touting “100 percent Americanism.” The KKK beat and lynched African Americans. It went after Jews and Catholics. It deplored communists and anyone associated with them.

So did the most powerful men in U.S. law enforcement, who fixated on acts of violence staged by a few extremists as evidence of the American left’s wider, nefarious aims. Luigi Galleani, an infamous anarchist orator and political sage of the day, espoused “propaganda of the deed,” which to him involved eradicating capitalism by using explosives. On April 29, 1919, disciples of Galleani sent former Georgia senator Thomas Hardwick a package bomb that blew off his housekeeper’s hands. On June 2, another bomb went off at the Washington, D.C., home of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Though no one in the home was injured, it shattered the windows—and engendered a historic shift in the way the United States policed the political left.

To combat what he deemed a burgeoning terrorist movement composed of “ultradicals or Bolshevists,” Palmer opened the Radical Division inside the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation. As he staffed this new unit, he made an unorthodox promotion, choosing as its director a recent law-school graduate, just 24 years old, who’d began his career by helping the government track down “alien enemies” during World War I. J. Edgar Hoover joined the Radical Division in August 1919. Three months later, on the night of November 7, the boy wonder set anticommunist shock troops loose on 12 cities nationwide. In each locale, the target was the Union of Russian Workers. Hoover’s men rounded up 1,100 suspects, whom young J. Edgar aimed to deport. In Manhattan alone, at the Russian Peoples House in Union Square, the troops arrested more than 200 people and injured many by whacking them on the head, according to one man, with “a twelve-inch steel jimmy and a stair bannister.” Then they herded the accused into the Justice Department’s local bureau. The interrogations lasted until 4:30 a.m.

Powerful men fixated on acts of violence staged by a few extremists as evidence of the American left’s wider, nefarious aims.

Nothing so dramatic had yet happened in Centralia. Still, local politics reflected the national backdrop. Centralia’s young professionals, men like Warren Grimm, were in thrall to one F.B. Hubbard. At 73, Hubbard was a charter member of the Elks Club and president of the town’s largest employer, the Eastern Railway & Lumber Company. Also the president of his own bank, he was the financier behind the Union Loan & Trust Building. Hubbard had silver hair and a broad, bushy mustache. In photographs, his gaze was so steady, his posture so ramrod straight, that he seemed carved in stone, his torso and head forming an invincible marble bust. A New York native, Hubbard had made a small fortune mass-producing narrow wooden crossarms for telegraph poles before moving to Centralia in 1908. By 1919, he had more than 200 people working for him, distributed across 9,000 acres he owned—magnificent, lumber-rich forest, all of it underlain, according to the Chronicle, with “a fine coal deposit.” His allegiance to the town was so deep that the newspaper once saw fit to uppercase his virtues—“Energy” and “Thoroughness”—before noting, “His counsel is much sought and prized by the public, and his natural tendency … is to aid every industry that makes for the social, mental, physical and financial betterment of the district.” 

Hubbard’s archenemy was organized labor, which had a strong appeal in western Washington. Loggers in the region earned about two dollars a day for up to 12 hours of work. When they were on the job, they lodged for weeks on end in cramped cabins in the woods. There were “40 men in the bunkhouse,” according to Eugene Barnett, a logger who moved to Centralia in 1918. “You worked all day in the rain. You came in at night and hung your soggy clothes up around the one stove in the center of the room with wires going out from it in all directions like a spider web, and they hung there and steamed all night. And you slept there in that steam. That’s the only bath you got.”

In 1914, a short-lived group called the International Union of Timber Workers zeroed in on Hubbard’s practice of paying employees poverty wages—some of the workers at his plant made as little as $1.35 a day. When two of Centralia’s Protestant ministers showed up at Hubbard’s office, sympathetic to his workers and hoping to have a look at his payroll, he showed them the door. The union decided to go on strike, and 125 men walked off the job that August. As the picket began, the president and the secretary of the union jointly wrote a letter to the Chronicle, noting that in Hubbard’s lumber camps, loggers were charged 50 cents a month for the use of $4 mattresses.

The Chronicle hurt the union’s cause by calling strikers “agitators” and running a puff piece that extolled Hubbard’s “almost paternal consideration for his employees.” The paper went so far as to claim that Hubbard had “some ideas that might be considered almost socialistic by more material captains of industry.”

Hubbard didn’t change his policies. Instead, he increased the length of the workday at his mill from eight to ten hours, and also hired scabs. In January 1915, more than 70 of these new workers sent a joint letter to the newspaper that pilloried the “self-styled strikers” and proclaimed, “We, the employees, are satisfied with the treatment and the scale of the wages paid us.”

It wasn’t long before the strike ended and Hubbard moved on to more pressing concerns, such as the purchase of a couple of three-car locomotives to transport his timber. But the battle between industry and labor in Centralia was just getting started. 

 F.B. Hubbard

III.

The IWW was a vehemently anti-capitalist organization. When it was founded in 1905, in Chicago, the IWW drafted a constitution that borrowed a page from Karl Marx, calling on the workers of the world to “organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.” By the middle of the next decade, the IWW had chapters across America. The IWW’s 150,000 members took to the nation’s streets, spouting diatribes against monied interests as police endeavored to silence them with billy clubs.

The IWW’s foot soldiers were shunned even by mainstream groups such as the American Federation of Labor. Wobblies lived on the margins, fraternally bound as outsiders. Often they rode freight cars together from town to town. As they rattled along, they raised their voices to sing political anthems. One, entitled “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” had a line that went, “If I didn’t eat, I’d have money to burn.”

Hubbard and other lumber barons glowered as the IWW took a stand in the Pacific Northwest. In 1916, even before the U.S. entered World War I, the timber industry had begun supplying the Allied powers with lightweight, tensile Sitka spruce that was perfect for making airplanes. The IWW monkey-wrenched this effort in 1917 by rallying some 10,000 loggers into a three-month strike aimed at reducing the length of their workday from ten to eight hours. Once the men prevailed upon some of the logging companies to reduce hours, the Wobblies ended the strike but encouraged loggers employed by inflexible bosses to lollygag on the job. An eye-catching Wobbly sticker declared, “The hours are long and the pay is small. Take your time and buck them all.”

The stronghold of the 1917 IWW strike in Washington State lay just west of Centralia, amid the fog and spattering rain of the Olympic Peninsula, in towns such as Aberdeen and Hoquiam, where meagerly paid, left-leaning Finnish immigrants maintained large “Red Finn” halls at which the IWW’s leading luminaries—poet and journalist Ralph Chaplin, for instance—stopped to lecture. The IWW didn’t yet have a strong organized presence in Centralia, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1915, vigilantes marched a group of Wobblies out of town. In 1917, the IWW opened up a local hall, but the landlord soon evicted them under public pressure. After the Wobblies rented a new space, Centralia’s Commercial Club met to consider a plan to “take matters into their own hands,” according to the Chronicle.

Hubbard was among the residents of Centralia intent on deflecting the IWW’s encroachment. In May 1918, during a parade that was part of a fundraising drive for the town’s chapter of the Red Cross, Hubbard’s Elks detoured from the route to raid Centralia’s IWW hall. They burned the union’s typewriter along with its files and newspaper archives. They carried the IWW’s Victrola and rolltop desk into the middle of Tower Avenue, then held an impromptu street auction to benefit the Red Cross. Hubbard himself scored the desk, which he donated to Centralia’s chamber of commerce. Meanwhile, the half-dozen Wobblies lingering inside the hall were “lifted by their ears into a truck,” according to one report, and taken to a nearby field, where they were flogged with sticks and ax handles.

The following summer, the Wobblies again tried to make inroads in Centralia. A logger named Britt Smith was able to convince the owner of the Roderick Hotel to rent the bottom of her building to the IWW for use as a hall. Smith moved in on September 1, 1919. He set up an apartment in the back and appointed the front with furniture. He had good reason to hope that the hall would grow into a sort of community center. On the Olympic Peninsula, the sprawling Red Finn halls had libraries and gymnasiums. Labor groups used the facilities for union business—meetings and fundraisers and such—and also for wiener roasts and wedding showers, plays and funerals.

But as Smith harbored dreams of a promising Wobbly future in Centralia, he also worried that the union’s opponents might try to rid the town of its despised red blight once and for all. In June 1919, the Centralia chamber of commerce met to discuss the Wobbly problem. It formed a Citizens Protective Association and made Hubbard its chair. When the association gathered at Centralia’s Elks Club on October 20, Hubbard pressed the police chief to force the Wobblies out of town. The chief declined, saying there was nothing illegal about the IWW being there. If he was the head of police, Hubbard shouted, he would toss the Wobblies out right away.

Later that night, Hubbard formed another committee, this one dedicated to seeking extralegal methods of evicting the Wobblies. Warren Grimm was named chair. Grimm’s experience with communism, and his disdain for it, was well known in town. During the war, he had been stationed in Siberia. What he saw there disgusted him. In a guest column for the Chronicle, he once sniffed, “Vladivostock, although a city of 125,000, has neither sewerage nor water systems.” In June 1918, when an IWW sympathizer named Tom Lassiter—a partially blind man—was attacked in Centralia, Grimm took the side of his assailants. Lassiter ran a newspaper stand selling labor rags such as the Industrial Worker. Two thugs kidnapped him, drove him out of town, and threw him into a ditch. Discussing the incident with a fellow lawyer, Grimm said, “That’s the proper way to treat such a fellow.” Soon after, in a Labor Day speech delivered in Centralia’s Riverside Park, Grimm fulminated about “the American Bolsheviki—the industrial workers of the world.”

No wonder, then, that the Wobblies feared the first Armistice Day might bring fresh trouble. They met the night before the parade to hatch a plan: They would secret guns to strategic positions in and around the hall, from which they could protect it. If the parade, led by Hubbard, turned into the sort of attack they’d seen before, they’d be ready.

When Grimm ordered the Legionnaires to halt at the Roderick, the Wobblies on the lookout had only to raise and cock their guns. When several of Grimm’s men burst into motion, hurling themselves at the IWW hall’s locked door and breaking the large storefront window, the Wobblies took aim. As shattered glass flew, five gunmen had Grimm in their sight.

IV.

Three of the men were a block to the east, across a set of railroad tracks, lying prone on Seminary Ridge. The elevated position gave them a bird’s-eye view of Tower Avenue. Another Wobbly, O.C. Bland, a father of seven, was situated across the street from the Roderick, wielding a .25-35 rifle in an upstairs room of the Arnold Hotel. He was in such a hurry to get the barrel of his gun out the window that he smashed the glass and cut a bloody gash into the back of his hand.

A block away, in the Avalon Hotel, was a large mustached man who had just arrived in Centralia. At a meeting in the IWW hall the night before, he’d mentioned that his name was Davis, but no one seemed to know him, and there was something clownish about him: When presented with the challenge of sneaking a rifle into the Avalon to avoid suspicion, he tried stuffing it down the leg of his pant. His stiff gait prompted other Wobblies to laugh, so he wrapped the gun in an overcoat. Now he was aiming the rifle through the slit of an open window.

What did Davis see, peering down? Some historians contend that, as the rest of the Armistice Day parade moved down Tower Avenue, Grimm shouted, “Boys, aren’t you with us?” He tried to beckon some of the marchers back to help with the Legionnaires’ attack on the Wobblies’ hall. A corollary theory holds that Grimm channeled his athletic past. Did he put the Wedge, the maneuver from his college days, into action as his men charged the hall? Did he lead the way? There is, of course, no footage of Centralia’s Armistice Day parade, but it seems likely that Grimm, at the very least, took part in the assault.

Perhaps no one inside the IWW hall was more willing to fire upon the Legionnaires than Wesley Everest.

At about 2:35 p.m., a few moments after the violence began, Grimm was struck in the chest by a bullet fired from above. It likely came from Davis’s gun, aiming from across the street. Grimm staggered half a block to a shed behind a candy store, where he told a doctor—a fellow Legionnaire who’d raced to help him—that he felt “an awful pain” in his stomach. By the time he climbed into the car that rushed him toward Centralia’s hospital, his wound was as “big as an inkwell,” according to a fellow passenger. Grimm would not survive the day.

From his perch in the Avalon, Davis could see a Legionnaire rushing north on Tower Avenue. His name was Arthur McElfresh. He’d fought in the Argonne Forest and now, at 26, was the manager of the Prigmore & Sears pharmacy. With a few other Legionnaires, he found cover behind a building located some 50 feet from the IWW hall, on the same side of the street. When McElfresh peered around the corner to look at the Roderick, he took a fatal bullet to the head. It’s impossible to say with certainty who shot him, but it was likely Davis, who would have had a clear line of sight on McElfresh.

The three gunmen on Seminary Ridge began shooting, peppering the parade’s marchers and spectators. Most of the crowd dispersed in a frenzy, unsure of where the shots were coming from. Centralia’s Legionnaires, however, kept pouring into the IWW Hall—they were trained soldiers and undeterred by artillery fire.

Seven Wobblies waited inside the hall, and they were the salt of the earth. Their leader, Britt Smith, was a native of southwestern Washington, who walked with a limp. In time, legal papers would describe him as “sober, honest and reasonably industrious.” Bert Faulkner, a 31-year-old veteran, had attended high school with Grimm in Centralia. He was missing his left middle finger, the result of a logging accident. Mike Sheehan, a Wobbly elder in his sixties, was a Spanish-American War vet who had been involved in organized labor ever since he joined his father’s butcher’s union at the age of eight. Another man in the hall was a minister’s son and ideologue named Ray Becker. Twenty-six years old, Becker had fled divinity school to work in the woods of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. He’d served jail time for evading the draft, and arrived in Centralia just two days before the parade, with a zealot’s fire for social justice and a .38 pistol.

But perhaps no one inside the IWW hall was more willing to fire upon the Legionnaires than Wesley Everest. He was 28 and handsome, with red hair. He crouched in the back of the hall with an Army-issue .45 automatic pistol. Within moments he would turn himself into a folk hero, the subject of myth. 

By the mid-1910s, the IWW had 150,000 members.

V.

John Dos Passos, one of America’s most widely read 20th-century writers, would later refer to Everest, a World War I vet, as a “sharpshooter,” alleging that he fought in the trenches of France. In his landmark novel 1919, Dos Passos claimed that Everest earned “a medal for a crack shot.” Elsewhere, Dos Passos made Everest sound like Daniel Boone, writing of the veteran, “His folks were of the old Tennessee and Kentucky stock of woodsmen and squirrel hunters.” Others have traded on the salacious tale that Everest married and fathered a child with Marie Equi, an Oregon lesbian, physician, and Wobbly icon.

None of this was true. Everest was a hard-luck case and a nobody who, by odd twists of fate, found himself at the center of a historic street battle on Armistice Day. He grew up on a farm in tiny Newberg, Oregon, and his life was shaped by trauma. His father, a schoolteacher and postmaster, died before Everest was even a teenager. In 1904, when he was 13, Everest’s mother was thrown from the seat of a horse buggy. Her head hit a rock and she died hours later, leaving behind seven orphans. “We children were distributed among aunts and other relatives,” his younger brother Charles wrote in a 1977 letter that offers one of the few original accounts of Everest’s life.

For Everest, the third-oldest child, the fatal accident gave way to an unsettled existence. At first he lived on a great-aunt’s farm outside Portland, and then, when milking cows no longer agreed with him, he ran away. He wasn’t yet 15. “I do not know where he went or what he did,” Charles wrote, “but I heard he was felling timber in the woods at age 17.” Charles didn’t see his brother again until 1911, when Everest got a job on the railroad near where Charles lived. “He worked a short time,” Charles wrote, “and disappeared.”

Everest was working for the IWW by the age of 21. In 1913, he was on Oregon’s southern coast, in the village of Marshfield, organizing a logging strike summed up eloquently in a headline that appeared in The Coos Bay Harbor: “35 Men Refuse to Work in Deep Mud. Strike for Less Hours and More Pay.” The six-week campaign failed. Along with another Wobbly leader, Everest was escorted out of town by what The Coos Bay Times called a “committee” of 600 armed citizens—a group that included “practically every businessman in Marshfield.” The men dragged Everest through the streets until he was scarcely able to walk. They forced him to kneel and kiss the American flag. They put him on a boat bound for a distant beach. And they advised him to never return to Marshfield, “as he might,” in the newspaper’s words, “suffer greater violence.”

When Everest was conscripted in 1917, it was into a special contingent of the Army that logged spruce for airplanes in western Washington. He stubbornly resisted the lessons of Marshfield. During his 16-month Army hitch, he spent much of his time in the stockade, repeatedly punished for refusing to salute the American flag. “In the mornings,” writes John McClelland Jr., the author of Wobbly War: The Centralia Story, “Everest would be let out of the stockade at reveille when the flag was raised. Everest would refuse to salute whereupon he would be marched back to the stockade for another day.”

Everest arrived in Centralia in the spring of 1919, and he liked to wear his Army uniform around town. It allowed him to blend in, and he likely donned it on a visit to the Elks’ clubhouse, where a group of concerned Centralia citizens gathered that October to discuss the threat of organized labor. He came away convinced that the town’s citizens were determined to shoot up the IWW hall on Armistice Day. “When those fellows come,” he told other Wobblies at their own meeting, “they will come prepared to clean us out, and this building will be honeycombed with bullets inside of ten minutes.”

It was Everest who argued that the Wobblies should arm themselves for the parade. Listening to him make his case, 21-year-old IWW logger Loren Roberts concluded that Everest was “a desperate character. He didn’t give a goddamn for nothing. He didn’t give a damn whether he got killed or not.”

Everest had been right that the Legionnaires were planning an attack. He was wrong, though, about the hall being “honeycombed with bullets.” When Grimm’s men charged, they were unarmed.

VI.

As the Legionnaires forced their way inside the hall, Everest and Ray Becker, the minister’s son, shot wildly, hitting no one. The vets kept coming. Four Wobblies, including Becker, ran to the back porch of the Roderick, where they hid in an unused freezer. Everest kept running, past the porch and into an alley. Men in military uniform sprinted after him. He kept shooting, and this time his aim was good. Ben Casagranda, a Legionnaire and the owner of a Centralia shoeshine parlor, fell to the ground with a bullet in his gut. Another veteran, John Watt, fell beside him, hit in the spleen. Watt would survive; Casagranda would not.

The Legionnaires, who greatly outnumbered the Wobblies, began asking neighbors of the Roderick for their weapons. Some broke into a hardware store, searching for guns and cartridges. A few who were still unarmed followed Everest at a careful distance.

Everest scrambled west down alleyways, through vacant lots, and past horse stables. He was moving toward the Skookumchuck River, less than half a mile from the IWW hall. On the north bank were farms and forests through which he could escape into the mist.

As he ran, Everest stopped every so often to hide behind a building and shoot at the soldiers on his trail. He missed, wasting bullets. When he got to the river, it was swollen with autumn rains and moving too quickly to cross. Everest was trapped.

The Legionnaires began asking neighbors for their weapons. Some broke into a hardware store, searching for guns and cartridges.

F.B. Hubbard’s nephew, Dale, lumbered toward him, pointing a pistol at Everest as two other Legionnaires hurried to assist. He instructed Everest to drop his gun. Like Grimm, Dale Hubbard had played football at the University of Washington. He’d served in France, with a division of forestry engineers, and gotten married a month earlier. He was 26. He’d borrowed the pistol he was holding from someone he’d encountered en route to the riverbank. The gun didn’t work, though—Dale was bluffing.

Everest didn’t know this, and he likely regarded Dale’s steady pointing of the weapon as a death threat. Still, he didn’t acquiesce to the command that he drop his pistol. Instead, according to legal papers, Everest hurled “defiant curses” at Dale. When Dale moved toward him, Everest fired repeatedly, wounding Dale repeatedly. Dale fell to the ground. He would die that night. 

Everest had just shot a veteran in front of two other soldiers, and his gun was now out of bullets. He tried to reload, but Dale Hubbard’s allies tackled him. The Legionnaires kicked him in the head, drawing blood. When he refused to walk, they strung a belt around his neck and dragged him a mile to the Centralia jail.

The assault on the IWW hall.

VII.

As Everest was hauled through town, no one asked questions. Instead, a crowd grew around him, convinced he was evil, and eventually he found himself “in the vanguard of a howling, sneering mob,” one witness wrote decades later in the Chronicle. “His head was a bloody mass of welts from both men and women who dashed out sporadically from the curb to pummel him with their fists.”

Someone in the mob threw a hangman’s noose around a light pole, according to one eyewitness. Everest was led beneath it. As he stood waiting for his end, he berated the crowd, calling them “cowards, rats, and Hubbard’s hirelings.” As the crowd aggravated for the Wobbly’s demise, an elderly woman intervened and begged Everest’s tormenters not to hang him.

Soldiers lifted Everest off the ground by his neck and feet like a sack of potatoes. They tossed him into a jail cell. As he lay in a pool of blood, squads of Legionnaires combed the streets of Centralia looking for other Wobblies. The IWW hall had been ransacked and destroyed. Mobs burned the Wobblies’ furniture in the street, along with piles of books and labor newspapers. They tore a porch off the side of the Roderick, prompting the building’s worried owner, Mary McAllister, to hastily install an American flag in her window lest the whole place be leveled.

Across the street, O.C. Bland wrapped a towel around his bloody hand. He left the Arnold Hotel, crossed Tower Avenue, and walked east, hoping to convalesce at a friend’s. When he reached Seminary Ridge, he encountered Davis, the crack Wobbly gunman who had likely killed two people that day. The Legionnaires were searching for him. When The New York Times reported on the hunt the following morning, it wrote that the servicemen “searched the highways and byways for all suspicious persons and then sent out parties into the timbered country around the city.”

When they could not find Davis in the open air, the Legionnaires stormed a seedy, smoky pool hall. According to the Times, they “lined about 100 persons against the wall and searched them.” Sixteen men carrying IWW cards were arrested. At least 25 alleged Wobblies ended up in Centralia’s jail alongside Everest.

At 5 p.m., Centralia’s Elks and Legion Post #17 gathered for an emergency meeting in the Union Loan & Trust Building. They adjourned briefly to return home for their guns, then convened again to devise a plan of action, booting anyone who was neither an Elk nor a Legionnaire from the room.

Shortly after the men emerged at 7 p.m., they arrived at the jail in a caravan of six vehicles, each of which had its headlights switched off. The men occupying the vehicles had no problem getting inside. The jail was guarded by a lone watchman, and they were operating under cover of darkness—someone, possibly Centralia’s mayor, had managed to temporarily cut the electricity flowing from the town’s power plant.

“The first person to enter the jail was F.B. Hubbard,” Esther Barnett Goffinet, daughter of Wobbly Eugene Barnett, wrote in her 2010 book, Ripples of a Lie. “Someone in front of the jail turned their headlights on and Hubbard yelled, ‘Turn off that light! Some IWW son-of-a-bitch might see our faces.’” 

It’s not clear that Hubbard actually said this—or that he was even at the jail that night. Goffinet’s source was a pair of affidavits given several years later by two Wobbly prisoners with an ax to grind. Still, the vignette gets the deeper story right. Working his connections and exercising his clout, Hubbard had spent much of 1919 quarterbacking Centralia’s war against the red scourge. Now his ugly hopes were coming to fruition.

The posse dragged Everest outside, where a crowd of about 2,000 people were now “swarming like bees,” the Tacoma News-Tribune reported. “They were rough men, angry, scornful men whose pockets bulged menacingly with the weapons they made small effort to conceal.” Some in the crowd wanted every single Wobbly in Centralia to hang. They shouted, “Lynch ’em!”

The caravan moved west, bound for the broad Chehalis River. Everest was defiant. “I got my man and done my duty,” he said, not specifying which of his victims he intended to kill. “String me up now if you want to.”

Men who were never charged in court knotted a noose to a crossarm of a bridge over the Chehalis. They put it around Everest’s neck and let him drop. A moment later they heard a low moan and knew that Everest was still alive—they’d flubbed the hanging. They pulled him up. They found a longer rope and let Everest drop again. This time his neck snapped. When at last his body went limp, the vigilantes in the caravan turned their headlights on so they could take aim. They shot some 20 or 30 bullets into Everest’s corpse.

They left his body dangling. Early the next morning, November 12, someone cut the rope. That evening, the Seattle Star reported, Everest’s corpse “was dragged through the streets. The body was taken to the jail and placed in a cell in full view of 30 alleged IWW prisoners.” 

“The sight was intended as an object lesson not only for the prisoners huddled in their cells,” the Star noted, “but to all men who fail to respect the men who fought for the United States.”

VIII.

In the lyrics to a 1920 song titled “Wesley Everest,” Wobbly Ralph Chaplin channeled Christ’s crucifixion as he envisioned the activist hanging from a noose. “Torn and defiant as a wind-lashed reed,” the song goes, “a rebel unto Caesar—then as now—alone, thorn crowned, a spear wound in His side.” In The Centralia Conspiracy, a book published the same year, Chaplin burnished Everest’s martyr status by suggesting that his killers had castrated him. “In the automobile, on the way to the lynching,” Chaplin writes, “he was unsexed by a human fiend, a well known Centralia business man.”

The story of Everest’s castration is arguably the most remembered detail of the Centralia tragedy. It is so widely accepted that Howard Zinn presented it as fact in A People’s History of the United States. The story is likely bogus, however. In a meticulous 1986 essay, Wesley Everest, IWW Martyr, author Thomas Copeland makes clear that, in late 1919, not a single report—from journalists, from Everest’s fellow Wobblies, or from the coroner—mentioned castration.

Still, Chaplin’s mythmaking is nothing compared with the stagecraft of the trial that ensued after the Armistice Day violence. In early 1920, in a courthouse in Montesano, Washington, 11 Wobblies stood accused of committing murder during the shootout. To intimidate the jury, Hubbard’s company joined other citizens in paying 50 World War I veterans $4 a day to sit in the gallery dressed in uniform. Outside the courtroom, the soldiers enjoyed free meals at Montesano’s city hall and met trains to discourage IWW supporters from disembarking.

The troops camped outside the courthouse for two weeks and stirred such fear that two jurors secretly carried guns.

The judge presiding over the case, John M. Wilson, refused to let the jury consider the buildup to the shootout—the 1918 attack on Centralia’s IWW hall, for instance, and the October meeting at the Elks Club to discuss the “Wobbly problem.” Prosecutor Herman Allen, meanwhile, turned the proceedings into a circus. Mid-trial, Allen summoned assistance from the Army as what he called a “precautionary measure” against Wobbly violence. Eighty enlisted men were dutifully sent to town. The troops, who arrived armed, camped outside the courthouse for two weeks and stirred such fear that two jurors secretly carried guns in case of a Wobbly attack. Their fear was unfounded, however. Nobody on the union’s side was calling for an uprising in Montesano. In fact, leftist protestors stayed away from the heavily patrolled town.

For the Wobblies on trial, there was one sliver of light: Davis, the stranger who’d probably killed two Legionnaires, had escaped. Somehow, despite extensive searching, Davis had vanished, never to be found. The only other Wobbly known to have killed anyone was Everest, and he had been lynched. As it sought payback for the death of four Legionnaires—Grimm, Hubbard, Casagranda, and McElfresh—the prosecution offered a tenuous argument that the defendants were to blame.

Allen tried to build a case that Wobbly Eugene Barnett, not Davis, had leaned out the window of the Avalon Hotel to kill Grimm. Credible testimony, however, suggested that Barnett wasn’t even in the Avalon when the shooting broke out; he managed to wriggle free of first-degree-murder charges. In the end, the jury zeroed in on the planning that had gone into the Wobblies’ armed resistance, and found seven men, including Barnett, Ray Becker, O.C. Bland, and Britt Smith, guilty of second-degree murder. Each received a 25-to-40-year sentence.

Wesley Everest

IX.

Wesley Everest, Warren Grimm, F.B. Hubbard—indeed, everyone who walked the streets of Centralia in 1919—were bit players in a larger drama. Throughout American history, corrupt power had always found a way to justify cruelty by reframing truth and instilling fear. In 1830, when Andrew Jackson forced thousands of Native Americans west along what became known as the Trail of Tears, he asked, “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms?” In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court enshrined white supremacy under the false promise of separate but equal.

In the case of Centralia, the shootout shook an already anxious nation. Three days after it happened, The New York Times ran an editorial declaring that the incident “has probably done more than anything else to arouse the American people to the existence, not of a menace to their Government, but of human miscreants from whom no life is safe, however humble.” The Red Scare would die out in 1920, when the Justice Department lost face by issuing warnings about a May Day anarchist uprising that never happened. Still, Centralia left its imprint. A new suspicion had wormed its way into the back of the American mind. Citizens opposed to leftist politics now harbored a heightened sense that evil could emerge anywhere, even in the streets of a small town in the woods.

Centralia also afforded young J. Edgar Hoover an opening. At the time, Hoover was still living with his parents, but in the wake of the Armistice Day tragedy, the world opted to take him seriously. He ran with it. In a memo, he asked an aide to “obtain for me all the facts surrounding the Centralia matter.” The following month, four days before Christmas, at 4 a.m. in the frigid darkness, Hoover showed up at Ellis Island. The 249 Russian dissidents he had rounded up were herded toward a creaky old troopship that would carry them back to the Soviet Union. Soon, Hoover began compiling a file on Isaac Schorr, the activist lawyer who represented many Ellis Island detainees. Then, on January 2, 1920, Hoover orchestrated his biggest set of raids yet. This time, at least 3,000 suspected communists were captured in more than 30 U.S. cities—all on the same evening.

In time, Hoover became the most prominent reactionary public official in America. Instrumental in the FBI’s founding, he directed the agency for 48 years and kept secret files on thousands of Americans. When a reporter once asked him whether justice might play a role in addressing the civil rights movement, Hoover responded coolly, voicing words that might have played well in Centralia in 1919 (and the nation’s capital today). “Justice,” he said, “is merely incidental to law and order.”

Throughout the 1920s, a dedicated and conscientious Centralia lawyer, Elmer Smith, tried to fight Hoover’s law-and-order approach. He led a campaign to free the Wobblies convicted of conspiring to murder Legionnaires on the first Armistice Day, and he did so with such flourish that he once drew 5,000 people to a speech in Seattle. That day, Smith argued that the Northwest’s lumber barons, having sent the Centralia Wobblies to jail, also had the power to free them.

Smith got no judicial traction, though. The Wobblies languished in prison. One of them, an Irishman named James McInerney, died of tuberculosis in 1930 while behind bars. The following year, Eugene Barnett was allowed to go home to nurse his wife, who was sick with cancer. O.C. Bland was paroled soon after, and in 1933, Washington’s then governor, Clarence Martin, granted parole to three more Wobblies.

Only Ray Becker, the minister’s son, remained behind bars. Bitter, paranoid, and holding firm to his anti-capitalist convictions, Becker refused to seek parole. Instead, he wrote handwritten pleas—to newspapers and also to a judge—as he sought admissions of guilt from everyone he believed had conspired in framing him for murder. Becker did not leave jail until 1939, when Governor Martin announced that, after 18 years, he had served his time.

X.

The legacy of the Centralia shootout is still palpable in the town. In the center of its main green space, George Washington Park, fronted by a long, regal concrete walkway, is a bronze statue erected in 1924. The Sentinel features a helmeted World War I soldier, his lowered hands gently wrapped around the barrel of a rifle. An American flag flutters high on a pole behind him, and an inscription on the statue’s side honors Warren Grimm and the three other soldiers “slain on the streets of Centralia … while on peaceful parade wearing the uniform of the country they loyally and faithfully served.”

Not 200 feet from The Sentinel’s patinated nose, on the exterior wall of the Centralia Square Hotel, is a bright mural titled The Resurrection of Wesley Everest. Awash in splashy oranges and yellows, installed by artist Mike Alewitz in 1997, the mural depicts the lynched Wobbly with his arms held high in victory. Flames crackle beneath him; they signal, Alewitz has said, “discontent.”

When I visited Centralia not long ago, I stayed at the Square Hotel, so that every time I stepped into the street I found myself crossing the energetic force field between the statue and the mural. It was pouring rain most of the time I was in town, so usually I hurried, intent on staying dry and on ducking the bad municipal feng shui achieved by the memorials’ counterposition.

Once, though, heading out for an interview near the former home of the IWW, I paused in the space between. I watched as the flag above The Sentinel was pelted by steady rain. The shootout in Centralia was a fight over what that flag meant. One side wanted an America that was fair and equitable, framed by the right to free speech and steeped in justice for all. The other was mesmerized by the battlefield glory that the flag represented, the legacy of bloodshed knitted into its stars and stripes. In their opinion, such a legacy demanded obedience. It was worthy of vigilant defense, and if marginal citizens did not behave like 100 percent Americans, well, it didn’t matter if they got trampled.

Standing there, I wanted to believe that in the 101 years since the Centralia shootout, the Legionnaires’ cruel patriotism had withered away—that the intervening century had delivered the nation to a gentler, more humane outlook. But I knew that wasn’t completely true. In recent years, Donald Trump had resurrected the exclusionary nationalism of the early 20th century, justifying racist and xenophobic policies under the banner of making America “great” again. At the same time, a socialist was a legitimate contender for president—twice—and Black Lives Matter grew into the largest social justice movement in U.S. history. There was still hope, but it had to be nourished.

The rain picked up. I was running late. I hurried north toward the scene of battle.


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

Do You Hear the People Sing?

Do You Hear The
People Sing?


Brutality and
resistance on the
front lines of
Hong Kong’s battle
for democracy.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 105


Lauren Hilgers lived in Shanghai for six years. Her articles have appeared in Harper’s, Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. Her book Patriot Number One was a New York Times notable book in 2018.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Mike McQuade

Published in July 2020

By the time Grace¹ arrived at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November 2019, she had forgotten the date and the day of the week—the longer she spent protesting, the more time seemed to fray around the edges. She was battle hardened and exhausted. Hong Kong’s police were employing increasingly authoritarian tactics against pro-democracy protesters like her. She had become accustomed to the smell of tear gas and the sound of canisters squealing as they arced overhead. She knew the feel of protective gear on her face and the heft of flame-resistant gloves on her hands. Compared with those things, the date didn’t matter.

Grace is in her early twenties, a political-science student. She first joined the protests, hopeful and bold, in June 2019, during the annual candlelight vigil that takes place in Hong Kong on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. She was intoxicated by the idea of the movement, the feeling of bodies united together in a cause. A swelling in the chest, a sense of hope and desperation—she had never experienced anything like it.

Months of sustained protest followed, and Hong Kong was haunted by scenes of violence in the streets, at the airport, and on the MTR (the city’s metro). Protesters initially had set out to derail an extradition bill that would allow the government to transport accused criminals to mainland China, but as law enforcement cracked down and videos of brutality spread, the movement’s focus shifted to ending police violence and demanding that all Hong Kongers be able to vote for the city’s highest-ranking officials. Despite those progressive goals, there was an end-of-days feeling to the protests. A disquieting thought hung in the back of Grace’s mind: Hong Kong was dying, and she was helping it make one last stand.

Huge marches were followed by smaller actions. Protesters broke up into leaderless pods. Years of arrests and kidnappings had made putting anyone in charge too risky. Protesters developed a strategy, embodied in the slogan “be water”—assemble for an instant, then drain through the surrounding streets—allowing them to clash with police and avoid arrest. It was inevitable, in retrospect, that the strategy would sometimes fail. That the water would pool and become trapped.

PolyU was a hive of activity when Grace arrived on what turned out to be November 14. Protesters had occupied the school and were using it as a base of operations. PolyU students who had joined the demonstrations prepared meals and set up a supply room full of clothes, gas masks, and first-aid materials. They put sleeping mats in the gym. Older protesters took younger ones under their wing. Some demonstrators set up lookouts on the roofs of school buildings, arming themselves with bows and arrows. In the student-government headquarters, a group gathered to discuss an action intended to stymie nearby traffic, bringing a busy part of Hong Kong to a standstill.

Over the previous five months, Grace had become an efficient, unflappable protester—a far cry from the person she had been before, someone unpolitical and naive. “I was just a normal girl in Hong Kong,” she said of her life before the movement. At PolyU, she knew how to keep calm, proceed from task to task, ready herself to face the police.

Looking back, she can’t remember the exact moment when law enforcement reached the campus—she only knows that the atmosphere changed. The bustle of preparation turned to confrontation and then panic. A protester watched from a rooftop as armored vehicles lined up below. As an opening salvo, police in SWAT gear shot canisters of tear gas into the building where the protester was perched. “I didn’t have any mask. I didn’t have anything on me,” the protester later said. “From that moment, I just thought, Oh God, they want us all to die.”

Hong Kong was not a democracy, but citizens held on dearly to the idea that it was at least autonomous.

A normal Hong Kong girl, according to Grace and other protesters, is a student who wears a uniform, works hard, and occasionally goes out to buy bubble tea with her friends. “In Hong Kong, children are scared of the sun,” a protester who goes by the alias V told me, only half joking. “They don’t like walking, and they don’t like running.” They study. They go to school. They come home. They don’t spend much time thinking about politics.

That was Grace growing up. She was born too late to remember a time when Hong Kong wasn’t part of the People’s Republic of China. The handover happened in 1997, after more than a decade of negotiations between Great Britain and the PRC. The new constitution, called the Basic Law, established the policy of “one country, two systems”—Hong Kong could govern itself for 50 years, during which Mainland China’s laws would not extend to the city. Still, the PRC held sway. The Basic Law, for instance, promised freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, but it gave the National People’s Congress in Beijing the power to interpret those rights. Hong Kong was not a democracy, but citizens held on dearly to the idea that it was at least autonomous.

During Grace’s childhood, Hong Kong had an independent judiciary and a freewheeling economy, with few of the controls that limited capital flows in the mainland. And as China’s economy gradually opened up, it offered substantial opportunities for Hong Kong’s elites, whom Beijing actively courted. In Hong Kong, business and governance are directly connected. Only half the seats in the city’s governing body, the Legislative Council (or LegCo), are elected by the people. The other half are reserved for so-called functional constituencies, industry-based voting blocs that effectively allow corporations to shape policy. As the businesses that formed those constituencies cozied up to mainland China, their interests aligned more and more with Beijing’s.

In 2003, a proposed national-security law that would have limited free speech and introduced the crimes of subversion, secession, and sedition—all of which are invoked to punish dissidents in the mainland—was scrapped after 500,000 people took to the streets in protest. (Organizers estimated the crowd at that size; police put the number at 350,000.) In 2010, people demonstrated again, calling for universal suffrage and protesting the arrest of Liu Xiaobo, a writer and activist from the mainland.

Grace, still in grade school at the time, was only vaguely aware of these events. She knew that her parents voted for pro-democracy candidates in LegCo elections, and she knew about the annual Tiananmen vigil, where people wearing white—a mourning color—lit candles and sang songs. Her perspective began to change in 2012, when the city’s National Education Services Center moved to instate a pro-China “moral and national education” curriculum in schools. Pamphlets promoting the curriculum were distributed throughout the city, emphasizing the need to build a national identity and criticizing multiparty systems for causing “malignant party struggle” in the United States and elsewhere. “We will never be independent,” the head of the National Education Services Center told CNN, “so we should learn to think the same way as China.”

That July, some 90,000 people, many of them students Grace’s age, took to the streets to protest what they saw as a brainwashing effort. (Police again put the turnout much lower, at around 32,000.) There was a hunger strike and an occupation of legislative offices. Grace didn’t join the demonstrations—her parents opposed them—but then the pro-China headmaster at her school instructed a group of students to circulate a petition in favor of the new education regime. Her peers asked Grace to add her name. “They weren’t mean about it,” she said. “They just wanted to get the signatures as fast as possible so they could get it over with.”

The petition prompted Grace to think about the ideas raised by the new curriculum and about her own cultural identity. Hong Kong was not mainland China, and she was not mainland Chinese. She was a Hong Konger. She found it annoying that the headmaster had foisted the petition on students. Grace refused to sign. It was the beginning of her political awakening.

She wasn’t alone. Across Hong Kong, there were teenagers who increasingly spent time estimating the value of the freedoms they enjoyed and guessing at Beijing’s intentions. Among them was V, an aspiring musician, whose sister also wanted to fight for democracy. Terra was another, a science student at Hong Kong Chinese University with an excellent GPA. Yet another, Jack, took cues from famous resistance leaders, reading Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon. All these young people would eventually wind up at PolyU when protesters occupied it. Like Grace, they later shared their stories with me.

First, though, came the Umbrella Revolution.

Pro-democracy legislators and activists staged a sit-in. They were arrested one by one, singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables.

In 2014, Beijing proposed changes to how Hong Kong chose its most powerful official, the chief executive. Traditionally, the chief executive had been selected by a committee of electors, many of them loyal to Beijing. China’s new plan would allow Hong Kongers themselves to vote for their leader—so long as Beijing approved the candidates.

Thousands of citizens, led primarily by students, mounted a resistance. Grace joined a student strike, boycotting her classes. Other young people marched in front of then chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s home and outside the legislative building, where LegCo was required to approve China’s plan for it to go into effect. They erected tents along a stretch of highway next to the building and built a camp, a progressive community where art projects were scattered among supply caches and sleeping bags. Protesters set up barriers, distributed protective goggles, and organized first-aid teams. They established supply lines so they wouldn’t have to leave their positions; they could maintain the pressure day and night. There was even a study tent where students could go to keep up with their schoolwork.

Police in Hong Kong had dealt with large-scale protests for decades, but their response in 2014 was uncommonly aggressive. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. The police used tear gas for the first time since 2005, when they launched it into crowds protesting a World Trade Organization meeting. Law enforcement threw 87 canisters at the LegCo protesters, who carried umbrellas to shield themselves. Nineteen days into the 79-day protest, a TV news crew caught seven plainclothes police officers beating a protester named Ken Tsang on video and broadcast the footage to the city. Many Hong Kongers were outraged.

Despite police violence, the pro-democracy movement intended to remain peaceful. Johnson Yeung, a former leader of Hong Kong’s Federation of Students, an organization that represents student unions at Hong Kong’s universities, told me that protesters wanted to believe that their adversaries were rational actors. The thought was, as Yeung explained it, “If you provide some room for an authoritarian regime to coexist with you, then they will give you some allowances.”

As the protests stretched on, Grace became more and more interested in what was happening. Her father was moving in the opposite direction. “My dad thinks Hong Kong is free enough,” she said. He considered the protests disruptive. There were clashes with police in a residential neighborhood called Mong Kok. Traffic in the city often ground to a halt. Grace’s father didn’t see the ragtag beauty in the protest camp. “My dad wants a stable society and doesn’t want a ruin in the place where he lives,” Grace said.

The protests ended in December 2014 when a court ordered the camp outside LegCo cleared. Protesters dispersed largely without incident; by the time police showed up, many people had already left. Still, approximately 200 pro-democracy legislators and activists staged a sit-in. They were arrested one by one, singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables.

The following June, the legislature voted against Beijing’s revised election plan. But it was a hollow victory—no other reforms were put forward, which meant that the chief executive would continue to be selected by committee.

Following the protest, the situation in Hong Kong worsened. In mainland China, a crackdown on lawyers and dissidents was underway, and Beijing’s harder line was increasingly felt in the city. Late in 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers who stocked books banned by Beijing were kidnapped and taken to mainland China; they subsequently resurfaced in videos admitting to crimes like “illegal book trading.” One of the accused confessed to involvement in a fatal drunk-driving incident. He was eventually convicted of “providing intelligence overseas.” (Since then, only one of the booksellers has been released; he fled to Taiwan.)

In the 2016 LegCo elections, six candidates were disqualified by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leaders for expressing support for the city’s independence. After the election, an additional six legislators were expelled from LegCo for the way they took the oath of office. Some coughed at key moments. Some mispronounced words—“People’s Republic of China” sounded more like “People’s Refucking of Jeena.” (The oath is recited in English.) Others shouted pro-democracy slogans, and one person spoke the words extremely slowly.

The following year, three of the Umbrella Revolution’s most vocal leaders were sentenced to several months in prison for their roles in the movement. Having a criminal record would prevent them from running for political office for five years.

By the time protests reignited in 2019, many young people felt that their strategy needed to change. “Beijing is writing the rules,” Yeung said. “It is hard to outcompete an opponent who is writing and breaking the rules whenever they want.” A consensus emerged that pacifism was not the only answer. “Through violence you recognize your own power,” said Jack. “You can stand up and oppose the government.” He considered Beijing a colonizer—and he was determined to fight back.

Grace didn’t want to go to her first demonstration alone. Her boyfriend, whom she met online before the protests started, wasn’t interested. While he supported the movement, he preferred to stay off the front lines. (He didn’t want to speak with me for this story.) Her older sister would join the protests, but not until later. Most of her friends were focused on their studies. They “didn’t have similar goals,” Grace said. “They would end up being soft protesters, rather than going to the front line.” Meanwhile, her father detested the protest movement more than ever; he thought Grace had been brainwashed by outside forces.

Grace had always considered herself an independent and self-sufficient person, but she worried about crowds and the potential for violence. So she called a friend, and on June 4 they made their way to the annual Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.

The 2019 memorial was charged. That February, Hong Kong’s government had proposed the extradition bill, the piece of legislation that would make it legal for people who were wanted for crimes in China—Hong Kongers such as the booksellers—to be extradited to the mainland. Protesters had been active ever since. On the daily news, Grace had watched the pro-democracy crowds grow. She was in university by then, and studying revolutionary movements in her classes. She watched the movie version of Les Mis over and over.

At the vigil, she lit a candle and kept close by her friend. She was awed by the crowd and the people around her. “I felt I was in union, that we all had the same beliefs and thoughts,” she said. “I could feel hope and love from the crowd.” Grace knew she would be back. Five days later, she headed out again.

The second protest Grace attended drew nearly a million people, according to organizers. (Police put the number at around 240,000.) Grace was still nervous, so she again went with her friend. A sea of people wearing white and holding signs packed Hong Kong’s roads. Grace and her friend left the protest before nightfall, when law enforcement moved in. The police clashed with the remaining protesters on the road outside LegCo.

Grace watched on television as protesters toppled traffic barriers and the police responded with pepper spray. She was home safe, but she didn’t want to be, not anymore. She decided to join the next protest, scheduled for June 12, in a more official capacity.

Hong Kong protesters communicated with one another on the messaging service Telegram and a website called LIHKG. The latter, a threaded discussion forum similar to Reddit, restricts connections to Hong Kong ISPs, which made it more difficult for outsiders to infiltrate the movement. Both allow users to remain anonymous.

Protesters took care to protect their identities. “I would not use my real phone,” Jack said. Like many, he used burners so the police couldn’t track him. Whenever possible, he didn’t use a phone at all. “People prefer to meet in private spaces face-to-face and not leave any record,” he said. Online, people rarely shared personal information, only what was necessary to prove they weren’t police: a snapshot of an ID or a staff card indicating where they worked—proof, presumably, that they weren’t law enforcement. The images often remained available for only a short time.

People used digital platforms to organize into teams—protest cells tasked with performing a singular function. A team might run supplies, provide first aid, clean up after protests, or protect the walls of Post-it notes that had popped up all over the city, filled with messages of support for the movement. Everything was fluid. Teams might decide to change function mid-protest or plan their own actions, apart from the big events.

Grace answered a call on Telegram to join a supply team. She would help gather masks, helmets, water, and umbrellas—whatever protesters needed to protect themselves—and distribute them at the planned action on June 12. Grace arrived at a safe house the day before the protest. There were students and parents, wealthy people and workers. Veteran demonstrators taught her how to use gas masks and to protect fellow protesters. When returning to the safe house, for instance, she shouldn’t take a direct route, and she should never follow the same path twice. Some demonstrators changed clothes several times during a protest, to throw off anyone who might be following them.

The next day, more than 40,000 people gathered outside LegCo to protest the reading of the controversial extradition bill, the first step to its passage. Grace ran into the crowd, dropping off water and first-aid supplies. The reading was canceled, and a few hours later the police rushed the crowd. Grace fled. It was the first time she’d heard the smack of rubber bullets, the pop and whistle of tear-gas canisters. “I saw the movement of the crowd and grabbed my teammate’s hand,” she says. “We didn’t know where it would be safe to go.”

Some of Grace’s team wanted to continue ferrying supplies; others ran toward the confrontation with police. Grace followed the chatter on Telegram and LIHKG from the safe house, where she’d made it unharmed. She sent updates on what police were doing—their location, where they were headed—so that her teammates could get out safely.

The police penned hundreds of protesters in the courtyard of the CITIC Tower, an office building across the street from LegCo, and fired tear gas into the crowd. Videos spread online of protesters trying to get into the tower even as smoke from the courtyard filled the lobby. The police beat people with batons and pelted them with rubber bullets. As avenues of escape opened and closed, Grace did her best to inform her teammates.

Once the police ended their assault, the demonstration dispersed. Four people were later arrested at a hospital while being treated for injuries. In the days that followed, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, justified the aggressive response by claiming that there had been a riot. The protesters talked on message boards: Had anyone seen a riot? Grace hadn’t. No one had.

Grace’s world was the streets. Every time she went out, she crossed paths with people who were at once anonymous and somehow close to her.

The police violence on June 12 made the protesters feel more united than ever. They came up with a list of five demands: withdrawal of the extradition bill; Lam’s resignation; an investigation into police behavior;  withdrawal of the designation of the protest as a riot; and release of all arrested demonstrators. Four days later, Grace joined roughly two million protesters in the streets. (Police estimated the crowd at 338,000.)


The protests became a gathering storm—more frequent, closer together. On July 1, the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the British, organizers estimated that 550,000 people rallied in the city. (The police reported around 180,000.) That night, protesters broke into the LegCo building. They unfurled the flag of British colonial Hong Kong and graffitied messages on the walls. A photo of the words “It was you who taught me peaceful protests were useless” went viral. Within weeks there would be a social workers’ march, a march of the elderly, a march for mothers—all of them in solidarity with the student-led movement.

Grace was almost never home. Her world was the streets. Every time she went out, she crossed paths with people who were at once anonymous and somehow close to her. She ran through a number of positions on teams organized by friends of friends or people she’d met on Telegram. She served as a lookout. She helped post art and spray graffiti. Eventually, she specialized in neutralizing tear gas. Wearing flame-resistant gloves, sometimes carrying tongs and a big water bottle, she would toss canisters away from protesters or douse them until they sputtered out.

Grace had conviction, one of her teammates said. She believed the movement could succeed. And she was happy to be working alone, without friends or her boyfriend or sister along. She knew people who protested with family members or significant others—though rarely on the same team—and recognized how difficult it was for them. “I saw people hug or kiss and then split up,” she said. “The couples would cry and say, like, ‘You need to come back safely and I will be here waiting for you!’” Grace was relieved that she didn’t have to worry about her boyfriend.

Her father called her phone nonstop when she went out. He demanded that she come home. Whenever she left the house, he shouted after her, “Don’t fight with the police!”

At the end of June 2019, a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong found that a record number of city residents identified as Hong Kongers rather than simply Chinese. Meanwhile, the number of respondents who felt proud of being Chinese had dropped to an all-time low. Support for the pro-democracy movement was mounting.

Lam pledged to withdraw the extradition bill, but the protests didn’t stop. Amnesty International released a report decrying the treatment of protesters in custody, which in some cases the organization claimed amounted to torture—beatings, delayed access to medical care, forcibly shining laser pointers into detainees’ eyes. Journalists wore helmets and goggles to press conferences to protest what they described as a deliberate attempt by police to target the press. Law enforcement remained defiant, defending every action.

On July 21, following a protest in one of Hong Kong’s business districts, hundreds of men appeared on the streets in Yuen Long, a neighborhood an hour from downtown by metro. They wore white T-shirts—by then protesters had begun wearing black, while supporters of Beijing had adopted white—and carried metal bars and wooden clubs. At 10:30 p.m., the men began attacking people. Around 100 of them descended on a metro station and set upon anyone wearing black. Others were caught up in the violence: a pregnant woman, a journalist, random subway passengers. Local law enforcement arrived at 11 p.m. but did nothing. By the time police showed up with riot gear, nearly three hours later, the attackers were gone.

The pro-democracy protesters grew suspicious. Using thugs to carry out orders from the state is common practice in mainland China. A video circulated showing police officers talking to the men in white instead of arresting them. Law enforcement would take 37 men into custody over the next few months, on suspicion that they were linked to local triads, or criminal gangs. Only seven were formally charged.

Everyone felt the antagonism building. Grace narrowly missed being hit in the head with a rubber bullet at a protest outside the Sham Shui Po police station. Terra, the science student, recalled an officer pointing his rifle at her and her friends while they captured the scene on their phones. On August 11, police disguised as protesters attacked a dispersing crowd, beating demonstrators and crushing one student’s head against the concrete. He begged for mercy and spit out teeth as he laid in a pool of blood.

On August 31, protesters defied a ban on demonstrations and used the metro to move around the city, popping up in one place, then quickly moving to another. At Prince Edward Station in Mong Kok, on a platform packed with families and commuters, an alarm went off, and the police swarmed. They ran through the crowds, pushing people aside, looking for anyone in black. Videos showed people on the ground, putting up no resistance as police beat them with batons; first-aid providers being turned away from a man who was apparently unconscious; a couple huddled next to a stopped train, crying out as the police showered them with pepper spray.

Terra was one stop away, in Yau Ma Tei station, when a train from Prince Edward pulled in. “Suddenly, I saw people screaming and crying, and a lot of blood and umbrellas. It was a mess,” she said. Terra was not on a first-aid team; her job was cleaning up after protests. So she started picking up discarded gas masks while others tried to help the injured. She didn’t realize that the police were on their way. When they appeared, Terra dropped her bags and ran toward the escalator. Officers grabbed at her arms. “I felt like I’m not prepared to fight back. I’m not strong enough to push away a police officer,” she said. But she made it out of the station.

There were other incidents, too many to list. By the end of the summer, it was all but impossible to keep track. For Grace, time was starting to blur. More and more, she found herself on the front lines, joining protesters like Jack whose job it was to clash with police directly.

Jack wielded an umbrella and wore a gas mask so he could hold his ground as long as possible when the police charged. That helped people behind him get away, flowing down side streets unharmed. Front-liners also began participating in the targeted destruction of property. “You started to have more clear goals as time went on,” Jack said. “It was a faster pace.” Protesters broke windows in government buildings and in shops associated with organized crime, which seemed to have joined forces with the police. They threw Molotov cocktails and set things on fire. “You just judge there is not a lot of police coming yet, you destroy a China Bank machine or whatever, and then you go,” Jack said.

In September, an Indonesian journalist was blinded in one eye after being hit with a rubber bullet fired by police. In October and early November, at least two protesters were shot with live rounds. Grace was determined but fatigued. She kept fighting, knowing that her side, while not outmanned, was certainly outgunned. “We don’t have what they have,” one protester told me, referring to the police. “They have no limits on hurting us.”

Anyone could join the protests. Office ladies in high heels could make Molotov cocktails on their way to work.

In the early hours of November 4, a student named Alex Chow fell from a parking garage as police used tear gas in a nearby clearance operation. He died four days later, and Hong Kong erupted with renewed vigor. Protesters launched a campaign they called “blossom everywhere,” which employed hit-and-run techniques intended to cause chaos. They appeared at night, stacking bricks in roads like mini Stonehenges, aiming to snarl traffic. Sometimes they strung together metal street barriers, connecting them with zip ties to make them harder to clear away. The actions were small, quick—multiple groups would engage at once in activities all over the city, then recede into the darkness. Anyone could join the protests, even for a moment, and then return to normal life. Office ladies in high heels, Yeung said, could make Molotov cocktails on their way to work.

When the “blossom everywhere” offensive launched, Hong Kong’s universities were logical places for protesters to congregate. Many are located on major thoroughfares and near the bridges and tunnels that connect parts of the city. Even as classes continued, schools became de facto protest headquarters. The police knew this was happening, and on November 11, they bombarded Hong Kong Chinese University (CUHK) and PolyU with tear gas—the start of what would become a protracted battle.

Grace started the week at CUHK. She still made it home on some nights, hitchhiking to her parents’ apartment. When she stayed on campus, she slept outside next to other students. They shivered as nighttime temperatures dropped. “Everyone was getting hypothermia,” Grace said.

CUHK seemed to become the center of the clashes. Students threw debris onto Tolo Highway, located below the hillside campus. When hundreds of police charged on a bridge over the highway, protesters fled under a torrent of tear gas. Outside CUHK, the police parked vans and set up a perimeter, blocking the main entrance while attempting to break through barriers the protesters were defending. Protesters formed human chains to transport supplies across campus. Terra opened the doors of a student-run co-op to the newly resident protesters. She made them cups of noodles.

On November 13, a Wednesday, the courts rejected an appeal from students to ban the police from entering campuses without a warrant. The same day, Grace left CUHK. Other protesters convinced her to head to PolyU, where students needed help. They wanted to block one of Hong Kong’s most important arteries, ratcheting up the chaos engulfing the city.

The campus felt chaotic, like the protesters were making it up as they went. 

Hong Kong Polytechnic University is a fortress of red tile. It sits above the entrance of the cross-harbor tunnel, which allows commuters to move between the Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island, located off the city’s southern coast. Despite the campus’s centrality, its design separates students from the urban fray—the cluster of highways, train tracks, and tunnels that surround it. The school’s buildings, each designated by a letter of the English alphabet, form a linked perimeter punctuated by barrel-like turrets, which students call cores. The structures are so tightly connected that a person can wander from one end of campus to the other and only rarely set foot outside. Amid all the tile, on the northwest side of campus is a white building, designed by Zaha Hadid, that houses the university’s design school and resembles a giant cruise ship.

PolyU is accessible almost exclusively by pedestrian overpasses, bridges, and stairways. In some places, these pass below the elevated roads around campus; in others they’re perched above traffic. At first this layout seemed to protesters like an advantage. They could block access points with bricks and furniture, keeping the police at bay. They slept in a gym at night and sprawled in tiled courtyards during the day, their voices echoing off the towers around them. Someone made signs out of cardboard directing protesters to available showers. People practiced archery and made slingshots out of bamboo. Some practiced throwing Molotov cocktails into an empty pool, to refine their aim. They were getting ready for whatever came next.

On the Thursday when Grace arrived at PolyU, protesters had already managed to block the cross-harbor tunnel, setting toll booths on fire and throwing down debris from an overpass they’d occupied. The campus felt chaotic, like the protesters were making it up as they went. There wasn’t enough food. “People were feeling distressed,” said Jack, who arrived at PolyU around the same time Grace did.

Grace volunteered to mix Molotov cocktails. To ensure she was getting the balance of gas and oil just right, she threw test explosives down an empty walkway and measured how close she could get before feeling the heat. (The farther away the better, to help keep the police at bay.) Grace wasn’t as effective as some others on the front lines. She wasn’t strong enough, for instance, to throw the Molotovs very far. Here was something she could do: test the heat of the bombs against her own skin.

On Friday, November 15, the police had yet to charge the barricades around PolyU. But the protesters knew this would happen at some point. It was hard not to think of Tiananmen Square. What if the police used live rounds? What if demonstrators were arrested and sent to mainland China, despite the extradition bill’s demise? The protesters decided to act preemptively. They piled debris in the roads closest to campus and set it on fire.

The roads burned for hours before the police came, on Saturday. They positioned water cannons and armored vehicles on the far side of a sea of bricks scattered across the asphalt at PolyU’s main entrance. Grace and Jack joined students gathering at the campus’s access points. Vans and officers approached from the south, spraying water and a blue liquid spiked with pepper spray. The protesters, some of whom assembled into a tightly packed testudo formation beneath umbrellas or scavenged pieces of debris, had amassed Molotov cocktails and boxes of bricks. They could throw them by hand or launch them from makeshift catapults. Some protesters held walkie-talkies, to pass along instructions and intel.

A standoff ensued—the police fired projectiles, and the lines of students fell back and then surged forward, hurling explosives and debris. Updates about police activity circulated throughout Saturday night via Telegram, walkie-talkies, a whiteboard in the campus canteen—any way the protesters could think of to get the word out. When reinforcements were needed at one entrance or another, Grace added her body to the crowd, holding an umbrella to deflect water and pepper spray. When the police threw tear gas, she did her best to put it out. The police shot the canisters parallel to the ground rather than in an overhead arc, aiming directly at the crowd.

News and rumors flew over Telegram and on LIHKG. The police announced that anyone who wanted to leave PolyU peacefully could exit via Y core, a building toward the northern end of campus. Some left, but many of them were arrested, including members of the media and first-aid groups. The remaining protesters knew that they couldn’t trust the police. They held their lines. At one point, the police retreated from the main intersection on the south side of campus long enough for protesters to retrieve bricks they’d thrown, to be used again.

On Sunday night, more than 24 hours into the siege, the police attempted to break through a group of protesters who had planted themselves on a bridge above the cross-harbor tunnel. Two armored trucks approached a line of open umbrellas; Molotov cocktails flew. When one of the police vehicles caught fire, a gasp went up from the protesters—a moment of surprise that soon turned into a cheer. The flaming car backed up and returned to the police cordon.

The protesters weren’t losing—not yet. But they were tired. They were frightened. They were hungry. When Grace heard that the police had threatened to use live bullets, she started to feel desperate. At CUHK, she knew how to get out and did so whenever she wanted. At PolyU, the police weren’t leaving—and they weren’t allowing anyone else to leave.

Grace’s phone buzzed with a new rumor: The police were about to break through the barriers and storm the campus.

People began talking over how to escape. The protesters didn’t want to be arrested and charged with rioting, which can bring a penalty of up to ten years in prison. They didn’t want to be shot or injured. They just wanted to go home.

Word spread that some students were climbing a tree on the edge of campus, easing out onto the branches, and dropping down into the road to be picked up by passing cars—the city had grown so concerned about the protesters that strangers were offering them a ride. Grace ran to the tree and was waiting her turn to climb when her phone buzzed. She launched Telegram. A message said police had taken up a position just beyond the tree and were arresting people as they landed on the ground.

Grace heard about another escape route, but police discovered it before she could get there. Messages were hitting her phone constantly. Pictures of police with sniper rifles. Word of another clash. Early on Monday morning, her phone buzzed with a new rumor: The police were about to break through the barriers and storm the campus.

Grace joined a group of protesters in an empty classroom. They barricaded themselves in and went silent. The officers entered PolyU at 5:30 a.m., arresting people in a part of campus that had been set up to triage protesters with injuries. Then they withdrew. It wasn’t a raid, the police insisted—it was a “dispersal operation,” aimed at collecting explosives. They seemed to be shifting their tactics: Rather than an all-out assault, they were going to wait the protesters out.

Students who had hidden started to emerge. Grace and other protesters came out of the classroom and checked their phones. There was a new plan: The protesters would leave together, as one.

Hundreds of young people headed for a pedestrian bridge that led away from campus. Students wearing protective gear took it off so they could move faster. V, the musician, was walking with his sister, but she passed out when the tear gas, which the police kept firing from outside the barricades, became too thick. “I’m grabbing her, and her boyfriend is grabbing her as well,” V said. “She just can’t feel anything. She felt so heavy.”

Grace ran. A rubber bullet hit the helmet she was wearing. Then she saw people ahead of her running back—the police wouldn’t let them leave. She was disoriented by the smoke and the noise. She ran with a crowd until someone broke a window of the library. Grace climbed over the shattered glass to get inside.

She called her parents and told them that she couldn’t get out. Her father didn’t believe her. “He thought it was not a big deal. He thought his daughter could escape so easily,” Grace recalled. Her mother cried with her and said she was proud. Grace sent a message to her boyfriend, telling him that if she died, he should never forget who killed her: the police.

The protesters at PolyU pinned their hopes on a group of marchers heading toward campus. There were thousands of people: parents, office workers, more students.

The plight of the trapped students captured Hong Kongers’ attention. People called for the protesters to be let out. On Monday, pro-democracy legislators declared the situation a humanitarian crisis. The popular singer Denise Ho took to Twitter to ask the world to help save Hong Kong’s students. Meanwhile, an editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing-based publication, called for the police to fire live rounds.

On Monday night, many of the protesters at PolyU pinned their hopes on a group of marchers heading toward campus. There were thousands of people: parents, office workers, more students. Terra joined from CUHK. “The people next to me were wearing suits—they just got off work,” she recalled. The group hoped to draw police away from campus long enough for the students to escape. It didn’t work.


People who’d given up were slowly trickling off campus. Those who weren’t picked up by cars or motorbikes were arrested. Jack tried to escape through the sewers, but the map he had wasn’t right—he ended up at a dead end. He felt like a trapped animal. Beyond campus, the police were blasting songs by movie star and singer Jackie Chan and theme music from television shows, trying to prevent the protesters from getting any rest. “From time to time, they will make some announcement, ‘Oh, just come out and surrender, we will treat you good,’” Jack said. “Everyone knows they won’t treat you fairly.”


He heard that some people had cut the crash netting used to protect the campus from an elevated road. Protesters could climb up to the road, wait for the police to change shifts, and run when they had an opening. Jack hid in some bushes for several hours. When it was time, the protesters he was with went in groups of three. Jack’s group was the second to run. The police caught him. The other two protesters escaped.

Hundreds tried to get out via Z core, the last building in the chain of PolyU, connected to the rest by a sky bridge. The police were shooting tear gas from the road below, but then the wind changed direction, blowing the smoke back, forcing the cops to retreat. Protesters rappelled down from the bridge and were carted off by people on scooters waiting below.

This was her chance. Grace went.

The bridge stood about 20 feet over the street—a covered stretch of glass and steel with high railings on both sides. Just beyond the railings were rounded metal ledges where a person could stand, albeit precariously. There was one spot where someone had strung ropes that reached from the bridge all the way to the ground.

Grace slung herself over the railing and felt pain shoot through her arm. But she couldn’t turn back. She waited, balancing on the bridge’s metal lip. When it was her turn, Grace leaned out; she grasped a rope and jumped. Her injured arm couldn’t handle the weight of her body. She fell.

It took ten days for the police to clear the campus. They arrested more than 1,100 people.

When Grace hit the pavement, pain shot up her leg and back. A group of strangers ran toward her. She couldn’t walk, so they picked her up and put her on a scooter. The ride from campus was a blur of agony. At some point, Grace lost consciousness. When she came to, she was in an apartment. She tried to get up but couldn’t. She wanted to call her boyfriend, but she couldn’t get her phone out of her pocket by herself. “I kept asking about the situation inside of PolyU,” she said. Grace learned that many protesters were still trapped.

Over the next few days, Grace was moved from safe house to safe house. A doctor came to examine her; she had multiple injuries, but she asked me not to describe them, since they could be used to track her down. She contacted her parents, and they came to see her. By then the injured had flooded the city’s hospitals. Soon after Grace escaped, Hong Kong’s medical authority reported that doctors had treated about 300 people from PolyU.

It took ten more days for the police to clear the campus. Finally, on November 29, the siege was over. The police had arrested more than 1,100 people. The authorities announced that they’d recovered 3,989 petrol bombs, 1,339 other “explosive items,” 601 bottles of corrosive liquids, and 573 weapons. The implication was clear: The police hadn’t done anything wrong—they were contending with dangerous people.

Grace went home to recover from her injuries. She monitored protests from her phone as they continued to flare up around the city. In late November, an election for Hong Kong’s district councils—local advisory bodies in charge of community activities and environmental improvements—handed democracy advocates an overwhelming victory, with 86 percent of the vote. Two weeks later, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets to insist that China meet their demands for a freer city. Beijing made no concessions.

In December, the international members of a panel tasked with reviewing police behavior at PolyU stepped down in protest—the group had too little investigative power, they said. The same month, Hong Kong’s police chief cryptically thanked China’s public-security bureau for its “vigorous support and help.” Shortly after, a leaked use-of-force police manual showed that Hong Kong’s officers regularly broke their own rules. Again, there were no consequences.

Then, in January, everything came to a screeching halt—the protests, the press conferences, the arrests. The coronavirus pandemic shut down Hong Kong. For the first time in months, it was quiet.

During the lockdown, Grace texted with her boyfriend and started to think about her schoolwork again. She chatted online with friends. Still, her mind wandered. She couldn’t sleep well—she had nightmares. Every time she heard a siren, she jumped. It was strange to have been at PolyU and feel as if the world was ending, then see life go on, however quiet.

Terra had fought with her parents during the 2019 protests—they were pro-Beijing—and moved in with her boyfriend. Now she watched as friends stewed in their hatred of the police. “A lot of my friends are still stuck in those moments,” she said, referring to the violence of last year. “Even though we are staying at home, they are still making video clips about those battles.”

Terra tried to think about the future. She wanted to form an organization to help protesters who’d been arrested and were now facing criminal charges. She also joined Grace and other demonstrators in throwing herself behind the idea of the Yellow Economic Circle, a campaign to convince Hong Kongers to stop shopping at stores that supported the Chinese government, spending their money instead at businesses allied with the pro-democracy movement.

“Sometimes I feel passionate and determined and I want to change the world,” Terra said. “But when I feel uncomfortable I have another mindset, which is: Hide in a cave, hide in a mountain, hide in CUHK, get a research job and a comfortable position.” She could try to resurrect the normal Hong Kong girl.

As protesters like Grace and Terra used the pandemic lockdown to ponder protest tactics, strategize about local elections, and plot boycotts, Beijing changed the rules again. The national-security law that had been proposed and rejected in 2003 was resurrected. This time, Beijing announced that it would not need the approval of LegCo to enact the law. It exploited a loophole in Hong Kong’s constitution that allowed China to introduce certain laws by decree.

“The world is just disgusting,” Jack told me. “People who have capital will migrate and flee. The people who need to flee the most cannot really go—either they have no money, or they have a criminal record because of the protests.” He remained in the city, where his own legal case, the result of his arrest at PolyU, was pending.

The national-security law represented everything the protesters at PolyU feared might happen. It would introduce the crimes of subversion and secession, with a maximum penalty of life in prison. It would make damaging public transportation a crime tantamount to terrorism. It would enable Hong Kong’s chief executive to cherry-pick the judges who hear national-security cases, overriding the city’s prized independent judiciary, and allow some trials to happen behind closed doors. Beijing was coming for the protesters. And it was coming for Hong Kong’s freedoms.

The situation was grim, but the city’s pro-democracy forces persisted. “Before you get slaughtered,” Terra told me, “at least you should yell.” Demonstrators flooded the streets in May, despite a ban on gatherings because of the pandemic. The police came too, toting blue signs that read, “This meeting or procession is in breach of the law. Disperse or we may use force.” On June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the city prohibited the annual vigil for the first time. People came out anyway.

It didn’t matter. At the end of the month, Beijing made its next move: It approved the national-security law.

In late July, four students were arrested for publishing “secessionist” social media posts.

Without question, Grace knew that she would join the next battle for democracy. “I don’t want to leave Hong Kong,” she told me. “Hong Kong is my home. I will fight until it dies.” Having recovered from her injuries, she joined a protest on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. The crowds were smaller than in years past. The police had already changed the wording on its posters: “You are displaying flags or banners/chanting slogans/or conducting yourselves with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitute offenses under the ‘HKSAR National Security Law.’ You may be arrested and prosecuted.”

When Grace returned home, she watched bystander videos making the rounds online. A journalist thrown sideways by a blast from a water cannon. An older woman pulled out of her car by police. Riot cops charging with batons. Around 370 people had been arrested, ten of them under the national-security law. Protesters circulated jokes about what they might be detained for: Loving Hong Kong too much? Or something Beijing hadn’t thought of yet?

Books critical of Beijing disappeared from Hong Kong’s libraries. The office of the Public Opinion Research Institute, which publishes polls about politics and local identity, was raided and threatened with the confiscation of its computers. As demonstrations continued, some protesters held up blank pieces of paper to signify that nothing was safe for them to say. The police arrested eight of them. In late July, four students were arrested for publishing “secessionist” social media posts.

Grace knows that her time might come. But she will keep protesting, whether that means detainment or worse. She has already written down everything she wants her friends and family to know if that happens. She wrote the message even before she knew if she would make it out of PolyU alive. It was a goodbye to the people she loved, and a testament to her conviction.

“Officials have forced the people to fight back, blood for blood,” she wrote. “In the face of occupation, of suppression and abuse, Hong Kong people must resist and never compromise. You, like me, might feel exhausted. You will inevitably feel powerless in the face of the Communist Party. But you should know that there are many people who will walk with you along this difficult path. And, although I am going to stop here, you will help me to continue on.”

“I would rather be ashes than dust,” Grace wrote, quoting Jack London. “I would rather die than live quietly.”


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

The Long Walk

The Long Walk

When a group of Black mothers in Ohio were told to wait for school integration, they started marching every day in protest. They kept going for nearly 18 months.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 104


Sarah Stankorb’s articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Longreads, The Guardian, and The Atlantic. She lives in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahstankorb.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Rachelle Baker

Published in June 2020

Chapter One

It started with fire.

July 4, 1954 fell on a Sunday, and Philip Partridge went to church that morning. A father of three and an engineer, Partridge was a white man with an evident cowlick that clumped boyishly over the middle of his forehead. He was also a man of conscience, and he believed in civil rights. When the church congregation bowed their heads to pray, Partridge asked God to show him how he could help his Black neighbors.

Two months prior, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. In Hillsboro, Ohio, where Partridge lived, there was a single, combined junior high and high school, attended by all the older students in town, but the elementary schools were still segregated by race. Black children attended Lincoln School, while white children went to Washington or Webster. Partridge was worried that the district would delay integration indefinitely, so as his pastor preached about martyrs, he struck a spiritual bargain: If God would wake him up at 2 a.m. the next morning, he would set fire to Lincoln. No separate school, his logic evidently ran, no segregation.

Divine intervention or not, in the early-morning hours of July 5, a thunderous electrical storm woke Partridge. He got up, dressed, and collected two cans of fuel and some matches. Later his attorneys would call Partridge “deeply religious” and an “idealist.” They would compare him to “Saul on the way to Damascus.”

Partridge broke into the basement of the brick schoolhouse and poured fuel all over the walls and floor. He lit a match. When he left Lincoln, the building was ablaze.

Chapter Two

Hillsboro was like other small cities in southwestern Ohio—an island of neighborhoods with a Main Street, surrounded by a sea of farm country. The Ohio River, about 40 miles south, had once been the dividing line between the free north and the southern slave states. Racism and Jim Crow leaked over. Hillsboro had a movie theater where Black and white patrons sat separately. At restaurants, white diners were welcome to eat in, but Black customers had to take their ten-cent hamburgers to go. Among stories about the hospital auxiliary and the 4-H Club, the city’s newspaper ran ads for a minstrel show, and its society page had a separate section for “Colored News.” As in many northern cities, whether because of government redlining or habitual segregation, Hillsboro had a few neighborhoods where Black people’s homes were clustered. Everywhere else was mostly white.

Gertrude Clemons and Imogene Curtis lived in one of Hillsboro’s Black neighborhoods, and as one did in a time when kids ran freely between yards, the two women made a habit of chatting over their shared fence on Baker Street. The day of the fire at Lincoln School, rumors circulated that a Black youth—the sort of kid who was always in trouble—was responsible. But then, to general astonishment, Partridge confessed so that his crime wouldn’t be pinned on the young man. Local officials tried to get Partridge, who was employed by the county, to resign from his job, but he insisted that he’d “done nothing wrong in the engineer’s office.” He was sent to Lima State Hospital for a 30-day mental-health evaluation.

Imogene wrote him a letter offering some solace. She was that kind of person. Raised in a log cabin by her grandmother, who was five years old when slavery ended and who worked for the white family on whose land the cabin sat, Imogene had graduated high school and attended classes at Ohio University. Her husband, Orvel, was an associate pastor at Hillsboro’s New Hope Baptist Church. She was constantly reading and knew just whom to call, or at least who to ask about whom to call, when people in need came to her—people in pain, people with problems in the courts, people struggling to find a job or housing. Reporters would later describe Imogene, who had round cheeks and a permanent crinkle around her eyes because she smiled with her whole face, as “light skinned” and “plump.” Some people would say she was the “ringleader” of what happened after the Lincoln fire. No doubt she was already busy organizing as she talked over the fence with Gertrude.

Gertrude was beautiful. She wore store-bought dresses and rings on almost every finger. She’d left school in the eighth grade to help raise her 11 siblings, but she was naturally astute. (She eventually  parlayed her modest education into a career in finance at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and became a licensed minister.) Like Imogene, Gertrude had serious concerns about Lincoln. The school was built in 1869 to serve the Black children of Hillsboro, which back then had de facto segregation. In 1939, the school board—due to overcrowding, it claimed—formalized the racial divide by transferring the few Black students attending Webster to Lincoln. “That’s when we should have raised a rumpus,” Imogene once told a reporter. The fire Partridge set badly damaged Lincoln, which hadn’t been in good shape to begin with. The building was dilapidated to the point that, in winter, snow blew inside. Six grades were split between two classrooms and shared two teachers. There weren’t any maps on the walls for learning geography. The students inherited books, often with pages missing, discarded by the white elementary schools.

While the women talked at the fence, Gertrude’s two daughters played close by. The younger one, Joyce, was a careful eavesdropper, and she heard what her mother thought about the situation at Lincoln. What Joyce didn’t immediately understand Gertrude explained to her later. For a few years, vocal Black parents had been asking the school board to integrate the elementary schools. Now the Supreme Court had ruled that separate but equal was unconstitutional. Gertrude and Imogene believed that their children should not have to go to Lincoln anymore. They’d talked to other mothers who agreed.

With the school year approaching, Imogene joined a citizens’ committee to fight for integration. She typed up a petition asking “the Board of Education of Hillsboro, Ohio, to admit the colored children of our community into the other schools of the community, namely Webster and Washington schools.” The petition argued that “the conditions at Lincoln School are of such as to not warrant our children the proper training and education.” Failure to integrate, the petition warned, would result in legal action. It was signed “Imogene Curtis, President of P.T.A.” in big letters and black ink. Gertrude volunteered to gather signatures from other parents, mostly mothers.

Imogene Curtis and Gertrude Clemons 

In mid-August, Imogene and Gertrude delivered the petition at a school-board meeting. It didn’t go well. “Negroes are asking the impossible,” one board member insisted. A school levy, which local voters rejected several times before it finally passed, had just gone into effect. Superintendent Paul Upp promised that, once the tax money was used to fund major renovations at Washington and Webster, the young children of Hillsboro would be integrated. He anticipated completion of the project in 1956. “Why can’t they hold out for perhaps two more years?” a board member asked, referring to the city’s Black population.

The school board formally rejected the mothers’ petition. It then accepted an insurance adjuster’s offer of $4,295.50 to patch up Lincoln. Integration could wait.

Around the time of the meeting, Imogene received a letter from Partridge. He’d been deemed sane after his stay at the state hospital—even if, as the doctors determined, he possessed “some unusual and strong ideas.” He thanked Imogene for what she’d written, saying that it had been a great help to him and his wife in their time of uncertainty. “Many people seem to think I made a mistake,” Partridge wrote. “If so, I earnestly hope that it has not harmed the cause of colored people in Hillsboro or elsewhere.”

The harm that Imogene wanted to remedy was the school board’s vote. Unwilling to take it as final, she traveled to the Columbus office of the NAACP to ask the group to intercede. She and other parents turned their citizens’ committee into a local chapter of the organization; Imogene became vice president of the new branch. Russell Carter, a regional legal representative for the NAACP, agreed to stand by, ready to go to court if the district refused to integrate Washington, Webster, and Lincoln once the school year began.

The first day of classes was September 7, a Tuesday. There were at least 67 elementary-school-age Black children in Hillsboro, and that morning most of them reported to Washington and Webster, walked there by their mothers. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that, despite the school board’s decision, Superintendent Upp had instructed teachers and students to accept Black children if they showed up at the white schools. “We do not anticipate any trouble at all,” Upp said. The children were allowed in. Their names were taken by teachers. They were shuffled into classrooms, where chairs were added for them.

Whatever triumphant feelings the first day brought, however, were soon dashed: Upp told the press that he wasn’t sure where the Black children would be assigned permanently—they might be sent back to Lincoln. School went on break after that, for an extended weekend holiday that would allow Hillsboro residents time to attend and show animals at the county fair. On September 13, when classes resumed, the school board met to approve the city’s first residence-based zoning plan.

At first glance, it seemed like a logical enough arrangement. An imaginary line bisected Hillsboro north to south; all the children who lived east of that line would go to Washington, while those who lived west of it would go to Webster. However, there were two discrete areas carved out of the Washington zone. They were the city’s Black neighborhoods. The children who lived in them were the only ones designated to attend Lincoln.

The man in charge of establishing the zones was the city solicitor, James Hapner, a bespectacled white man with neatly trimmed hair. The segregation he proposed was obvious but incomplete, since a handful of Black children whose families lived in predominately white neighborhoods would go to Washington or Webster. Zoning individual homes, perhaps, would have been too blatant. Hapner and the school board defended the plan by insisting that it addressed overcrowding conditions at Washington and Webster while also reflecting existing attendance patterns as much as possible.

News of the zoning plan ran in a local paper under the headline “Most Negroes Sent Back to Old Building.” The story sat directly above an item from Lewisburg, West Virginia, where strikes by white students had led the board of education to halt integration at two schools. In other news, a grand jury had charged Philip Partridge with arson and burglary, the latter for forcibly entering Lincoln with intent to commit a felony. He was out of jail on $2,000 bail.

Hillsboro parents received a typed letter from the school board detailing which of the city’s streets were in each zone and noting that, after Thursday, September 16, failure of any parent “to send his child to the proper school will result in the child being withdrawn from the school he is now attending.” Imogene, Gertrude, and other concerned Black mothers met at a church to hatch a plan. Together, they prayed, they would get through this somehow.

Chapter Three

Early on the next school day, Black mothers in neat dresses and children wearing crisply ironed clothes and shined shoes stepped out of their homes into the bright morning light. The kids, as ever, were under orders to use their manners. Together they walked the tidy streets of Hillsboro, where parked Chevys with finned taillights signaled midcentury prosperity. The group carried signs that read, “We pay taxes. Voted for school bonds. For what?” and “If you were in our place would it be different?” Some of the mothers and kids headed to Webster, others to Washington.

Imogene, her hair pinned back and her bangs ironed into a single prim curl, held her protest sign boldly aloft. Gertrude stayed at the rear of her group because Joyce, who was 12, was shy. Gertrude’s sister Zella Cumberland marched, too, holding her daughter Myra’s hand. The little girl was just entering school for the first time, and she thought she was on a fun walk with a bunch of neighborhood kids. Zella, pretty enough for the movies, had dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work in tomato fields. “Get your education. They can’t take your education away from you. Learn everything you can,” she often told her daughters. Another mother who joined the protest was Elsie Steward, a widow with nine kids. After the fire at Lincoln, Elsie became worried that the building’s second story would collapse on her children. “So I said I wouldn’t send mine back,” she later recalled.

When the group bound for Webster arrived at the school, they stood out front, waiting. At 9 a.m., when the bell sounded, about 20 kids broke from their mothers and headed inside. The three Black children who’d been zoned for Webster were allowed to stay, but the rest were sent back out to their mothers, who were still standing on Walnut Street. Within minutes the mothers sent the kids walking right back in. The school sent them out again.

The mothers talked to their children and then sent them once more through the door. School officials still refused to take the children. Out they walked. Finally, the mothers and their children headed home.

The same thing happened at Washington. Some of the 14 children who walked in at the first bell were allowed to stay, because they happened to live in the predominantly white neighborhood zoned for the school. The rest were turned away.

The press quoted Upp saying that any children who weren’t in their assigned classes the following Monday would be counted truant; school officials would take their parents to court. Defiantly, the mothers dressed their kids for school that day and walked them to the doors where they weren’t welcome. At Webster, the principal met them at the threshold. “Nothing’s changed. You’re not assigned,” he told the group.

“Get your education. They can’t take your education away from you. Learn everything you can,” Zella Cumberland told her daughters.

At a meeting with parents, the school board kept up the truancy scare tactics, trying to get the protesting mothers to reenroll their children at Lincoln. “You need to send your kids to Lincoln School, or we’re going to come and take them,” one board member snapped. “I’ll tell you what,” Gertrude replied, “you let me go home, get my washing and everything done, and you want to send me to jail? You send me to jail, but my child will not go to Lincoln School.”

The other parents marveled at Gertrude’s nerve. Some were worried that local authorities might actually take their kids. No one came for Joyce.

Imogene stopped by Gertrude’s one night with good news. The NAACP was firmly in favor of the mothers’ campaign. At the Ohio chapter’s annual convention, which happened to be in mid-September, delegates had contributed $101.50 to a new Hillsboro Legal Fund.

The NAACP’s lawyers told Imogene that if the mothers wanted to fight the school district in court, there had to be a lead child plaintiff, just like in the Brown case. It’s unclear why the attorneys didn’t pick one of Imogene’s children. Decades later, her daughter Eleanor would point out that Imogene “got enough publicity not being the plaintiff.” Maybe not being named in the suit would allow her to be more of a rabble-rouser, troublemaker, and instigator—words that observers of the case would use to describe her.

“Well, you use Joyce,” Gertrude offered to her friend, “because there’s no way they take her away from me—there’s no reason for it.”

That’s how the mothers’ lawsuit, filed in federal court on September 22, 1954, officially became Clemons v. Board of Education. There were other plaintiffs: Dorothy Clemons and her mother, Roxie, who were related to Joyce and Gertrude; Myra Cumberland and her mother, Zella; Deborah Rollins and her mother, Norma; and Elsie Steward and her daughters Evelyn, Virginia, and Carolyn. But Joyce Clemons was the name people around the country would see when they read about the first test case of Brown v. Board north of the Mason-Dixon.

Chapter Four

The NAACP petitioned for a temporary injunction against the Hillsboro school board and Upp, which would allow integration to begin at once. Federal judge John H. Druffel denied the motion, saying that the defendants hadn’t been properly notified that the suit would be filed. That was how he always handled these things, he added. Druffel scheduled a hearing for September 29. The mothers prepared to go to court.

They had an up-and-coming legal star in their corner, a woman named Constance Baker Motley. Raised along with 11 brothers and sisters in New Haven, Connecticut, she could trace her lineage back to slaves on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Motley was in her early thirties and had been hired at the NAACP in New York City by Thurgood Marshall. She had drafted the initial complaint for what became Brown v. Board and was the only woman to work on the landmark case.

After celebrating the Brown decision—“those who knew Thurgood knew that ‘party’ was his middle name,” Motley later wrote—the NAACP decided to start bringing desegregation cases to court in border states such as Missouri, Maryland, and Ohio. The odds were better there than they were in the Deep South, which was under the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, known for its hostility to civil-rights claims. The NAACP’s strategy was to start in the north and work its way down, enshrining the rights of the Brown case as it went. Given Hillsboro’s location, the mothers’ case was the right fight at the right time in the right part of the country.

The first hearing was held in Cincinnati, and Motley was there with two local lawyers: Russell Carter, who was Dayton’s first Black judge, and James McGee, who would be elected Dayton’s first Black mayor. The Hillsboro Board of Education was represented by Hapner, the city solicitor who’d drawn the controversial zoning map. The school-board members, white men in muted suits, sat wide-legged in their seats at a hardwood table, upon which sat a single file folder, a few pieces of paper, a book, and one manila envelope. The plaintiffs looked twice as good and twice as ready. Their table was heaped with legal books, folders, and handbags. The mothers wore dresses and skirt suits. Motley looked like she could have been one of them: She was around the same age, clad in a dark dress with a flared white collar. Her curled hair hung just over her ears, a style similar to that worn by Zella Cumberland and Gertrude Clemons.

The mothers were stoic. Elsie Steward had taken a precious day off work to be here. Gertrude peered through spectacles. The women’s demeanor suggested that they had no intention of leaving until they got what they came for.

Motley began her opening remarks by noting that the NAACP was prepared to share the facts of the case and proposed conclusions under the law. Judge Druffel, a plain-faced man who’d been appointed to the bench by Franklin D. Roosevelt, said he didn’t want to hear any of that—just give the evidence, he said. He told Motley to watch her time. He seemed like a man who’d already made up his mind.

Motley defined the facts anyway: The child plaintiffs, she said, had registered in person at Washington and Webster at the beginning of the school year, and the district was trying to force them to go to Lincoln solely based on the color of their skin. Throughout the proceedings, she would hang her argument on points that, within a few years, would be distributed to NAACP branches nationwide as a blueprint for identifying segregation in public schools: acquire a map (or draw one) showing school zones and residential patterns; indicate any instances of gerrymandering around segregated neighborhoods; enumerate student enrollment and school capacity, as well as the “number of white and Negro students … number of empty classrooms, and number and type of any special rooms (art or music rooms, lunch rooms, health room, etc.) being used as classrooms to help relieve over-crowding.”

Hapner told the court that, due to overcrowding at Webster and Washington, the school board had decided to rezone. “Strictly upon residential lines, the infant plaintiffs were required to attend the Lincoln School building,” Hapner noted. Pointedly, he mentioned that there were “students of Negro race” at Webster and Washington. Segregation, therefore, couldn’t have been the goal. That there were no white students living in the Lincoln zone Hapner framed as happenstance.

The plaintiffs’ side called an expert witness, a professor at Ohio State University who specialized in educational administration. He had recently conducted a study of the Hillsboro school system and found that the district operated “two so-called white schools” and “the so-called Negro school.” Superintendent Upp verbally confirmed to him that the neighborhoods included in the Lincoln zone “had been selected because they did include the Negro population.” If the plan was indeed designed to achieve a better balance of enrollment across schools, it had failed: The professor had found on September 8 that a total of just 17 children were attending Lincoln, down by 53 from the previous year. Meanwhile, there was an average of 35 kids per class at Washington and 38 at Webster.

The women’s demeanor suggested that they had no intention of leaving until they got what they came for.

Next, Motley got Marvel Wilkins, the school-board president, on the stand. Wilkins had a button nose and the prominent forehead of a balding man. He denied that there were any racial differences among Hillsboro’s elementary schools. When Motley inquired whether there had ever been any white children at Lincoln, he said he couldn’t be sure. “There were certain children that you cannot state which race they belong to that went to that building,” Wilkins explained. Motley pointed out that there was a white family that lived right next door to Lincoln. “Isn’t it true that they go to Washington only because they are white?” Motley asked. Wilkins said no. Since the rezoning, he emphasized, “we have colored children going to the Washington building.”

When it was his turn on the stand, Upp was asked to draw the Lincoln school zone on a map of Hillsboro. Upp, who had a hawkish mien and wore black-framed glasses, said he didn’t think he could. Despite working in the district for 32 years, Upp claimed, “I don’t think I am possessed of enough facts to do it.” He said that the zones had been drawn on the advice of legal counsel—Hapner, that is—“based on a residential area, of trying to continue the pattern of operation that we have had in Hillsboro.”

“Then your zoning was very convenient along the racial lines?” asked Russell Carter, who was questioning the witness. Carter raised the fact that hundreds of white kids—525 total—from the surrounding countryside were transported into Hillsboro to attend school. If space was such a concern, Carter said, why didn’t the district assign some of those students to Lincoln? “The spirit of the community in which I live would not indicate to me that to be a wise thing to do,” Upp admitted. “I have started into this program of integration with a very clear conscience and a desire to accomplish it in a smooth, intelligent, sane manner.”

In a scene that would beg the credulity of anyone familiar with a courtroom TV drama, Carter’s next task was questioning his opposing counsel. He got Hapner on the stand and asked him to mark up the new school zones on a map of Hillsboro.

“Will you … draw for us, in red pencil, the Lincoln zones?” Carter asked.

“I prefer to use another color,” Hapner replied.

“You don’t like red?” Carter asked, too innocently for a man who fought civil-rights cases and knew the dramatic potential of a city official redlining a map in a courtroom.

“No,” said Hapner.

“I don’t blame you,” Carter said.

Hapner outlined the Lincoln zone in blue. He designated the Washington and Webster zones by drawing an orange line between them. Carter asked why two neighborhoods were excluded from the Washington zone on the map, as if they’d been sliced out. Hapner claimed confidentiality as the school board’s attorney. He denied that race had been a motivating factor—after all, a few Black families now had to send their kids to Washington and Webster because of the zoning. As for Lincoln remaining all Black, Hapner now claimed, “It would be disastrous to attempt to assign children—white children—to what was considered in the minds of the community to be a colored school.”

The defense had witnesses it wanted to call, but Druffel said that he’d heard enough. He determined that a ruling in the case would be premature: He didn’t want to make any judgments until the U.S. Supreme Court decided how much time schools around the country should be allowed to integrate. The school district, Druffel said, could proceed on its own terms, delaying integration until renovations at Webster and Washington were completed.

In a battle of bureaucratic machinations, it was another roadblock—a big one. Outside the courtroom, photographers asked the protesting mothers to line up with their legal team. They clutched their handbags and stood for the flash. They had no reason to smile, so they didn’t.

The NAACP attorneys soon appealed to a higher court, arguing that the judge abused his discretion and seeking a definitive ruling in the case. It criticized Druffel’s decision for seeming to conclude “that it is not yet certain what the rights of the plaintiffs are.” In the meantime, the mothers had a choice: They could send their children to Lincoln and wait for integration to happen, or they could resist.

Chapter Five

Life, as it does with children, found a routine. Each morning in what had been delineated as the Lincoln zone, some 20 mothers and their nearly 40 combined children got ready to walk to school. Elsie Steward’s house in the northeastern corner of town simmered with the barely contained chaos of nine hungry kids trooping downstairs. Elsie stood at the stove making fried flatbread to serve with butter and jam. Her husband, James, a bricklayer, had died a few years prior from a heart attack; he went to bed one night and didn’t wake up. The Steward kids knew their daily responsibilities, a division of labor that put one or another of them in charge of sweeping, dishes, taking out the trash, and other chores. For the most part, Elsie could keep her kids in line with a stern look. A snap of her fingers meant that you’d pushed it too far.

Chores done and mouths fed, Elsie would leave her house with Evelyn, Virginia, and Carolyn, her elementary-school-aged children, all plaintiffs in the NAACP’s case. The Stewards, who lived just up the street from Lincoln, walked more than a mile to Webster. They joined other women and their kids along the way. A second group walked to Washington. Collectively, they became known as the marching mothers of Hillsboro.

In the early days of the march, Carolyn Steward, who was seven at the time, saw some white construction workers along her route pull down their pants, exposing themselves to the kids. “So the parents decided this is not the way to walk,” she recalled. The mothers opted instead for a street that took them past a garage where men stood outside to scowl at them. At one house, an old man sat on his porch swing every morning, glaring at the marchers. At least the garage guys and “Swing Man,” as one of the children dubbed him, kept their pants on.

Fathers didn’t march. They were working, “which was a good thing, because it was a peaceful march,” Carolyn said. It might not have remained so if men were involved. “The way people talked and the way they acted while we were marching,” Carolyn explained, “it would have been a really bad scene, I’m sure.”

Sometimes the marchers sang silly songs to keep the children occupied. The kids played skip-the-crack along the sidewalks. As they approached Webster, the window blinds in the classrooms would draw shut, keeping the white children inside from seeing the marchers. At the door, the principal went through his routine. “Nothing’s changed. You’re not assigned,” he’d say. With that the marchers would go home.

Day after day, the same walk, the same refrain. No one expected it to suddenly change. That wasn’t the point.

Sometimes newspaper people came and snapped photos of the mothers and children being turned away at the door. The battle drew press from around Ohio and was picked up by the wire services; Imogene handled many of the interviews. One article claimed, “The average citizen of Hillsboro seems singularly unaware of any conflict over the integration problem.” The average white citizen, anyway.

Teresa Williams, whose mom, Sallie, took her on the march, grew up playing with white kids from a big family that lived near hers on East Walnut Street. Teresa was taught that people weren’t born racist. In her view, if her white playmates “didn’t know what was going on” with the march, it was “because it wasn’t talked about in their home.”

Myra Cumberland approached her mother, hoping to understand why she couldn’t go to school. “Why don’t they want us there? Just because we’re Black?” she asked. “You just don’t worry,” Zella told her. “Let me worry about that.” But Myra knew it had something to do with the color of her skin. Every once in a while, she heard adults talking about people who wanted “to hold Blacks back.”

Occasionally, the NAACP attorneys visited, “big shots coming in all dressed up,” as young Joyce Clemons saw them. She was especially taken with Motley, who was tall and carried a briefcase—a woman in a position of power. One day the lawyers came to march with the mothers and children; they wanted to follow the path and experience the rejection, to know what the daily ritual felt like.

In mid-October 1954, a large photo of a defeated Philip Partridge, his wife, and his attorneys ran on the front page of Hillsboro’s Press-Gazette. Partridge had been sentenced to between one and 15 years in the state penitentiary for setting fire to Lincoln. Ultimately, he served just nine months before his release. The mothers marched through his time behind bars. They were still marching when he was set free.

Chapter Six

In December 1954, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Judge Druffel to show cause if he wasn’t going to rule immediately in the Hillsboro case. So after Christmas, Druffel called the attorneys, mothers, and school-board members back to court. The board had been asked to provide an official map of the school zones, which the plaintiffs hoped would clearly show the gerrymandering. But the district’s representatives didn’t bring one. “I am not a draftsman,” Wilkins, the school-board president, said on the stand. “I probably couldn’t have done it right if I had tried to do it.”

Motley had come prepared. She admitted her own map as exhibit number five. The Webster zone was orange, Washington’s was blue, and Lincoln’s was red.

During questioning, Wilkins argued that some Black children preferred Lincoln over being forced into a new school where they would “definitely get run over.” Druffel asked what that meant. They’d get made fun of, Wilkins explained—it happened to the poor white children who came to school “all dirty or something, and they are not very popular.” Other kids wouldn’t play with them. They went home crying.

As it happened, Wilkins continued, on the first day of school, some Black children had wanted to go to Lincoln but couldn’t. “They went to the Webster building, crying, come up to the office, scared to death, didn’t want to go in there,” he claimed. “We felt sorry for some of them, and the parents of some of them just kind of pushed them in there.” He was talking about the mothers, of course, and a table full of them were watching him testify. Wilkins quickly clarified that some neighbors had told him this. He didn’t know which kids cried; he didn’t actually see the scene himself.

Since the previous hearing, a few mothers had quit the march and moved their children back to Lincoln. What’s more, according to the school board, some Black families who lived in the Webster or Washington zone had asked that their children be allowed to go back to their old school; the board had obliged those requests. Motley saw a contradiction. “There are certain Negro children attending Lincoln by their own choice,” she said, but “the plaintiffs, who chose to go to Washington and Webster, do not have that choice.” Why was it, she wanted to know, that Black residents were allowed to choose segregation but not integration?

Wilkins said he wasn’t sure he understood the question. The courtroom broke into laughter. Druffel threatened to clear the spectators. Motley pointed to the mothers and spoke of their children. “Why did they not have a choice to go to Washington and Webster, as these other Negro children who were assigned there had a choice to go to Lincoln?” she asked. Wilkins told Motley she was asking the question backwards. They went two more rounds before Hapner interjected.

“Your honor, if the witness doesn’t know, I would like him to be given the opportunity to say so,” he said.

“He didn’t say he didn’t know,” Motley replied.

“We more or less let the kids go to school they was assigned to last year, if they wanted to,” Wilkins offered. “And the ones that we had to change, we had to make laws, and they had to stay within those geographical drawings of the resolution to go to the school they was supposed to.”

At that point, Druffel cut off the exchange by asserting that the plaintiffs had to go to Lincoln “because they are in the Lincoln zone. That’s the answer.” He instructed Motley to call her next witness, leaving the double standard she had highlighted unaddressed.

Superintendent Upp took the stand and spoke plainly. He said that the zoning was based on “a pattern of education that we have had for some time,” and that the current segregation was both partial and temporary. The plaintiffs’ counsel pointed out that if Hillsboro had segregation of any kind, since the practice had been deemed illegal in Brown v. Board, “your total action is illegal, isn’t it?” Druffel cut in again: “The Supreme Court hasn’t formulated a pattern as to how they are going to work out their own decision. So if they can’t make up their mind, I don’t see how you can ask this witness to.”

Upp said that the district was willing to integrate, but not yet. The problem wasn’t race—it was space. If Hillsboro had the capacity in its facilities, it would integrate tomorrow. “I have no prejudice toward colored people. I have none now, none whatever,” Upp insisted. If the board had wanted to zone on the basis of race, it would have just said, “All colored children go to the Lincoln building.” But it hadn’t.

“There is no problem here,” Upp said, “if we just let it alone.”

Druffel’s ruling came as no surprise. On behalf of the court, he wrote, “We do not deem it our duty to interfere with the program of integration as outlined by the Board and Mr. Upp, Superintendent of Schools”—the program, that is, slated to go into effect in 1956. Druffel’s opinion concluded, “We think Mr. Upp’s solution is sound and the best.”

The mothers’ solution was to keep walking.

Chapter Seven

Virginia Steward had a stomachache. Or so she said. Virginia feigned sickness a lot in those days. She was eight years old, and as her mother, Elsie, led her and her sisters on the march day after day, month after month, back and forth to Webster, she kept angling for ways to get out of it. As she would later put it, she found the whole thing “devastating.”

Virginia worried about the kinds of things that all young kids do. For instance, her little sister Carolyn had developed a talent for sparking arguments between Virginia and another sibling for her own amusement—and it always seemed to happen right before Elsie was due home from work, when they’d be sure to get into trouble. Virginia knew snippets of what was happening elsewhere in America. She had impressions of fires and Black children unwelcome in white schools. She knew that there were lynchings in the South. She worried about the white men who leered at her as they all marched down the street. She was anxious about how much longer she’d have to walk past them. It was now the spring of 1955—would this still be happening in the fall?

Virginia wasn’t sure it was doing any good. Some other kids in her neighborhood had reenrolled at Lincoln, after their parents were told they might lose their jobs if they kept protesting. Gertrude Clemons, though she had no intention of giving up on the march, had lost a few housekeeping jobs over it. Once, when Elsie attended a court hearing in the case held in Cincinnati, she asked her eldest daughter to cover for her at a house she cleaned. When the employer, a woman, learned where Elsie was, she announced, “Well, I thought Elsie was better than that.” (Elsie’s daughter retorted, “I thought you were better than that.”)

“Why do we keep doing this?” Virginia asked her mother. There was no budging Elsie. Virginia would hug her belly, saying it hurt, hoping her mother would at least spare her the walk on that particular day. “No, let’s go,” Elsie would say. And out the door they went.

Unlike Gertrude, whose husband, Hamer, delivered coal and was a barber, or Zella Cumberland, whose husband worked at a foundry, Elsie was on her own. She did other people’s laundry. She scrubbed clothes by hand, hung them on a line to dry, then took a break to walk to the 1950s equivalent of a food bank, where she stood in line for cheese, flour, and butter. In the summer, her kids helped pick enough berries to can jam and jelly for the rest of the year. She also made a stockpile of canned beans and zucchini relish. Her elder sons hunted rabbits and squirrels for meat. Even though Elsie made it smell good, Virginia gagged over it. But she also knew that if she didn’t eat it, she was going to bed hungry.

Some of the mothers converted their kitchens and living rooms into classrooms. They took in children whose mothers had to work.

As a child, Elsie had walked more than two miles each way to school—far enough that the district gave her family money for the shoes she wore through each year. (It never provided a bus.) Elsie liked school until a new principal arrived. He was, by all accounts, mean to Black students, so Elsie quit after the 11th grade. Now she was fighting for her children to get the kind of education she had wanted.

Just because they were marching didn’t mean that a better education could wait. When they got home each morning, none of the kids were allowed to sit idly by. The mothers requested help from Wilmington College, a school with Quaker roots in a nearby city that had weathered its own integration fight in 1952. Mary Hackney, a teacher taking time off to raise her youngest children, and whose husband served on a committee at the college, met every Monday with two other Quaker teachers. They drove to Hillsboro and passed off lesson plans and worksheets to the marching mothers. At the end of each week, the Quaker teachers would come back to collect papers to grade.

Some of the mothers converted their kitchens and living rooms into classrooms. They took in children whose mothers, like Elsie, had to work. Imogene taught Joyce Clemons, Teresa Williams, and a few other children. She was a natural teacher. She didn’t have her students raise their hands; instead she would go around the kitchen table and give each child a chance to share their answer to a question or problem. “That way no one felt out of place,” Joyce recalled. Zella Cumberland was another teacher, and she taught kids in the large front room of her house. Teresa’s mother, Sallie, who played pick-up sticks, hopscotch, and made-up games with her children, taught another group, as did Rose Kilgore and Minnie Speach, who lived just down the alley from each other.

Educating the children at home resulted in far smaller student-to-teacher ratios than they’d ever had at Lincoln. Built-in to the experience was an ethos about what it meant to fight for one’s rights—the kinds of sacrifices and solidarity required. The kitchen classrooms were proto–Freedom Schools, a decade before Freedom Summer.

Chapter Eight

The school year ended in disappointment. In May 1955, as the mothers prepared to take a break from marching for the summer, the Supreme Court directed school districts nationwide to make a “prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance” with the Brown ruling. It urged “all deliberate speed,” but what that entailed wasn’t clear. What distinguished, say, a slow effort made in good faith from one made in bad faith was left up to the lower courts, which the Supreme Court said should retain jurisdiction in cases pertaining to school segregation.

It wasn’t the decisive stance on an integration timeline that the NAACP had hoped for. A “reasonable start” and “all deliberate speed” were in the eye of the beholder. To some, that might look a lot like Hillsboro’s two-year integration plan endorsed in Druffel’s ruling. The appeals court reviewing the marching mothers’ case might agree.

When school reopened in September 1955, the mothers picked up where they’d left off. They now trooped a total of 47 children to school. All but 11, who lived in majority-white neighborhoods, were turned away from Washington and Webster. They went back to their homeschools.

The second day of school, a Thursday, the principal at Webster didn’t make it to the door before the mothers and children arrived, so they entered the building and sat down on the floor. Joyce Clemons was surprised and amused by the adults’ approach of “let’s see what’s going to happen now.” Before long the principal came bustling out of his office. “You guys have to leave, because there hasn’t been a decision yet,” he said. He ushered them back outside, where they stood for a time with their protest signs before marching past Upp’s office and going home.

Days turned into weeks; the march continued. At one point, a local paper ran a photo of the mothers and children under the headline “Parade at School.”

The fire happened late one October night. It wasn’t at Lincoln this time, and it wasn’t intended to hasten the cause of equality. The orange flames danced on the arms of a cross—it was a fire that chilled, that was meant to strike fear.

The cross was burned in the yard of the Blakey family, who lived on East Walnut Street. The march went past their house every morning, but the Blakeys were among the families who’d left the protest sometime prior and reenrolled their children at Lincoln. The Clemonses could see the fire from across the street. Joyce woke up in the middle of the night to find her parents watching the flames through the window. She didn’t understand. It took time—listening to her parents’ conversations, to what other people said about what happened—to grasp the meaning. In the moment, all she knew for certain was that her parents made sure to look, to bear witness. To her they seemed fearless.

Zella Cumberland had already read to her girls and tucked them in when she heard about the fire. She wanted to see it for herself, but she didn’t want to leave her girls at home, so she woke them up and put them in the car. By the time they arrived, the fire had been put out. Smoke still hung in the air above the charred cross, which had been wrapped in burlap and doused in fuel. Later, Zella explained to her daughter Myra that the cross had been set on fire because people were against what the marchers were doing.

The police tried to brush the incident off, suggesting that it was a Halloween prank. Mrs. Blakey issued her own statement. “Whoever burnt the cross in the Blakey yard, we wish they wouldn’t do it again,” she said, “because my husband has a violent temper and will shoot first and ask questions later.” She added in a later interview with a Press-Gazette reporter that her family had been out of the integration battle for a while. “Now it looks as if we’re back in it again,” she said. Gertrude Clemons told the same reporter that the cross burning wouldn’t stop the march. “The only way to stop it is to burn us,” she declared.

The tough words and the fire worried little Virginia Steward more than ever. The people who burned the cross could do something else, something worse. What if her mother and the other mothers got killed? Maybe, Virginia hoped, the seriousness of it all would mean she finally didn’t have to walk anymore. But the cross “didn’t bother me any,” Elsie Steward later said. The morning after the burning, she and the other mothers marched their kids to school.

Chapter Nine

The cross burning was an act of terror, but not a setback. Those came courtesy of state institutions. Legislation proposed by a group of Ohio senators that would have empowered the state board of education to withhold funds from districts that still assigned students to schools based on race died in committee. In public testimony, the president of Ohio’s NAACP said Hillsboro was one of the “problem areas.” (He also called out segregation in cities as big as Columbus, the state capital.) Then, in December, the Ohio Education Association, a teachers’ union, rejected a proposal to stop directing money to districts that segregated, opting instead to give commendations to districts that integrated quickly.

As those with the clout to shape policy worked in half measures at best, the marching mothers and their children met each bleary winter morning for the walk to school and back. Their hopes still hung on the NAACP’s appeal of Druffel’s ruling, which had yet to be heard in court. It finally happened on December 29, 1955, a year to the day after the mothers had last appeared in Druffel’s courtroom. The NAACP’s legal team took the case to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Thurgood Marshall himself traveled from New York to make the oral arguments before a three-judge panel.

It took a week for the court to rule, and the decision was two to one—in favor of the mothers and their children. One of the judges was Florence Ellinwood Allen, who had previously been the first woman to serve on Ohio’s Supreme Court, and was one of the first women to serve as a federal judge. A white woman who wore her hair in an Aunt Bee upsweep, Allen wrote the majority opinion. She noted that while the district claimed its rezoning of the elementary schools was not based on race, Upp had testified that “temporary segregation” existed. Druffel’s ruling, then, was a violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board.

Allen could find “no case in which it is declared that a judge has judicial discretion by denial of an injunction to continue the deprivation of basic human rights.” The rezoning in Hillsboro, she continued, had been a subterfuge to continue separating children by race. To justify segregation on the grounds that schools were too crowded had no basis in law. Even if it had, the figures on enrollment across Hillsboro’s schools didn’t support the overcrowding narrative.

The court ruled that Druffel had to provide a permanent injunction that would end all racial segregation in Hillsboro on or before the start of classes the following September. At a press conference the day the decision came down, Druffel threatened to defy the directive. He invited the school board and Hapner to meet with him the following week to discuss next steps. He said it would take nothing short of an order from the Supreme Court to change his mind. Druffel insisted that he would get an attorney if necessary. “The case can be taken to the Supreme Court in my name,” he said.

NAACP attorneys Russell Carter, Constance Baker Motley, and James McGee.

As long as the status of their case was up in the air, the mothers would keep protesting. Press attention mounted. In March 1956, Jet magazine’s cover line read, “The Northern City that Bars Negroes from School.” The story inside featured photos of the march and of mothers teaching kids at kitchen tables. There was Joyce Clemons keeping her eyes down on her books, Carolyn Steward following along as a classmate read aloud, and Sallie Williams—a mother whose name was misspelled in the caption—reviewing vocabulary words on a chalkboard that she held in her lap. Upp was quoted insisting, as ever, “There is no trouble here.” Imogene, referred to as “Mrs. Orvel Curtis,” voiced skepticism that the school board would meet the September deadline for integration. “They never did anything before until we got after them,” she said.

The legal threats against the mothers ended abruptly that spring. In early April, the Supreme Court declined to review the circuit court’s decision. Unless the school board filed a motion for reconsideration, Druffel would be forced to write an order directing Hillsboro to integrate. At that point, the school board decided it was done fighting. For all his bluster a few months prior, Druffel acquiesced, too.

There wasn’t much celebration over a win that by then was some 20 months in the making, all of which the mothers had marched, save summer break. The mothers were strong Christian women, as Joyce later described them; they’d prayed and worked, they’d done what was right, and that was enough. When Sallie Williams told her children that the march was finished and they’d be going to Webster, they were relieved. “We were just glad it was over so we didn’t have to walk anymore,” her daughter Teresa said.

But it wasn’t over, not quite. Imogene showed up at the school-board meeting the same night the Supreme Court decided not to review the case. She sat quietly for two hours, taking notes as the board discussed pay raises for teachers. Her son played beside her while she waited to speak. Finally, she got her question in.

“What is the status of our children?” Imogene asked. She explained that they had been tutored, and she wanted to know if they could take a test to be placed in the appropriate grades. Not in the fall, but now.

What was the point, the board replied, when summer break wasn’t far off? “You’d get a dandy lot of education in one month of school,” said the new board president, William Lunkens. “At least we’d have the satisfaction of having our children in school,” Imogene countered. Eventually, Upp stepped in, saying that he recommended testing administered by an outside source, “so that nobody can say we were prejudiced.”

The next morning, for the last time, the mothers got up, dressed their kids, and marched. “You’re not assigned,” the principal at Webster said. But rather than walk away, this time Gertrude Clemons spoke up. “We’re going to sit awhile,” she said.

The principal asked the group not to interfere with the orderly operation of the school. He left them standing in his office. There weren’t enough chairs for them.

Chapter Ten

On April 13, 1956, testing led by officials from Ohio’s department of education took place at Webster. One six-year-old girl cried for her mother after being led inside. Upp barred reporters and photographers from entering the building. He said he wanted “to maintain order and prevent the children from becoming unduly excited.” Imogene, though, was as willing as ever to talk to journalists. She was confident that the kids would do well. They’d used the right books, done the right lessons. When they finished the exams and came outside to be with their mothers, Imogene let the press know that the children hadn’t found the tests very difficult.

But when the results were announced, only one Black student—Teresa Williams’s little sister, Mary—had passed at grade level. That meant all the other children would have to reenter school in the grade they’d been in when the march started—or even lower. The idea of being held back, “that kinda messed you up,” Teresa recalled. For the mothers, the outcome was reminiscent of the district allowing a few Black children to be zoned for Webster and Washington so that it could insist that segregation wasn’t the goal.

The district claimed that the tests were widely used standardized exams, administered and scored by men from the state department of education, and then, as reported in the press, “double-checked by local officials.” Mary Hackney, the Quaker teacher who had been checking the students’ progress for a year and a half, was not typically the assertive type. Still, she made her way to the principal’s office at Webster. She spotted papers stacked on the corner of his desk and grabbed them. “Oh, are these the tests?” she asked, leafing through. Hackney, who knew how to interpret standardized-test results, told the mothers that, from what she saw, the children should have been allowed to advance.

“Many of our people died freeing us and our descendants,” Imogene pointed out, “but it didn’t make the victory any worse.”

A few of the mothers threatened legal challenges over the grade placements, but they ultimately relented. It was time to claim victory, however unfinished it felt. When a dismissive editorial appeared in the Press-Gazette, saying that the mothers had won only by making their children suffer, Imogene penned a response. “In spite of the board’s trying to be vindictive I do not regret sacrificing my child so other boys and girls in years to come have a decent and non segregated Education,” she wrote. Her youngest son, John, would eventually graduate high school later than other kids his age, but at least he was learning “to have faith and courage to stand up for his ideals in spite of cost and great obstacles.” He was also learning not to believe everything officials said, to always look for the truth himself. “Many of our people died freeing us and our descendants,” Imogene pointed out, “but it didn’t make the victory any worse.”

She closed with a warning. The board might have been patting itself on the back for having the last word on grade placements, but Imogene was sure that every time its members looked the “children in the face their conscience will hurt them and they shall have no peace.”

Chapter Eleven

On April 17, the marching mothers’ children walked into Washington and Webster and were allowed to stay. Joyce Clemons had been heading into sixth grade at the start of the march, but now she was back in fifth. Her day started quietly, with her mother escorting her down mostly empty hallways that seemed to have been cleared to limit any confrontation. Throughout the day, Joyce noticed white children hanging back. They avoided mingling with her and the other Black students, not sure what to make of them. Some of Joyce’s teachers weren’t nice to her, but the one in her homeroom was. For the first time in almost two years, Joyce was able to take a seat in a real classroom.

Though she should have been in fourth grade, Carolyn Steward was enrolled in second. “It was so boring for us,” she recalled. “We were already more advanced than the classrooms they put us in.” Teresa Williams was placed in fifth grade, though she was old enough—and ready—for sixth. She found that one of the biggest adjustments was getting used to having a single grade in a classroom, with “everybody doing the same work.” It wasn’t like Lincoln, which sat empty for the 1956–57 school year before being sold the following summer.

Virginia Steward stayed inside for recess—nobody would let her jump rope or play hopscotch with them anyway. A few of the white kids told her they would have let her join, but their parents told them not to. “Don’t let us come by there and see you out there with them little Black kids,” the adults said. Virginia’s little sister was more gregarious: Carolyn went outside and played with anyone who’d let her. It seemed like the younger a child, the easier it was for them to find acceptance.

There were challenges beyond making friends. Myra Cumberland had a teacher who gave her dirty looks. The teacher, an older woman, wore thick-soled shoes, what Myra called “old-lady comforts.” One day, Myra was wearing a white dress with purple polka-dots, and the teacher kicked the edge of it. Myra tried to brush off the footprint but couldn’t. When her mother saw the smudge and asked how she got dirt on her dress, Myra didn’t tell her. She never did. Looking back, she isn’t sure why.

Perhaps it was because she was learning to take care of herself. All the kids were, and not just in school. Over time some even engaged in their own acts of defiance. One Sunday after church services, when Virginia was 11 or 12, she and a few friends stopped at a coffee shop for a Pepsi, knowing full well that they wouldn’t be served. They waited about half an hour and were ignored, so they made a mess with the ketchup and mustard at their table. Around the same age, Virginia went to the movies with her brothers, and they ignored the usher when he directed them to the seats for Black people. The usher demanded that they relocate from the white section or “get up and go home.” They wanted to see the movie, so they moved.

As Myra grew up, she became athletic. She played softball with a group of kids, some white. She even played football with boys. The kids at school called her Wilma Rudolph—the Black sprinter who in 1960 became the first U.S. woman to win three gold medals at the Olympics—because she was so fast. By the seventh grade, everyone treated her well enough. One day in algebra, the teacher left the room for a few minutes. There was a new student in class, a white boy who had just moved from Cincinnati, and when Myra stood up to sharpen her pencil, he cried, “Don’t touch me, you’ll get me dirty!” Two of the other white boys in the class grabbed him by the foot and dangled him out the second-floor window. They made him apologize to Myra, then brought him up again. By the time the teacher returned, the students were mostly back in their places, and the new boy looked flushed and disheveled. The teacher asked what was wrong. “Nothing,” he said.

The other white boys let him know that next time, they’d drop him. He never called Myra a name again. Like many people, Myra and the boy would both stay in Hillsboro for the rest of their lives. Years later, when she saw him around town, he was friendly to her.

Chapter Twelve

When the march began in 1954, South Carolina governor James Byrnes argued that Hillsboro’s spectacle was evidence that some cities needed to continue school segregation. The mothers’ victory helped achieve the opposite. Across Ohio, it was invoked by advocates fighting segregation in Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, and smaller communities throughout the state. It was cited in legal proceedings in New York and Texas. As a vital test case for the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education, it created a domino effect—one small city’s integration would pressure another to follow suit, then another, then another.

Yet the march never rooted itself in the national consciousness like the story of the Little Rock Nine or Ruby Bridges eventually did. Perhaps that’s because the events in Hillsboro were relatively peaceful, or because the city wasn’t in the Deep South. Or maybe it’s because, for many years after, the city’s white majority didn’t talk about it—content, it seemed, to be done with that chapter of Hillsboro’s history.

It has now been 66 years since the mothers and their children started marching. Only in recent years, as the Highland County Historical Society began to emphasize Lincoln School’s history, have the marchers received any recognition for their efforts. In 2017, the mothers and their children were inducted in the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

Among its genealogical offerings, Hillsboro’s library keeps a typed biography of Imogene Curtis in a thin white binder. It includes an interview with James Hapner, who said that he always had faith that the school board would keep its word and integrate once building renovations were done. Still, he said in retrospect, the board was at fault for formalizing segregation at Lincoln in the first place. Hapner was glad when the fight with the mothers ended. “We knew she wouldn’t give up,” he said of Imogene specifically. “I understood why she did it.”

Imogene’s years could be measured in letters to the editor, calls on behalf of neighbors in need, and attendance at important events. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall, Imogene was there. In 1984, she was asked to teach at Webster Elementary. A year later, on a visit to the offices of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she was helping a woman fight housing discrimination, Imogene fell in an elevator and broke her femur. She died a few weeks later from a blood clot.

Constance Baker Motley, the mothers’ attorney at the NAACP, went on to successfully argue nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and lead litigation to integrate southern universities. She became the first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate and the country’s first Black female federal judge. Reflecting on her fight against segregation, she once wrote that “becoming a part of history is a special experience, reserved for only a few. It’s like earning a law degree or a Ph.D.; nobody can take it away from you. You may be forgotten, but it’s like immortality: You will always be there.”

Motley passed away in 2005. Most every adult who played a part in the story of Hillsboro’s march is dead: Hapner and Upp, Druffel and Partridge. Zella Cumberland died this spring, becoming the latest of the mothers to pass away. The only one still alive is Elsie Steward. She turns 104 on June 30, the day of this story’s publication.

When I interviewed her, Elsie couldn’t always answer pointed questions—rather, she plucked memories as they surfaced. Still, her grasp of the details of her life exceeded that of someone a third her age. Her catalog of time was more sizable than most people could ever hope to have. She wasn’t sure why I wanted to talk about the march. It was so long ago. It was just something she did every day for a couple of years. She’d had so many years.

The surviving daughters, and a few sons, are the ones who carry on the legacy of the march, who tell the story. In the spot where Lincoln once stood, there is a food pantry and a brown State of Ohio historical marker that describes the marchers’ integration fight. Washington School has been replaced with a fire station. A couple of years ago, Webster, long abandoned, was set to be demolished. Virginia, Carolyn, Joyce, Teresa, and Eleanor, Imogene’s daughter, went to see it one last time. Hopping caution tape and stepping over broken glass and smashed concrete, they took a last walk up to the front door together and posed for photos. A wrecking ball hung nearby, the future looming over their past. The demolition crew didn’t understand what these retirees were doing on the worksite.

Elsie wasn’t sure why I wanted to talk about the march. It was so long ago. It was just something she did every day for a couple of years. She’d had so many years.

The women stepped away from the building and watched as it fell. They’d fought so hard to enter Webster. Some of them had sent their own children there. Now they’d outlasted it. All that was left was wreckage and dust. The daughters of the march got in their cars and headed home.

Joyce Clemons, whose married name is Kittrell, is a retired Head Start teacher and factory worker who also happens to have a black belt in karate. Her mother’s spirit manifested in Joyce’s habit of encouraging her children, and later her grandchildren, to play with kids of all backgrounds. “The most important thing, as y’all are growing up, is to learn to play together,” she would tell them. “Don’t look at each other’s color. Just get along together.” More recently, when we talked about the uprisings in dozens of U.S. cities—sustained demonstrations against police brutality and racial inequality—Joyce mirrored her mother’s capacity to speak truth and ground it in faith. Like someone who’d been raised to wear her best dresses when protesting injustice, Joyce was dismayed by demonstrators tearing up property. “Hatred don’t get you nowhere,” she said. Neither, however, did it exempt anyone from her goodwill: Though Donald Trump “caused a lot of this because of his prejudice,” Joyce told me, she still prayed for him and his family.

In early June, Hillsboro saw its own Black Lives Matter demonstration. On Facebook, people who opposed the rally threatened to show up with AK-47’s. “LOCK AND LOAD, HILLSBORO,” one post read. (It has since been deleted.) Despite a few people openly carrying firearms outside the veterans’ memorial, hundreds of Black and white residents marched peacefully through the city’s streets to the Highland County Courthouse, where Eleanor, carrying her mother’s torch, was among the featured speakers.

Joyce thinks the story of the marching mothers and the case that bears her name should be taught in schools, reminding young people that “we could be in even worse shape than we are now if it hadn’t been for someone stepping up and standing for us.” Joyce and I talked about history and heroes, how bravery doesn’t have to be grand or famous to matter. “I feel like I accomplished life because of what happened,” she told me of the walk she took from 1954 to 1956.

The marching mothers of Hillsboro hinged extraordinary change on life’s most mundane details: Getting ready for school. Lessons, worksheets, homework. Showing up no matter what. Taking disappointment in stride. For nearly two years, they set out on a daily journey that required gumption and resilience. They taught their children to keep going. They taught them to know when the walk is not yet done.


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

Revive

Revive

A fatal overdose, a stunning coincidence, and a mother’s long quest to heal.

Joy Fishman
The Atavist Magazine, No. 101


Max Blau’s work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bitter Southerner, The New York Times, and Politico. He holds an MFA from the University of Georgia and lives in Atlanta. This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. It was a finalist for the 2021 Dart Awards for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Illustrator: Kate Copeland

Published in March 2020

The phone rang, piercing the lonely quiet of Joy Fishman’s Manhattan apartment. It was October 2003, and Joy was watching TV and waiting for her husband to come home. She glanced at the caller ID. 305. Miami-Dade County. Her heart raced. At this hour, after 9 p.m. on a Tuesday, it had to be about her son, Jonathan.

Jonathan was 32 and had struggled to quit using heroin for nearly a decade. He had been arrested some two dozen times and gone to rehab more often than Joy could count. She had tried everything she could think of to help her son. She had issued stern warnings, staged interventions, accompanied him to detox, paid for inpatient care, and searched for experimental therapies. She had received so many calls about Jonathan that they’d become a way of marking time, like tracking a child’s height with pencil marks on the frame of the kitchen door.

Still, in the months leading up to this particular call, Joy had allowed herself to feel hope. Jonathan had moved in with his girlfriend, Ashley, and even introduced her to Joy. He had a job at a treatment facility helping other people stay sober. In the past, Jonathan’s drug-free stretches lasted only days or weeks, but now he hadn’t used in roughly two years—his longest stint without heroin since his early twenties. Joy had let a sliver of optimism into her life, a faint belief that this time Jonathan’s sobriety would last.

But when the phone echoed through the apartment, Joy knew it meant bad news. She always knew. She picked up the receiver. Her daughter, Julie, was on the line. A suburban Miami hospital had called her. The doctor had spoken tersely, with an urgency reserved for news of the dead and dying: Jonathan’s family should hurry.

The next morning, Joy and her husband, Jack, arrived in Miami on an early flight and raced to the Hialeah Hospital intensive care unit. Joy greeted Julie with a hug, a long one, like those Jonathan often gave the people he loved. She glanced at her son on the bed. His hefty frame—six foot two and 250 pounds—was a commanding presence even in stillness. She kissed his forehead, leaning around the breathing tube that obscured most of his face, and placed a hand on his tattooed arm. It seemed cool to the touch. “I knew this was going to happen one day,” Joy said. “I knew.”

The day before, Jonathan had been dumped outside the hospital, unconscious and weakly gasping for air. A nurse rushed outside and observed the pinpoint size of his pupils—a telltale sign of an overdose. Hospital personnel hoisted him onto a stretcher and raced him inside. A doctor ordered a drip of naloxone, a clear, odorless drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose. But the drug didn’t work—its efficacy depended on being administered as soon as possible after an overdose, and that narrow window had closed as Jonathan lay sprawled alone outside Hialeah’s doors.

Moments after receiving the naloxone drip, Jonathan stopped breathing, and his heart went into overdrive. A doctor ripped open his shirt, slapped two pads onto his chest, and powered up a defibrillator. “Clear!” they shouted. And again. “Clear!” The electrical shocks jolted through Jonathan’s body, resetting his heart to a steady rhythm. Hialeah’s doctors called his next of kin to tell them that Jonathan was in critical condition.

After Joy’s arrival, at the family’s request, the doctors agreed to send Jonathan to Jackson Memorial Hospital, one of America’s best-resourced medical facilities, located in the heart of Miami. Joy had been there before with Jonathan and knew it had more specialists, more advanced treatment options, and more hope to offer. Paramedics loaded Jonathan into an ambulance for the seven-mile trip. As the ambulance neared Jackson, seizures violently shook Jonathan’s body, and he had to be sedated. Jonathan went into a coma. For the next two days, doctors ran a battery of tests looking for any sign that he would recover. They found none.

Joy had always thought that the worst day of her life would be the one when she attended Jonathan’s funeral. She had never considered that she might have to make the decision for him to die. One night as Joy was leaving the hospital, she passed a young man in a motorized wheelchair; he was hooked up to tubes that assisted his breathing. She thought, I can’t let Jonathan live like that.

Before she could tell the doctors that she wanted to take her son off life support, however, the hospital staff informed Joy that Jonathan had died. It was as if he had spared his mother one final agony. A decade later, Joy would find a way to do the same for other parents in her position, thanks to a remarkable coincidence and some unlikely allies.

Hialeah Hospital 

Jonathan was born in 1970, two weeks before the new year. When New Year’s Eve arrived, Joy held a flute of champagne and thought about how sweet the rest of her life would be. She had left suburban Long Island, where she was raised, and traveled the country selling Italian-made clothes. She’d married Dan Stampler, the tall, dapper owner of the Steak Joint, a Greenwich Village fixture that served portions so big Stampler was credited with inventing the doggie bag. As midnight approached, Joy checked on baby Jonathan and gazed out the window to watch fireworks explode over a snow-covered Central Park. This is as good as it gets, she thought.

The family soon moved to Miami Beach, where Joy would have a house, a yard, and a slower pace of life. There, Stampler’s heavy drinking worsened. At home, when his tumbler ran dry, Stampler sometimes screamed at her and hurled the empty glass at the wall. He ignored her pleas to seek treatment. So Joy left him, abandoning her dreams of an easy life, to protect her children.

Divorced by age 30, Joy worked odd jobs and attended psychology classes in the evening to become a therapist. A professor advised Joy not to get a job that involved seeing patients—he felt that she was too direct and dismissive. She began working for a 30-bed drug-treatment program run by Catholic Charities, a faith-based organization that oversaw a network of social services. Her take-charge attitude and talent for tackling laundry lists of tasks led her up the ranks. Before long, she was running the program.

When it came to recovery, Joy clung to a philosophy of abstinence, which fit with national opinion. In the 1970s and ’80s, the war on drugs was in full swing. Politicians spoke about illegal drugs and those who used them as threats to America’s moral fabric. The country had moved from an era of hippies and hallucinogens to one of Just Say No and D.A.R.E. A fundamental misunderstanding of dependency flourished—that it was a personal weakness, a failing. The American Medical Association wouldn’t formally recognize drug addiction as a disease until 1987.

Joy understood that addiction could be passed down from, say, father to son. But she didn’t view it as a chronic condition like, say, heart disease or diabetes that required regular care and treatment. She thought it was best countered with strict rules, not coddling.“Mothers were dragging their sons in,” Joy recalled of the Catholic Charities center where she worked. “The first thing I would say is, ‘Mother, get lost!’ That was the philosophy: ‘Get out. He’s going into the program; he’s not holding on to your apron strings.’”

As Jonathan grew into a tall, lanky teenager, early signs of depression appeared. Joy worried that his severe acne, along with what she suspected to be an undiagnosed learning disability, had stymied his self-confidence. She tried to help. She enrolled him in therapy and performed small acts of love; on rough days, she made him his favorite food—tuna salad on a toasted bagel. The family moved to New Orleans in the mid-1980s to be with Joy’s new husband, Norman, and then back to Miami when the marriage fell apart. Joy sent Jonathan to a boarding school in Vicksburg, Mississippi, hoping that the structure would help. But he was soon kicked out for using drugs and moved back to south Florida. There, Joy caught Jonathan smoking pot, stuffing towels under his bedroom door to hide the smell. She took a hard-line approach: Joy warned Jonathan not to use drugs, grounded him when he did, and threatened rehab when the behavior persisted.

None of it helped. In Miami, Jonathan was part of what Julie called the “burnout crew” at Miami Beach Senior High School. “Seven o’clock in the morning, someone would pick us up, and we’d get high on the way to school,” Julie recalled. She remembered walking in on Jonathan in their apartment building’s storage room, where he was hanging out with friends and holding what appeared to be a crack pipe. Julie figured that he was just experimenting.

Joy moved Jonathan to an alternative school, where he eventually earned his GED. When he was 17, she staged an intervention in their living room. Julie was there. So were Jonathan’s grandparents and a recovery specialist who urged him to enroll in a rehab center called the Village. Jonathan walked out that day, upset, but he enrolled at the center shortly after. He stayed for over a year and eventually took a job there, making sure other people in recovery showed up to their meetings. In 1993, he moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to attend Southern Connecticut State University and be closer to a girlfriend. After a year, though, they split up and Jonathan moved back to Miami.

At first, Joy was relieved to have her son nearby. But soon she noticed signs that Jonathan was using again. He started stealing things to pawn for drug money. Not just for pot, but for heroin, too. When he stole a sterling-silver set that had been passed down through the family for generations, Joy decided to cut him out of her life. She even took out a restraining order, vowing to keep it in place until he got his act together. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “Tough love was the prescription.”

One day in 1996, Joy got a call informing her that Jonathan was going through withdrawal. She rushed to his side. Sitting in the emergency room at Jackson Memorial, waiting for a bed to become available, she wondered if her strict approach had driven Jonathan deeper into drug use. She had acted with what she believed were the best intentions, but in doing so she’d limited her ability to step in as his addiction worsened. Now she watched Jonathan as pain coursed through his body—every ounce of him seemed to be screaming for more heroin. She made a silent promise to do whatever it took to help him.

After Jonathan got out of the hospital, Joy attended a meeting for family members of addicts, held in a church recreation room. She’d been there before and found comfort. She sat in the circle and listened to other parents talk about how they had distanced themselves from their children. “If you told the group you didn’t answer a phone call from your son, everyone applauded,” Joy recalled. For the first time, that approach seemed cold, even spiteful. The more she scrutinized the abstinence model—the didactic embrace of sobriety, the callous treatment of those who used—the more uncomfortable she became.

When other people in her life got sick, she offered help. Why should she treat someone with addiction any differently?

 Joy began trying to meet Jonathan’s needs, whether that meant giving him money, cooking him a meal, or intervening in dangerous situations. One night at 3 a.m., Joy awoke to the sound of the phone ringing. “He was with a girl,” Joy said, “and they were having a fight in a motel.” Joy drove to where they were staying. She calmed Jonathan down enough to defuse things before the police arrived.

She had no textbook, no support group, no friends who understood the complexities of her situation. “It wasn’t something that you talked about,” Joy said. “I was alone.”

She watched Jonathan as pain coursed through his body—every ounce of him seemed to be screaming for more heroin. 

Joy had always been a social butterfly, someone who loved cocktail hours and dinner parties. When Jonathan was using, she needed a release more than ever, experiences in which she didn’t have to think about her son. One night, Joy went with friends to Williams Island, an enclave of luxury condos and spas that caters to rich Floridians. With short blond hair that emphasized her prominent cheekbones, Joy, by then in her early fifties, commanded attention. The event she attended happened to be singles night. After some mingling, two of her friends approached her with a question: Did she want to meet a man in the crowd who was lovely and rich? Joy said yes. A few minutes later, a fellow in his mid-sixties, wearing a sport jacket and jeans, approached her. His name was Jack Fishman, and he asked her to dance.

The next evening, they dined at an Italian restaurant. Joy found Jack charming, and the two quickly became an item. To some people, Jack seemed aloof, his wry humor lost under a heavy Polish accent. But Joy enjoyed his insatiable curiosity for the world. They took walks on the beach and traveled everywhere from the Florida Keys to the English countryside. Jack adored her. He was known to say to friends and family, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

Jack’s family was Jewish. They had escaped Poland after the Nazis invaded, securing forged Nicaraguan passports and fleeing over 7,000 miles east to Shanghai when Jack was eight. The Chinese city, occupied by Japanese forces, was known as the Port of Last Resort for providing Jews with safe harbor. Still, under pressure from their allies, Japan forced some 20,000 Jewish refugees into a crowded ghetto. After the war, Jack moved to New York to become a rabbi, but once he arrived at Yeshiva College, he was drawn to chemistry instead of the Torah. He pursued this new love in graduate school, studying under Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth-control pill. Over the next three decades, Jack became a widely admired cancer researcher—he was described by one peer as a “scientist’s scientist.”

By the time Jack met Joy, he was an executive for a pharmaceutical company called Ivax, which manufactured and distributed generic drugs. Joy tried to keep track of Jack’s accomplishments in the field—there seemed to be many—but he offered up few details. He had studied estrogen’s link to breast cancer, producing papers that would be cited thousands of times. He had consulted with the world’s top government health agencies. And he had created a variety of chemical compounds and medicines, including one that he called a “miracle drug” for the way it interacted with opioids. Joy was intrigued but didn’t ask him to talk more about his work. Who wanted to discuss the past when they could focus on their golden years together?

Jack kept at a certain remove from Jonathan. He listened when Joy vented to him about her son, but he never became involved in the hard work of parenting a child battling addiction. “He was supportive of me, but he wasn’t warm and fuzzy with Jonathan,” Joy said. “He wasn’t warm and fuzzy with his kids.” (Jack had four sons from previous marriages.)

Joy was the one who took all the phone calls from Jonathan. Mostly they were about his arrests—for petty theft of AA batteries, deodorant sticks, or the occasional bottle of champagne—or something that he needed from her. When days went by without a call, she grew worried that Jonathan was locked up or, worse, that he had died. She would go to Overtown, a neighborhood widely considered to be the epicenter of Miami’s opioid crisis, and show Jonathan’s photo to store clerks and drug dealers. “Have you seen my son?” she would ask.

Joy scoured magazines and academic journals for information about addiction. The more she read, the more confused she became. There seemed to be no consensus about how best to help someone using opioids. “I was heartbroken not knowing what to do,” Joy said. Sometimes, when she felt particularly directionless, she fell into spells of tough love. In May 1998, Jonathan called her while in the grip of withdrawal. Joy asked what he needed. “Some drugs,” he told her. Though saddened and frustrated, she nevertheless offered to help by contacting friends. “I called everybody asking, ‘Do you have any OxyContin?’ Nobody did,” Joy said. Jonathan then asked Joy to buy him heroin. She picked him up and, following his directions, drove to a gas station parking lot. She gave Jonathan $30, he bought the drugs, and then Joy drove him back to her home. A police car was waiting.

Before Joy had left the house, she’d asked Jack to call the authorities. Not wanting to be arrested for helping Jonathan buy drugs, she told the responding officer that she and Jonathan had gotten into a “verbal altercation,” according to the police report. The officer then asked Jonathan if he had a drug problem. Jonathan said he did and that he needed help. Joy watched as Jonathan pulled the heroin her money had paid for out of his pocket. The officer slipped Jonathan’s hands into wrist ties and walked him to the squad car. “I put my kid in jail because I thought it was safer,” Joy said. Better locked up than dead.

In 2000, Jonathan drifted further out of touch as he cycled in and out of jail on a string of felony theft charges. Joy’s life became hectic—she married Jack, then she contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever from a tick and spent time in the hospital. “Jonathan just wasn’t around,” Julie recalled. “We didn’t know how to get the news to him.” During that period, drug use pushed Jonathan into homelessness. When Joy finally recovered from her illness, she rented Jonathan an apartment in the Miami area and furnished it with second-hand items from Goodwill. She bought him a guitar so he could play music. “I hoped to establish a state of normalcy,” Joy said, “something familiar, something like home.”

Jonathan participated in two offshore trials of ibogaine, a psychoactive drug derived from a West African plant root that some experts consider effective in treating addiction. (It has been fatal in certain instances and is classified as a controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration.) He stayed sober for more than a year after the first trial. After the second, he worked as a driver for a treatment facility and moved in with Ashley, whom he’d met at the trial. Joy invited Ashley’s parents up to New York City, where she and Jack had a second home. They drank champagne and fantasized about a wedding date for Jonathan and Ashley.

Still, Joy knew that with her son, nothing good ever lasted long. “There was no peace,” she said. “You were always waiting for the other shoe to drop.” In October 2003, it finally did, with Jonathan’s death at Jackson Memorial.

Jonathan

Back then, silence seemed like a shield against stigma. Obituaries rarely mentioned that someone had died of an overdose. People chose vague language to describe their tragedies, or attributed the loss of a child, sibling, or spouse to an unspecified illness or a car accident. Joy, though, decided against that: In the obituary she published in the Miami Herald, she was honest about Jonathan’s addiction.

After the funeral, Joy attended a group meeting for parents who had lost their children to overdose. She noticed pictures of the deceased lining a stage. There was a tissue box under each participant’s chair. The sadness of those other parents, and the group identity they’d built around it, was jarring. It seemed to Joy that grief consumed their lives. She didn’t want to end up like that.

Instead, she poured herself into a relationship with Ashley. She treated the young woman like a daughter-in-law, calling her on the phone, catching up during visits to the home she and Jack kept in Miami, urging her to spend time in New York. Then, exactly one year to the day after Jonathan’s death, Joy’s cell rang as she was walking her dogs with Julie in Manhattan. Ashley had died of a heroin overdose. “I hit the ground,” Joy said. “I literally fell down.”

The back-to-back losses left her feeling twisted to the point of snapping. She now understood the impulse some people felt to keep grief private, to never talk about the loved ones who had died. It was too painful, too risky. Her pain surfaced in other ways. She asked Julie to consider naming her third child after Jonathan, but Julie declined—she didn’t want to pass along the weight of her brother’s traumatic life. In conversations with friends and family, Joy criticized President George W. Bush, who she felt prioritized sustaining the war on drugs over funding for addiction research.

In 2006, Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva purchased Ivax, the company where Jack once worked and now sat on the board. The deal was worth $7.4 billion, in part because the previous year Ivax had formed a partnership with Purdue Pharma to distribute a generic form of OxyContin. It would be prescribed to and abused by untold numbers of people. According to Joy, at the time she was unaware of Ivax’s connection to the unfolding opioid crisis.

The Fishmans cashed in their stock in Ivax—combined, it was worth more than $100 million. They went from well-off to fabulously wealthy. The money couldn’t take away Joy’s sadness, but it provided a distraction—at least for a while.

By year’s end, though, Joy was staring down a new crisis: Jack was diagnosed with prefrontal dementia. Joy found herself back in the role of caregiver. She decided that, every day, she would allow herself to mourn Jonathan for exactly 15 minutes, while she showered in the morning. She could cry, but once she was out and had dried off, she would turn her attention to Jack. When he forgot an important detail about his life, she reminded him of it. When he repeated stories, she listened as if hearing them for the first time.

One day in 2012, a reporter from The New York Times visited the Fishmans’ posh apartment building—the San Remo, on the Upper West Side—to write a story about how much money its wealthy residents poured into politics. The conversation veered into Jack’s career as a scientist. A detail about Jack’s past made it into the story as a parenthetical: “Jack Fishman, along with his colleagues, invented and patented in the 1960s the drug Naloxone, which is given to people who have overdosed on opioids like morphine and heroin.”

Naloxone was the compound that Jack had told Joy was his “miracle drug,” the same medication that doctors had administered to Jonathan in a failed attempt to reverse his overdose. Those 29 words in parentheses would change the course of Joy’s life.

She decided that, every day, she would allow herself to mourn Jonathan for exactly 15 minutes, while she showered in the morning.

In the spring of 2013, Joy received a letter from a stranger. His name was Ethan Nadelmann, and he lived a few blocks away from her in New York City. He’d read the article in the Times and wanted to speak to Jack about naloxone. Joy called Nadelmann and arranged a time for him to come over.

Nadelmann was uniquely positioned to understand naloxone’s potential. As the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a progressive organization working to end the war on drugs, Nadelmann was evangelical about harm reduction, a philosophy that encouraged medical professionals, governments, and others to help people facing addiction become as healthy as possible, even if they continued to use. During the AIDS crisis, harm reduction inspired activists to distribute sterile syringes and bleach kits that could be used to disinfect dirty needles. Introducing naloxone to America was another step in the crusade to assist, not punish, drug users.

Better known by the brand name Narcan, naloxone prevents opioids from interacting with the brain’s receptors. If the compound is delivered by injection or sprayed into a person’s nose shortly after an overdose, the blue of a user’s lips will disappear. Pale cheeks will redden. Shallow breaths will deepen. Jack Fishman and his colleagues patented naloxone in 1961, and the Food and Drug Administration approved it for treating overdose a decade later. But it could be administered only by medical professionals, which limited its impact to hospitals and ambulances. By the time a person who had overdosed received treatment from a paramedic or doctor—if they got any care at all—it was often too late for the drug to work.

In the mid-1990s, harm-reduction experts began advocating for the antidote’s wide distribution, so that those closest to drug users could help save their lives. Dan Bigg, cofounder of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, convinced some doctors to quietly prescribe naloxone to heroin users and the friends of people who were at risk of overdosing. In January 2000, Bigg lugged black duffel bags full of naloxone to Seattle for a first-of-its-kind overdose-prevention conference, organized by Nadelmann.

Nadelmann saw naloxone as being to opioid users what an EpiPen was to people with life-threatening allergies—something that should be nearby at all times, just in case. He began lobbying state officials to decriminalize the antidote’s use outside hospitals. The DPA also urged police chiefs around the country to equip their officers with it. Yet opponents in many states, including Florida, were resistant to expanding naloxone’s availability. They believed it would encourage illegal drug use.

Without strong backing from government officials, Nadelmann went looking for private funding. Again he encountered resistance. Many health foundations, steeped in the gospel of abstinence, also worried that naloxone would spur drug use. Nadelmann pitched an oil scion and a rock star who had lost loved ones to overdoses. Neither wrote checks for naloxone advocacy, Nadelmann said—what had happened to them was “so painful, they wanted to run away from it.”

Nadelmann was eager to meet the drug’s inventor and perhaps win over Jack as a patron. But as Nadelmann entered the Fishmans’ apartment, Joy tempered his expectations. She explained that Jack, now 82, could barely remember the names of family members. “Jack’s dementia was far enough along where he couldn’t hold a conversation for more than two minutes,” Nadelmann said. The men briefly connected over the fact that Nadelmann’s father, a rabbi, had also fled the Nazis, but that was as lucid as Jack got during their meeting.

Still, when Joy invited Nadelmann to talk with her afterward he stayed. Feeling unusually comfortable, Joy began to talk about Jonathan. It was the first time she’d done so with a stranger. She described the havoc all those phone calls had wreaked on her life, the nights that stretched on and on with worry, the many attempts she’d made to help her son get drug-free. “Everything I mentioned, even things like ibogaine, he knew about,” Joy said. “He was the first person I knew that had deep knowledge about addiction. I respected him.”

Between 1999 and 2012, opioids had killed more than 220,000 Americans. Nadelmann was stunned that one of them was the stepson of naloxone’s inventor. “It was extraordinary,” he said. Nadelmann took the opportunity to draw back the curtain on the drug that Joy somehow knew so little about. He described the DPA’s campaign to get it from hospitals into the streets. He talked about how deaths could be prevented, how police officers and drug users could revive people before paramedics even arrived at the scene of an overdose. Parents who had lost children to drugs had recently testified at a federal meeting about making naloxone available over the counter, like allergy medicine. Slowly, doctors were more freely prescribing the drug to those who needed it. Florida, however, was not among the early adopters of progressive naloxone policies.

Quietly, as was her way, Joy was filled with anger and sadness. She knew that Jack had long kept a single vial of naloxone in their medicine cabinet, a memento from his life in the lab. She didn’t know that she could have used it—or, better yet, given it to Jonathan and Ashley to use if either of them overdosed. She already blamed herself for not doing more for her son. Now, as she pieced together the full irony of her family’s story, she marveled at the unfairness of it all, not least that she was realizing the truth at a time when Jack could no longer help her make sense of it.

As she and Nadelmann continued to talk over the following weeks, he encouraged her to help him grow the harm-reduction movement. She could share her story and help spread a lifesaving philosophy. They could get naloxone into the hands of people like Jonathan before it was too late. Few people were better positioned to push that message than Jack Fishman’s wife—the mother of a child who’d died of an opioid overdose and a person immersed in some of America’s wealthiest communities. 

Joy saw the merits of Nadelmann’s pitch. Still, she was a private person with a patrician demeanor, someone who had decided to cope with her loss alone, for 15 minutes a day. She wasn’t sure she had the strength to talk about Jonathan often, much less to strangers. She was hesitant about her personal tragedy being the thing people knew about her. “I didn’t want to be a professional victim who was constantly referring to their child, holding a photo of him at age five, saying, ‘My poor son,’” Joy explained.

Nadelmann told her there were thousands of Jonathans across the country, young people tempting fate every time they used. Many of them would wind up dead at the end of a needle unless naloxone and other harm-reduction measures reached them first. “You have a responsibility,” Nadelmann told Joy. “You have to talk about Jonathan.”

Jack Fishman, circa 1974.

Joy spent the following weeks processing the gravity of Nadelmann’s visit and his request. She desperately wanted to talk to Jack about it, to ask the thousand questions racing through her mind. But even if she asked them, he couldn’t answer. In December 2013, Jack passed away.

As Joy descended into grief yet again, it was Julie who took up the banner of harm reduction. She had learned how to administer naloxone, and in 2014, she attended a conference of the Harm Reduction Coalition in Baltimore. She texted photos to her mother of people wearing T-shirts that said, “Keep Calm, Carry Naloxone.” She told Joy about meeting grown men who cried as they talked about how naloxone had saved their lives. When she returned home, Julie told her three boys about Grandpa Jack’s miracle drug. She gifted the youngest a “Got Naloxone?” shirt. “It became part of our everyday lives,” Julie said. “Hearing people express gratitude for Jack’s invention made it more positive than just talking about the loss of Jonathan.”

Joy realized that Julie was right—that she should be cementing Jack’s legacy in the history of harm reduction. She and Jack’s biological children directed money from a family trust to the DPA, which helped Nadelmann cover the cost of training people to use naloxone. The prospect of turning knowledge into action energized Joy. It made her feel like she was doing something for her son. “Jonathan was a victim of an intolerant, prudish, and judgmental society,” Joy said. “I didn’t have the right words before, but I was giving my son his humanity back.”

One day she wrote Nadelmann an email. “I have this feeling I belong with all of you,” she said. Harm reduction was taking on greater national urgency. The government had tightened the flow of prescription opioids, forcing drug users to seek out more dangerous substances like heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil. Researchers predicted that if nothing was done to stem the crisis, by the mid-2010s some 200 people would die of overdoses every day. Joy wanted to do more. Nadelmann said she should meet Hansel Tookes. He worked at the very hospital where Jonathan had died.

Julie texted photos to her mother of people wearing T-shirts that said, “Keep Calm, Carry Naloxone.”

A 34-year-old medical resident at Jackson Memorial, Tookes was leading a campaign to lift Florida’s ban on syringe exchanges. He had come of age as a gay black man in Miami at the peak of the HIV epidemic and had dedicated his career to studying the virus and its impact. He did so first as a public-health researcher, collecting dirty syringes from sidewalks and under freeway overpasses. He finished medical school at the University of Miami. Now he wanted to open the state’s first syringe exchange, a place where drug users could come for supplies and care, free of judgment.

In late 2015, Joy went to a swanky restaurant in Miami to meet the young doctor. As waiters carried shrimp ceviche and chicken liver crostini to other tables, she waited—Tookes was late. When he finally arrived, the tall, bearded resident was in sea-green hospital scrubs.

Over the meal, Tookes explained that Florida’s opioid death rate had doubled since the early 2000s, due to a crackdown on pain doctors who churned out opioid prescriptions for cash. Miami-Dade County led the nation in new HIV cases, in part because more drug users, unable to get pills, were transitioning to heroin. In some cities, including Miami, a gay black man had a 50 percent chance of contracting HIV at some point in his life. Still, Florida lawmakers had ignored the evidence showing that other states were able to reduce infectious-disease rates and deaths by legalizing syringe distribution. Joy understood what Tookes was talking about: Jonathan had contracted hepatitis C likely through sharing dirty needles.

Tookes knew that stemming the tide of infectious disease went hand in hand with reducing opioid overdoses. The safer drug use became, through sterile needles, naloxone, and other means, the fewer the deaths and the lower the health-care costs.

Joy told Tookes about Jonathan, about how her tough love had evolved into a strategy of supporting him the best she could, how none of it had stopped her son from getting dumped outside a hospital. Tookes was struck by Joy’s candor, the power of her story, and the grace with which she talked about her son. “I’m not easily intimidated or impressed,” Tookes said. “But I was intimidated and impressed by Joy. She had a powerful aura.”

Tookes broached the topic of his push to have Florida’s ban on syringe exchanges lifted. He asked if Joy would be one of the faces of the campaign, if she would tell Jonathan’s story to a wider audience. She wanted to know if he was willing to have his staff and volunteers distribute naloxone. Tookes said he was open to the idea.

Joy left the meeting knowing she wanted to help Tookes—the question was how. She spent the next few weeks thinking about Jonathan. On his best days, her son had been in the trenches, helping fellow users cobble together stretches of sobriety. “There comes a time when you can’t just write a check, where it doesn’t mean anything,” Joy said. “You have to be hands-on.” She contacted Tookes and said as much. Tookes knew exactly where she could start.

Hansel Tookes

Tookes had been lobbying the Florida legislature to eliminate the syringe-exchange ban since 2012, but his opponents had routinely dismissed or outmaneuvered him. Most recently, in 2015, a conservative lawmaker who chaired a subcommittee in the Florida House of Representatives had refused to grant a hearing on a bill legalizing statewide needle exchanges that Tookes helped craft. In response, Tookes narrowed the bill’s scope: The new version called only for a privately funded pilot exchange in Miami. If he started small and showed that sterile needles worked, maybe it would pave the way for more exchanges. And if the pilot program was funded with private donations, including a substantial check from Joy, the bill would be heard by the health and human services committee. Tookes hoped it would be an ideal venue, given that some of the legislators seated on it were medical professionals.

Tookes considered Joy, and the power of her family’s story, to be his ace in the hole. He asked her to speak before the committee, hoping she could secure approval for the bill to go up for a vote in the Florida house. With matters less personal, Joy had little problem speaking before an audience. But this would require the kind of public soul bearing she had long feared. She would have to talk about Jonathan. And what about Jack—would she need to say that her husband could have done more to make naloxone available to everyone who needed it, including her son? Many of her closest friends, had they been in her shoes, would have left those stones unturned. “I was petrified,” Joy said.

One day in February 2015, Joy walked down the halls of the Florida State Capitol, the sparkles on her navy blue blouse glistening in the fluorescent lighting. When she entered the room where the committee hearing took place, it was packed with lobbyists and concerned citizens, there to debate the needle-exchange bill and other measures. As she waited her turn to speak, lawmakers and speakers spent two hours debating the merits of everything from medical marijuana to insurance reform. Finally, the committee took up the Infectious Disease Elimination Act and called Joy’s name.

She gripped the dais with her right hand, stood up straight, and glanced toward the lawmakers. She hadn’t prepared a speech, but she knew what Tookes needed from her. That didn’t include talking about Jack if she didn’t want to, if she wasn’t ready. She just needed to tell Jonathan’s story and emphasize how a program like the one Tookes envisioned would have helped her son, how it could help others.

Leaning slightly toward the microphone, she said, “My son, Jonathan, died of a heroin overdose.” Digging her left thumbnail into the tip of her finger, she looked ahead, trying to appear confident, as if she’d done this before. She tripped over a few words but quickly recovered, explaining how Jonathan had stolen needles, not because he was a bad kid but to take care of himself. “To get needles, you need a doctor to write the prescription,” she explained. “You need money to pay for the needles.” She noticed some of the lawmakers nodding their heads.

“I know that all of you know someone—a relative, a friend—who is an addict. This is going to be a program where not only will they get clean needles, but they’ll be educated [about] opportunities for rehab,” Joy said. To close her remarks, she referred back to the key tenets she’d learned from Nadelmann and Tookes. “It’s called harm reduction,” she said “We want to see less overdoses, less cases of AIDS, less cases of hepatitis C. Thank you.”

Joy sat back down. “I had a feeling of accomplishment,” she recalled, “that I did my job. I hoped it would mean something.” A few other guests offered their support for the bill. There was little opposition, in part because of how lean the bill had become through Tookes’s effort to appease conservative lawmakers. Then the committee members debated among themselves.

When the vote happened, it was so quick and simple that Joy could hardly believe it. The bill passed and was sent to the legislature. A few weeks later, Tookes called her. He was ecstatic. After years of opposition and excuses, the bill was becoming a law. Governor Rick Scott had signed it, and it would be in effect by the beginning of the summer. Joy, Tookes said, had broken the logjam.

Digging her left thumbnail into the tip of her finger, she looked ahead, trying to appear confident, as if she’d done this before.

Joy and Tookes worked together to open the exchange, becoming friends and confidants in the process. They were an odd couple—a gay black millennial who did yoga and traveled the country to see Mariah Carey concerts, and a Jewish grandmother with multiple homes who loved rescue dogs. When Tookes’s mother passed away, Joy took him and his partner out for dinner on difficult, lonely nights. When Joy posted on Facebook about missing Jonathan, Tookes reminded her that she was loved. When they weren’t swapping stories over crab legs or glasses of champagne, they were calling or texting each other.

Tookes handled the logistics of opening the exchange, which would be housed in two renovated shipping containers set up near Jackson Memorial. Joy drummed up support. She wrote a personal check for $50,000 and helped raise another $150,000—enough to fund the exchange’s first year of operations. She told a Miami Herald reporter that she missed Jonathan’s bear hugs and that the exchange would allow other mothers to keep hugging their sons. In the interview, she pulled out a single-dose, nasal-spray bottle of naloxone. “I always have it,” she told the reporter. “Everyone should.”

Tookes sent mothers who had lost their children to speak to Joy. “They would be desperately searching for catharsis,” Joy said. She listened, comforted them, and encouraged them to channel their grief into supporting harm reduction.

The exchange opened on December 1, 2016, World AIDS Day. Things were so busy from the beginning that it wasn’t until the following March that Tookes was able to hold a press conference announcing the program. A gaggle of reporters, doctors, and police officers were there. Standing behind the podium, Tookes said that his team would offer free naloxone to anyone who needed it. He had another announcement, too, something he hadn’t yet discussed with Joy—the exchange’s mobile unit, which traveled the city helping people in need, would be named after Jonathan.

Joy was floored. Tookes thanked her for her support and urged her to speak to the crowd. “I’m sorry [Jack] is not with us today to see what a miracle drug he created,” she said. When she mentioned Jonathan, her voice trembled and cracked slightly. She vowed to be a “spiritual mother” to people who came to the exchange. “This is a place where a drug-addicted person can come, not be judged, not be called slang names, and be accepted as a human in need,” Joy said. “We welcome them here. We look at them as full human beings.”

After years of feeling alone with her grief, Joy had found her tribe. She locked eyes with Tookes and hugged him. He’d helped her turn Jonathan’s life into more than a tragedy. “You can’t live with that sadness all the time,” Joy said later. “Holding on to that pain is destructive.”

Joy returned every few weeks to volunteer at the exchange. As wary visitors entered the shipping containers, she greeted them warmly at the front desk. She was direct but never dismissive—that old psychology professor of hers had been wrong. She instructed people to count off the number of dirty needles they had brought in and to throw each one into the trash. She took them to a corkboard affixed with various gauges of needles. After people chose their preferred size, Joy filled their orders. In brown paper bags, she assembled sterile syringes and cookers, tourniquets, lighters, and condoms. She directed anyone who wanted to be tested for infectious diseases or to seek treatment for addiction to Tookes’s office. And she told everyone who’d listen about naloxone, urging them to take doses of Jack’s drug wherever they went.

Her work was a far cry from what she once did with Catholic Charities, telling mothers not to coddle kids struggling with addiction. She insisted that regular patients stop referring to her as Mrs. Fishman. To them she became Mama Joy.

A naloxone dispenser.

The Fishman family does not receive any profits from sales of naloxone. Jack developed the drug for a commercial firm and never renewed the patent. Today, his antidote is available from pharmacists—without a doctor’s prescription—across the country, and it’s covered by most health-insurance plans. Yet access to naloxone isn’t where harm-reduction advocates want it to be. They criticize politicians who still preach abstinence and drug companies that have raised the price of the antidote. They continue to ask the FDA to approve naloxone for over-the-counter purchase, which the agency has failed to do despite publicly acknowledging the good it would do. As a member of the DPA’s national board, Joy is involved in pushing for greater naloxone availability nationwide.

When policymakers aren’t standing in the way, harm reduction works. One day in September 2019, Joy sat behind the exchange’s front desk, waiting to hand Jack’s drug to anyone who needed it. Since opening, the exchange had collected 360,000 dirty syringes, provided medical treatment to 1,200 people, and helped 200 patients detox. An estimated 1,450 overdoses had been reversed. Earlier that day, the drug had saved a patient found splayed out on the sidewalk near the exchange.

According to the most recent data available, opioid-related fatalities dropped in Miami-Dade County in 2017 for the first time in five years; in other Florida counties, death tolls continued to rise. Those statistics are among the evidence that’s helped convince state lawmakers once skeptical of harm reduction to support the cause. In the spring of 2019, the Florida legislature voted to allow any county that wanted a syringe exchange to open one. By early 2020, officials in five additional Florida counties had lifted local exchange bans, clearing the way for future harm-reduction services from Tampa to Tallahassee. Still, most counties have yet to follow suit, and the ban on using public funds for exchanges remains intact. For her part, Joy continues to donate money to Tookes’s exchange.

There’s a whiteboard at the exchange that, on the September day when Joy was volunteering, had a message scribbled on it: “It’s important to meet people where they’re at, but not leave them where they’re at.” She knows the mantra well. In her life, it applies to more than just Jonathan, Ashley, and the patients at the exchange. She has a boyfriend, a man named Ken Peters. In December 2018, one of his two sons fatally overdosed. Rather than leave him where he was, consumed with grief, Joy offered support and guidance. She remembered how hard it was after Jonathan died when someone would ask how many kids she had. She urged Peters to always make space for both of his boys. “Just say, ‘I have a son, and I lost another son to overdose,’” she told him.

Peters carries those words wherever he goes, along with a dose of naloxone that Joy gave him.


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

Deliverance

Deliverance

A telekinetic teenager became a convicted killer. Can a group of strangers prove that Christina Boyer is really a victim of injustice?

Tina Resch on Unsolved Mysteries.
The Atavist Magazine, No. 100


Lauren Markham is a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist. She’s the author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life and a contributing editor at Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in Northern California.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Philip Kiefer
Collage Illustrator: Emily Haasch

Published in February 2020.

1.

Devilry of the kind necessary to kill a toddler had to be punished, and swiftly. That’s how Sue Horn remembered the public outcry about the murder that still haunted Carroll County, Georgia, nearly 30 years after it happened.

On a foggy Saturday morning in April 2019, Horn sat in the parlor of the Edwardian house that served as the office of the StarNews, one of two newspapers in a rural county wedged between Atlanta and the Alabama border. Short and trim, with dark eyebrows whose movements punctuated her speech, Horn was the newspaper’s publisher and editor in chief. Proofs of the next day’s edition were on her desk waiting to be read, but Horn was happy to take a break. On this story in particular she had some things to say.

“Nothing like this ever happens in Carroll County,” Horn explained. “This was the biggest story it had ever seen.”

One day in the spring of 1992, a three-year-old girl was brought to the local hospital, blue and bruised and dead. Her name was Amber, and she came from what many people would call a broken home. Her young mother had a checkered past. She was also new in town. Most residents of Carroll County are homegrown, and they often view outsiders with suspicion. Horn herself knew what it meant to fall into that dubious category: Though she’d lived in the county most of her adult life and spoke with a slight southern drawl, she was originally from the Northeast.

It didn’t take long for locals to blame Amber’s mother, 22-year-old Christina Boyer, for the little girl’s death. Carroll County is in the Bible Belt, and people saw Boyer as the embodiment of everything they claimed to despise: unwed, abusive, sexually promiscuous, ungodly. Boyer, who professed her innocence, went to prison for life.

The way Horn viewed it, justice wasn’t served. She had done her job as a journalist, examined the facts of the case. She had identified what she believed was a pattern of disregard, or worse. “Christina Boyer,” Horn said, looking directly into the video camera positioned in front of her, “needs to go free.”

The camera belonged to three college students who had come to Carroll County for a class project. The class, called “Making an Exoneree,” tasked Georgetown University undergraduates with reviewing the circumstances that led to a purportedly innocent person’s imprisonment, producing a short documentary about what they found, and—fingers crossed—helping to set the prisoner free. The young women researching the Boyer case jotted down observations in their notebooks, adjusted the camera, and nodded along with Horn’s insistent monologue. Horn knew just what she wanted to say; she didn’t hesitate once. This wasn’t her first rodeo on the matter of Christina Boyer.

If you zoomed out, the scene took on a kaleidoscopic aspect: I was taking notes on the students, who were taking notes on the reporter, who for years had been taking notes on Boyer. That we’d wound up in the same room together was a testament to the cultural phenomenon of journalists and amateur sleuths exposing cases in which people may have been wrongfully convicted of a crime. For Boyer, it was only the most recent chapter in the saga that followed Amber’s death. Students, reporters, lawyers, artists, a romantic suitor, paranormal enthusiasts—a parade of personalities had made themselves part of her story by offering themselves up as potential saviors. They had done so out of genuine concern for her, but in some instances they had also used Boyer as a screen to project their own desires and ambitions. Among her champions were people content to remain in the wings and others who’d crept into the limelight, where the line between egoism and altruism became thin and trembling.

Boyer, now 50, has spent more than half her life in prison. She is warm and agreeable, with brown eyes and cropped sandy-blond hair. Her voice is honeyed—when she asks how you’re doing, you can sense her sincere desire to know the answer. She also seems impressible, as though anything said to her will leave a mark. Her magnetism, I came to realize, is in part her baldness of hope—her ardent, almost guileless wish to be delivered.

Long before she was accused of killing her daughter, Boyer was susceptible to aspiring emancipators, people swooping in with promises to pluck her from her circumstances. And why not? A person in Boyer’s shoes had to take what she could get.

Sue Horn of the StarNews

2.

Boyer’s first would-be savior was the state of Ohio. She was born in 1969, and her parents couldn’t keep her, so as an infant she was handed over to child services. She was placed in long-term foster care with John and Joan Resch, a couple who had taken in hundreds of children in Columbus. They eventually adopted her. Things were hard for Tina, as Boyer was called back then. The household was hectic, and the rules were severe. According to Tina, her adopted brother began molesting her when she was 12, but she was afraid to tell their parents. “Finally, I did tell them, but they didn’t believe me and slapped my face,” she later wrote in a letter to a friend.

When Tina was 14, the family noticed something peculiar and alarming about her: It seemed she could move physical objects with her mind. A plate. The curtains. Chairs around the kitchen table. Things appeared to shift uncannily when Tina became angry. The Resches were certain that this was the work of a sinister force.

Joan Resch called a local reporter she knew and asked if he could find someone to help. He was skeptical that what Resch said was true. Still, he went to the family’s house and brought a photographer along. The film Poltergeist was a recent hit; Americans were obsessed with the idea of telekinesis and haunted children. After a few hours of nothing happening, a phone receiver suddenly seemed to levitate off a side table and hurtle across the living room. The photographer captured the object’s mysterious arc across a pubescent Tina’s lap. Her mouth hung wide open as if in fearful disbelief.

The wire services picked up the story, and the photograph was reprinted in newspapers across the country. Tina was dubbed the Columbus poltergeist kid. Predictably, Tina’s story also drew of the paranormal. “The Resch house was a circus,” journalist Stassa Edwards wrote years later. “Media, magicians and psychokinetic investigators were keen to test Tina’s powers, to pay witness to the shadowy poltergeist.” Cameras and audio recorders were kept rolling nearly constantly in hopes of capturing the unexplainable.

Eventually, a reporter saw Tina knock over a lamp when she thought no one was looking. It went crashing to the floor while the teenager looked up at the adults in the room for approval. The news crews left; a hoax wasn’t intriguing. Still, Joan Resch insisted that the previous incidents had been real. Tina didn’t know what to think. Kids at school hummed the theme to The Twilight Zone when she walked by. Some of them said they were scared of her. “Did anybody stop and think that maybe I’m scared, too; that maybe I don’t know what’s going on and it’s freaking me [out] also?” Tina told a reporter.

One stranger was still drawn to Tina. His name was Bill Roll, and he believed that she was the real deal. Roll was a parapsychologist, a member of the small field of researchers who study paranormal phenomena; most mainstream academics deem their work pseudoscientific. What Tina presented was rare even by the standards of parapsychology. Roll described it as “the destructive powers of thwarted emotions.”

Roll moved into the Resches’ home so that he could interview Tina extensively. He taped her every move and sound with a camcorder and a dictation device, following her around and waiting for something interesting to happen. He made extensive notes of various “disturbances,” as well as Tina’s physical and emotional state before, during, and after they occurred. He drew up a floor plan of the house and mapped the movement of various objects. He later wrote that Tina presented “one of the most convincing cases of poltergeist activity” he’d ever seen.

By Roll’s account, the Resches were at their wits’ end. Whatever was happening with Tina was wreaking havoc on their household. “I thought I might have a solution that would appeal to everyone,” Roll wrote in his 2004 book, Unleashed. He convinced the Resches to let him take Tina to North Carolina, where he and his colleagues could run tests to determine the full extent of her abilities. Tina was overjoyed. “My adoptive father had stopped speaking to me, and my adoptive mom and I argued all the time,” she told me. “Bill was like someone who was saving me from drowning in my family.” Plus, she’d never been on a plane before.

Roll took Tina into his home and introduced her to other paranormal researchers, as well as to Jeannie Lagle, a psychiatrist with experience in hypnosis. Together, Roll and Lagle took Tina to get brain scans, see therapists, and participate in parapsychology conferences. Lagle was part babysitter and part researcher. She and Tina soon grew close. On the road, they bunked together in hotels. Lagle was tasked with drawing out Tina’s abilities through hypnosis and making sure the teenager didn’t doctor any test results. She claimed to witness remarkable events—a hairbrush that flew out of a purse and across the room from where Tina sat, a tape recorder that leaped from a dresser. “You just couldn’t believe what this little girl was capable of,” Lagle told me. The goal of the research was to figure out the source of Tina’s telekinesis, and to train her to use her power with purpose.

Tina was just glad to be treated like she mattered. She’d been dismissed as strange in school, in the Girl Scouts, at home. “I didn’t really know at that point what the future might hold for me, but I knew I was different and that it wasn’t always seen as a good thing,” she told me. With the researchers, her differences were her gifts. To them she was extraordinary.

Eventually, her family asked that Tina return to Ohio. Roll and his team wanted to continue performing tests—they didn’t know the source of the powers they still firmly believed Tina had. For the time being, though, they would have to be satisfied with analyzing the data they’d already gathered.

With the researchers, her differences were her gifts. To them she was extraordinary.

Not long after she moved back to Ohio, Tina got married. She was only 16. According to letters that Tina later wrote, her husband was abusive. He bound, gagged, and raped her. He beat her unconscious. When he burned her clothes to keep her from leaving him, she jumped from a second-story window and ran through the snow, barefoot and wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. He tracked her down and brought her home. “People say, ‘Why didn’t you leave him?’” she wrote in a letter. “I did, but he stalked me and my parents and threatened us all.”

After she managed to escape, Tina became pregnant. She had the baby and named her Amber. Tina married another man, whose last name she took, becoming Christina Boyer. He promised to be a father to Amber, but he soon became abusive toward them both. A social worker told the new Mrs. Boyer that if she didn’t leave the relationship, the state would take Amber away. After one beating, Boyer managed to have her husband arrested, and she packed her bags for Carroll County, Georgia, where Lagle and Roll had moved to be near a small university. Amber had just turned three. If Boyer started a new life, a better one, maybe her daughter wouldn’t remember the one they’d left behind.

Lagle and Roll were eager to help. They could even resume their studies with Boyer. But there was a problem, a growing rift. For years, Lagle and Roll had been a team, putting in long hours conducting tests, typing up papers, and preparing conference presentations about the young woman who moved objects with her mind. Then Lagle learned that Roll was presenting at parapsychology events without her. He’d started working with another researcher—a person who’d never met Boyer—and Lagle got wind that Roll was also writing a book. “He was a little Sneaky Pete, always,” Lagle said. “I was the one doing the heavy lifting.” (Roll died in 2012 at the age of 86.)

Lagle suggested to Boyer that they write a book together, just the two of them. Boyer agreed. “It had been my hope,” Boyer told me, “to get enough written to offer to an agent who would pay us to finish it. Then I would’ve had some breathing room financially.” A book would also allow her to tell her own story. In the meantime, Lagle offered to help Boyer get on her feet in Georgia: She paid the young woman five dollars an hour to type up research notes for their future project.

Amber playing.

3.

Easter was just around the corner, and Amber was finally old enough to enjoy it. Boyer, who after staying with Lagle for a while had gotten an apartment in the town of Carrollton, wanted to get the three-year-old a pretty Easter basket full of treats. She also wanted to get Amber new shoes and hair ribbons to match a dress that Joan Resch had sent from Ohio. Boyer needed money to pay for the presents, which was why, on April 14, 1992, she was at Lagle’s office, doing her secretarial work.

A few days prior, Amber had hit her head on a curb after scrambling out of her car seat. She was a “really active kid,” Lagle recalled, always running and falling and bumping into things. She was hard to control, headstrong like her mom. When she developed a goose egg after the curb incident, Boyer called her adoptive mother. Just keep an eye on it, Joan Resch said. If Boyer saw any strange behavior—nausea, vomiting, that kind of thing—then she should take Amber to a doctor. A day later she was fine and back to playing in the yard as usual. Nothing to worry about. The goose egg would heal.

Boyer didn’t want to take Amber to work with her; she knew she’d get more done at Lagle’s office without her daughter along. Her boyfriend, a man named David Herrin, offered to look after Amber at his trailer just outside town. Boyer and Herrin had been dating for a few months. He had a daughter Amber’s age. Boyer’s last memory of Amber alive was watching the toddler settle into Herrin’s lap, a book in her tiny hands.

Work was uneventful. Boyer finished the assignments Lagle had given her, said goodbye to her boss, and got in her car to go home. She’d just pulled out of the driveway when, back inside the office, Lagle got a phone call from Herrin.

“I can’t get Amber up,” he said. The little girl was unconscious.

Lagle assumed that Herrin was exaggerating. “Don’t worry, Christina’s on her way home. She’ll be there soon,” Lagle told him.

When Boyer arrived, Amber was unresponsive. Boyer and Herrin loaded the little girl into the car. While Herrin drove, Boyer gave Amber CPR. She’d learned how at a parenting class in Carrollton. As she pressed against her daughter’s chest, she was terrified of breaking her. Amber didn’t wake up.

Boyer worried that the authorities might take her baby away at the hospital—she knew how quickly that could happen. She yelled at Herrin to stop the fucking car at a pay phone. She always called Lagle when she was in a bad way. Boyer was hysterical as she told Lagle what was wrong and asked what she should do and what if she hurt Amber and why wouldn’t David drive faster? Lagle told Boyer to take her daughter to the emergency room and promised to meet her there.

Amber was pronounced dead at the hospital. Boyer told me she began sobbing when she heard the news. The hospital staff noticed that Amber had bruising on her face and body, so they called the police and child services. The police arrested Herrin because he’d been at the trailer with Amber. They also took Boyer in for questioning. In the police car, her mind wouldn’t stop whirling. “I know now that I was crazy, but at the time I kept asking the officer driving if the hospital would put the covers over Amber, because she gets cold at night and the hospital was already cold,” Boyer told me.

Boyer wanted Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” played at Amber’s wake, but she didn’t get a say. By then she was behind bars: Boyer was arrested shortly after police questioned her.

Christina Boyer’s last memory of her daughter alive was watching the toddler settle into David Herrin’s lap, a book in her tiny hands.

It appeared that Amber had died from some sort of blunt physical trauma. Law enforcement reasoned that it may have happened before Boyer went to work. Maybe it was the fall onto the curb or a beating that Boyer wouldn’t admit to; sometimes internal injuries progress slowly. Or maybe Boyer just hadn’t gotten Amber to the hospital fast enough, as a good mother should. One of the marks on the toddler was a long welt across her face. Detectives who searched Boyer’s home found a belt in a closet. They brought it in, and the medical examiner held it up next to . Someone snapped a photo, which would later be submitted into evidence.

It was the kind of detail that Jack Bell, Carroll County’s sheriff at the time, seemed to relish describing to the public. “Her little body was so bruised all over, you couldn’t tell it was the same child,” he said at one point. Bell was up for reelection, and he touted his commitment to getting Boyer convicted as evidence of his dedication to his job. (Bell died in 2004, three years after Carroll County named a detention facility in his honor.)

Boyer was dismayed. She believed that Herrin was to blame for Amber’s death. When they’d first arrived at the hospital, he kept apologizing to her. “Sorry for what?” Boyer shouted at him. Had he been abusive? Had Boyer missed the signs that her daughter was in danger? She felt responsible for that, at least. “I was the catalyst,” Boyer told me. “I brought David into our lives, and had I not done that, Amber would be alive.”

Herrin maintained his innocence. His legal team claimed that Amber’s death must have been the result of abuse by Boyer. For her part, Boyer admitted she wasn’t a perfect mother, but she maintained that she had never done anything to seriously hurt Amber, much less kill her.

Amber was buried in her pink Easter dress. The funeral was paid for with donations from the residents of Carrollton and was open to the public. Crowds of people came to say goodbye to a little girl most of them never knew. The authorities allowed Boyer a closed room at the memorial, out of the public’s view. She wasn’t permitted to go to the grave site.

When I connected with her 27 years later, Boyer had still never seen where Amber was buried. If she ever got out of prison, she told me, she’d go straight to the cemetery. All she wanted to do was put flowers on the grave.

Amber died in 1992.

4.

A grand jury indicted Boyer for murder, aggravated assault, and cruelty to children. She was accused of repeatedly striking Amber in the head and abdomen. Though her loved ones believed Boyer was innocent, much of Carroll County did not. Local residents were deeply shaken by Amber’s death. “My body felt numb as I tried to imagine the horror that this innocent child must have felt as her own mother allegedly participated in her cruel and violent death,” read one letter to the editor. “It offends me greatly to know that part of my tax money is going to defend and house heathens in nice, new, air-conditioned buildings as punishment for [such] heinous crimes as this.”

Many people following the story believed that Boyer had a guilty profile. It wasn’t just that she was a young, poor, unmarried outsider, or that she had been accused of abusing Amber. Police knew that one of Boyer’s neighbors made sex tapes and paid women to participate. Boyer needed money and appeared in one of them dancing topless. In another, she sat next to the neighbor on a couch while they watched porn together. Halfway through the scene, Amber toddled into the room wearing nothing but a diaper. Boyer jumped up and roughly delivered Amber into another room, where she spanked her. In the lead-up to her trial, this information made the local news. On top of all her other perceived failings, Boyer was labeled a slut.

Then there were the phone calls, more than 40 in all. Back in Ohio, before Boyer moved, child services was contacted repeatedly about Amber’s safety. Boyer insisted that her then husband was to blame: He would report her to the authorities to punish and assert his control over her. Nothing seemed to have materialized from the reports. Still, they didn’t look good—they were strikes against Boyer’s character. So was her history with telekinesis. In May 1993, just over a year after Amber’s death, while Boyer’s legal fate was still pending, Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment about her. It featured Roll saying that he was certain of Boyer’s powers.

Unsolved Mysteries attracted the attention of a man named John Riggle. He was an unmarried retiree in Texas living off social security. After learning about Boyer on TV, he took an almost pathological interest in her case. He wrote to Boyer telling her that he believed she was innocent and that he wanted to help free her. She welcomed his optimism and the correspondence.

They began trading letters, talking as much about themselves—how they spent their time, what they believed in, what they wanted for the future—as they did about her pending case. Boyer told Riggle that if she ever got out of prison, she wanted to get a college degree. “I haven’t been here in jail so long that I forgot there’s good people in the world,” she wrote. “It’s just that none of them seem to exist in Georgia.” She told him about how other women tried to beat her up and intimidate her into staying in her bunk. She wrote about how much she liked to sing; about the coconut lotion her cell mate, who had just been released, left behind for her; about how in the winter the heating system broke and all the inmates nearly froze, and in the summer there was no air-conditioning. “Seems like they want to drive me crazy in here,” Boyer said. “The papers are real good at printing lies. Boy, I wish I could write an article which they’d print telling people what this place is really like.”

Riggle packed up his things and drove in a camper van from Texas to Georgia. He parked near the county jail where Boyer was being held and stayed put. He visited her nearly every week. Boyer welcomed his help but found him strange. Riggle looked unkempt and unwell, with disconcertingly long fingernails and oily hair. But his commitment to her was stalwart, and she was lonely and bereft. “In the beginning,” Boyer said, “I really thought he would be a lot of help. He tirelessly went about trying to find all the information he could.”

When he wasn’t at the jail, Riggle began writing a book about Boyer’s case, which he tentatively called Time for the Truth. (One of the chapters was titled “Phony Autopsy Report”—the book has never been published.) Riggle acted as a shadow advocate, pursuing a parallel line of inquiry to Boyer’s attorney. He reviewed hearing transcripts and drew up time lines surrounding Amber’s death. Riggle got his hands on Amber’s autopsy and told Boyer that it said the blood found in the little girl’s brain was “fresh.” To his eye, that suggested the blow that killed her must have happened shortly before she died. “I tell you right now,” Boyer wrote to him once, “the only evidence I am aware of is there are suddenly a lot of people I never met crawling out of the woodwork to say what a terrible mother I was.”

Boyer was aware that Riggle was an amateur. “The problem is he considered himself another Perry Mason,” she told me. Sometimes she got the sense that he might be bending his understanding of the law to suit his interpretation of her case. “Please relate the facts and situation to me as closely as you can,” she wrote to him. “Don’t flower them up because if it turns out things are what they appeared, or don’t work out the way you figured, I don’t want to get my hopes up only to have them crushed.” The content of her letters vacillated from hopefulness to reverie to fatalism and back again. “I guess I’ll end this letter now,” she signed off a missive. “No sense spreading pain like peanut butter.”

Eventually, Riggle asked Boyer to marry him. He said that once she was free, she could live off his social security. Boyer didn’t think of Riggle that way. She certainly didn’t find him attractive. He’d once donned a suit to impress her on a visit, and while she was touched, “he looked like he’d just climbed out of a casket.” Still, Boyer felt so alone, and he’d done so much work on her behalf, that she considered his proposal. “I was desperate and willing to take any help I could get,” she told me.

He became pushier and pushier with the marriage question. “He would tell me if I didn’t marry him he’d take all the information he’d gathered and throw it away,” Boyer said. He tried to convince her that no one else would help her like he had, like he would. Still, she couldn’t go through with a loveless marriage. In a letter, she told him no.

In response, Riggle mailed Boyer the photos of Amber’s autopsy. She had never wanted to see them. The images were unspeakable. She took them to her counselor, who turned them over to the prison warden. Boyer barred Riggle from visiting her or sending her mail. They never spoke again. Within a few months, he was dead. Turned out, he’d been sick all along.

“I haven’t been here in jail so long that I forgot there’s good people in the world,” Boyer wrote. “It’s just that none of them seem to exist in Georgia.”

Boyer’s lawyer was a court-appointed attorney from Marietta named Jimmy Berry. “He was supposed to be this jam-up lawyer, some hot shot who really knew his stuff,” Boyer told me. She remembered him telling her that he would take her case all the way, help her prove her innocence. Boyer was grateful.

According to his invoice, Berry visited Boyer four times over the two and a half years that she awaited trial. He logged 126 hours on the case, only 17 of which were for court preparation—the rest were for time spent before a judge. He invoiced the state for a total of $6,897.30. Records show that, at the time, Berry was also working on a second high-profile death penalty case elsewhere in Georgia: He was defending an attorney accused of hiring a hitman to murder his wife, who was shot in the head in front of her two young sons. (The attorney was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Berry did not respond to my interview requests.)

According to Boyer, Berry was hard to get ahold of. Sometimes she called and wrote him letters and didn’t hear back. She wondered why it was taking so long for her case to go to trial. Herrin, too, was still behind bars, awaiting his day in court.

Finally, her trial was scheduled for October 31, 1994. In the days leading up to it, Berry arranged for Boyer to take a polygraph test. She passed, which she thought boded well. But the next day, Berry came to see her and said that going to trial was a bad idea. As Boyer remembers the conversation, Berry emphasized that, even without clear-cut evidence, the case against her was just too strong: the photo of Amber’s face next to the belt, the prior accusations of abuse, the fact that she hadn’t taken Amber to the hospital when the toddler hit her head, Boyer’s checkered personal history. And if she was found guilty, Berry warned, Boyer would likely be executed.

Berry suggested that she consider taking something called the Alford plea. An oddity of U.S. criminal law based on a 1970 Supreme Court decision, it allows a defendant to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence, often as a means of avoiding capital punishment. The Alford plea would mean life in prison, but it would keep Boyer from being strapped into Georgia’s electric chair.

Boyer was stunned. How could she plead guilty to killing her daughter? But Berry, she recalled, was adamant: If she didn’t want to die, she should follow his advice. “The being dead didn’t scare me,” she told me, “it was dying by the electric chair that did.”

Soon after, Boyer stood before a judge and took the Alford plea. She hadn’t consulted any loved ones; no one who supported her was in the courtroom. She was also taking antipsychotics, antidepressants, and sleep aids to help her cope with her grief. Boyer pled guilty to murder by “maliciously causing … cruel and excessive physical pain” and “failing to seek proper medical attention.” She also pled guilty to aggravated assault. Berry told the judge that while he believed his client was innocent, the plea was the best choice for her.

“When I signed my name to that paper,” Boyer told me, “I was signing away my life.” She had just turned 25.

5.

Boyer was transferred to Pulaski State Prison, a newly opened detention facility for women. She was on more drugs than ever to help her cope. What would have been Amber’s fourth birthday passed, then Christmas. The milestones tore Boyer apart. Lagle wrote and came to visit, as did Roll. Boyer was also in contact with her adoptive mother. But there was little anyone could do for her. Other inmates called her a baby killer. Would this last forever?

Herrin’s trial began in late January 1995. A medical examiner testified that Amber’s cause of death was a head injury that would have produced symptoms almost as soon as it occurred. Herrin, though, testified that Amber was fine until he found her passed out and “pale as a ghost.” He ran to a neighbor’s to use a phone because the trailer didn’t have one that worked. Herrin called Lagle’s office but not 911. “It didn’t even cross my mind,” he said.

Herrin described Boyer as abusive, negligent, and selfish. The defense made a point of bringing up the belt that was photographed next to Amber’s face after her death.

“Where in Christina Boyer’s apartment did you find that?” a lawyer asked.

“It was found hanging from the doorknob of her room door,” a detective on the stand replied.

“And did you look in David Herrin’s trailer as well for a similar belt?”

“We did.”

“And you didn’t find a belt in his trailer that was in any way consistent with the bruises on the child’s face, did you?”

“No.”

Boyer, who still believed that Herrin was responsible for Amber’s death, agreed to testify against him. The defense emphasized to the jury that she had already taken the Alford plea. It also seized the opportunity to bring up her “telekinetic powers.” Boyer testified that she wasn’t sure what she could or couldn’t do with her mind when she was a teenager. “All I know is that my whole life was chaotic and it was very traumatic and I can’t explain anything that happened,” she said.

“Do those things still happen to you?” Herrin’s lawyer asked.

“No, sir,” she replied.

“So you can’t move things anymore?”

“No, things don’t happen around me anymore.”

“OK. So you can’t move the little yellow marker that I’ve put up there?” he said, referring to a highlighter.

“No, sir.”

“Well, during this cross-examination, feel if the spirit moves you, Ms. Boyer.”

It was mockery, not an invitation.

Herrin was acquitted of Amber’s murder. He was convicted on one count of cruelty to children and given 20 years in prison.

Other inmates called her a baby killer. Would this last forever?

Boyer’s adoptive mother and aunt began looking for a new lawyer, someone willing to reopen the case—a daunting prospect, given the Alford plea and the fact that no new evidence had come to light. Eventually, according to Boyer’s letters, they hired someone who seemed good enough. The lawyer familiarized himself with the case and started digging into possible legal strategies. A few months into his work, however, he was arrested and convicted of statutory rape. There went the money Boyer had for legal fees. She was back to square one.

She was denied parole in 1999, and again in 2007. Sometimes she wondered if it would’ve been better to die in the electric chair. Then, not long after her second parole denial, an attorney got in touch with her. His name was Richard Allen, and he believed that Boyer was innocent. He came to visit and told her as much. He was straightforward, which she liked. He seemed honest and committed. Most important, he would take the case —Boyer couldn’t afford his help otherwise. She felt as if God might be opening a window for her.

Allen believed that public opinion had been Boyer’s undoing. What if people could see her differently? A few days before Christmas 2007, Allen walked into Sue Horn’s office at the StarNews. Horn usually ran the paper with her husband, but he’d just taken another job. Shouldering the work alone, Horn was exhausted and looking forward to a planned vacation. Allen came in, careful not to drop the tall stack of documents he held in his arms. Horn’s face fell. What did he want?

Allen quickly went into detail about Boyer’s case—Horn knew of it, of course—recounting all the missteps that had occurred, all the ways justice had not been served. Maybe the paper could write about it, he suggested. Horn couldn’t wait for him to leave. “I’ll take a look,” she said, to placate him.

During her vacation, Horn reviewed the documents. She couldn’t believe what she was reading. Everything that could have seemed to have gone wrong for Boyer. Horn, too, became convinced of Boyer’s innocence. On January 20, 2008, she wrote a lengthy article in her paper under the headline “The Real Story of Christina Resch Boyer: Did a ‘Perfect Storm’ of Events Lead to a Life of Imprisonment?” Horn followed the article up with an op-ed. “Believe me,” she wrote, “I’m no tree hugging, Bambi loving, soft hearted woman who’s searching for a cause to make my life have meaning. I’ve got enough to do.” Horn continued, “Boyer is serving a life sentence plus twenty years for this death of her three year old daughter. Did she do it? Her lawyer told the judge no at her hearing. But, she sits in prison today. Boyer had no family and few friends, no money. But, it’s possible she can have justice. Read the story. Let me know.”

The article barely made a ripple in Carroll County. “I believe public opinion is that Boyer is where she should be, however one slices up the pie’s guilty pieces,” Horn recalled. “Murder or manslaughter? Who cares. Abuse or neglect? Doesn’t matter. Did she do it or the boyfriend? They are uninterested.” Still, Allen was preparing to petition on Boyer’s behalf, and she felt aloft at the idea of being free. Then one snowy day in March 2009, Allen had a heart attack and died. The petition for Boyer died along with him.

Boyer’s depression returned. So much hope followed by so much failure. So many people who promised to help and then, by their own fault or not, let her down.

6.

Four years after Allen’s death, Jan Banning came to Carroll County. He was a photographer from the Netherlands, and he wanted to shoot portraits of inmates in Pulaski Prison. He was documenting criminal-justice systems around the world; his photos were haunting testaments to inequities and the vast apparatuses that human beings create to punish one another. He found that while some countries he’d visited treated prisoners with a degree of dignity, America brutally dehumanized them. The country had one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, and many of the 2.2 million people behind bars had been placed there by draconian, discriminatory policies.

Boyer thought, Why not have my picture taken? She straightened her hair and did her makeup the day of the photo shoot. In the images Banning took, her eyes are soft, her complexion slightly pockmarked. Her lips shimmer, and her hair swoops stylishly across her forehead. She is clad in her khaki prison garb.

A video about the case that Jan Banning posted to YouTube.

Boyer liked Banning. He was warm and inquisitive. There was a spark between them—not romantic, something else. The more Banning learned about Boyer’s case, the more shocked and outraged he became. To his mind, she had suffered one of the worst losses a person can suffer, then been treated as if she were responsible for it. A few years after he took her photo, Banning wrote to Boyer through JPay, an email system used in many U.S. prisons. When she responded, she was forthcoming and vulnerable, as if writing in a diary. Boyer was glad to have someone to talk to, not unlike how she’d been with Riggle all those years ago. “What struck me,” Banning said, “is that she wrote back to me and expressed clear interest in how I was doing.” He’d expected someone who’d been in prison so long to be self-absorbed, and understandably so, but she wasn’t. “That somehow made it personal,” he said. “I became fascinated by her.”

Banning’s interest in Boyer’s case eventually started to take over his life. He acquired court documents and got in touch with Alicia Van Couvering, a film producer in Los Angeles who a few years before had been drawn to Boyer’s story and hoped to make a movie based on Roll’s book. There was also a German woman, Susan Weber, who’d come to Boyer’s cause after hearing about it on a podcast about paranormal activity, and a man named James Conrad, who once ran a telekinesis laboratory and who published a blog about Boyer. Banning connected with them all. He started a Dropbox folder where he organized the elements of her story. Her letters to Riggle had a file, as did the documents pertaining to Richard Allen, the reports from child services, and the autopsy of Amber’s body.

Banning felt like something of an investigator—he was positioning himself to do something about the injustice he documented. After so many years behind a camera lens, he wanted to leave a mark. “Why bother about one person?” he said, then invoked the spiritual notion that whoever saves a life saves the world. “I wish that was true,” Banning continued. “The obvious response, anyway, is: Why not?

He hatched a plan to spend an extended period of time in Georgia to work on the case. Money was an obstacle. He got in touch with Lagle, who was happy to hear that he was interested in the case. She said that she still loved Boyer, even though they weren’t in touch like they’d once been—time had passed, life had happened. Lagle had a spare apartment in the basement of her house, in a quiet, wooded area on the outskirts of Carrollton; she told Banning he was welcome to stay as long as he liked. After connecting with Banning, Lagle felt compelled to reach out to Boyer and make amends for the lapse in their friendship. Boyer was glad to have Lagle back in her life. (By then, both of her adoptive parents had died.)

In 2018, Banning visited Georgia several times. He went through the archives at the county clerk’s office, read old newspaper articles, made lists and charts of the various people involved in Boyer’s case: the sheriff, the cops, the medical examiners, the social workers, the nurses. He met with Horn, who in turn was inspired to write a new article. It was about how a foreign photographer was helping Boyer get the justice she deserved.

Banning found Amber’s grave and posted directions to it on Dropbox, just in case they might one day be of use. He took a photo of the headstone, capturing the light such that the block appeared to be glowing, as if lit from within. He printed the photograph and sent it to Boyer, who wept when she saw it. To her it looked like God himself were illuminating the grave; having become deeply religious in prison, she thought that Banning was heaven-sent.

Banning asked Boyer if he could share her emails with him on his personal website, where he’d already posted his photos of her. “I would be VERY appreciative,” she wrote back. “Although you yourself may not be able to help me, the more people that know about my situation the better.” Banning posted the emails and included Boyer’s address, if people wished to send notes of encouragement. Letters and postcards began to arrive from around the world.

7.

Everyone interested in Boyer’s case has an origin story. In a way, mine begins in childhood. My parents are criminal defense attorneys, and when I was growing up, they had a home office. “Markham and Read,” my brother and I would answer the phone, like tiny secretaries. My brother learned how to accept a call from a federal prison (press five) by the time he was in kindergarten. I was pen pals with one of my parents’ clients, a man named Michael, who had orchestrated the largest shipment of hashish ever seized by federal authorities. In our house, even O.J. Simpson was likely innocent. I was taught to see the best in people and to root for the underdog.

I first learned about Boyer in 2017, when I was asked by a magazine to write the introduction to a photo essay of Banning’s work. In an interview, Banning evangelized about a woman in Georgia who he believed had been wrongfully convicted of killing her daughter. Maybe, he suggested, I could write about her. I told Banning that, at the very least, I was interested in learning more. He quickly followed up with details.

“It was hard to decide what to send,” he wrote in an email, “as I don’t want to inundate you with documentation. I have tons, but let me start ‘quietly.’” He attached a summary of the case that he’d put together himself, and another document containing excerpts from the transcript of Boyer’s sentencing. He included a link to the page on his website about Boyer’s story. “If you’d like to receive more,” he wrote, “I can send it to you immediately.”

I wasn’t the first person Banning had approached. He’d contacted several other journalists, as well as filmmakers, forensic and medical experts, and Georgia lawmakers, asking all of them to look into the case. “I figured that if people can be tried by media, why not try to exonerate her by media?” he said. He’d launched a Facebook group dedicated to gaining Boyer’s freedom. When some people didn’t take to the idea as enthusiastically as he did, Banning was annoyed. He told me that he’d worked in media for years. “I know a good story when I see it,” he insisted.

In December 2017, Boyer was up for parole. Her supporters, including Banning, arranged for dozens of letters of support to be submitted on her behalf. Boyer’s request was denied. Banning promised to continue agitating to get more attention focused on her case. Maybe he could even raise funds to hire her a new lawyer. “When we come to prison,” Boyer once wrote to Banning, “they drill it in our head that our behavior will play a big part in deciding if we are paroled out.” She did Bible study, she took college classes, she worked as an orderly. “I don’t just follow these rules b/c I am choosing the path of least resistance in prison, but b/c I chose to be a decent person in spite of where I am. It’s kind of a kick in the teeth to find out that it doesn’t matter to anyone though.”

Three months after Boyer’s failed parole bid, Banning was back in the Netherlands when he received word from a contact at Pulaski that Boyer had slit her own throat. She was alive and under medical watch in solitary confinement. For the time being, she was prohibited from speaking to anyone on the outside.

To Banning, the incident underlined the urgency of Boyer’s case. The wrongness of it all was like clear-burning fuel. He had big plans, including a book about Boyer’s life—the fourth such text someone had pledged to write about her. (Only Bill Roll’s has been published.) He was also raising funds, hoping they might help Boyer’s legal situation.

Some of the money raised by Boyer’s supporters went to retain Victoria Smith, a longtime parole lawyer in Georgia. She explained that the approach to Boyer’s previous requests for early release—she’d been denied again in 2018—was commendable but perhaps misguided. By Smith’s rough calculation, each parole-board member—five would hear the case—had an average of about three minutes to look through a file before making a decision. A short, compelling summary of Boyer’s case might go further than an onslaught of letters of support. The good news was that the board had agreed to reconsider the case in just one year. Shorter increments between reviews meant that the board could be getting closer to allowing for a prisoner’s release.

In our house, even O.J. Simpson was likely innocent. I was taught to see the best in people and to root for the underdog.

In January 2019, Banning wrote me an excited email with more good news: A group of Georgetown undergraduate students would be taking on Boyer’s case as part of a class. Banning had read about the course online and discovered that it was instrumental in freeing a man who had served 27 years for a murder he didn’t commit. He had contacted the professor immediately. The professor, Marc Morjé Howard, taught the course along with a childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, who himself had been wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years. In teams of three or four, Howard and Tankleff’s students would spend their spring semester in “Making an Exoneree” researching a case and shooting a short documentary about it. “Remember that they are undergraduates, not law students,” Howard wrote in a message to Banning, “and this project does not involve direct legal representation.”

A team of three young women—Sarah Jackmauh, Grace Perret, and Lizzie Porterfield—chose Boyer’s case from a pile of 70 options presented to the class. The students were fiery, optimistic, and progressive, and they were interested in the case’s feminist dimensions. Too often poor women—particularly those of color, but many white ones, too—land behind bars because of poverty. They make desperate choices under impossible conditions, or they can’t afford good legal representation. Low-income mothers are frequently cast as villains. As of 2014, some 40 percent of the women in the National Registry of Exonerations had been cleared of crimes involving children. The Georgetown students were eager to expose what they saw as a smear campaign against Boyer. They believed that she had been punished for who she was, not what she’d done.

Jackmauh, Perret, and Porterfield swiftly took to their research, treating it like a full-time job. They got themselves onto Boyer’s call list and began interviewing her weekly by phone. They divvied up tasks, spending hours poring over documents. They delved more deeply than anyone ever had into the dozens of calls about Amber’s welfare placed to child services in Ohio. Eventually, they would learn that the authorities had followed up on the reports and found nothing of concern. The students were thrilled; their findings seemed like proof that Boyer had been telling the truth about her ex using the calls to intimidate her.

In other instances, the students were disturbed by what they found. The people who looked at Amber’s body—doctors and police—seemed to have overstated any abuse she may have suffered. By the time she arrived at the ER, Amber was already dead. As happens with most corpses, her blood quickly stagnated and pooled inside her, leaving what to the poorly trained eye might look like a troubling network of bruises. Detectives initially accused Herrin of sodomizing Amber based on these natural patterns; they later retracted the claim.

Most puzzling to the Georgetown students was why Boyer’s lawyer had changed tactics so close to her trial date. They tried to reach Jimmy Berry, but he never got back to them. Had he wanted to avoid tarnishing his defense record if Boyer was found guilty and sentenced to death? Did he have other cases in Georgia that he preferred to focus on? Was there a general feeling in Carroll County, shared by people working on both sides of the case, that trying Boyer wasn’t worth the resources—significant for a rural locale—if she agreed to a plea deal instead? It seemed, too, like none of the details indicating that Boyer was a kind and competent mother made an impact on people’s perceptions of her—an audio tape from Christmas 1991, for instance, when Boyer called in to a charity radio show to ask for a doll for Amber, or the money she’d been saving to buy her daughter’s Easter basket.

After two months of research, the students scheduled a trip to Georgia during spring break. They’d be meeting with Boyer, Sue Horn, Jeannie Lagle, and others. Banning wouldn’t be there until the last day. They planned to grab a bite to eat with him at the airport.

I wanted to see Boyer’s many advocates in action, so I asked the young women if I could come report on their trip. “Yes!” they said in unison.

Christina Boyer and Amber

8.

Early on a Friday morning in March 2019, I met Jackmauh, Perret, and Porterfield at an Avis car-rental desk in the Atlanta airport. They had brought along video and audio equipment, their laptops, and copious notebooks filled with the details they’d amassed. They had several three-ring binders thick with meticulously tabbed and indexed documents. Jackmauh also had a bag stuffed with ski gear—they’d all cut spring vacation short to be here.

The students wanted to make it to Carrollton, an hour’s drive from Atlanta, before the county clerk’s office closed for the day. They had to make a pit stop at one point to talk to Banning and Smith on the phone. All three young women got into the back of their rental SUV, connected a cell phone to the vehicle’s Bluetooth audio system, and set up a video camera to film themselves while they took the call. Their class, I learned, required that they document their quest along with the details of Boyer’s case. They’d be getting B-roll of various sites—the trailer where Amber died, the hospital Boyer and Herrin took her to, Lagle’s house—and interviewing people on camera. Maybe they’d even find David Herrin, who’d been out of prison for several years.

The call from Banning and Smith came in. Smith, speaking to the students for the first time, was kind, professional, and frank. She thanked them for being Boyer’s advocates but emphasized that, as a group, they shouldn’t work at cross-purposes. Insisting that Boyer was innocent, criticizing the law-enforcement apparatus that put her behind bars, calling out lawyers in the case for being careerist at the expense of justice—all that could get back to the parole board. Smith was worried that the exoneration effort might derail Boyer’s chances for an early release. (In an interview, Smith told me more about those odds, noting that she had other clients the parole board was likely to find more sympathetic than Boyer, and with less compelling evidence against them.)

While it is possible to pursue exoneration and parole simultaneously, fighting for early release requires that a person take some degree of responsibility for their crime. Smith had already told Banning, in a message prior to the phone call, that she’d spoken to someone familiar with Boyer’s past parole bids who had “repeatedly emphasized that the sheer number of injuries, of child protective services reports, and of witness statements of firsthand observations of Christina abusing the child will make any attempt by us to assert Christina’s innocence counterproductive. Not only will the board members not buy it, we will lose credibility in our other assertions.” Boyer could not bear to say that she murdered her daughter, but perhaps she could take responsibility in a more nuanced sense—for having limitations as a young mother, say, or for making bad choices that put Amber in harm’s way.

One way or the other, Smith said, she really needed to talk to Boyer about the situation, and that was proving difficult. She still hadn’t been added to Boyer’s call list, and she seemed frustrated that Banning and the Georgetown students had. She asked that Banning prioritize the matter the next time he spoke with Boyer.

Banning had been stunned when Smith first told him about the potential conflict between parole and exoneration. To him it was another confounding aspect of the U.S. legal system. Jackmauh, Perret, and Porterfield agreed to tread lightly while interviewing people in Carroll County. They wouldn’t say that their goal was to get Boyer exonerated; they would say only that they wanted to shine a light on the case.

To that end, the students asked, could Banning please take down the information about them from his website? They didn’t want their names associated with a class called “Making an Exoneree.” What’s more, they pointed out, he called them law students, which they weren’t.

“You aren’t legal students?” Banning asked, surprised. (In the Netherlands, as in many European countries, students can earn law degrees as undergraduates.) He promised to take their names down right away.

After the call ended, the students sped down the highway toward the Carroll County clerk’s office. They made it before closing time. Inside, Perret announced the number of the file they needed.

“That the Boyer case?” the woman behind the desk asked. She knew just where to find the boxes. She wheeled them out, and the students pulled document after document, photographing any pages they didn’t already have in their binders. When it was time to go, we brought everything back to the desk.

“I guess we aren’t the first to come here looking through these boxes,” Perret said.

“Oh no,” said the clerk. People had been in and out over the years. Perret asked the woman what she thought of the case.

“You really want to know what I think?” the clerk said.

“Of course,” Perret replied.

“I think there’s not a bad enough place in hell for that woman after what she did to that little girl.”

Boyer could not bear to say that she murdered her daughter, but perhaps she could take responsibility in a more nuanced sense—for having limitations as a young mother, say.

The students had done a diligent and discerning job going through the case files, and they were cool and collected when talking to sources. I admired their fighting spirit and sometimes found myself forgetting that I wasn’t part of their team. It was also easy to lose sight of the fact that they were working on a class assignment that would come to an end that May.

Only when they went looking for David Herrin did their relative youth peek out. Their class had access to a private investigator, who had found Herrin’s address. The young women hemmed and hawed over what to do. Should they call first? Or would that spook him? Should they just go over there? But was that safe?

“I feel like if a bunch of young women showed up,” Porterfield said, pausing to look at me, a woman 15 years her senior, before continuing, “or youthful women, he wouldn’t be so intimidated.”

They decided to knock on his door. We pulled up to a sweet little cottage with a well-mowed lawn. Porterfield and I stayed in the car while Perret and Jackmauh walked up to the house. They knocked. Herrin—unmistakably him, based on the photographs and news clips we’d all seen—poked his head out the door. Perret and Jackmauh had called us and put us on speaker so that we could hear what transpired. They introduced themselves and asked if he’d be willing to talk.

“Better not,” Herrin said and closed the door.

The students were all jitters as they drove back down the dirt road that led to the highway. They hadn’t gotten anything, but they’d met him. Can you believe it? He was free, living his life in a house near a lake, while Boyer was still in jail. (My own attempts to contact Herrin later were unsuccessful.)

Jackmauh’s 22nd birthday happened to be during the trip, and we went out to dinner with Lagle at her favorite restaurant in town, a Hawaiian-themed place with an extensive pan-Asian menu and elaborate cocktails with colorful umbrellas. The waiters knew Lagle’s name, her favorite table, and her signature drink.

During the meal, Lagle admitted that she and Banning had had something of a falling out. He saw himself as Boyer’s savior, but Lagle felt that he’d just breezed into town and taken over.

“Men,” she said.

Their argument centered on the fact that Banning had taken Boyer’s personal journals to the Netherlands with him, so that he could photograph them in his studio. Lagle didn’t like that, even though Boyer had given him permission. (“It’s like nothing was ever secret in my life,” Boyer told me. “I feel like I need to be as transparent as possible for the people trying to help me.”) Still, Lagle believed it was a violation of privacy. According to her, after much back and forth, Banning exploded. He was staying at Lagle’s house when it happened, and they were downstairs in his apartment’s kitchen. He slammed a spoon he was holding into the sink. Banning said he was tired of hearing about how long Lagle had known Boyer. Lagle said she was tired of his self-importance.

“Do you know how many thousands of people will see these pictures?” Banning demanded.

Lagle wasn’t impressed by the prospect. Nor was she intimidated by that spoon. In her view, the journals were supposed to be waiting for Boyer when she got out of prison. They would help her finally write her book, the one she and Lagle had long ago planned together. At dinner, Lagle made a point of noting that she hadn’t finished the book herself. “That’s how much I respect her to make her own decisions,” she said.

The argument suggested that sometimes, somehow, helping a person whose life is on the line can become a zero-sum game. I asked her what it felt like to see people come in and out of Boyer’s life. “It’s always been that way,” Lagle said. “I’m the only person on the planet—on the planet!—who has been around all this time.”

The Georgia Department of Corrections wouldn’t grant the Georgetown students, or me, permission to visit Boyer in person, stating that she was “not eligible” to receive visitors. It provided no other details. Still, Boyer called several times a day to learn about the students’ progress, thanking them profusely each time. “Y’all are doing such a good job,” she said.

The students decided to find Amber’s grave and leave flowers on Boyer’s behalf. We loaded up in their SUV and put Boyer on Bluetooth so they could talk to her. She stayed on the line as we made our way across town. “It’s weird, in a way,” she said at one point, “because I have been here for so many years waiting for someone to care. I had friends who cared, don’t get me wrong, but they couldn’t do anything apart from care.” Now, with Banning and the Georgetown students and her parole attorney, “it’s like, things are finally moving. It’s hard to believe that there are really people out there working on my behalf.”

The final morning of the trip, before heading back to the airport, the students arranged a meeting with the former detective on the case, Mike Thomas, at his home. To their surprise, he also invited over his friend and longtime partner Detective Captain Mike Bradley, who had worked the case, too. Perret was carrying a tote that read “Fighting to End Rape Culture.” Before we went into the house, she turned it against her body so the message wouldn’t show. We settled into the living room with the two men, Thomas’s wife, and their teenage daughter.

“You all from the Innocence Project or something like that?” our host asked. No, no, the students assured him—they were just undergrads learning about the criminal-justice system and trying to shed light on Boyer’s case.

The locals talked for more than an hour. They described how they’d never get the image of that little girl’s body out of their minds. Thomas’s wife remembered the funeral, how many people were there. Wasn’t it strange, the students pointed out, that both Boyer and Herrin went to prison when it was never clear who did what—if anything—to Amber? The cause of death was never pinpointed, either. Both Thomas and Bradley said they felt like Herrin got a lesser conviction and a shorter sentence because Boyer had already submitted her Alford plea. Otherwise, they thought he probably would have been found guilty of murder.

“One of them was responsible,” Bradley said, leaning back into his chair. “The way I see it, both of them went to jail, and that’s justice.”

“I looked at her as more guilty,” Thomas said, “because she was her mother. She was the person on earth who was supposed to protect her.”

The Georgetown students on their way to visit Amber’s grave.

9.

Not long after they left Carroll County, the students got a call from Boyer. She was in tears. A parole consultant had come to see her to prep for her hearing. Boyer left the meeting with a misunderstanding: She thought that she would have to admit to hitting Amber on the head before she died. Boyer didn’t want to say that. Through sobs, she begged the students to contact Smith for her. The young women did so promptly. “We basically sat, listened, and tried to calm her down,” they wrote in an email to Smith, “reminding her that she doesn’t need to make an immediate decision right now and that it would be best to speak to you before she makes a concrete decision regarding how she’s going to approach the parole board. She wanted us to tell you that she’d like to speak with you over the phone as soon as possible.”

Smith, who was on Boyer’s call list by then, cleared up the confusion and also forwarded the email to Banning to keep him in the loop. Banning fired off an angry missive to the students. “I have a very high opinion of your activities but there is one thing I absolutely do not understand,” he wrote. “Is it really that hard to just cc me when sending those emails to Victoria? Do you have a reason not to trust me and my involvement? Maybe you can check with your professor Marc how he came to hear of her case in the first place?”

In our exchanges, Banning and I had talked at length about what informed his quest to free Boyer, why it mattered so much to him. We had talked less about what would happen if she ever won her freedom. In one conversation, he admitted that there could be a personal cost. “If she does get out, that will be very complicated for me, in the sense that, of course I will be happy,” Banning told me, “but what will I do? I’ve dedicated so much time to this, it’s become a part of my life.” In a later interview, he elaborated: “I don’t know what I can contribute if she doesn’t get out.” That scenario, Banning said, “is far worse.”

Often, while sitting in my office flipping through Bill Roll’s book about Boyer or her correspondence with John Riggles, perching on Jeannie Lagle’s couch or taking notes in Sue Horn’s parlor, I felt like I was brushing up against a sinister current of energy. True believers say it’s like that when you walk past a ghost. My stomach would go queasy. Maybe it was the grisly details of the case, or the peculiar attention Boyer attracted, or conflicted feelings about my own small role in her story, or something else entirely.

The laws of physics say it’s unlikely Tina Resch ever moved objects with her mind. Yet Christina Boyer does have the ability to draw people into her orbit and keep them there, at least for a while. They are certain they’re the ones, finally, to prove her innocence. And why not? The U.S. justice system—so unblind, so obtuse, so cruel—seems to demand intervention. Projects like Making a Murderer, true-crime podcasts, and internet forums for amateur detectives are all reactions to alarming trends, including the more than 2,500 exonerations documented since 1989, no doubt a small fraction of the total number of wrongful convictions on the books. Who doesn’t want the wheel of history to turn in the direction of what’s right? Who doesn’t want to play a role in breaking the back of a ruthless institution, to achieve a moral victory that carries a particular kind of democratic power?

So strong is this impulse, and so vast is the number of people the law has wronged, that journalists pitching stories about injustice—myself included—routinely hear some version of the same response: But what makes this case special? As a question of justice, all that should matter is whether Boyer is innocent. But if her case is “special,” it’s because so many people have decided that it is.

It’s nice, isn’t it—to believe? That a teenage girl can shatter a plate on the floor by force of sheer will. That a person’s hope can sustain them through endless disappointments. That in the end the truth will prevail. That bystanders with a conscience can set a grieving mother free. That there’s no harm, as Banning said, in trying.

What’s harder to face, and painful to believe, is that doing good can collide with the limitations of human nature, and that sometimes harsh systems just don’t yield.

All that should matter is whether Boyer is innocent. But if her case is “special,” it’s because so many people have decided that it is.

The students dressed up for the screening of their documentary about Boyer. So did Lagle, who flew in for the May 2019 event, held in a packed auditorium on the Georgetown campus. Lagle wore smart white slacks under a bright red trench coat. Banning couldn’t make it from Europe; he sent his regrets.

The plan was to patch Boyer in via one of the student’s cell phones; after the screening, Perret would carry the phone on stage and hold it up to the microphone so she could address the audience. Boyer was nearly breathless at the idea that so many people were there, eager to hear her story. She was also nervous, but Perret encouraged her. “Just speak from your heart,” she said. “Don’t worry, they just want to hear from you, no matter what you say.”

The event ran behind schedule, forcing Boyer to dial in several times. Every 15 minutes, she got disconnected—prison policy limits the time inmates get for a single call. Finally, it was her turn to speak. “This has been an incredibly humbling experience for me,” Boyer said in her remarks. “I can’t believe how many hours they worked. They worked more hours than any one of my attorneys did.” If she felt nervous, she didn’t show it. But when she talked about how much she missed Amber, she broke into tears. “Thank you all for coming tonight and for listening to my story,” she said.

Later that month, the Georgetown students took their final exams. Porterfield and Jackmauh graduated; Perret had another semester left but had already been accepted early into Georgetown Law School. Victoria Smith submitted Boyer’s latest parole application. It was summer, and then it was fall. Boyer’s parole decision was supposed to be announced in September, but the month came and went without news. October passed, then November. “I try to keep busy,” Boyer told me. She also prayed.

Finally, in early January, I heard from the Georgetown students that Boyer had been denied parole. At the time, they didn’t know why. Turns out, the parole board’s explanation was the same as before: “insufficient amount of time served to date given the nature and circumstances of your offenses(s).” Boyer would be eligible again in November 2020, but Smith was no longer on retainer. For the time being, she’d done all she could do.

Banning soldiered on, committing to several gallery exhibitions of his work on Boyer’s story. He was still planning a book, which would include Boyer’s written responses to the photos of her he’d taken. “I see her as a full collaborator,” he told me.

Meanwhile, Banning felt like the students had abandoned the case. They didn’t want him—or anyone—to think that; they talked about maybe finding an attorney to look over the files, someone who could assess Boyer’s options. They didn’t plan to share their documentary widely, not if it might conflict with Boyer’s future parole bid.

What did Boyer think? After I learned the parole news, I wrote her an email. She didn’t respond for several weeks, and I began to worry, remembering the time she’d cut her throat. When she finally replied, Boyer said that she was devastated, of course, but that she was also working hard to stay positive. “I’m trying to keep busy, keep focused on my future life outside of prison walls,” she wrote.

Plus, she’d gotten some surprising good news. “The same time I found out about the denial,” she wrote, “Jan [Banning] located my birth family!” Since then, she’d been in touch with her birth sister via phone and letters. Her mother, an addict, had died of kidney failure years before. “All I have left is a younger sister, her daughter, my niece and grand niece,” Boyer said. She was thrilled, particularly when she learned that she hadn’t been the only one searching. “It turns out my sister had been looking for me for years!” she said.

Once again, Boyer hoped that her life’s next chapter would be better than what came before. At the same time, an old, unknown chapter was opening wide. Members of her birth family joined the Free Tina Boyer Facebook group. “I just want to make a post and thank everybody for the love and support!” wrote her niece, whose name is Ashley. “My mother … has been looking for christina for years now. We are so blessed and lucky to now have her in our lives. I appreciate everything you guys have done to help her during her incarceration! I can see this page is so full of love for my aunt and it warms my heart. Me, my mother, and my daughter are excited to meet her❤❤.”

“That’s the latest twist to this crazy life of mine,” Boyer told me. Getting to know her newfound family helped her pass the time. It gave her something to look forward to. And who knew what kind of deliverance—of spirit or body—they might bring?

More from The Atavist Magazine


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

“Your Honor, Can I Tell the Whole Story?”

neworleanse-1574968639-33.jpg

“Your Honor, Can I Tell the Whole Story?”

A murder in New Orleans, a trial that lasted less than a day, and the lives they entangled for the next three decades.

By Nick Chrastil

Published in partnership with The Lens.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 97


Nick Chrastil is a writer based in New Orleans. He has written for Slate, Roads & Kingdoms, ThinkProgress, The Lens, and other outlets.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Photographer: Akasha Rabut

Published in November 2019. Design updated in 2021.

neworleanse-1574904581-28.jpg
The address where Greggie Jones was killed, 4639 Wilson Ave.

The historian, in his analysis and description, is no longer a partisan. He has no stake in the outcome. He can now embrace the whole of the event, see it from all sides. What impresses him most are the latent limitations within which everyone involved was obliged to act; the inescapable boundaries of action; the blindness of the actor—in a word, the tragedy of the event.

—Bernard Bailyn

It is not a heroic tale. It is about New Orleans.

—Kent B. Germany

1. The Crime

Guns were on everyone’s mind. In January 1987, New Orleans’s Times-Picayune ran a story in its lifestyle section with a picture of a hand gripping a revolver, hovering over a map of the city. The headline posed a question: “Should You Get a Gun?”

A sense of unease overwhelmed New Orleans—journalist Nicholas Lemann, a distressed native, lamented that the city’s “supreme confidence about itself seemed to be truly shaken.” White people had left New Orleans in droves after Ruby Bridges desegregated William Frantz Elementary in 1960. Many of them went to first-ring suburbs like Metairie, where former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke would eventually win a statehouse seat. The oil bust had decimated the economy. Louisiana’s unemployment rate was the highest in the nation—one in eight people were out of work. To save money, New Orleans mayor Sidney Barthelemy laid off 1,100 municipal employees and put the rest on a four-day workweek. The war on drugs had replaced the war on poverty. Mandatory punishment for distribution of heroin was a life sentence. To relieve overcrowding at Orleans Parish Prison, the sheriff set up tents in a nearby park to serve as makeshift cells.¹ Neighbors complained that police radios were interfering with their TV signals.

[1] In 1974, the jail housed an average of 800 prisoners per day. By 1987, the number was up to 3,800.

The Times-Picayune’s gun feature offered readers advice for dealing with their existential anxiety, courtesy of the New Orleans Police Department. “Males, females, young people, the elderly, they’re all talking about guns,” an NOPD officer told the newspaper. “There are a lot of ladies who say they’re in a position they’ve never been in in their life. They’re frightened in their houses, they’re frightened in their cars.” The paper explained where people could attend weapons-training courses. A sidebar with a list of “Things to Consider” encouraged potential gun owners to ask themselves, “Are you committed to using a gun? Can you shoot someone?” If a reader wanted to buy a firearm, the police recommended any name-brand .38 revolver “because it is simplest to load and use, and gets the job done.”

Susan Wolfe, a resident of the affluent Lakeview neighborhood, had a .38 Smith & Wesson blue steel snub-nose five-shot revolver. A medical student at Louisiana State University, Wolfe came home on the afternoon of April 28, 1987, to find her back window open. Someone had climbed inside and thrown her belongings about. In addition to her JVC portable radio, the intruder had taken her gun. The police who came to the scene recovered no physical evidence left by the perpetrator. At Wolfe’s request, a crime-lab unit dusted for fingerprints. None were found.

“Are you committed to using a gun? Can you shoot someone?” 

That night, Wolfe’s stolen .38 was used to shoot a man named Greggie Jones. Police found Jones in the yard of his house at 4639 Wilson Ave. in the neighborhood of New Orleans East. He was wearing a brown checked shirt and a hat. His bicycle was lying nearby. He’d been shot twice and was gasping for breath. One bullet had entered the back side of his right wrist and shattered the tip of the radius bone. A second bullet had entered the right side of his chest. It went through his heart and into his spine. An officer bandaged Jones’s chest wound, then an ambulance drove him two and half miles to Methodist Hospital. There, Jones was pronounced dead.

Back on Wilson Avenue, police took statements from Jones’s neighbors, all potential eyewitnesses. Lester Hill said that he was sitting on his steps across the street when he heard gunshots. Hill saw a gray car, possibly a Ford Pinto, parked in front of Jones’s home, and a black man wearing a beige shirt and dark pants. The man was carrying a gun, which Hill described as “shiny in color.” The suspect walked from the yard and got into the passenger seat of the gray car. Another man was behind the wheel. The pair drove away, turning onto a dirt road that led to the Pecan Grove Apartments on Chef Menteur Highway. Hill did not know either of the men, but he told the police that he would be able to identify the one with the gun.

Jones’s brother Eddie lived next door, and he’d also heard shots. When he looked outside, he saw his brother lying on the ground. Down the street, about a block away, Eddie saw a black man heading toward the highway. Kenneth Walker, who lived at 4648 Wilson Ave., said that he heard shots but didn’t see anyone or anything of note.

The most important witness would prove to be Jones’s live-in girlfriend, Vanessa Causey. She wasn’t home when he was shot. She told police that she’d gone out to look for Jones earlier in the evening and was walking back when she heard gunfire. As she approached the house, Causey saw a black man in a dark shirt and beige hat leaving the yard. She claimed that she recognized the man: His name was Willie, and he’d gotten into an argument with Jones earlier that day. Causey didn’t provide the suspect’s full name.

She described Willie as approximately five foot six and 185 pounds, “walking toward her direction,” according to the police report. “After that, unknown.”

neworleanse-1574907989-83.jpg
New Orleans Parish Prison, where Erin Hunter was held after his arrest.

2. The Cop

Donald Hoyt was the homicide detective first assigned to investigate the murder. In his supplemental report, written the day after the crime, he noted that it was obvious “that the victim had been dealing in drugs.” Inside Jones’s house, Hoyt found evidence of crack cocaine use: freebasing pipes and baking powder. Police also removed 16 joints and two syringes from Jones’s clothes when they arrived at the crime lab to be catalogued as evidence. The autopsy report noted that Jones had “old and recent venipunctures of the right arm.” When the toxicology test came back, it showed that Jones had cocaine and angel dust in his system.

A black man who did drugs had been shot, probably by another black man, possibly because of drugs—that was about as far as Hoyt got with his investigation. A month after he was assigned to the case, he retired. He hadn’t been able to locate the witnesses for follow-up interviews. The case was going cold when it was handed off to detective Jacklean Davis.

[2] In 1973, a black officer filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in NOPD’s staffing practices. At the time, NOPD had fewer than 100 black officers on a force totaling some 1,300. After a settlement was reached, white officers filed a reverse-discrimination suit.

Davis was an anomaly: She was the first black female homicide detective in NOPD history.² On her first day in the division, some of her colleagues put dog shit in her desk drawer. They glued her belongings to her desk and hung up pictures of Aunt Jemima. “Everybody from the South knew who Aunt Jemima was,” Davis said in an interview. “She’s considered a house nigger.” Once, when Davis’s daughter called the office looking for her, she was advised, “Nigger, don’t call anymore. That bitch doesn’t work here.”

Davis’s life experiences up to that point may have helped her endure the cruelties of her fellow murder police. A profile in Ebony magazine recounted her difficult biography: When she was three years old, her father died in a car accident. A few years later, Davis, along with her younger brother, went to live with her great-aunt and uncle. The aunt was a sex worker who ran a boarding house for merchant marines on Baronne Street in New Orleans’s Central City, not far from the Mississippi River. The uncle was a sailor who was home only a few weeks out of the year. Starting when Davis was eight years old, he used those respites to molest her. She lived in constant fear when he was around. When she was nine or ten, Davis was also raped by one of her aunt’s boarders. She didn’t tell anyone at the time. “I enclosed all the guilt,” she told Ebony.

neworleanse-1574908526-92.jpg
Jacklean Davis, as featured in Ebony magazine. (Via Google Books

When she was 14, her abusive uncle died of cancer. Three years later, her aunt, a consistent source of love and support, passed away. Around the same time, Davis gave birth to her daughter.

Like opposing magnetic forces to the hardships of her life, ambition and persistence propelled Davis forward. She graduated high school and enrolled in college. She got a job as a transit clerk. She took the civil service exam and failed. She took it a second time and failed again. She took it twice more and failed. On her fifth try she passed and went to the police academy. In 1979, she started as a patrol officer. Davis worked her way up to the city’s vice squad, where her childhood observations of the habits and postures of sex workers made her valuable as an undercover operative. She claimed that a magistrate judge once said to her, “With your ass, I’d solicit you.”

From vice, Davis moved over to narcotics and eventually to rape investigations. “Each rape case was like a counseling session to me,” she told Ebony. Davis excelled—she had a 100 percent clearance rate by the time she left the division—but her record didn’t guarantee respect when she transferred to homicide at the age of 30. Once again she had something to prove. “Every case that I got, I was looked at under a microscope,” Davis told a Knight-Ridder reporter. “My biggest accomplishment, I consider, is not cracking under pressure.”

Davis was among the cops who responded to the scene of Greggie Jones’s murder, but there is no record of her speaking with witnesses that night. She officially took over the case on July 1, 1987, a few months into her homicide tenure. She reached out to the key witnesses, including Lester Hill, who’d said the night of the murder that he could identify the man he saw carrying a gun. Davis couldn’t find Hill, and he was never interviewed again. On July 9, however, Vanessa Causey finally answered her phone.

According to Davis, Causey reiterated that she knew the man she’d seen leaving the shooting, the one she’d called Willie. His actual name was Erin Hunter. “Causey stated [that on] the night of the fatal shooting incident, she was very traumatized and couldn’t remember Hunter’s name,” Davis wrote in her case report. Causey reportedly told Davis that she’d run into Hunter several days after the killing. He’d asked her where she was living because his girlfriend wanted to get in touch with her. Causey said that she gave Hunter a fake address and, fearing for her life, fled the city for a couple of months, which was why detective Hoyt hadn’t been able to reach her. According to Davis’s report, Causey had “agonized over the fact of Hunter not being arrested for the murder.” Now she was ready to talk.

Davis wrote in her report that, after her conversation with Causey, she searched for Hunter’s name in the NOPD’s computer system. She discovered that he’d been arrested that very morning for possession of stolen property. Tipped off by a man who claimed to have sold Hunter a stolen television set, cops had shown up at Hunter’s door with a search warrant. When no one answered, they entered through a front window, and the officers found Hunter in the bathroom. (Hunter told me that he willingly let the cops in.) They handcuffed him and recovered the stolen TV, along with several guns. One was a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver. Records showed that it belonged to Susan Wolfe and had been reported stolen in April.

A report from the NOPD ballistics division dated July 15—less than a week after Davis spoke to Causey—states that Wolfe’s gun fired the bullets found in Jones’s body. The next day, Davis met with Causey and showed her a photographic lineup. Causey identified Hunter as the man she’d seen at the crime scene. That evening, a judge issued an arrest warrant for Hunter, who had made bail after being detained for possessing stolen goods. The new charge was murder, and it landed him behind bars indefinitely.

Davis hadn’t interviewed Hunter. She never would. When asked why during the reporting of this article, she said that she didn’t often speak to homicide suspects. “I didn’t have to talk to him,” she said of Hunter. “The crime lab said he was found in possession of a weapon used in a homicide, so it was his obligation to tell his defense attorney how he came to have that gun.”

With an eyewitness and a ballistics match, it seemed likely that Davis would clear the case, continuing her unlikely run as one of New Orleans’s best detectives. The investigation into Jones’s murder also happened to connect to one of Davis’s earlier successes. When she was a rape detective, she helped put a man named Melvin Williams away for 50 years. Williams, for his part, maintained his innocence. The victim in the case was Vanessa Causey.

neworleanse-1574908941-10.jpg
Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse, where Hunter was tried.

3. The Witness

The Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse stands on the corner of Tulane Avenue and S. Broad Avenue, its southeastern facade bearing a quote from John Adams: “This is a government of laws, not of men.” In that building, in 1987, determinations of guilt and innocence were forged in a dark furnace of history as unwieldy as it was punitive. The institutions meant to ensure due process, conferring legitimacy with badges, robes, reports, dockets, legalese, and conspicuous whiteness, were undermined by incompetence, disinterest, and contempt. Truth was replaced with convenience, investigation with expediency. Lives, particularly black ones, were often treated as expendable.

Causey entered the courthouse on September 16. She’d led a hard life. In addition to the alleged rape, she’d struggled with addiction. According to several friends and acquaintances whom investigators later interviewed—some of whom also spoke to me for this story—finding ways to procure drugs was the organizing principle of Causey’s life. She set up people for Jones to rob, including drug dealers. “She was that type of person, when she get high, she don’t give a damn,” a person close to Causey told me on condition of anonymity. “‘Get whatever I gotta get to get high, get mine the best way I can.’ And that was her motto, which was a bad concept.”

When Causey appeared before the grand jury, there were new details in her story, ones she hadn’t told Davis or the cops who’d responded to the scene of Jones’s murder. She testified, for example, that she’d seen a man in a white cap get into a gray Ford Pinto, like the one that Lester Hill, Jones’s neighbor who’d never been re-interviewed, claimed to have seen. Causey told the jury that at first she couldn’t see the man’s face, but when she did, she knew it was Hunter. His mother lived in her neighborhood, and he had previously dated her sister, who Causey claimed once heard Hunter describe himself as a hit man. (There is no record of the police interviewing Causey’s sister.)

Causey also said that Hunter sold cocaine and had once been robbed at a local hotel. That incident, Causey implied, could explain his motive for murdering her boyfriend: Jones knew who was responsible for the robbery but wouldn’t tell Hunter, because Jones didn’t think it was his place to get involved.

Causey said that she’d spoken “casually” with the police on the night of the murder but didn’t identify Hunter. “They asked me did I see who done it, and I told them no, because I didn’t see him shoot him,” she said. “I didn’t want to think he did it.” Why, then, had she given the police the name Willie? Causey said that she’d heard someone call Hunter that before. Causey also claimed that she’d contacted an investigator at the district attorney’s office, a man named Anthony Radosti, with information about the murder, then called detective Davis. Radosti’s name wasn’t in Davis’s case report; in a letter sent several years later to Hunter, Radosti would say that he had no recollection of being involved. Meanwhile, Causey’s testifying that she had called Davis contradicted the detective’s own account of initiating contact on July 9.    

Truth was replaced with convenience, investigation with expediency. Lives, particularly black ones, were often treated as expendable.

“Even though I didn’t see him fire the shots,” Causey told the grand jury, referring to Hunter, “it was in my heart, you know, that he did it, and I got on my knees and I asked God, I said, ‘Well, if he’s not the person who did it, remove these feelings from my heart,’ you know? And those feelings haven’t been removed, and I knew God would have answered my prayers, because I have faith and trust in Him.”

The grand jury ruled to indict.

Hunter was in lockup at Orleans Parish Prison and assigned a lawyer from the woefully underfunded and understaffed Orleans Indigent Defender Program.³ His counsel hadn’t visited him or told Hunter that Causey was the person who’d identified him as a killer. In fact, Hunter didn’t even know that it was Jones he was accused of murdering. “Hell, I don’t know if the guy was black or white, viennesse or cuban,” he wrote in a letter to his attorney four months after his arrest and two after his indictment. “Do I have a right to know what in the hell is going on?”

[3] At the time, New Orleans did not have a dedicated office of the public defender. In 1993, this was deemed to be unconstitutional. Still, an office wasn’t created until the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It has struggled with deficits and a backlog of cases ever since. 

In the same letter, Hunter demanded that his lawyer leave the case. A new indigent defender named John Dolan took over. Hunter’s frustration and distrust persisted. He wrote letters begging Dolan to take his case seriously and wondering if the attorney was planning to sell him out to the DA’s office somehow.

Hunter learned the basics of the case against him at a motions hearing held in February 1988. Causey failed to show up. “We have been trying to get in touch with her, we have been unable to,” a prosecutor told the judge. When Hunter heard Causey’s name said aloud, however, he was relieved. He knew Causey through her sister and because he’d sold her cocaine a few times. He’d heard that she could be trouble, sometimes getting thrown out of her mother’s house. Still, if she was the state’s main witness, there must have been a mistake. When Causey saw that he was being charged for Jones’s murder, she would confirm that he hadn’t done it. “I thought for sure she was going to exonerate me,” Hunter told me.

neworleanse-1574910482-15.jpg
The home where Jones and Vanessa Causey lived has been razed.

4. The Evidence

After the hearing, Hunter wrote to Dolan demanding to know more about the gun that had been matched to the bullets in Jones’s body. “You can’t tell me what gun was involved in the murder, or is they going to use the gun as evidence,” Hunter wrote. A few weeks later, he wrote again. “You keep telling me the gun isn’t a problem, it’s the eyewitness we have to worry about,” Hunter said. “Mr. Dolan, you don’t have to worry about anything, I’m the one who have to worry.… I told you the last time we talked (Feb. 5, 1988) I wanted to see this gun but you keep throwing in my face this gun don’t mean nothing.”

Hunter’s adamancy came from the fact that stolen property had been part of his livelihood before his arrest. In addition to selling drugs, Hunter worked as a fence—someone who moves stolen goods in exchange for cash and drugs. If he knew which one of the guns taken from his home by police had been used in the killing, maybe he could clear things up. He could say who he got it from and when. If he’d purchased the weapon after Jones’s death, wouldn’t that point to his innocence? In addition, after Hunter bailed himself out of jail following his arrest on the stolen-goods charge, he’d returned to the same house where the police had seized his guns. When the police came looking for him again, he was right where they’d found him before.  “If I would have known any one of those guns was involved with a murder, I would have took off somewhere,” Hunter told me. “Went to Florida, California, somewhere.”

According to Hunter, the state gave him written information regarding the type of gun used to kill Jones about two weeks before his trial, but he couldn’t positively identify the weapon without seeing it. He later wrote in a legal filing that the “court must be mindful that Petitioner was a fencer for two years and has been in contact with well over 100 guns, especial 38s.” Hunter finally saw the gun at his trial, which took place in July 1988, a full year after his arrest. The prosecution introduced the Smith & Wesson into evidence, and Dolan asked Hunter about it on the stand. Hunter was eager to reveal what he knew.

“Could you tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury how you became in possession of said weapon?” Dolan asked him.

When he answered, Hunter turned his attention to the judge. “Your honor,” he said, “can I tell the whole story?”

“Just listen to my question,” Dolan instructed. “How did you get the gun? Did you steal it? Did you buy it?”

“I bought all my stolen property.”

“You bought it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“This particular weapon, do you know who you bought it from?”

“Yes, I bought it from a guy named Willie.”

“A guy named Willie?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know his last name?”

“Willie Harris.”

“Did you give Willie a bill of sale for that weapon?”

“No, sir. It’s like collateral.”

“When did you buy it?”

“I bought it sometime in June”—that is, several weeks after the murder.

Hunter denied that anyone had ever called him Willie, as Causey claimed on the stand. She’d shown up for court this time. It was Hunter’s word against hers—none of the other witnesses were asked if Willie was Hunter’s nickname.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Luke Walker returned to the matter of Willie Harris. Hunter’s use of that name in his testimony was the first time, as far as the record showed, that it had been linked to the case. Willie Harris was a real person. He was also dead. He’d been murdered in the Ninth Ward in July 1987. Whether or not Hunter knew this by the time of his trial isn’t clear. (Harris’s killing was never solved.)

“Willie Harris, this fellow you bought this gun from, do you know him?” Walker asked.

“Yeah, Willie Harris,” Hunter replied.

“Where does Willie stay?”

“He stays in the Ninth Ward, I think he stays with his parents on Almonaster Street”— which was indeed where Harris’s family lived.

“You subpoenaed him, you got him in here, don’t you, because Willie is back there, right?” Walker asked, knowing that no Willie Harris was in the courtroom.

“No, I don’t know where Willie is.”

“You didn’t subpoena him to come and testify?” Walker continued. “Even though you know that, if convicted, you will go to jail for the rest of your life, you didn’t bring Willie, the man who can clear you?”

“You never told me what gun it was,” Hunter responded. “This is my first time ever seeing the gun.”

neworleanse-1574910549-1.jpg
Judge Frank Shea once held six felony trials in a single day; he claimed it was a world record.

5. The Judge

At times, the trial reached points of near incoherence. Dolan, who waived his opening statement, called the location of the murder Milton Street, not Wilson Avenue, confusing Hunter on the stand. When Causey introduced still more new information—that she’d seen a gun in Hunter’s hand at the murder scene, that her brother was with her at the time—the defense didn’t ask why her story kept changing. (Her brother was not called to testify.) When she said that neither she nor Jones had used drugs, Dolan didn’t bring up the toxicology report showing that, in the deceased’s case at least, this was demonstrably false. He didn’t press her when she said that she’d called Jacklean Davis about the case and not the other way around, as Davis recounted on the stand. Given their previous association during the rape investigation, which was noted in the trial record, could the discrepancy have pointed to something other than an error of memory?  

The defense’s witnesses did little to help Hunter’s case. A man named Earl Phillips was called to testify that Hunter had been at his house watching his band practice at the time of the murder. But when he was asked about a specific date from more than a year prior, Phillips fumbled under oath: He managed to convey only that Hunter was often at his house. Stewart Mitchell, the man police claimed had tipped them off to Hunter’s possession of stolen goods, was supposed to undermine the prosecution by stating that it had offered him a deal on a charge he was facing if he testified against Hunter. On the stand, Mitchell couldn’t recall the name of the person who’d supposedly made the offer. He said he knew nothing about the murder.

The whole trial took place in a single morning. For Judge Frank Shea, the pace was a source of pride—indeed, it was the essential feature of his judicial identity. Shea had been on the bench for 25 years, and his breakneck docket had earned him a statewide reputation. In 1975, he personally presided over almost a third as many trials (113) as the rest of the judges in Louisiana’s 63 parishes combined (377). In 1983, a man named Keith Messiah was given the death penalty after a trial in Shea’s court that lasted one day, including jury selection and sentencing. (After a lengthy appeals process, Messiah’s sentence was reduced to life in prison.) In 1984, Shea set what he insisted was a world record, holding six felony trials in a single day. When asked about the feat by a reporter, Shea responded, “We have a legal phrase, res ipsa loquitur. It means, ‘The thing speaks for itself.’”

[4] Calvin Duncan, George Toca, and Elvis Brooks were among the people sentenced to life without parole in Shea’s court. The Innocence Project New Orleans later brought claims challenging their guilt; the men took plea deals and were released from prison.

Admirers said that Shea’s style was efficient—the state House of Representatives even passed a resolution commending him for “conducting speedy criminal trials.” But detractors, including Shea’s 1972 election opponent Salvatore Panzeca, called it disgraceful. “When a judge boasts that he tries cases in record time, his allegiance is not to justice, but to the clock,” Panzeca told the Times-Picayune. “When the judge pressures the attorneys of poor and uneducated defendants to plead their clients guilty, so as to keep his docket clear and save himself the trouble of having to hear their cases, he assaults the Bill of Rights and profanes our heritage of law.” After polling well behind Shea in the primary, Panzeca dropped out of the race.

The speed at which cases moved through Shea’s courtroom was a product of his impatience and temperament. He chain-smoked cigarettes on the bench; news reports described him as presiding while engulfed in a cloud. He was known to berate lawyers and clerks who didn’t move fast enough. Late in his career, which lasted until 1997, Shea pulled a gun on a shackled defendant in his courtroom. He later told a reporter that there’d been nothing to worry about, because he was a terrible shot and “couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass-fiddle.” (Shea died in 1998.)

[5] Shea was preceded in death by members of his immediate family. In 1981, his 11-year-old son drowned in a canal, and his body washed into Lake Pontchartrain. Six years later, Shea’s house caught fire. He was rescued; his wife and daughter died. The incident report lists the cause of the fire as “careless smoking.”

At Hunter’s trial, Shea was true to form. As a news article noted, Hunter’s testimony on his own behalf lasted “at most ten minutes.” When the prosecution concluded its cross-examination, Hunter had more he wanted to say in his defense. He wished to make clear that police had first come to his home in search of stolen property, not on suspicion of murder.

“Shut up,” Shea said. “You already testified. Now be quiet.” He ordered Hunter removed from the stand.

“Why y’all misleading these people?” were the last words Hunter was able to offer before stepping down.

The jury deliberated over a lunch break. When they came back, they found Hunter guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. An account of the trial, published in the next day’s paper, told the streamlined story that Hunter had endeavored to correct—that Causey had identified Hunter as the killer, which led the police to search Hunter’s home, where they “found his second problem, the gun.”

It wasn’t the last time Hunter would face Shea. Three years later, in September 1991, he sat on the witness stand again, arguing that he’d received ineffective assistance of counsel from Dolan. It was the latest phase of an appeals process that had ricocheted around the Louisiana courts until it landed on Shea’s docket. Shea made it clear he had no interest in retrying the case. “I don’t plan on spending the day with you,” Shea said to Hunter’s new public defender.

Shea wouldn’t allow Hunter to state for the record when he’d learned which gun was used in the murder. “Your honor,” Hunter implored, “instead of cutting me off, let me talk, please. This is my life.” Shea told him that he understood, then threatened to hold Hunter in contempt of court. “You are a defendant,” Shea said. “You don’t tell me what to do.”

Shea ruled that there was no evidence that Hunter had received ineffective counsel. Hunter appealed all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which denied his claim. He remained locked up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola—the name of the slave plantation that once occupied the land where the prison sits.

neworleanse-1574911541-10.jpg
The land where the Louisiana State Penitentiary sits was once a slave plantation called Angola.

6. The Inmate

The first time he was ever arrested, Hunter was not yet a teenager. He lived in the Ninth Ward, where his three elder brothers were in charge of minding him while their mother worked. “I guess you could say they did a poor job,” he once wrote in a letter to a lawyer. Hunter got in trouble with his friends, knocking over trash cans, stealing bikes and chickens, and breaking into wharf buildings to drive the lift machines. One day, the kids tipped a machine onto some train tracks. Hunter, still in elementary school, was arrested for criminal trespassing.  

[6] The friend, Barry Williams, was released on parole in 2018, after the Supreme Court declared juvenile life without parole unconstitutional.

A few years later, when Hunter was 13, he and two friends were implicated in a purse snatching gone wrong. When the victim, a 75-year-old woman, wouldn’t give up her belongings, an assailant hit her on the head with a pistol; three weeks later, she died from her injuries. Hunter and his friends said that they were innocent, that they hadn’t even been at the scene of the crime. While awaiting trial, Hunter stayed at a juvenile detention facility known as the Youth Study Center. In court, his teacher testified that he’d been in class at the time of the killing, and produced schoolwork to prove it. The judge dismissed Hunter’s case. His two friends, however, were tried as adults. One pled guilty to manslaughter. Another was tried, convicted, and sent to prison for life without parole at the age of 17. Hunter wouldn’t see him again until he, too, was sent to Angola.

Hunter would later trace his path into serious criminal behavior back to the boys he met at the Youth Study Center, who in his words made him “look like an angel.” After he got out, he and a friend began stealing cars from parking lots downtown by taking keys out of the booth when the parking attendant was seeing to another car. It was easy. The first vehicle they stole, in 1979, was a Ford Maverick. Hunter was 16. The boys took the cars for joyrides. They were broke, so they stole gas, too. Eventually, they traded one of the cars for a gun. It didn’t have any bullets, but they used it for holdups anyway.

Hunter’s career jacking cars and robbing people ended with a high-speed chase and his arrest. Not yet 18, he was sentenced to spend the rest of his youth in a juvenile facility, this one in Monroe, Louisiana. He got his GED and learned how to weld. He also took piano lessons. He was released at 20 and held a few odd jobs, including a stint at a factory making fish tanks. He enrolled in classes at Southern University at New Orleans. Still, he continued to have run-ins with the law. In 1985, he was charged with felony theft for using a stolen credit card to buy clothes; he spent nine months in Orleans Parish Prison.

Not long after he got out, Hunter entered the drug trade. He started out small, a few grams here and there. Then he began dealing more and enlisting other people to help him sell it. Business stopped cold when Hunter, by then in his late twenties, found himself facing the second murder charge of his life—the one that didn’t go away, no matter how hard he tried to make it. “I went on a mission to learn as much law as possible to prove my innocence,” Hunter told me in a letter.

His approach reinforced a certain irony: For people who claim to be wrongfully implicated in a crime, the same set of rules, language, and logic that they believe conspired to put them behind bars is the only thing that can get them out. At Orleans Parish Prison, back when Hunter was first awaiting trial, a fellow prisoner known as Bouncer kept a stack of attorney-filed pretrial motions that he’d collected from other prisoners. Hunter would copy them, substituting information about his own case where necessary, and then file his versions with the court. He also requested case law to read, but he didn’t understand any of it. “The courts’ legal jargon was foreign to me. I read and read and did not understand a damn thing,” he said.

He learned, though. By the time he got to Angola, Hunter had a good handle on criminal law. He even filed his own supplemental appellate brief on direct appeal, pointing out discrepancies between the trial transcript and the original police report, and arguing that he’d received poor counsel. (This brief led to the unsuccessful 1991 hearing before Judge Shea.) At Angola, Hunter took paralegal classes through Northwestern Missouri College. He had to stop when Congress repealed Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994. Undeterred, Hunter kept looking for any angle that might prove he’d been unjustly convicted. He filed public-records requests and wrote letters to anyone who could possibly shed light on his case.

neworleanse-1574916266-73.jpg
Erin Hunter as a young man. (Courtesy: Hunter family)

One person Hunter wrote to was a lawyer named Laurie White. White specialized in post-conviction work and had become an outspoken critic of longtime New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick. She voiced support for civil rights lawsuits filed by prisoners against the DA’s office and criticized Connick for his unwillingness to test DNA evidence in old cases. By 1997, she’d secured new trials for six men convicted of murder in cases where prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. White also taught legal classes at Angola. Hunter, though, wrote White a letter in 1999 for a different reason: Before becoming a defense attorney, White had been an assistant district attorney in Connick’s office. She was one of the prosecutors on the team that convicted Hunter.

White wrote back warmly. “I thought someday I would run into persons that I had prosecuted,” she told Hunter. “I am glad to see you are doing well for yourself as an inmate counsel.” White said that she’d been under the impression that Hunter’s conviction had already been reversed due to Dolan’s poor representation. She recalled that Causey had been an unreliable witness. “She disappeared several days before your trial and our investigator located her in the wee morning hours,” White wrote. She offered to help Hunter if he was continuing his legal battle. “I would be happy to assist you with an affidavit that it was my belief that [Causey] had been a drug user, or could be a drug user, as she was an extremely unreliable ‘street person’ type who insisted that her life was in danger,” White wrote. (White declined to be interviewed on the record for this story but responded to some fact-checking queries.)

Hunter’s next move was a federal appeal, during which he enlisted the help of Chris Aberle, the first and only private attorney to take his case. In 2002, a federal court denied Hunter’s petition. The ruling stated that Hunter had failed to show that the state courts were unreasonable in their rejection of his previous claims. When I spoke to Aberle, he said that he barely remembered Hunter’s case—it was more than 15 years in the past. A letter that Aberle wrote in the immediate aftermath of the federal court’s decision suggested that, back then at least, he felt strongly about his client’s situation. “I have fought and am still fighting for a number of persons, who, like you, were tried unfairly,” Aberle told Hunter. “I never know if they are truly guilty or innocent but I do know that the system failed them or outright cheated them. What is particularly distressing in your case, however, is that it is one of the very few where I truly think that not only were you tried unfairly, but that in all probability, you are innocent of the crime.”

Hunter had been in prison for almost 15 years by that point; he was running out of options. Aberle told Hunter that he would refer the case to the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO). He wasn’t the only person to do so.

neworleanse-1574916369-32.jpg
Investigators spoke to people in New Orleans East who suggested that Causey was a confidential informant for the police.

7. The Inquiry

“Would you please consider handling the case of Erin Hunter?” So began a March 2002 email from Laurie White to Emily Bolton, then the director of IPNO. White said that she didn’t have any direct evidence of Hunter’s innocence, but she recalled that Causey was of “dubious character” and that Hunter’s attorney was “a walk-over, to say the least.”

“I would be very interested to help free a person that was wrongfully convicted,” White wrote, “especially if I was the convictor!” She also sent a letter to Hunter informing him of her referral. “I will, as I told you before, be as honest and forthright in any testimony that is required in your case,” White said. “I am not interested in you remaining in jail if you are in fact innocent and the prosecution was improper.”

IPNO decided to look into the case, but it was just one of many in a city swimming in dubious legal outcomes. When Tom Lowenstein joined IPNO in the fall of 2008, Hunter’s file was still in the queue of cases the organization had deemed worthy of investigation but didn’t yet have the resources to take on. IPNO volunteers at a local synagogue had begun filing records requests, but there was no legal team working Hunter’s case.

Eventually, Lowenstein was assigned to it, along with another new face at IPNO, attorney Paul Killebrew. They began their investigation by visiting the crime scene with a map that Hoyt, the initial homicide detective, had drawn. The small home on Wilson Avenue that Jones and Causey had once shared was boarded up and in disrepair, the lot where it sat overgrown. (The house has since been razed.) The attorneys paced off distances noted in the police report. “We re-created it as much as we could from the ground up,” Lowenstein said.

Soon, though, it became clear that Hunter’s best innocence claim didn’t hinge on the details of the crime scene—the crux was what might have transpired between Davis and Causey. Aberle had suggested as much in his federal appellate brief. Causey’s late identification of Hunter, on the same day he happened to be arrested on a stolen-goods charge, seemed like too much of a coincidence. Aberle proposed instead that Davis had learned that the murder weapon was discovered at Hunter’s house, then reached out to Causey based on her eyewitness statement and the two women’s prior contact. “Ms. Causey revealed that she knew of Mr. Hunter, as he used to date her sister,” Aberle wrote. “Detective Davis was, at that point, sure that she has solved the murder, notwithstanding Ms. Causey’s previous story about ‘Willie.’” Davis, Aberle continued, “brought pressure to bear on Ms. Causey to claim, if not believe,” that she’d seen Hunter at the crime scene. “Detective Davis reasoned, perhaps, that even if she were wrong about Mr. Hunter, he was a criminal regardless.”  

Aberle’s argument echoed a statement written by prosecutor Jack Peebles during Hunter’s first appeal: In a brief, Peebles argued that, “if there was an iota of evidence in the record before this court that the police had found and identified the murder weapon in this case and then used pressure on Vanessa Causey to identify the defendant as the perpetrator, a new trial should be granted.” Peebles had believed there was no such iota. For Aberle, suggesting that there could be was a legal exercise: He was presenting what he believed to be a plausible theory of the case, one that a competent attorney would have pursued but Dolan had not. “The balance of the evidence, including the police reports, other documentary evidence, and the testimony of uncalled witnesses, was kept from the jury through gross incompetence of appointed trial counsel,” Aberle wrote. (Dolan passed away in 2003.)

“I would be very interested to help free a person that was wrongfully convicted, especially if I was the convictor!”

When he was working the case in the early aughts, Aberle didn’t have concrete evidence of any wrongdoing by Causey or Davis. That was now up to Lowenstein and Killebrew to find. Immediately, there was an obstacle. In the decade after Hunter’s conviction, Causey herself had been charged with a series of crimes, including drug possession, prostitution, kidnapping, and aggravated battery. She landed behind bars, and in 2002, she died from an illness.

Lowenstein and Killebrew pieced together what they could about Causey, talking to her family, friends, and acquaintances. Some believed that Causey was right about Hunter’s guilt. The IPNO investigators talked to Greggie Jones’s brother, who said that Hunter was lying when he said under oath that he’d never met Jones—the pair hung out frequently, he said, and he’d even seen Hunter at his brother’s house. Meanwhile, Causey’s brother claimed that he’d been with her when the shooting happened, as she’d testified at trial but not initially told law enforcement. He’d never been interviewed by police or come forward with information of his own volition. He “waffled a bit,” the IPNO investigators reported, when asked if he’d actually seen Hunter at the shooting. They later concluded in a report that he “may have been at the murder scene, but his recollection has been tainted by what his sister later testified to in court.”

A few sources who spoke to IPNO had a different take, reporting that Causey was a police informant. The exact nature of her purported role was murky. “She sent so many people to jail, it’s pathetic,” one IPNO source, who described Causey as being like a little sister, told me. Another source said that he’d seen Causey get picked up in a car by none other than Jacklean Davis. The women would drive around the neighborhood for a while, then Davis would drop Causey off.

When Dolan had asked Davis at trial about her prior relationship with Causey, the detective had responded that they knew each other during “another investigation.” Dolan didn’t push the matter further. Davis was asked about Causey again during Hunter’s 1991 appeal. The defense asked if she’d had “any dealings” with Causey other than the rape case in which Causey was a victim and the investigation of Jones’s murder. “No, sir,” Davis said.

Davis told IPNO, and later confirmed to me, that Causey was at one point her confidential informant, but she was adamant that their working relationship didn’t develop until after Hunter’s trial. Only during the fact-checking phase of this story did she acknowledge that Causey had been an informant on a case prior to Jones’s murder.

Davis’s star had plummeted in the years between Hunter’s conviction and the IPNO investigation. Once named officer of the year by the New Orleans Black Organization of Police, and profiled in national magazines under headlines like “From Outcast to Supercop” (Reader’s Digest), Davis was accused of perjury in 1994. She allegedly provided conflicting accounts of her surveillance of a fellow officer under the auspices of NOPD’s internal affairs division. Criminal charges were dropped, but Davis was suspended and ultimately kicked out of internal affairs. She spent several years shuttling between police forces in various districts. She often worked night shifts and supplemented her income with a security detail at Walmart.

In 2002, Davis and a fellow officer were convicted of shaking down show promoters while working security at a party affiliated with Essence Fest, a music event held annually in New Orleans. Davis claimed that the allegations were motivated by NOPD politics. At trial, her lawyer didn’t put her on the stand to testify; he didn’t want her to have to address the old perjury charge. Davis was found guilty of extortion and sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. At the time, she told a reporter that she was frustrated that law enforcement didn’t seem to want to hear her side of the story. “My secret as an interrogator was this: I listened to people,” she said. “I wanted to hear other people’s versions of what happened.”

As it happened, Laurie White was openly sympathetic to Davis’s situation at NOPD. “She is a prime example of discrimination on the police force,” White told a reporter in 2003, following Davis’s conviction. “But with everything that happened to her, she kept silent and handled herself with a lot of class.” After Davis was released from prison in 2004, White gave her a job as a receptionist in her law office. Davis remained there until White closed her practice to become a judge. “I know a lot of prominent people,” Davis told me. “Just because I went to prison, that don’t mean anything. People know me, my integrity.”

IPNO obtained Davis’s file as a homicide detective, and it was there that Lowenstein and Killebrew found what they believed was a break: a computer printout of Hunter’s arrest record dated July 14, 1987. That was the day the ballistics examiner completed the analysis linking the Smith & Wesson .38 to Jones’s murder. What Lowenstein and Killebrew didn’t find in Davis’s file was evidence of a printout from July 9, the day that she’d always claimed she first called Causey, learned that Causey had seen Hunter at the scene, searched his name in the NOPD database, and come upon the record of his arrest that morning. Also missing from the file was any record of that conversation with Causey. Was it possible that Davis was mistaken or had lied about the timeline of what she knew and how she knew it?

Another perplexing part of the file was a computer printout of the police report about the burglary at Susan Wolfe’s home. It was dated May 26, 1987, ostensibly the date Davis pulled it from the NOPD’s computer system. What cause might she have had to print the report out a month after Jones’s murder and several weeks before taking over the case? The IPNO investigators also had questions about the case’s ballistics report. How exactly the match between Wolfe’s gun and the bullets in Jones’s body came to be made wasn’t clear. As a matter of course, the NOPD ballistics team would have compared bullets from unsolved homicides with guns seized by officers, but in this instance the turnaround was unusually fast—less than a week. The report states only that “specimen 2 were fired by specimen 1.” It does not indicate whether or not the lab tested the other guns recovered from Hunter’s home, including a second .38, listed as being among his lawful property.

Davis wrote in her case report that the two NOPD detectives who seized the weapons during Hunter’s first arrest requested that all the guns be tested. She later testified that she was the one who made the ask of the ballistics division, and that she specifically requested testing on Wolfe’s .38. “Given what we know now about the tendency of forensic examiners to reach the results desired by the requesting officers or prosecutors, it’s totally plausible that the ballistics ‘match’ in this case is not a match at all,” Killebrew wrote in an email during IPNO’s consideration of Hunter’s case. “One thing we’ve discussed doing early in the litigation of this case is to request to have the gun and bullets re-examined.”

Davis has always maintained that she performed her job to the letter of the law. She repeated this to me: Any timeline discrepancy, she argued, would have been caught by the DA’s office, and if Causey gave false testimony, it would have been exposed in the appeals process. In their report, however, the IPNO investigators claimed that Davis had “withheld … information from prosecutors and lied about the sequence of events in her own police reports and at trial.” All of which, they wrote, “deeply undermines the State’s case.”

neworleanse-1574917366-65.jpg
The main entrance to Angola.

8. The Breakdown

In a perverse way, Hunter’s industriousness as a self-educated legal expert may have been his undoing. For more than a decade after his conviction, he’d done everything by himself, exhausting the avenues available at the state level for legal relief. He’d enlisted Aberle only at the end of the road, hoping to have a better shot on federal appeal. The problem, Killebrew told me, was that courts tend to look at new evidence in isolation, often ignoring its implications with regard to previously available evidence. “It was going to be hard to get the court to see the whole picture,” Killebrew said. Moreover, if a person files a habeas petition—a claim of unjust imprisonment—in federal court and it fails, the bar for the government to consider a second petition is much higher. “This is another way in which post-conviction law is, in my mind, very, very cruel,” Killebrew said.  

[7]  It can be difficult for prisoners filing their own petitions to convince the courts to take them seriously. In 2008, a court administrator in the New Orleans suburb of Gretna revealed in a suicide note that he was responsible for unilaterally denying petitions filed by prisoners without attorneys. Writs in lower courts are supposed to be reviewed by a three-judge panel; the appeals court had violated that rule in more than 2,500 cases, each of which added a $300 filing fee to its coffers. 

IPNO takes a deliberate and cautious approach to its work. Resources are limited, and the organization litigates the cases it is most likely to win. With Hunter, there were additional considerations: For instance, were his case to go to court, it would be heard by Judge Julian Parker, whose assessment of innocence appeals was notoriously tough. In 2009, Lowenstein and Killebrew brought what they’d found to the rest of IPNO and a few outside attorneys. “The question was, OK, Tom and I have a fervent belief about what this means,” Killebrew said of their findings. “How does this play to others?”

The answer: Not great. There were a few sticking points. Even if Davis had lied or made errors in reporting the timeline of her investigation, Causey’s eyewitness statement and the gun found in Hunter’s apartment still looked bad. Some of the reviewers they presented evidence to, Killebrew said, saw “a different pathway” to the same outcome. With Causey gone, interrogating her statements and testimony was impossible. Another issue was that, while the July 14 printout proved that Davis had looked up Hunter’s record on that day, it didn’t prove that she hadn’t looked it up previously. Maybe she’d done so on July 9 but misplaced the document or thrown it away. “It was the difficulty of proving a negative,” said Richard Davis, IPNO’s legal director, who oversaw the investigation of Hunter’s case.

It was also difficult to pursue an alternative theory of Jones’s murder. Aberle had suggested that Willie Harris was the real culprit—that he got into a drug-related dispute with Jones, killed him, and then sold the gun to Hunter. With Harris dead, however, that avenue of inquiry was extremely narrow. The IPNO investigators developed another theory, based on interviews with a number of people who were close with Jones. Those sources said that Jones had ripped off some Cuban drug dealers who killed him—or had him killed—as retaliation. A few people even suggested that Causey had set Jones up. There were several variations of this story, however, and no one named a potential shooter.

Investigators decided that the one thing that might give Hunter’s case a real chance was an affidavit from Laurie White. It would need to say that, had she known back in 1988 what IPNO knew now, White would not have prosecuted the case. White, by that time, had gained an even more prominent position in New Orleans’s criminal-justice apparatus: In 2007, she’d been elected as a criminal district-court judge. Lowenstein called an affidavit from someone of that stature the “holy grail of innocence work.”

Killebrew and IPNO’s director went one day to meet with White at the courthouse. Their intention was to gauge White’s response to their findings before asking for her support. They waited in White’s courtroom as she worked through her docket; during a break in the proceedings, she invited them back to her chambers. They presented her with the evidence suggesting that Davis may have pressured a witness in order to clear a case. As Killebrew remembered the encounter, White was unimpressed. (White, for her part, said during fact-checking that she didn’t remember this meeting.) Killebrew said her concerns echoed those already raised at IPNO: There was still an eyewitness, and there was still a murder weapon. “I didn’t view it that way,” Killebrew told me, “but I can’t say that she was being unreasonable.”

neworleanse-1574917487-27.jpg
Hunter spent three decades behind bars at Angola.

9. The Counsel

Lowenstein and Killebrew broke the news to Hunter that IPNO wouldn’t be filing a post-conviction petition on his behalf. Hunter had always been stoic about his case’s many turns; the same was true with the final one. Hunter took it “heartbreakingly in stride,” Killebrew remembered. Lowenstein wasn’t surprised. “Erin at that point had won three—and I think he ended up winning four—cases in federal court,” he said. “Erin understood the law way better than I did. He was the one who would talk legal theory to me.”

Indeed, by 2009, Hunter’s dealings with the legal system extended well beyond his own case. At Angola, he’d risen from cleaning the prison’s law library to serving as an inmate counsel, responsible for representing other prisoners in disciplinary proceedings and helping them with legal appeals and petitions. The prison’s librarian, who was also the coordinator of the inmate counsel program, was a man named Norris Henderson. He recalled prisoners seeking Hunter out by name and reputation. “Everyone trusted him with their litigation,” Henderson told me. “He had not only the commitment but the expertise to go along with it. I watched his complete metamorphosis from that caterpillar to the butterfly.”

neworleanse-1574917179-86.jpg
Hunter with Derek Temple. (Courtesy: Derek Temple)

Lowenstein was right: Hunter had helped secure the release of four men from Angola. One of them was Derek Temple, convicted of possession with intent to distribute cocaine, who because he had a prior record was sentenced to life in prison without parole. An appeal that Hunter helped prepare on Temple’s behalf convinced the Louisiana Supreme Court that the drugs found during the arrest were obtained without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Temple was released in 2003, having served only six years after being told that he would die behind bars. When I met him more than 15 years later, Temple was on a break from working on an offshore oil rig. “He gave me the direction to get my freedom to be sitting here in front of you,” Temple said of Hunter. “It means a lot. It’s hard to explain it to you, you can use a lot of words, but you have to be in my body. It’s a remarkable feeling.”

For his part, Hunter reflected on his legal work as if it were a spiritual calling. “Each milestone I reached it became less about me and more about humanity,” he wrote to me in a letter. “I befriended other inmates who needed help and weren’t as fortunate as I was to learn the law. My plight became much bigger than I had anticipated.”

Hunter, though, never gave up on his own case. There was always a chance something could change—that new evidence would crop up or that a sympathetic district attorney might agree to discuss a post-conviction plea deal. In 2018, after more than 30 years behind bars, Hunter gathered dozens of letters from inmates and guards testifying to his character and advocating his release. The letters spoke to his intelligence, humility, and dedication to helping other inmates. In a place unsuited to easy favor, Hunter had earned people’s admiration.

[8] In 2014, IPNO and the DA’s office announced the Conviction Integrity and Accuracy Project, intended to identify unjust trial outcomes and rectify them. IPNO told me that Hunter’s case was referred to the joint project, which ended just one year after its launch. IPNO claimed that the DA’s office didn’t put forward the resources it promised. The DA’s office said the project was axed as part of budget cuts.

“It is my opinion that if any offender deserves another chance to be freed, it is Mr. Hunter,” wrote prison employee Linden Franklin. Antonio Whitaker, supervisor of the cell blocks known as Camp D, said that Hunter “exemplified the best of character—humbleness and trustworthiness.” Fellow inmate Ricky Javis said, “If there was a buddy system, where my chances for parole would be based upon the success of the person I elect to go home on parole, I would pick Erin.” Rickey Valentine, another prisoner, happened to be Greggie Jones’s cousin. “Whatever may or may not have happened, I don’t believe you could have hurt him,” Valentine wrote. “Even when I reveal to you who I was, you never once change from doing whatever you can for me and others. I am writing you to say thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Then there was Larry McClinton, who’d been locked up almost as long as Hunter had. “He was always whispered as one of those brothers that did not commit the crime that he was convicted of,” McClinton wrote. “I can remember many times pondering on such men. I committed my crime and it is often arduous at times coping with being away from friends and family. So I can only imagine what the innocent go through. And yet, I’ve never witnessed Hunter (as he is called) upset or angry.” McClinton concluded, in a remarkable sentiment, “He is a man that epitomizes integrity and I would willingly advocate for his freedom before my very own.”

neworleanse-1574917487-27.jpg
Hunter spent three decades behind bars at Angola.

10. The Balance

Freedom never came for Erin Hunter. On , 2019, as this story was being written, he died at Angola. He was 56 years old. The cause of death, according to friends and family, was a heart attack. An autopsy is pending.

Norris Henderson, who is now out of prison, saw Hunter a few weeks before he died. He recalled that his friend had a new project: identifying prisoners convicted in non-unanimous jury decisions. Until a ballot measure did away with it in 2018, Louisiana was one of the only states in the nation with a constitutional provision that allowed people to be found guilty by a 10-2 jury vote. The repeal did not apply retroactively, but in the fall of 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case that could change that. In anticipation of a favorable decision, Hunter was trying to determine who at Angola might benefit. (As of this writing, the Supreme Court had yet to rule on the case.)

The non-unanimous jury provision has a deeply racist history. Enacted in the late 1800s, it was intended to produce a large number of guilty verdicts in order to bolster the convict-leasing system, which extended the profits of slavery to white landowners well after the Civil War. Hunter’s case was also tied to the racial prejudices that run through Louisiana’s legal foundations. This was true regardless of his guilt or innocence, which given his untimely death seems likely to remain an open question forever.

To read the transcript of Hunter’s trial, which runs all of 81 pages and can be digested in half an hour, is to encounter a disregard for human dignity instrumental in producing the most sprawling system of incarceration in the world. Killebrew called the circumstances of Hunter’s case a “tragedy with many authors.”

“There was a failing public defenders’ system, there was a DA’s office that was not operating according to professional norms, there were state laws that were particularly cruel, there were judges who sentenced everyone to the maximum amount they could,” Killebrew said. “There was just a whole combination of factors that led to, I have no doubt, thousands and thousands of people not being served with justice.” Lowenstein put it more succinctly: “Erin Hunter got caught up in a perfect storm of New Orleans bullshit.”

The repeal of the non-unanimous jury law is part of a broader reckoning over criminal justice in Louisiana. The vast majority of reforms, however, are incomplete, and their lasting power is yet to be determined. They are also primarily forward-looking, doing little to ameliorate harm already caused or to grapple with its moral weight. “What about everyone who experienced the growth of mass incarceration, who were the victims of it?” Killebrew asked. “They deserve justice, too. Policymakers don’t have a lot of stomach for going back and fixing those types of problems.”

To read the transcript of Erin Hunter’s trial is to encounter a disregard for human dignity instrumental in producing the most sprawling system of incarceration in the world.

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones who are reticent to look back. For some people, it is too painful or risky to be asked to extend trust to a system that has ignored or actively betrayed them time and again. When IPNO interviewed Greggie Jones’s brother, he said, “Nobody ever want to talk to us back then. Now they want to have an investigation?” When I asked one source why people were hesitant to talk about the case, he told me, “A lot of people figure, man, I stay away from that. Let old wounds just die out, and wither in the wind, and stay in the wind.”

Hunter was still alive when I first interviewed Jacklean Davis. She was living in New Orleans East, the neighborhood where Jones was killed. We sat on her couch for several hours. She smoked Hat’s Off cigars and recalled growing up with Tyler Perry; she claimed that he based his Madea character on her great-aunt. She talked about the racism she encountered at the NOPD, the political forces that conspired to send her to prison, and the incompetence of her defense attorney. Davis stressed her integrity, her commitment to truth and justice, her inability to live with a guilty conscience. She was adamant that she did nothing wrong in Hunter’s case.

Sometimes, though, there was a note of dissonance in her certitude that the system was right about his guilt and wrong about hers. At one point, she said it meant something that 12 individuals had come to the conclusion that Hunter was guilty. Then, after a pause, she added that juries can be wrong, of course. She, too, had a jury trial.

I was the person who informed Davis that Hunter had died at Angola. I did it in a phone call. Soon after we hung up, Davis called back, sobbing. “It really hit home how life is not perfect. We all make mistakes. To atone for these mistakes, most of us live and get the opportunity to do it, some don’t,” she said. “I can have respect for him. That he fought the good fight. He believed—and I cannot disregard his belief—that he was innocent, and he should not have served the time. And he went to his grave doing this.”

Then, before we ended the conversation, she repeated something that she’d told me before. “I am not hostage to my past,” Davis said. “I’m gonna leave that with you.”

The Rescue

hiblul1fi-1569593588-97.jpg

The Rescue

A flimsy raft, more than 100 souls, and three teenage heroes—or are they pirates?

By Zach Campbell

The Atavist Magazine, No. 95


Zach Campbell is a writer based in Barcelona. He has written for The Intercept, Politico Europe, and Harper’s, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @notzachcampbell.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Nicole Rifkin

Published in September 2019. Design updated in 2021.

Every master is bound, so far as he can do so without serious danger to his vessel, her crew and passengers, to render assistance to everybody, even though an enemy, found at sea in danger of being lost.

—International Salvage Treaty, 1910


With the same hope I had felt in the afternoon as I waited to see airplanes on the horizon, that night I looked for the lights of ships. For hours I scrutinized the sea: a tranquil sea, immense and silent, but I saw no light other than that of the stars.

—Gabriel García Márquez, “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor”


Abdalla Bari was hungry. It was the morning of March 26, 2019, and Bari and more than 100 other people were floating in a 30-foot-long rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere in the expanse of water between North Africa and Italy. Men straddled the boat’s edge, each with one foot dangling above the water and the other inside the dinghy. They formed a tightly packed ring around a huddled mass of women and children. At least one of the women was noticeably pregnant. Another, Souwa Nikavogui, was Bari’s wife.

Bari was on the starboard side, near the bow. He was skinny but muscular, with hair fashioned into short, spiky locks; he had a long scar down his right arm. Nikavogui, slightly shorter, with an intense, distant gaze, braced herself to stay upright as the dinghy rocked in the waves. They were teenagers in love—Bari was 19, Nikavogui 18—and they already had a child of their own. Her name was Fanta, and they’d left her with Bari’s mother, thousands of miles away in Guinea. Fanta was two years old. If help didn’t arrive soon, she would grow up with no memory of her parents.

The cheap inflatable dinghy wouldn’t make it to Europe. Bari and Nikavogui knew that before they climbed aboard in Libya. Their only hope was to be rescued before the boat sank. Bari watched as the bow bent upward, working its way up a wave. A small outboard motor strained to nudge the rest of the vessel over the crest of water.

For Bari and Nikavogui, this was the last leg of a long journey, stretching across four countries and a swath of the Sahara desert. They had spent the past four months in Tripoli, living in what migrants call “the campo,” a massive warehouse that smugglers use as a staging ground before moving people across the Mediterranean. The night before they left, the couple were approached by a man demanding money for their uncertain passage, although they’d already paid once. Bari and Nikavogui did as he asked, and early the next morning they loaded into a truck that rattled them to the water’s edge. Smugglers inflated the dinghy; the migrants climbed aboard. As they pushed out to sea, they knew it might be the last time they saw land.

Still, they were relieved. Libya was hell, and certain death if you stayed there too long. A man on the dinghy—I’ll call him Victor, a pseudonym, for his safety—was making his third attempt to reach Europe. The other two times, his group was intercepted before they could get on a boat. After the most recent try, Victor, who’d fled violence in his home country of Nigeria, was sent to one of Libya’s notorious migrant detention centers. Human rights organizations and the media have exposed the facilities as rife with torture, slavery, extortion, and other horrors. Victor bribed his way out for nearly $1,000. Then it was back to the campo, into the hands of another smuggler, and finally onto the dinghy.

The boat motored north. The harsh sun rose higher in the sky as the migrants searched for any speck on the horizon, a disturbance in the endless blue that might grow larger, take shape, become their salvation.

Finally, someone cried out, “A plane!”

Bari jolted at the sound. Suddenly, people around him were talking. As the plane approached, some said they saw a Spanish flag painted on its tail; others thought it was Italian. Either way it was European. That’s what mattered.

The plane passed overhead, and the people on the boat waved and yelled, as if they could be heard over the roar of the engines. Bari counted in his head as the plane circled the boat: once, twice, three times. The pilot had spotted the dinghy, that much was clear. After the fourth pass, the plane flew toward the horizon and out of sight. Those on the boat were left to wait one last time.

A few miles away, aboard the oil tanker El Hiblu 1, a radio crackled to life.

hiblus1-1569378087-25.jpg

Partial transcript of radio communication between an aircraft deployed by the European Union’s Operation Sophia and the El Hiblu 1 on March 26, 2019; obtained via a nearby ship.

EH1: I am going to Tripoli port. My destination is Tripoli port, Libya.

OS: Sir, there are lives at sea, can you assist them?

EH1: OK, no problem. What assistance do you need?

OS: We need you to proceed to the area and help the boat in the water.

EH1: Where is it? Can you give me the latitude and longitude, please?

OS: Position three-three-three-seven north, zero-one-four-two-zero east.

EH1: This is the position?

EH1: OK, I will proceed to this position. OK.

OS: We are flying over the area. If you can see us, we are flying over the boat.

EH1: OK, I will check your—OK.

OS: Thank you, sir.

[Ninety seconds pass.]

OS: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, this is the maritime patrol aircraft. We are coordinating with the Libyan coast guard. Sir, you need to rescue those people, because the Libyan coast guard boat is out of service.

At first all that Bari could tell about the ship coming toward the dinghy was that it was big and painted red. He hoped that it was an NGO boat, maybe the Spanish Open Arms or the German Alan Kurdi. Like others attempting the Mediterranean passage, he’d watched countless YouTube videos of these humanitarian ships rescuing people at sea. He knew what came next: A smiling European crew would climb onto small high-speed boats, zip to the dinghy, and hand out bright orange life vests. They would transfer the migrants to the larger ship, ten at a time, where there would be blankets, medical supplies, and food. Then they would make land in Europe, where it would be safe, where there was work. From there, Bari hoped, he and Nikavogui could provide for Fanta and the rest of their family.

But as the ship came closer, Bari realized that this rescue was going to be different. The El Hiblu 1 wasn’t a humanitarian ship—it was a 170-foot bunkering vessel, used to move oil between larger ships. What Bari couldn’t know was that the plane he’d seen, the same one that had radioed the tanker, was part of Operation Sophia, a European military effort aimed at stemming migration from Libya. It took its name from a baby born to a Somali mother on a German frigate in the Mediterranean in 2015.

That year, European ships, planes, and submarines began patrolling international waters off the coast of Libya, rescuing migrants and destroying their boats. But the smuggling networks found more boats—smaller, cheaper ones that were far less seaworthy. In response, Operation Sophia began training, funding, equipping, and directing a new Libyan coast guard that could do what the Europeans legally could not: take the people intercepted on ships back to where they came from, even if they had already made it out of Libya and into international waters. (Under international law, this is called refoulement, from the French for “turning away.”) Operation Sophia organized the effort despite mounting evidence of atrocities committed against migrants by Libyan smugglers, security forces, and the coast guard itself. In September 2018, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees declared that nowhere in Libya should be considered a place of safety for people rescued at sea. Six months later, the Women’s Refugee Commission released a report detailing widespread sexual violence against migrants in the North African state. “Everyone knows when a man says, ‘I’ve gone through Libya,’ it is a euphemism for rape,” a source told the organization.

That people continued to attempt the journey across the Mediterranean in large numbers prompted yet another shift in strategy: On the same day that Operation Sophia radioed the El Hiblu 1, EU member states decided to stop sending ships out on patrol and focus instead on surveillance flights. The planes would identify migrant boats and direct either the Libyan coast guard or nearby ships, including commercial ones, to stage rescues.

This was the scenario that the El Hiblu 1 found itself in. The tanker was empty, save for six crew members en route from Istanbul to Tripoli. The lack of cargo weight caused the bow to perk upward, as if the ship were popping a wheelie. As the tanker moved toward the dinghy, the driver of the rubber craft shut off the outboard engine. The waves were getting bigger, and the migrants worried that they might be swept under the ship as it approached.

When the two vessels were close enough, a crew member on the El Hiblu 1 threw down ropes and a ladder from the tanker’s deck. People crowded together to climb one by one off the dinghy. Bari and Nikavogui queued up. But six people stayed put. One of them said that he thought the ship was Libyan. What if it took them back?

Those still aboard the dinghy begged the wider group, now amassing on the deck of the El Hiblu 1, to come back down; the dinghy could keep going north, toward Malta. No one descended the ladder. Instead, the people on the tanker implored those on the dinghy to reconsider. It was clear that the dinghy, now nearly empty of people, was deflating. It bobbed limply up and down on the waves.

Don’t go, Bari and others shouted down at the boat. Just come up to the ship. These people are going to help.

Instead the men let go of the ropes that connected the boat to the El Hiblu 1. They started up the dinghy’s motor once again and headed north, eventually disappearing from sight. Malta was still more than 100 miles away.

hiblus2-1569378546-50.jpg

Nader El-Hiblu was the tanker’s first mate. He was Libyan, and he shared his name with the ship because his brother, Salah, owned it. Slender and balding, with high cheekbones and a beard, Nader asked if anyone spoke English. “I do,” said a teenager who, like Bari and Nikavogui, was from Guinea. Through the translator, Nader was able to explain that he’d been called by the crew of a military airplane to rescue the people on the dinghy. He was still awaiting instructions about what to do next.

He asked where in Libya the group had embarked: Garabuli, Zawiya, Zuwara, Tripoli? All were well-known departure points for migrant boats in Libya, but Nader said their names with a familiarity that made some of the migrants uneasy. Was he Libyan? They began to whisper among themselves, their many languages quietly colliding.

“Where are you going to take us?” someone yelled in English.

Nader repeated what he’d said about the plane.

“Yes, but are you taking us to Libya?”

Bari, standing with Nikavogui, wondered if the people who’d stayed on the dinghy had been wise. What if he’d come this far only to be turned back, to have nothing to show for his journey?

He and Nikavogui were from Mamou, a small village in the Guinean interior. Bari was the eldest of nine children. His father had been a vegetable farmer, while his mother took care of their seven boys and two girls. In 2017, Bari was in his first year of university, studying sociology, when his father died. He quit school to support his family, going to work in the fields like his father had. Still, there were times when they couldn’t afford food. Before long, Bari had more mouths to feed: Nikavogui’s and Fanta’s. Survival meant leaving Mamou—following “the route,” as many migrants from Africa call the passage across the Mediterranean. Nikavogui decided to go, too.

Bari left first, toward the end of Ramadan in 2018. He traveled by day on an empty stomach from Guinea to Mali to Algeria, where he spent two months waiting for a safe opportunity to cross the border into Libya. By September, he’d arrived in Tripoli and found work pouring concrete on construction sites. Nikavogui joined him soon after, and by the end of the year the couple were staying at the campo, waiting for their chance to leave for Europe. There was little food or privacy at the warehouse; tuberculosis was rampant. Outside, Libya was in the midst of a civil war. The people in the campo heard the same refrain every night: the boom, boom, boom of gunfire in the distance. They were locked inside and told to keep quiet. “We didn’t scream,” one woman who spent time there told me. “We didn’t do anything. Even the children didn’t scream.”

Now, aboard the El Hiblu 1, Nader uttered the words that the migrants didn’t want to hear. He explained the ship’s original course: Istanbul to Tripoli. Word rippled through the crowd, and arguing quickly ensued. Victor, the man from Nigeria, was determined to never go back to a Libyan detention center. He declared that it was better for the tanker to leave them to die at sea.

In the telling of some of the people present that day, Nader tried to calm the group by swearing on the Koran that he would help them get to Europe. He pointed at the sky and talked again about the plane. He said that the Europeans would send a rescue ship and that he was only waiting to learn the rendezvous point. He climbed up to the ship’s bridge and turned the vessel away from Libya. The migrants considered it an act of good faith. “He swore in front of all of us, saying that he had the courage to take us, to help us,” the pregnant woman, whom I’ll call Mariama, later told me.

The tanker went north for a while, then turned west, moving slowly toward the setting sun. Placated, people settled onto the deck. They clustered toward the bow, where a raised section of the ship provided some protection from the elements. There were only a few blankets to share, and no food. Night fell, but Bari and Nikavogui knew they wouldn’t sleep much. She was seasick, and it was cold.

Bari couldn’t hear what Nader was saying in the ship’s cabin. Over the radio, Operation Sophia requested that the El Hiblu 1 pick up a second boatful of migrants, situated a few miles from the tanker’s location. Nader said that he couldn’t.

Partial transcript of communication between Operation Sophia aircraft and the El Hiblu 1 on March 26, 2019.

OS: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, thank you for your cooperation, sir. We ask for the other boat. Can you proceed to the other one?

EH1: I cannot proceed because I have big problem. Let me put—they don’t let me to move from my position, OK? They want to go to Europe, Spain or Italy.

EH1: Airplane, El Hiblu 1.

OS: Sir, we are cooperating with the Libyan coast guard. They tell us to say to you that you can move those people to Tripoli.

EH1: I take the people to Tripoli?

EH1: Airplane, airplane navy, El Hiblu 1.

OS: Sir, we are coordinating—we are under the coordination of the Libyan national coast guard. Don’t go and rescue the other boat. You can proceed to Tripoli.

EH1: OK, send to me their support please, because I cannot move from my position because the people is very crazy here.

OS: Thank you, sir. Thank you for your cooperation. We are calling for assistance.

EH1: It’s no problem for me, but the people is very crazy here. They make me big problem on board now. Big problem on board now.

OS: Thank you, sir. I’m sorry for the inconvenience. Please, I’m going to turn [inaudible].

[Four minutes pass.]

OS: [Inaudible] the situation on board.

EH1: Very bad. Very bad.

OS: Can you give us any information about the situation on board?

EH1: I want any assistance from the other ship, please. Because he refuse—anything and made to me too much problem on board here. If you can send me other ship for [inaudible].

OS: Sir, we are doing all we can to [inaudible].

OS: El Hiblu 1, this is maritime patrol aircraft. Libyan authority is now aware of your situation. They come to your position as soon as possible.

EH1: I’m waiting here in my position. I’m waiting here in my position. I need assistance, please.

OS: Thank you, sir. They are on his way.

It was early morning when one of the migrants spotted land. In the weak light of dawn, he climbed a set of stairs to look over the ship’s bow. There was a dark strip in the distance. The man cried out. Bari heard his voice; he sounded happy. Other people ascended the stairs to see for themselves.

Joy quickly gave way to fear. Some of them thought they could see lighthouses—ones they recognized. Then someone got a signal on their cell phone. It was from a Libyan network.

Nader hadn’t held his position at sea. Around 12:30 a.m., he had given up waiting for the Libyan coast guard. He locked the door to the cabin, turned the El Hiblu 1 south, and pushed the throttle. As he headed toward Libya, Nader finally spoke with the coast guard; they told him that soldiers were preparing a boarding party, which would find the ship and detain the migrants.

Those on board didn’t know that the Libyan coast guard might be on its way, but seeing land was enough for them to feel tricked. Some began to cry and yell. “Oh, Libya! Oh, Libya!” one person screamed.

People threatened to throw themselves off the ship. Bari heard voices shouting at Nader to stop, to turn around. A group of people picked up tools and pieces of wood from the deck and began banging on the tanker’s surfaces. They moved toward the bridge to confront Nader.

Bari later said that he was near the bow at that point, with Nikavogui. She was still sick, and they were both exhausted. But Bari decided that he had to do something. Angry people had surrounded the ship’s cabin. If the situation escalated, someone could get hurt or killed, or all of them could wind up arrested and tossed into a Libyan detention center. The previous fall, a group of more than 90 people had barricaded themselves inside a cargo ship that rescued them at sea and returned to the Libyan port of Misrata. Ten days later, Libyan authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to remove them from the ship.

Bari climbed to the bridge, where men held sticks and metal objects in their hands. They chanted, “No Libya! No Libya!” Shielded by the walls, windows, and locked door of the cabin, Nader could see that the tanker was six miles from Tripoli. He changed course, turning the El Hiblu 1’s prow toward the open sea. “I don’t know why the captain turned,” Bari recalled. “But I know that I saw people protest, and it worked.”

In several of the migrants’ recollections, Nader unlocked the cabin and came outside. He told the group that he would take them to Europe. No one believed him—not after what had happened overnight. They kept chanting and banging the items they’d scavenged from the ship. Nader seemed to recognize the teenager who’d translated for him the day before. “You,” Bari remembered Nader saying. “Come in. I’ll show you the direction we’re going.”

The translator, who was 15 years old, went into the cabin. Another young man, only a year older, joined him. So did Bari. He felt like it was the right thing to do. He stayed near the cabin’s door as Nader showed the translator the ship’s controls and navigation system. Satisfied, the teenager returned to talk to the angry group. “Calm down, the captain is right,” he said, poking his head out the cabin’s door. “We’re going to Malta.”

Bari stepped farther inside to look at the ship’s compass. It was true: The ship was heading due north. “Everybody calm down,” Bari shouted.

Bari and two other men decided to stay inside the cabin with Nader. He had misled them before, Bari thought. How could they trust him not to do it again?

“I don’t know why the captain turned. But I know that I saw people protest, and it worked.”

As the tanker’s engine growled and morning slid into afternoon, the migrants’ anxiety subsided. They ambled around the deck; some dozed at the ship’s bow. Bari could hear Nader talking on the radio, trying to explain the situation to Maltese authorities, who told him the ship didn’t have authorization to enter the country’s waters. Still, Nader didn’t seem agitated—none of the crew did—so Bari wasn’t worried. As long as the tanker stayed its course, he thought, things would get better.

On land, however, stress about the El Hiblu 1 was mounting. Word of the tanker’s situation made its way to the media. Before they set foot in Europe, Bari and the two other men in the ship’s cabin were labeled criminals of the worst kind.

“Rescued migrants hijack ship, demand it head towards Europe,” read an Associated Press headline on the afternoon of March 27, as the tanker plowed through Mediterranean waves. Other news stories described migrants “seizing control” of the ship amid a “desperate” situation. The Maltese military told local media that there was “a pirate ship” and that soldiers were “on alert.” Italy’s interior minister at the time, far-right politician Matteo Salvini, took to Twitter. “They aren’t shipwreck survivors; they are pirates,” he wrote. “They should know that they’ll only ever see Italy through binoculars.” The ANSA news agency quoted Salvini saying, “Poor castaways, who hijack a merchant ship that saved them because they want to decide the route of the cruise.” Meanwhile, the AP reported that Salvini “had a message for the pirates: ‘Forget about Italy.’”

Bari and the other migrants weren’t aware of the mounting media firestorm—they knew only that Nader was taking the ship closer and closer to Malta. At 12:51 a.m. on March 28, the El Hiblu 1 was just over 24 nautical miles from the island nation. If it moved any closer, it would enter Maltese jurisdiction on its way to Valletta, the capital and main port. The Maltese coast guard radioed the ship. Bari later said that he was asleep during the exchange.

Transcript of communication between Maltese Armed Forces (AFM) and the El Hiblu 1 on March 28, 2019.

AFM: El Hiblu 1, this is Maltese patrol vessel Papa 21. You are still proceeding towards the Maltese islands at a constant speed. You have already been given instructions to not continue entering Maltese territorial waters. Please stop your vessel.

EH1: OK sir, but the migrants, my vessel not under command now. My vessel not under command.

AFM: Captain, stop your engine now. You are still proceeding at ten knots, at ten knots. You are still proceeding at ten knots.

EH1: OK, roger sir. OK.

EH1 [a different voice]: Good morning, sir. Good morning. I am one of the migrants. Good morning, sir.

AFM: Good morning.

EH1: Please, listen to me carefully. Listen to me carefully. We are not proceeding—the ship to go to Malta. But the situation is very bad, we have children, 12 children. They are not even talking anymore. Three days now, no food or water. Please. We are not allowed to go back. Please. Three days now, we do not have food. We are 19 women, 12 children. Please help us. None of us are well. We are all sick. Please, please, no one get—please, for God’s sake, please help us. Not allowed to go back.

AFM: Copy that, sir. For now your instructions are to stop your vessel immediately and to wait for further instructions. You are not allowed to continue proceeding to go to Malta. Stop your vessel immediately.

EH1 [Nader’s voice again]: We have already stopped, captain. Already stopped. My engine is stopped now.

AFM: Copy that. Stand by. Stand by on this channel for now.

EH1: OK, thank you, sir. Thank you.

AFM: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, Malta patrol vessel P21, do you read?

EH1: Yes. I have now 100 people Africa on board. He change my course to Valletta, to Malta, to Valletta by force, by force. I am not under command. Please, if you can send to me Malta coast guard, I will thank you in advance.

AFM: Are there any crew members injured?

EH1: Yes, now I have—crews injured on board here. Many people fight with me yesterday because I don’t want to come to Malta. My destination was from Tuzla, Istanbul, to Tripoli, Libya—all the people on board fight with me, broken my vessel, by force. That’s why change the course to Malta. I called the Libyan navy many times but no, they didn’t answer. Also, for put me in the situation, military aircraft, when I proceed from Tripoli, I proceed from the Tripoli port, military call me for change my course for some place and rescue people from the port.

AFM: Captain, instructions for now are to hold the course one-four-five. Course one-four-five.

EH1: One-four-five, to where? To where?

AFM: Wait further instructions, so you are in good stability for the ship. For now, hold the course and wait for further instructions. Minimum speed.

EHI: OK, but please, if you can send to me the coast guard I will thank you, because I am not under command.

hiblul2-1569378705-21.jpg

Bari was still asleep on the ship’s bridge when he heard one of the crew members yelling. “Hurry up,” the man barked. “Get out. Your friends are out. The soldiers are coming.”

It was 5:30 a.m. and dark out except for a sliver of peach-colored sun to the east. Maltese special forces had arrived by boat to storm the El Hiblu 1, still a few miles away from land. The soldiers, including members of Malta’s counterterrorism unit, wore tactical gear and balaclavas. They carried automatic weapons. They climbed onto the tanker, and a handful hurried to the ship’s control room. In a video of the raid, edited by the Maltese government to include a triumphant instrumental soundtrack, a soldier waves one arm while holding his weapon with the other, urging two men in the cabin to step away from the window. They both appear to comply with the soldier’s command.

Bari had gone to find Nikavogui. He felt relieved: They were finally in European territory. But Nikavogui was terrified. In her experience, armed soldiers had never meant anything good.

Soldiers manned the El Hiblu 1’s bridge as Maltese ships escorted the tanker to a wharf near Valletta, a harbor frequented by luxury cruise liners. As they pulled into port, the migrants could see TV cameras lining the concrete shore. Police were there, too—they supervised as people disembarked and entered Malta via a gangway painted bright yellow.

Bari and Nikavogui stepped off together. As they did, someone told Nikavogui that Bari couldn’t come with her—he would be put in a different vehicle than the one that would take her to a migrant reception center. Only when she saw zip ties being placed around his wrists did she realize that he was being arrested.

Bari and the other two young men who stayed in the cabin with Nader—both minors whose names Maltese authorities have withheld—were soon charged with nine crimes, including seizing a ship, destruction of private property, confining people against their will, forcibly moving people across a border, and issuing threats of violence. Maltese prosecutors added terrorism riders, which carry a life sentence, to two of the charges.

A judge denied the defendants bail, because they had no means to pay it and no established ties in Malta.

Word quickly reached the media that Nader was also under suspicion. The Times of Malta reported that police were “investigating the possibility that the skipper could have ‘misled’ the authorities by claiming he lost control of the vessel.… Investigators are not ruling out that he could have reported such a situation over the radio to be allowed in Maltese waters.” Police, it turned out, had found no damage to the ship or weapons on board.

Was it possible that Nader had wanted to be a good Samaritan but also avoid criminal charges? If so his concern was well founded: According to OpenDemocracy, more than 250 people in 14 European countries have been arrested, charged, or investigated for aiding migrants. Among them are the crews of NGO ships in the Mediterranean. Operation Sophia had introduced a new complication by compelling civilian ships to return people to Libya.

In the Maltese legal system, a magistrate must decide if there is enough evidence to bring a case to trial, based on testimony, forensics, and other materials. In early April, Cedric Mifsud, a defense lawyer, questioned Nader in court. The El Hiblu 1’s first mate demanded to know why he was being treated as a villain.

Cross-examination of Nader El-Hiblu on April 10, 2019, by defense attorney Cedric Mifsud, with magistrate Aaron Bugeja presiding. Recording provided by a source who attended the hearings; Malta has yet to release official transcripts.

AB: Nobody is saying that you are a criminal. You are explaining what happened. You are a witness. I explained to you your rights before you start to testify, not to do harm to yourself. So please, tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. That is what you swore before Allah. And this what I expect from you, nothing more, nothing less. Thank you, Mr. El-Hiblu. Continue.

CM: I am suggesting that not from the beginning that you wanted to take them to Malta. You had never any intention to take them to Malta. What I am suggesting to you, when you were just a few miles away from Tripoli, the port, and they found out that you were very close, and the 20 to 25 were protesting with the hammers and the tools and the whatever, you called in these three and said, “We have a problem,” and you discussed this problem.

Prosecution: Objection!

AB: Change question.

CM: I am going to suggest to you that with the Maltese authorities, you escalated, you increased, you told them that the problem was far more serious than it was, because you wanted them to leave your ship.

NEH: How?

CM: I’m going to tell you how you did that. That you told them various times that you had no control of the ship when you always had control of the ship.

NEH: I don’t have control, I don’t have—

CM: You told them that your crew members were injured, and it never had any injured. I am suggesting to you that you told the Maltese authorities that the problem—I’m not saying you didn’t have a problem—the problem is far larger than it actually was, because you wanted to end your problem. That you shift your problem on the Maltese army.

NEH: No.

CM: So tell me why you told— There’s a transcript, and I think there are CDs where we can actually hear you say you have injured crew members. Who was the injured crew member?

NEH: I don’t say it like that.

CM: You don’t say like that?

NEH: I don’t say like that, “I have injured crew members.”

CM: You did not say to the Maltese authorities that you have an injury?

NEH: I didn’t say that I have injured.

CM: So the Maltese army is lying?

Five days after Nader’s testimony, the court ruled that the case against Bari and the teenagers could go to trial. Nader wasn’t charged with any crimes. “From the statements from the crew and the immigrants themselves, we didn’t have any suspicion or any conclusive motive that the crew was involved,” Omar Zammit, lead prosecutor on the case and head of the Maltese police’s counterterrorism unit, told me. Soon after the announcement, the El Hiblu 1 departed Malta for Tripoli. Nader and his brother, the ship’s owner, both declined to be interviewed for this story. I wasn’t able to ask Nader about discrepancies between his testimony and what he said at sea, or between what the migrants remembered and what he claimed on the radio.

For its part, the defense team told me that context is everything with the El Hiblu 1 incident. “The prosecution is treating this as a terrorism case and are ignoring the migration case,” said Neil Falzon, a member of the team. In demanding that they not be taken back to Libya, Falzon explained, the migrants were acting in the sincere interest of their safety. A similar argument has held up in court before: In 2018, the Vos Thalassa, a commercial vessel, was called on to save 67 people off the coast of Libya. At first the crew intended to deliver the rescued group to the Libyan coast guard, but when the migrants protested the crew turned the Vos Thalassa toward Italy. Two people were charged with hijacking the ship but cleared of all charges by an Italian court. The judge wrote that the takeover constituted a “legitimate defense” against the prospect of returning to Libya.

Bari’s lawyers made that point before the Maltese magistrate. Zammit, the prosecutor, dismissed it as preposterous. “This is like saying that when my child is sick, I go to steal to help my child,” he said in court.

I brought up this quote when I interviewed Zammit at Malta’s police headquarters, where lofty marble hallways led us to a large dining hall paneled with stone and wood. Zammit was bald and stocky, and he wore a pressed white shirt. I asked what he would do if his child was sick and he couldn’t afford medicine—would he steal it? Zammit fidgeted in his chair. “I prefer not answer that question,” he said. (This was a common refrain in our interview: Zammit was hesitant to share details about an active case.) A crime is a crime, he continued, though punishment can “be mitigated—that’s fair enough.”

Later, as we walked through one of the building’s regal halls, Zammit came back to my question. “If my son were sick, I would do anything to protect him,” he said. He stopped walking when he spoke and looked me in the eye. He started moving again before concluding, “Still, if it was against the law, I would face the consequences.”

hiblus3-1569378629-95.jpg

When I met with Bari, he’d been in Malta for three months. He was behind bars at Corradino Correctional Facility, an imposing stone building that has housed prisoners for more than 150 years. It sits in the center of a small town across the harbor from Valletta, and it was calm when I arrived. In Bari’s block, two floors of cells flank a common area, where a long table and benches sat beneath an arched ceiling. Most cell doors were flung open, allowing prisoners to move around. Large ceiling fans circulated the summer air. It was close to 100 degrees and humid, the kind of heat that sets life in slow motion.

Bari and I met in a room where inmates typically speak to their lawyers. It was cramped, with chipped paint and an old wooden door. Two beat-up office chairs sat on either side of a small table. A top-of-the-line security camera watched us from the ceiling.

I asked about his treatment in the facility. Bari shrugged. “It’s been fine,” he said. “But it’s still prison.” Since the court green-lighted his case for trial, there had been two evidentiary hearings. Three more hearings were scheduled but canceled. As of this writing, the trial itself had yet to be scheduled. One of Bari’s lawyers told me that the case could take years to resolve. Until then, Bari and the two other accused would remain in prison.

As we spoke, Bari was sometimes indignant and angry. In other moments, when talking about family, he cried. I offered more than once to end the interview if it was too much for him, but he insisted on continuing. When trying to remember a specific detail about the El Hiblu 1—the ship’s layout, when and where each event occurred—he squinted his eyes in concentration.

Bari said that he’d thought he could make things better by intervening when they spotted Libya. A group of people were angry and protesting, and he defused the situation. Still, sitting in prison, he regretted the choice. “If I had known what was going to happen,” he said with a sigh, looking at his hands on the empty table, “I would have stayed with my wife.” He missed Nikavogui; Fanta, too.

When Bari talked about Nader, he stood and waved his hands in the air. “He told the judge that he’s not afraid of the three of us in the cabin—he was afraid of everyone outside,” Bari said. “And we’re the terrorists?” He sat down again and rubbed his head, as if for an instant he wasn’t sure what to say or do.

Bari had been surprised to learn that Nader was allowed to leave Malta. “He used us to get out of trouble,” Bari said. He took a breath, and when he spoke again there were long pauses between his words: “He betrayed us.”

“If my son were sick, I would do anything to protect him. Still, if it was against the law, I would face the consequences.”

Limbo is painful, but Bari has allies. In May 2019, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Malta to drop the terrorism charges against Bari and his codefendants. A press release noted that some of the migrants saved by the El Hiblu 1 “exhibited clear signs of torture and ill-treatment” from their time in Libya or before. Going back wasn’t a humane option.

In all, 105 people from the rubber dinghy went to an immigration reception center in Marsa, a town across from Valletta’s harbor. They were interviewed by police, seen by doctors, and given the chance to apply for asylum, a process that usually takes between six and eighteen months. After a few weeks, the group dispersed to Malta’s open migrant centers, where residents can come and go freely. Some people in the centers hope to stay in Malta; others want to leave and go to the European mainland. If someone doesn’t apply for asylum, or if their application is denied, they won’t necessarily be deported. Many people remain in Malta and find work in the cash economy. It’s a bureaucratic purgatory: They’re in the country illegally but lack the documentation to leave without being detected. They keep their head down and hope never to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I made contact with some of the people rescued by the El Hiblu 1. Many were worried that speaking publicly could jeopardize their legal situation or cause trouble with the police. I met Nikavogui one day at a café near the migrant center where she’s living. She had a strong, matter-of-fact way of speaking but struggled when talking about Bari. When she reached an emotional point in her story, she would trail off and look down, as if searching for her next word somewhere on the floor. A few seconds would pass before she’d raise her head, take a slow breath, and keep talking.

Without Bari, she felt strange, unsafe, and alone. She’d seen him only once since they’d arrived in Malta. Arranging visits in prison, she said, was nearly impossible. She hoped that the court would find him innocent. “I don’t understand what they want,” Nikavogui said. She told me that she still feels panic when she thinks about being at sea. “I thought we were all going to die,” she said.

Victor, the man from Nigeria, said that Malta wasn’t without problems. Just nine days after the El Hiblu 1 docked in the country, a man from Ivory Coast was killed and two others were injured in a drive-by shooting near one of the migrant centers; police arrested two Maltese soldiers in connection with the crime. Still, Victor said, Malta is better than Libya—anything is better than Libya, he added. He was thankful that he didn’t give up on getting to Europe. Two months after we spoke, a migrant detention center near Tripoli, like the one where Victor spent time before finally making it into the dinghy, was hit by an air strike. At least 53 people died; scores more were badly injured.

Mariama, pregnant when the El Hiblu 1 rescued her, gave birth to her second son four days after arriving in Malta. When we met, she wore the infant strapped to her back, swaddled in fabric. Her older son, who was three, sat nearby sipping juice; he’d been saved by the tanker, too.

Mariama told me that she often thinks about Bari and the teenagers in jail. Without them, where would she and her children be? Perhaps in a Libyan detention center. Perhaps on another rubber raft. Perhaps dead. “They aren’t terrorists,” Mariama said of the three men. “They aren’t criminals.”

She doesn’t hold ill will toward the tanker’s crew. “It’s because of them that we are alive,” she said. “Otherwise our boat wouldn’t have lasted another two hours.”

How long did the rubber dinghy survive? According to recordings of marine radio chatter, Operation Sophia tracked the deflating boat and its six passengers late into the evening of March 26. Then the mission’s planes ran low on fuel and were forced to return to their base. An Operation Sophia spokesperson told me that the El Hiblu 1 eventually picked up the remaining migrants—an account contradicted by those actually on board the tanker.

If by some miracle the dinghy made landfall unassisted, the relevant authorities would know. Maltese and Libyan officials told me that the the boat didn’t reach their countries. Frontex, the European border agency, and the Italian coast guard wouldn’t comment on the matter.

It’s as if, when the dinghy blurred to nothing on the Mediterranean horizon one spring afternoon, it vanished forever.

The First Responders

atavistopene-1561492636-4.jpg

The black men from Pittsburgh who made up America’s original paramedic corps wanted to make history and save lives—starting with their own.

By Kevin Hazzard

The Atavist Magazine, No. 92


Kevin Hazzard’s work has appeared in Atlanta magazine, Men’s Journal, Creative Loafing, and The Washington Post. He also writes for television. A paramedic from 2004 to 2013, primarily at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, he is the author of A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back (Simon and Schuster, 2016).

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Marc Aspinall

Published in June 2019. Design updated in 2021.

Part I

The riots that had begun in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Hill District on April 5, 1968, now seemed to rage beyond control. The world was all flames and broken glass, black soot and charred wood, food looted from stores, then dropped in egress. The day before, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and the calm that normally characterized the Hill, as the neighborhood was called, had given way to chaos.

John Moon darted down Centre Avenue—terrified, exhilarated—as smoke poured into the air. Gangly and clean-shaven, his hair cut close to the scalp, Moon was a senior at Fifth Avenue High School. When word of the trouble reached them, Moon and his black classmates had walked out en masse. Now he ran the half-mile from school to the intersection of Centre and Crawford Street, the heart of the riots. Dusty shards of red brick from the destroyed facades of storefronts skittered across the asphalt and crunched under his shoes.

Moon was a transplant—he’d only recently come to Pittsburgh from down south—and the riots caught him flat-footed. One minute he was cruising toward graduation, working nights and weekends at Shep’s hardware store and playing football in a small field near the Monongahela River. The next, a Molotov cocktail was sailing over his left shoulder and shattering a plate-glass window. He was in the belly of the civil rights movement.

Moon was reticent by nature, a detached observer who mostly kept to himself. He was tall, with rigid posture. He spoke rarely and in a soft voice that was half an octave higher than you’d expect. His friends thought he was aloof, but he’d watched the national news footage of lunch-counter sit-ins, of police dogs and fire hoses, of freedom riders and black students walking into white schools for the first time, and he was just as angry and frustrated and hurt as his peers were. He may not have expected the riots on the Hill, but he understood why they happened. “It all built up and spun around in our heads,” Moon said. “Then there was an explosion.”

Born in 1949 at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, Moon lived the first eight years of his life just south of Georgia’s capital city with his parents, Clinton and Elzora, and his younger sister, June. In 1956, his mother died of complications from alcoholism. His father quickly realized that he couldn’t raise two young children alone and brought Moon and June to the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home, an orphanage in Northwest Atlanta. Clinton worked as a handyman, and when time allowed he visited the kids on weekends. But he soon grew ill—Moon never learned the specifics—and died.

The children were well-fed and suitably clothed, sent to school and allowed time to play, but the orphanage staff never displayed the affection of a genuine family. There was no physical contact, no love, only the occasional toy or gift a child could call their own. “Everything belonged to the group, so when you got something, you didn’t let anyone touch it,” Moon said. One year, a relative sent him two dollars for his birthday. Rather than spend it, Moon tucked the money into an envelope that he kept nearby at all times. He slept with it under his pillow, hid it in his shoe when he showered, and carried it in his pocket when he went to school. “I said to myself, If you spend this, you’ll never have it again. So I just kept it,” he said.

In the summer of 1963, the year he turned 14, Moon and his sister found themselves in a visiting room where an aunt they’d met only once, Mary Kelley, was waiting for them. The siblings could barely believe it. “You accept you’re not leaving,” Moon recalled of life at the orphanage. “There’s no hope of going anywhere, unless a miracle happens.”

Kelley looked at each of them and asked if they wanted to come live with her in Pittsburgh. “It was shocking. The word adoption wasn’t in my vocabulary,” Moon said. It turned out that his father had maintained contact with relatives in Pennsylvania, who’d told Kelley that the kids needed a home. Kelley brought the children to her brick row house on Colwell Street, with a stoop and a white awning above the door.

Overnight, Moon had a mother and a father, security and love. He later described the adjustment as “traumatic,” because it was all so new, so intimate. He couldn’t remember ever being hugged or kissed before arriving in Pittsburgh. The three-bedroom house was crowded with seven people, including two stepbrothers and a stepsister. Moon’s uncle—now his adoptive father—supported everyone on his meager salary from a steel mill. Each night, Moon washed and folded his clothes so that he could wear them again the next day. It wasn’t a perfect life, but it was better than living on public assistance in a crumbling tenement, like some of his classmates at Fifth Avenue High did.

Wedged between downtown and the affluent, predominantly white Oakland neighborhood, the Hill had for 200 years served as the heart of black Pittsburgh. It once boasted a Negro League baseball team, with Satchel Paige on the mound; Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong played in the local jazz bars; and there was a black-owned newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, with national syndication. Then, in 1956, the future arrived with the heavy crash of a wrecking ball. As part of an effort to modernize, the city plowed through a large swath of the Hill to build a civic center with a vast, usually empty parking lot. The city razed 1,300 homes and businesses and displaced 8,000 people. Gutted and stripped, what remained of the Hill slumped into poverty. Crime arrived, and with it the stigma of being a black man who lived in the neighborhood and surely would amount to no good.

This was the environment that shaped Moon. He’d tried to ignore it but couldn’t escape the fact that the outside world saw him, simply because of where he lived, as an “unemployable,” a term used in the local press to describe residents of the neighborhood. “I really resented that label. It meant you were of no use,” Moon said.

Before the riots, Moon hoped that hard work and maybe a little luck would give him a shot at a good job, a house of his own, a life just a bit better than the one his adoptive parents had. After the fires of April 1968, as his neighbors swept up the ashes, he worried that hope didn’t apply to him. He saw how the city and the National Guard let the Hill burn. “As long as it didn’t affect the white or business areas, they stood by,” he said. “They didn’t care why we were rioting. They just kept it penned in.”

A few months later, with graduation behind him, Moon followed his adoptive father into the steel mills. He got a job loading massive metal coils onto railcars and sometimes operated a blast furnace. He worked six or seven days a week and spent his money on an expansive wardrobe. In his spare time, he strutted down the sidewalk in khaki pants and an alpaca sweater, his shoes buffed to a mirror shine. Gone was the kid who’d worn the same clothes every day.

At work he was in awe of the equipment and the blisteringly hot liquid metal, but he was unimpressed with the management, which was exclusively white. Sometimes there were layoffs due to a lack of work, and he’d find himself with nothing to do. The message was clear: If he wanted to get ahead, he’d have to go elsewhere. “So I left,” Moon said.

A relative suggested that he get a job as an orderly at Presbyterian-University Hospital, part of the University of Pittsburgh. In 1969, he completed a brief course on the basics of moving and washing patients, making beds, and following hospital policy. It wasn’t flashy work, but it was stable, and a lot less dangerous than the steel mill. “I could either use my head or my back,” Moon said. “I chose my head.” He soon realized that he enjoyed caring for people; it revealed empathy and compassion he hadn’t known he possessed. As he transported patients, they would peer up at him, their eyes projecting loneliness, fear, vulnerability. “I know what it’s like,” Moon said. “When I looked at those patients, I could feel for them.” He wanted to do more—to heal, to save, to be the miracle that unexpectedly entered a stranger’s life. During the 1968 riots, he’d seen where hopelessness led. He didn’t want to feel that way—and he didn’t want anyone else to, either.

One night in 1970, while walking in a hospital hallway, Moon saw two black men in white tunics pushing an empty stretcher. He’d never seen the men or their uniforms, which were affixed with patches reading “Freedom House Paramedics.” He stopped walking to get a better look as they passed by but caught only a glimpse before they were gone, off to whatever job they were doing. It looked important, far more so than what he did as an orderly. Later he saw the men again, this time rushing by with a stretcher loaded with a howling patient. Moon spun and watched as one of them flagged down a white doctor with a casual flick of the wrist—and the doctor actually followed. Just as fast as they’d come into the hospital, the men disappeared through a set of swinging doors.

Moon still didn’t know who they were, where they’d come from, or what exactly their job was. He knew only that here were two men who carried themselves as if they knew something no one else did. Cockiness isn’t uncommon in a hospital, as Moon well knew, but here was an attitude of complete confidence coming from someone who was black—from someone who looked just like him. Whatever a paramedic was, that’s what Moon wanted to be.

spotssafar3-1561506014-6.jpg
Peter Safar

Part II

John Moon wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what a paramedic was. Most people in America didn’t. Today the role is clearly defined: A paramedic is certified to practice advanced emergency medical care outside a hospital setting. They’re the people who shock hearts back into beating, insert breathing tubes into tracheas, and deliver pharmaceuticals intravenously whenever and wherever a patient is in need. Until the mid-1960s, however, the field of emergency medical services, or EMS, didn’t formally exist. Training was minimal; there were no regulations to abide by.

Emergency care was mostly a transportation industry, focused on getting patients to hospitals, and it was dominated by two groups: funeral homes and police departments. Call the local authorities for help and you’d likely get morticians in a hearse or cops in a paddy wagon. If you received any treatment en route to the hospital—and most likely you did not—it wouldn’t be very good. At best, one of the people helping may have taken a first-aid course. At worst, you’d ride alone in the back, hoping, if you were conscious, that you’d survive.

Standards for emergency care were so low that, in 1966, the federal government released a study reporting that a person was more likely to die from a highway accident in Kansas than from a gunshot wound in Vietnam. In a Southeast Asian rice paddy, a soldier could at least expect a medic to arrive and provide care where he’d fallen. An IV, bandages, pain meds—you could get them in the jungle, but not in an American city. Certainly not in a place like Pittsburgh, where the police ran the ambulance service and where calls to improve it, or to offer an alternative, had long been ignored. It took a very public death to open the door for change.

On the night of November 4, 1966, David Lawrence, a former mayor of Pittsburgh who’d also served as governor of Pennsylvania, collapsed on stage at a campaign rally. Someone called an ambulance and the police arrived. They put Lawrence onto a crude stretcher, loaded him into a paddy wagon, and drove ten minutes to Presbyterian-University Hospital, where he was met by Dr. Peter Safar, a wiry Austrian anesthesiologist. Lawrence had suffered a massive heart attack and showed no brain activity. His family ultimately decided to take him off life support.

Over the following weeks, as the city grieved, Dr. Safar stewed. The police had been poorly equipped. Safar concluded that, had they been driving an ambulance designed to enable crews to provide critical care, Lawrence might still be alive. CPR training could have helped, too. Safar would know. He’d all but invented it.

Born in Vienna in 1924, Safar was drafted into Adolf Hitler’s army despite his Jewish ancestry. In 1943, he was nearly sent to fight on the Eastern Front; he escaped deployment by smearing himself with an ointment that inflamed his eczema. He began studying medicine and emigrated to the United States in 1949. He settled in Baltimore, where he practiced medicine and studied resuscitation. Safar discovered that adding direct ventilation—now called mouth-to-mouth—to the already established practice of chest compressions exponentially increased the chance of survival for a patient in cardiac arrest. Though Safar is now hailed as the father of CPR, the medical establishment initially disagreed with his notion that the method could, maybe even should, be taught to private citizens. To prove them wrong, Safar paralyzed volunteers with curare, the compound used by Amazonian tribes to make poison-tipped arrows, and trained Boy Scouts kept them breathing using only mouth-to-mouth. Gradually, across America, ordinary people began using CPR.

In Pittsburgh, where Safar had moved in 1961, Lawrence’s death exacerbated the pain of personal heartbreak. In June 1966, Safar’s 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth suffered a severe asthma attack and stopped breathing. When Safar arrived at the hospital to take over his daughter’s care, he was able to restart her heart, but she never regained consciousness. Elizabeth, it turned out, had received no treatment en route to the hospital, and prolonged lack of oxygen led to brain death. The tragedy was a lasting source of regret for Safar; according to his son, it “cast a shadow over the family.” It also drove him to double down on his belief that providing medical care outside hospitals was critical. Some sick and injured patients simply couldn’t wait; the process of saving them had to start immediately.

Shortly after Lawrence’s death, Safar heard that Phil Hallen, a progressive activist and president of the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, a local philanthropy, had proposed the establishment of a city ambulance service, manned by specially trained technicians called paramedics. Safar invited Hallen to his office and unleashed a torrent of ideas. What if ambulances weren’t just crowded, repurposed cargo spaces but mobile intensive-care units, where paramedics could use portable cardiac monitors, administer medication, and perform CPR? Safar described how tall and wide ambulances should be, and how to position the seats inside to maximize patient care. He talked about installing automated suction units that could help clear blood and vomit from the mouth and lungs of an unconscious patient.

Together the two men hashed out a plan: Hallen would raise the money, Safar would contribute his medical expertise, and together they would design advanced ambulances and teach paramedics to provide care on the scene of an accident or emergency. It would be a pioneering medical effort, and Hallen, who was white, suggested another first. The Falk Fund was committed to mitigating racism, and Hallen wanted to staff the service with young black men from the Hill. He hoped that empowering individuals long deemed unemployable would be a source of pride in the black community, a symbol of equality, and a signal that bigoted notions about the black people of Pittsburgh standing in their own way were nonsense.

To help with recruitment, Hallen and Safar partnered with an organization called Freedom House Enterprises, a nonprofit dedicated to establishing and supporting black-run businesses in the city. Freedom House handled staffing for the fledgling ambulance service and recruited the first class of paramedics, including Vietnam veterans and men with criminal records. Though some of the recruits had an idea of what they’d signed up for, many were all but shanghaied off the streets of the Hill just hours before the classes that Safar had designed were scheduled to begin—Freedom House needed a set number of students to fully staff the service. Once they learned more about the opportunity, most of the impromptu recruits threw themselves into training.

After undergoing a battery of tests, including psychological evaluations and interviews with various medical professionals, the recruits embarked on Safar’s 32-week paramedic course, the first of its kind in the world. They learned about anatomy, physiology, CPR, advanced first aid, nursing, and even defensive driving—a must when piloting an ambulance. They completed internships at Pittsburgh’s morgue, with anesthesiologists in surgical settings, and in emergency rooms. Sometimes they were mistaken for orderlies and asked to mop the floor.

Call the local authorities for help and you’d likely get morticians in a hearse or cops in a paddy wagon. If you received any treatment en route to the hospital—and most likely you did not—it wouldn’t be very good.  

In the first two years, nearly 50 recruits completed the program and began working from a base of operations at Presbyterian-University Hospital. The medics of Freedom House—the name stuck—formally hit the streets in July 1968, a few months after the riots that erupted in the wake of King’s assassination. They served the Hill, Oakland, and downtown, operating two ambulances. In its first year, Freedom House responded to nearly 6,000 calls and was credited with saving more than 200 people from heart attacks, gunshot wounds, stabbings, and overdoses. In nearly every case, the paramedics arrived in less than ten minutes; often they got there much faster. Fewer than 2 percent of Freedom House’s patients died before they reached the hospital.

The city’s safety director called the service “excellent.” Still, it was forced to beg for public funding. “It was tricky, because nobody understood what we were doing,” Hallen said. Pittsburgh offered some money, but not enough to keep the service running, so Hallen turned to the private sector. When a contact at the Ford Foundation expressed confusion in a phone call about what Freedom House was, Hallen packed a few trainees into one of the ambulances, drove north to the foundation’s New York City office, and parked just outside its 43rd Street entrance. All day people climbed inside the ambulance and looked around. The trainees gave a CPR lesson. The road trip proved worthwhile: Freedom House got the money Hallen wanted.

John Moon was a lot like the curious New Yorkers. After spotting the paramedics for the first time, he watched them carefully whenever he saw them at the hospital—smoking cigarettes, joking with each other, filling out official-looking paperwork. He noted how, when their radios crackled, the men hopped into their ambulances and disappeared, sometimes into the dark, uncertain night. “I was in awe of them,” Moon said. “I had to join. It was almost like a calling.”

It took a few months, but in 1971 he finally worked up the courage to ask about joining their ranks. Sitting in an office chair across from Freedom House’s operations manager, Moon explained why he was there.

“Since I first saw you guys,” he said, “it’s all I’ve wanted to be.”

“A paramedic,” the operations manager replied.

Moon blinked. He still didn’t know the word. “I don’t know. I guess, yeah. I’ve been an orderly for a few years now and—”

The man cut him off.

“You don’t have the qualifications,” he said. “There’s no applying. You have to earn your way in.”

The man stood and shook Moon’s hand. “Go take the course,” he said. “Then we’ll talk.”

That’s how Moon found himself enrolled in emergency-medicine classes. They kicked his ass, but he didn’t care. “I had a specific goal in mind—to join Freedom House,” he said. When he finished the training and was finally given a white uniform, it was better than any alpaca sweater. “It was a very intense moment,” he said of slipping into the tunic for the first time. “A proud one. Like putting on a $500 suit. From that moment, taking care of people wasn’t something I did. It became who I was.”

Twelve hours after donning the uniform, Moon was speeding through Pittsburgh’s streets in the front seat of a Freedom House ambulance as a voice on the dispatch radio sounded in his ear, firing off details about a man who’d overdosed on heroin and was lying unconscious in the street. Behind the ambulance’s wheel was George McCary, who’d joined Freedom House in its earliest days—back in 1968, when his grandmother had threatened to kick him out of the house if he didn’t get a job. McCary was thick, with a rolling gait and an easy smile. There was nothing easy about Moon that day. “I was terrified,” he said.

McCary screeched to a halt outside a darkened building. As he grabbed his equipment, all Moon could see were the patient’s outstretched legs on the sidewalk; the man was surrounded by a crowd of anxious onlookers. McCary, who seemed to know everybody at the scene, quickly began to distract them. Moon found himself alone with the man on the ground. He dropped to his knees, checked for breathing, and found none. With shaking hands, he tore open the packaging of a reusable ventilator. Moon gave the patient a quick puff of air and saw his chest rise as his lungs filled. Moon looked over his shoulder. There was McCary—still talking, still smiling, keeping the crowd busy. Moon realized it was all part of the job. “We worked together for three years,” Moon later said. “I let him handle the crowds. He was happy-go-lucky. He knew everybody. He was like the mayor.”

After Moon pumped a few more breaths into the patient, he and McCary put the man on a stretcher and hurried him to the ambulance. Moon used the electric suction system—the kind Safar had dreamed of putting in ambulances—to clear the man’s airway. By the time they arrived at the hospital, the patient, who only minutes before had been limp, was very much alive. He was laughing with McCary.

Moon was on his way. So was Freedom House. The medics had proven themselves, and Safar was eager to ramp up their skill set and expand the service. He wanted it to cover all of Pittsburgh, and the county, too. With a note of optimism, Safar wrote in a letter to the city, “The time for action has come.”

spotsjohn3-1561506063-5.jpg
John Moon

Part III

Barreling down Fifth Avenue, the ambulance whooshed past vacant lots and houses with boarded-up windows. It was a grime-caked Chevy G20 van, 40,000 miles past its prime and riding on a set of bald whitewall tires. A piece of silver-colored trim had broken off, leaving a lonely trail of holes where rivets should have been. Its grill was punched in and hot to the touch. Painted on the van’s side were the words “Freedom House Ambulance.”

McCary drove with one hand as he ate a sandwich. Beside him sat Moon. It was 1974, and in the three years since joining Freedom House, Moon had grown an afro and a beard, though neither were full yet. He wore square-framed silver glasses that sat stylishly on his nose.

As the ambulance pulled onto the Presbyterian-University Hospital campus and into its usual parking spot, the engine shuddered and then stalled. Moon sighed and flung open his door, which let out an aggrieved moan.

Despite its early successes, Freedom House had struggled. It was undermanned and underfunded. The paramedics still weren’t working across the whole city. Pittsburgh would allow them to serve only those neighborhoods they’d started out in, and the service ran the majority of its calls in the Hill—a fact that elicited complicated emotions among the paramedics. They were bringing medical care to people in need, many of whom they’d grown up or gone to school with. Moon and the other paramedics had escaped the cycle of violence, drugs, and poverty that wracked the Hill, but now they were present for the darkest, sometimes final moments of people who had not.

Freedom House charged $25 to $50 per run but made very few collections; people struggling to buy daily necessities tended to ignore ambulance bills, and the paramedics weren’t about to chase them down. Management had to decide where to spend money. Or rather, where not to spend it. Ambulance repair was last on the priority list. Brakes and steering regularly locked up. Doors fell off their hinges. One crew reported that the bolts securing the passenger seat had jiggled loose; the seat, along with its occupant, had toppled over. At least once, an engine caught fire.

A bigger problem than unpaid bills was dwindling municipal support. Initially, the city had agreed to contribute $100,000 a year and to direct emergency calls that came into the police from the three designated neighborhoods to Freedom House. Then, in 1970, a new mayor took office. Pete Flaherty was tall and broad shouldered, the son of Irish immigrants. As a city councilman, he challenged his own party’s mayoral candidate and broke from the Democratic machine that had crowned every mayor since the Great Depression. Labeling himself Nobody’s Boy, the 45-year-old was a small-government fiscal conservative who lowered taxes and trimmed the city’s payroll. He strongly opposed public-private partnerships like Freedom House.

Flaherty halved the city’s contribution to the paramedics’ budget, even as Freedom House’s operating costs rose. Making matters worse, the city was chronically late delivering payments. In 1973, Freedom House received no municipal money—funds that were supposed to be paid out monthly—until November. Flaherty turned down offers for Freedom House to expand across the city, including into wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, where bill collection wouldn’t be such a challenge. The police already had those areas covered, the mayor said.

Moon and the other paramedics had escaped the cycle of violence, drugs, and poverty that wracked the Hill, but now they were present for the darkest, sometimes final moments of people who had not.

Safar and his staff presented data showing that the police provided subpar emergency care 62 percent of the time, compared with 11 percent for Freedom House. He blamed the city’s paddy wagons and the suburbs’ funeral-home hearses for 1,200 preventable deaths each year. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where journalist Dolores Frederick doggedly covered the ambulance wars, reported that the purchase price of Freedom House’s ambulances was $7,000 and that the paramedics made $153 per week. Police wagons cost $17,000—though, to be fair, they were used for multiple purposes—and the cops who drove them made $230 per week. Op-eds in the Post-Gazette accused Flaherty of trying to placate the police union.

In his memoirs, Safar would blame “racial prejudices with white police officers eager to maintain control of ambulances city-wide” for city hall’s treatment of Freedom House. Flaherty’s record on race was complex: Though he disbanded police tactical squads, whose reported brutality upset the black community, he also opposed school busing. Safar’s take seemed right to Moon. “I don’t know if Flaherty was racist,” he said, “or just head of a racist system.”

One morning, Moon walked into Freedom House’s glass-walled station, and the operations manager told him that there was a new policy: no more sirens when driving downtown.

“What?” Moon asked, incredulous.

“Mayor banned ’em. You get to the edge of downtown, turn ’em off.”

“For what?”

“They’re too loud,” the manager said dryly. “The noise is bothering the business community.”

Without use of the sirens, traffic wouldn’t move aside for the ambulances, which meant that police officers, who were still allowed to use theirs, could beat the paramedics to patients in need. And even when the paramedics did get to an emergency scene first, it didn’t always go well. On one run, Moon entered a large office building with a cardiac monitor, oxygen, and a jump kit on a stretcher, which he crammed into a small elevator. On the seventh floor, he followed a series of narrow hallways past sprawling offices until he found his patient sitting in a conference room, leaning forward, clasping her chest, most likely having a heart attack. The hope that flashed in her eyes at the sound of his approach disappeared when she registered Moon. She was white; he was black. She said she didn’t want him to touch her.

Moon had heard this before. He got down on one knee, looked into her eyes, and in his soft voice said, “Without care you’re going to die. And we’re the only ones here.” The woman acquiesced. Sometimes, though, patients didn’t.

Other cities saw the success of Freedom House’s model and copied it, among them Miami, Los Angeles, and Jacksonville, Florida. Even Flaherty couldn’t deny that medical history was on Freedom House’s side. In 1974, the mayor announced a plan to institute a citywide emergency-care system, complete with state-of-the-art ambulances staffed by paramedics. Rather than absorb the groundbreaking company of black paramedics, however, Flaherty proposed training police officers. Freedom House would remain funded through the end of the year. After that the money would be gone for good.

Moon tried to ignore the politics. “I knew it was going on, but I was focused on the patients,” he said. “That’s what mattered.” Some paramedics were angry. “If this was a mostly white operation,” Eugene Key brooded at the time, “I don’t think this would be happening.” The men weren’t alone. Some public officials confronted Flaherty. “We must continue the Freedom House ambulance service and hopefully expand it,” city council member Eugene DePasquale wrote in an op-ed, adding that asking police to do more work “would be stretching the department too thin.” Flaherty retreated in the face of pressure, but only a step. He agreed to fund Freedom House for an additional year. Then, he said, the police would take over for good, running a half-dozen brand-new vehicles the press dubbed “super ambulances.”

Safar was close to giving up. He even recommended in a letter to the Freedom House board that the service stop accepting money and be “permitted to die a dignified death.” However, in the fall of 1974, just as the project seemed to be on its last leg, Safar began serving on a committee convened by President Gerald Ford to coordinate the development of national emergency-care standards. The committee explored the idea of giving a grant to a single paramedic service, which would serve as a testing ground and pilot program for the rest of the country. As one of only five people on the committee, Safar would’ve known about the grant. He may have reasoned that if Freedom House won it, the service would receive enough recognition to persuade Flaherty not to shut it down.

There was a problem, though: Freedom House had been fighting to keep the lights on while Safar simultaneously ran the anesthesiology department at the University of Pittsburgh, so the paramedics’ proficiency level hadn’t advanced far beyond their initial training. They couldn’t yet intubate patients, for instance, and lacking consistent medical supervision, their discipline and skills were slipping. Safar knew that winning the grant would require tough, tireless leadership that he couldn’t provide. Yet every doctor he asked to train and oversee the medics said no.

So he turned to a stranger. Through the hospital grapevine, he heard that a medical fellow was curious about ambulances. Her name was Nancy Caroline, and though she was young, her résumé was impressive. She’d finished high school early and attended Harvard’s prestigious all-female affiliate, Radcliffe College, graduating summa cum laude in 1966. Amid the rigors of medical school, she’d found time to write poetry and make a surrealist film; she’d also taken a brief sabbatical to study under Noam Chomsky at the University of California at Berkeley. Safar immediately dispatched three of his senior staff at the hospital to sell the 31-year-old with straight brown hair and an electric smile on the idea of Freedom House.

Caroline was in the ICU checking on patients when the doctors approached her.

“Dr. Safar has a challenging job for you,” one of them said.

Caroline paused before answering. “I already have one,” she said.

Safar wanted her to serve as the new medical director of Freedom House, the doctors explained. Caroline shifted her weight. She knew of Safar. Every young doctor in the hospital was simultaneously awed and intimidated by the harried physician who breezed by in his white jacket and threadbare slacks. But she’d met him only once, for just a second, and she’d never heard of the organization Safar’s staff were describing.

“What’s Freedom House?” she asked.

“They’re a group of EMTs.”

Caroline knitted her brow. “What’s an EMT?”

One of the doctors thrust a bundle of documents into her hands. “You’ll love it,” he said.

He was right, even if he didn’t realize it. Caroline was restless by nature and hadn’t found her professional groove in Pittsburgh. She lived in a small apartment and kept a diary documenting her dissatisfaction. “Rain the interminable,” she wrote one day, describing Pittsburgh’s bleak weather. “The endless gray saps my energies, replacing them with a … longing … without an objective.” She wrote of wanting “meaning to overtake my existence.” As her brother Peter once said, Caroline was also “a born contrarian.” She relished a challenge. “The best way to get her to do something is to tell her she can’t,” he said.

The paperwork Safar’s staffer gave Caroline described nearly seven years of Freedom House’s complicated, acrimonious history. As she pored over the pages, she was impressed by the program’s promise and shocked by the city’s unrelenting opposition. She finished reading and dashed off a memo to Safar. She asked how much of her time the job of medical director would take and what it would pay, and she said that she didn’t want to be a paper pusher. She wanted to treat patients, “be that in an ER, helicopter, truck, bicycle, or whatever.”

Safar assured her she would be doing important, hands-on work. Caroline accepted.

It was December 1974, and when she told fellow doctors the news, they shook their heads apologetically. “It’s really not as bad as it seems,” one told her.

spotsnancy3-1561506130-47.jpg
Nancy Caroline

Part IV

January 1975 arrived with an icy, stinging wind. Caroline’s first encounter with Freedom House was painful, too, laden with bias and suspicion. Writing about it later, she described “three very imposing, bearded, machismo characters who might easily have passed for the Black Mafia” appearing in her office door. The men, supervisors of the emergency service, had come to present their grievances to the new boss. Caroline was so intimidated that she didn’t hear a word they said. She simply nodded, her mind reeling, until they left.

The paramedics’ reaction to Caroline was little better. When the operations manager announced her hiring, the men were incredulous. That a woman—a white woman—would be in charge didn’t make sense or seem fair. What could she teach them? They wondered if she could possibly understand the racism and condescension that stood in Freedom House’s way.

Her goal was to prepare Freedom House to win the federal grant that would allow it to make medical history and hopefully save the service from closure. She listened to the paramedics’ radio chatter, read the reports the men wrote after each call, and ventured into the field with them. What she found was chaos. Each paramedic seemed to operate according to instinct rather than any common standard. One day, Caroline joined Moon when he brought a patient into the emergency room. While giving his report to a nurse, he struggled to explain the medical history, the findings, and his actions. After a few minutes, the doctor just walked away. “It was humiliating,” Moon said.

Caroline knew that communication mattered; fairly or not, medical professionals took people seriously only if they used the right words and cadence. Caroline began what she later called an Orwellian reign of terror, keeping eyes and ears on everything the paramedics did and pushing them to improve. “We were all scared of her,” Moon said. “She was everywhere. Anything you did, you’d have to explain to her.” Caroline used the service’s radio to insert herself into every emergency call. There wasn’t a single case of Freedom House deploying to the Hill in early 1975 that wasn’t haunted by Caroline’s disembodied voice.

Caroline instituted weekly debriefings where medics stood before their peers to have every detail of a case questioned and reviewed. “All you knew was that they were going to take one of your calls and critique it,” Moon said. “But you had no idea which one it would be. You had to be ready for anything.” In one of the meetings, Caroline selected a call in which Moon responded to a patient with chest pain. The questions came in a flurry: Why hadn’t he double-checked the patient’s vitals? How much oxygen had Moon given? Had he checked if the neck veins were distended? No? Why not? What did the EKG read? “It required only a month or two to establish the necessary paranoia,” Caroline later wrote.

She wasn’t always so tough. On one occasion, Moon recalled, she noticed him staring intently at an EKG monitor—those squiggles had always vexed him, and he couldn’t get a read on them as fast as he wanted. Caroline gave him a quick, thorough set of pointers. “The simplicity of her explanation was amazing,” Moon said. He was soon able to distinguish between first-, second- and third-degree heart blockages at a glance.

When Caroline wasn’t checking the paramedics’ work or leading training in advanced life support—the kinds of skills that would help the service win the grant—she was begging Freedom House’s board of directors for new equipment or doing rounds at Pitt’s hospital, where she was technically still a fellow. “Too many cigarettes,” she wrote in her diary. “Too little sleep. A state of strange lucidity. The mind outdistances itself and is forever doubling back to pick up stray thoughts.” Safar wrote to Caroline, reminding her that she’d volunteered for the job, which was now consuming her to the point that she often slept on a cot at Freedom House’s headquarters. “Certain of your remarks,” she fired back, “warrant comment.” Most disturbing, she wrote, was the “implication that I was given a position for which others were clamoring.… I took a job no one else wanted.”

Caroline struggled to connect with the paramedics. They didn’t know, for instance, that 1975 had started with a personal loss. Caroline had received a call about her fiancé, who lived in Boston. He’d been found dead in his apartment near Massachusetts General Hospital. The death was ruled a suicide, though Caroline had trouble believing it. This “massive dose of human tragedy,” Caroline later wrote, left her “entirely fed up and disillusioned with mankind.” She felt lost and alone, in need of salvation.

She found something like it one day around lunchtime, just as everyone at Freedom House’s station was getting hungry. A man was having a heart attack, and before the dispatcher was even done talking, Caroline was up and out the door. She was followed by paramedics. They rocketed through the Hill in an ambulance and pulled up to a crowd of cops and bystanders, but no patient. Someone pointed to an open manhole. The man was underground. A cop, smirking, said, “It’s a perfect job for Freedom House.”

Whatever flashed in the paramedics’ eyes—hurt, anger—Caroline registered it. She faced them. “Ready?” she asked. Walt Brown, one of the responders that day, spread his arms wide: “After you, doc.”

One by one, the group squeezed through the hole and descended from the mild sunshine of a winter’s day to the dank gloom of a sewer. They found their patient ten yards away, in full cardiac arrest. Caroline started ventilating, and Brown administered compressions. The man needed to have his heart shocked. “Stand very clear,” Caroline instructed the paramedics as she placed the paddles on the patient’s chest; there was ankle-deep water beneath them. They nervously held their breath as Brown hit the shock button. The man arced and stiffened, then came to rest. The group turned to the cardiac monitor they’d brought with them. His heart was beating.

Freedom House had brought a man back to life deep beneath the city’s streets, working in the dim halo of lamplight. Now they had to get him aboveground. They put him on a portable stretcher to haul him straight up through the manhole, but he wouldn’t fit. A city sewage worker who’d led the paramedics to the patient said he thought there was another, larger hole not far away. Off they went, Caroline later wrote, “a little band of pilgrims wandering through the bowels” of Pittsburgh—the city employee up front with a lamp, Caroline behind him holding the medical equipment, then Walt Brown and George McCary carrying the stretcher and the patient, who was now breathing on his own. They walked for several blocks; they got lost, they got wet. Eventually, they made their way back to the world, blinking in the sun.

The call complete, McCary looked at Caroline. They hadn’t had their lunch. “You hungry?” he asked, carefree as ever.

Brown slowly turned his head to take in what was happening. The men didn’t normally eat with the boss.

“I know this place,” McCary continued, “biggest fish sandwiches in Pittsburgh.”

There was a silence that seemed to stretch forever. Then, nodding, Caroline said, “I’d eat one of those.”

“You’re gonna like it,” McCary said, bobbing his head. “Place is legit.”

Red lights bounced off the tenement’s cracked walls and gave Bedford Avenue, crowded with people, the feel of a disco gone wrong. Half a block away, someone was whistling a slow tune. Caroline emerged from the ambulance, joining Moon at the bottom of the steps leading into a building. She followed his gaze to the ground, where a small dark puddle had pooled.

“Blood?” Caroline asked.

Moon nodded. “Looks like it.”

The blood led them up the steps, then disappeared behind a door, into the dark recesses of an apartment. They followed it inside and to the kitchen, which smelled of garbage. A bare lightbulb reflected off broken windows and cast shadows across rotting timbers. Children ran in and out of the room as an old woman shrieked. In a corner, a shirtless drunk man smoked a cigarette, staring idly at another man who lay unconscious on the floor in a widening pool of his own blood. The old woman stammered that the man had been stabbed. Moon dropped to his knees to cut open the patient’s pants. Blood spurted from his thigh, covering Moon’s hands and soaking the white cuffs of his jacket. Moon bandaged the wound, then slipped on military anti-shock trousers; once inflated, they compressed to stabilize a fracture or stem a hemorrhage. The bleeding stopped.

Back in the ambulance, Moon started an IV, and the man recovered consciousness enough to say that his girlfriend had hit him in the head with a bat before stabbing him. Moon looked behind the man’s ear and found bruising, the telltale sign of a basilar skull fracture. His stomach sank—in the midst of all the blood in the apartment, he hadn’t assessed the man’s body to identify other possible injuries. Moon looked at Caroline, who shot him a smile of encouragement. He was doing well, making progress.

Moon presented a perfect report on what he’d found in the field—including an EKG reading. The admitting doctor, a white man, stood in stunned silence as Moon walked away.

It was mid-February 1975, and Freedom House’s transformation was in full swing. Caroline had followed the paramedic crews, and she knew how hard they worked. She trusted them, and they’d begun to trust her, too. “She became one of us,” Moon said. Caroline suspected that the cops were withholding emergency calls in Freedom House’s coverage area, so she programmed the police frequency into the service’s radio. When Moon or another paramedic heard a call come in—a low squawk emanating across the airwaves—he’d sprint out the door to an ambulance, turn the key, yank the gear stick, and stomp the gas. The vans didn’t have power steering, so the drivers had to wrestle them up and down Pittsburgh’s hills, shoulder muscles screaming all the way. The brakes barely functioned and had to be pumped repeatedly. After quaking to a stop, the men would jump out, grab their equipment, and hope to reach the patient just as the police—bewildered, pissed—arrived on the scene. Moon said he’d flash his most apologetic smile and say with a shrug, “Happened to be in the neighborhood.”

Under Caroline’s leadership, Moon and the other paramedics dived into more than 200 hours of lectures, demonstrations, and practical sessions in hospital units and labs. Doctors and nurses at Pitt got used to seeing a brash young woman trailed by a cluster of black men breezing through the halls. One afternoon, Moon and Caroline delivered a patient from a call together, and Moon presented a perfect report on what he’d found in the field—including an EKG reading. The admitting doctor, a white man, stood in stunned silence as Moon walked away.

The paramedics practiced intubation on mannequins and dead dogs. If they could master that skill, it would be a game changer. Moon was the first among them to try his hand at a real patient. He was summoned one day to a hospital operating room; he felt a knot form in his stomach as his mouth went dry and his hands became damp with perspiration. A sedated patient, prepped for surgery, lay on a gurney. Safar stood nearby. Moon’s eyes darted to the steel surgical tray where the intubation equipment was neatly laid out, waiting for him.

“You have 30 seconds to intubate,” Safar said. “Go.”

Moon tilted the patient’s head back and grasped the cold metal of the laryngoscope in his left hand. He slipped its curved, blunt blade into the patient’s mouth to lift the tongue and get a view of the vocal cords—the gateway to the trachea. He couldn’t see them. The clock was ticking. Safar was watching. If Moon got this wrong, he could insert the breathing tube into the esophagus, dangerously inflating the patient’s stomach. Beads of sweat formed on Moon’s neck.

He caught sight of the cords. Not daring to take his eyes off them, he reached for the next piece of equipment—an endotracheal tube—with his right hand. He slipped it into the patient’s mouth and passed it between the vocal cords. Then he removed the laryngoscope and looked up. A second doctor pumped air into the patient’s chest while Safar checked to make sure the patient’s lungs inflated. The tube was in place. It had taken Moon less than 20 seconds to get it there.

The paramedics had heard the rumors circulating around Pittsburgh. That they were running craps games in the back of the ambulances. That they were selling drugs. That $25,000 had gone missing from Freedom House’s budget. “Twenty-five grand?” Moon spat the first time he heard that one. “That’s like a million dollars around here. This place would go under immediately.”

The rumors might have been ridiculous, but they didn’t surprise Moon. “Freedom House was successful,” he said. “You look inside the vehicle, you see who’s in there, and you discredit the organization.” The men and Caroline all hoped that validation was forthcoming—the kind that would silence critics once and for all.

To show off Freedom House’s advanced skills and unflagging work ethic, Caroline decided that, as part of an international symposium on emergency medicine that took place in Pittsburgh each year, the paramedics would conduct a disaster drill. She wanted some of the best doctors in the world to see for themselves what Freedom House was capable of. It would go a long way toward the organization winning the coveted federal grant, which would be announced in July 1975. Bigger cities were vying for the money, too. Freedom House needed to put on a show.

It was a hasty decision, and Caroline immediately regretted it. She drew up a detailed script for staging a car crash, choreographing where to place fake patients in various states of emergency. Caroline had trouble getting city permits to stage the drill, convincing the police to provide crowd control, securing wrecked vehicles to set the scene, and then finding someone to tow them to the site. Worst of all, perhaps, was the pressure: If Freedom House failed—if the men were humiliated at the symposium—it would likely be shuttered before the year was out.

The rehearsals went terribly. The paramedics were accustomed to real emergencies, to improvisation, not to memorizing what amounted to a detailed dance. They performed the wrong care on patients, used the wrong equipment. The men and Caroline were certain they were screwed.

May 9 broke warm and clear. By noon, with the sun directly overhead, the temperature was in the upper seventies. A light wind blew. It was silent outside the downtown Hilton except for the shuffle of feet. Before an expectant crowd of nearly 100 people, spread out across a city block, was a collage of wrecked vehicles and 14 critically injured patients. Caroline felt frozen in place, terrified, as she watched the drill begin. Feedback squealed through speakers as one of her colleagues stepped forward and read from his script. After describing the horrific accident before the crowd, the doctor presented each of the victims’ injuries in excruciating detail—where and how they were broken open and bleeding, who was likely to die without immediate and expert care.

“If this happens in your town,” he read, “would your community be able to respond?”

The distant wail of a siren split the air. The sound grew closer, and a Freedom House ambulance rounded the corner. Two paramedics sprang out. After assessing the scene, they called four additional units. At the five-minute mark, Moon threw his truck into park and hit the street running. From the corner of his eye he could see the crowd. He reached the patient he was supposed to treat and quickly dropped to his knees.

Caroline watched as, like Moon, each paramedic hit their mark. Patients were triaged into four categories: critical, urgent, non-urgent, and deceased. In about 20 minutes, more than a dozen people were treated and transported away. For the audience, it was like glimpsing the future—one in which trained technicians dispatched into the field handled even complicated medical crises with speed, skill, and proficiency. If medics everywhere were able to do exactly this, how many lives could be saved? According to James O. Page, a pioneer and historian of emergency medicine, word quickly spread that Freedom House paramedics were “the most skilled and sophisticated in the nation.”

After the drill, Caroline sat by herself and smoked a cigarette. She felt victorious but frazzled. She watched as the crowd of doctors and experts fawned over the black paramedics from the Hill. “I found myself among these genuine, warm human beings,” she later wrote in her diary. “I have chastised them, praised them, berated them, laughed with them, cried with them. I have met their wives and husbands and parents and children. They have kept me alive.”

Now, it appeared, she’d returned the favor. A few weeks after the symposium, Freedom House won the federal grant. It would develop the first nationally recognized standards for emergency training and medical practice by paramedics. “We did something no one thought we could,” Moon said. “To have jumped those barriers, proved everyone wrong? Nobody could take away what we did or the pride we had.” Surely, he thought, Pittsburgh would agree.

spotsdev4-1561554806-15.jpg

Part V

Moon was wrong.

The grant would be processed through city hall, and despite its huge strides, Mayor Flaherty still saw Freedom House as expendable. That summer he announced that Pittsburgh would develop a citywide paramedic service manned by civilian medics, not the police. Freedom House wasn’t part of the plan. The city would terminate funding and the agreement to direct calls to the service before the end of 1975. Pittsburgh’s new paramedic force would be built from scratch. The city began hiring replacements, all of whom were white.

Caroline was offered the job of medical director. Safar, too, had been left out of the city’s planning—seemingly on purpose—but he urged her to accept. She resisted. “I must be the last to abandon the sinking ship,” she wrote in a letter to Safar. “You entrusted me with Freedom House, and I will see it through to its conclusion.”

Leveraging her position as the only person in Pittsburgh with direct experience running an advanced ambulance service, she told Flaherty that she would accept the job only if the Freedom House medics and dispatchers were hired alongside her. “There are 30 human beings at stake in the present power shuffle, and they count for more than any title the city or the university could bestow on me,” she wrote. She also asked that the city do its best to keep the crews together and that, on the day of the official changing of the guard, it arrange a formal ceremony to acknowledge the service Freedom House had provided Pittsburgh.

“Anxious to avoid confrontation and another ambulance controversy in the press,” as Caroline later wrote, Flaherty agreed to her demands, with one exception: There would be no ceremony, no announcement, no official recognition of what Freedom House had accomplished. Moon and the other paramedics were in shock. “It was as if Freedom House never existed,” he said.

All that remained was to close down Freedom House’s station. One day in the fall of 1975, shortly before the doors were locked, Caroline sat quietly in the front seat of a worn-out ambulance—not out of necessity, but out of devotion. As the sun streamed through the windshield and baked the cab, a frantic cry went out over the radio. A pedestrian had been struck by a car in Squirrel Hill, one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, one that Freedom House had never been allowed to serve. The mayor would only allow the police to cover it.

“There’s pieces of his leg all over the street!” the officer yelled into his radio. “Send Freedom House!”

Before Caroline could react, the cop came back over the airwaves to say that an ambulance had arrived on the scene, from somewhere else in the city. The dispatcher asked if she should cancel the call to Freedom House. Caroline listened in weighted silence. Finally, the air crackled as the policeman keyed up his radio once more. The medics on-site were panicking, he said. “We need someone here who knows what the hell they’re doing!”

Caroline started the engine and hit the gas.

As midnight approached on October 15, the crew room was silent. Moon stood near the front wall of glass, staring out at the night sky. The expressionless faces of his unexpected, acquired family, scattered across the space behind him, were reflected before him. Freedom House manager Bob Zepfel, a big man in a red polo shirt, grabbed the phone and dialed the Pittsburgh police dispatcher.

Freedom House had received a private letter from city hall thanking the medics for their cooperation during “this difficult period.” Flaherty had closed his brief missive with the line, “This letter will serve to acknowledge the service that has been rendered.” Caroline wrote her own letter to the staff. “You’ve taken a dream and made it real,” she began. “For many of you, this is the end of a grand adventure, the end of a dream that was born eight years ago.… And if you take with you into the future the dedication and spirit and pride which you have shown in your work here, you will keep alive all that is meaningful and important about Freedom House.”

Zepfel gripped the receiver as the medics, wearing their white jackets, looked on. “This is Mr. Zepfel, manager of Freedom House Ambulance Service,” he said when dispatch answered. “It is now 11:59 p.m. As agreed with the City of Pittsburgh, we are now going off the air.”

Twenty-six Freedom House employees went to work for the city after that final night together. Twelve months later, less than half remained. “They were forced to hire Freedom House,” Moon said. “They weren’t forced to keep us.”

In some cases, the city broke its promises to Caroline. In others, it made it all but impossible for the men to stay. Paramedics were separated from crew members they’d worked with for years. Some were weeded out with new pass-fail exams; those who made the cut were often shunted to positions that didn’t reflect their qualifications. Moon wasn’t allowed to treat patients without prior approval from the highest-ranking employee on the scene of an accident—almost always someone who had less experience than he did. Not even Caroline was immune: City officials quietly pushed her toward the door, and she left the job as medical director in 1976.

Caroline went on to write the first textbook on EMS training. She moved to Israel in 1977 and founded that country’s national ambulance system. She flew medical relief missions to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, and Ethiopia, then returned to Israel to start its first palliative-care program. In 2002, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. She spent her final days in her own hospice center, where she died at the age of 58. She maintained a close friendship with Safar until the end. He died the following year, at age 79, after being nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine three times.

John Moon stayed on with Pittsburgh’s paramedic service. He officially retired in 2009—his last role was as an assistant chief—and started running a home health-care business with his daughter. He was proud of playing a small part in nudging American medicine into the future, even if it had been cut short, and even if most people didn’t know about it. “No one imagined the impact Freedom House would have. Generations of paramedics have carried on what we started. That’s our legacy,” Moon said. “We want to be included in the history, to have a voice.”

Moon didn’t live in the Hill anymore. Still, on occasion he pointed his Cadillac toward the old neighborhood and bombed through the rolling streets. In the adrenaline rush were all the memories of Freedom House—of radio calls and heart shocks and EKG readings and blood and death and triumph and brotherhood. Since the service answered its first call, the world had changed so much, and not enough.