How to Build a Bonfire
by David Carr
The Washington City Paper, Paper Trail, December 13, 1996, Page 13
(reprinted by permission)
[This article is referred to in messages in themail by Bryce Suderow and David
Let no trouble worry you;
Keep cool, keep cool!
Just be brave and ever true;
Keep cool, keep cool!
If they'd put you in a flame,
Though you should not bear the blame,
Do not start to raising cane,
Keep cool, Keep cool
composed by Marcus Garvey
So far this year 155 assaults have taken place in the D.C. public schools.
Kids have been shot and stabbed; teachers have been pushed, shoved, and beaten bloody.
Schoolyard violence is so commonplace, in fact, that it rarely makes a big splash in the
local dailies. A particularly grisly stabbing may merit a blurb, and a locker-room
homicide a small Metro story.
But over the past week the dailies have filled their Metro pages with a
school-violence drama with no stabbing, no shooting, and no blood just some pushing
and shoving in a school hallway. No arrests were made. What could possibly vault a ho-hum
event like this into the headlines? The victim was a journalist, simple as that. The
reporter was white; the alleged perpetrators were black. If you were going to come up with
a scenario for how a small incident becomes a major racial issue, Dec. 3 at the Marcus
Garvey Public Charter School would be a good place to start.
Just after 3 p.m., Washington Times reporter Susan Ferrechio
entered Marcus Garvey in Northeast through an unlocked door. Ferrechio, 28, had previously
written favorable pieces on charter schools, including Marcus Garvey. Before she went to
the school, Ferrechio tried to notify Marcus Garvey principal Mary A.T. Anigbo of her
intention to visit the school, but the phone wasnt working. Once inside, Ferrechio
went straight to Anigbos office, where a secretary asked a student to escort
Ferrechio to the classroom where Anigbo was teaching. As they walked, Ferrechio
interviewed the student and took notes, until they were called back to the office by the
secretary, who said that the principal would be along shortly. Anigbo entered and was
informed by the secretary that Ferrechio had been taking notes. The principal immediately
demanded the legal pad. Ferrechio, who had a month of reporting in the pad, offered to
give up the notes on the student, but not the entire pad. A struggle ensued. Others in the
office staff and students reportedly began pushing and shoving Ferrechio.
Anigbo succeeded in getting the notebook, and the reporter was forcibly escorted off the
premises. She phoned her editor, who called the police and sent another reporter and a
photographer to the scene.
The police arrived and entered the building to retrieve the notebook, and
the photographer began shooting photos of people Ferrechio says assaulted her. The staff
and principal were enraged by the picture-taking and began scuffling with the police. The
cops and the Times people eventually left. The next day, the Times
published a story headlined Principal, pupils attack reporter.
That Thursday, a Times editorial proposed revoking the
schools charter. The next day, Anigbo hosted a press conference and suggested that
the notebook was hers and that Ferrechio had attacked students with Mace and a knife. Ben
Chavis, Malik Zulu Shabazz, and Willie Wilson showed up to make sure that everyone
understood the racial implications of the spat; they profiled and talked about a
series of civil rights violations. The U.S. Attorney, sensing big trouble, decided
the following Monday to send the case to a grand jury instead of simply charging it out.
On Tuesday, a week to the day after the incident, a small fire was discovered in the
basement of Marcus Garvey, and the students were evacuated.
Ferrechios scuffle marks the third time in a month that reporters
working on D.C. school stories in a three-block area around Marcus Garvey have been
attacked. In early November, a cameraman for Fox News was roughed up while shooting a
story at McKinley High School, which is just a stones throw away from Marcus Garvey.
And WTOP-AM reporter Alan Etter was jumped on Nov. 14 outside McKinley after gathering
information for a story about a stabbing that had occurred the day before.
I can honestly say that there are some reporters who are concerned
about going to public schools, says Michelle Komes, news director at WTOP. It
has been a concern. At this point, we send two reporters if they need that to feel
safe. Those rules of engagement sound like a game plan for covering Bosnia, not a
place where many District residents send their kids every day to fend for themselves.
Ferrechios story puts a megaphone in front of safety concerns in
District schools, but she was victimized precisely because of who she is: a white
reporter. Conflicts are bound to occur when you have a disproportionately white profession
covering a failing, majority-black school system. The community resents the hell out of
the newsies who parachute in every time there is blood on the walls, and Ferrechios
encounter with Anigbo just lanced the boil of suppurating antagonism. Hard times
often breed racial and ethnic conflict, said D.C. House Delegate Eleanor Holmes
Norton last week. Norton called for a ceasefire and mediation to diffuse growing racial
This is not about race, says Times Editor in Chief
Wesley Pruden. This is a First Amendment issue, No. 1. And No. 2, its also
about the right of any citizen, whether they are a hairdresser or a reporter, not to be
set upon when they enter a school in this city.
Our reporter went to that school armed with nothing more than her
note pad, a pen, her goodwill, and her curiosity. She was then set upon by a small mob led
by a school principal....I am very disappointed that this is becoming a racial
issue, Pruden says.
Tom Sherwood, longtime District affairs reporter for WRC-TV Channel 4,
thinks the Times shouldnt be surprised.
You cannot drain the color out of this story, because that is why it
happened, says Sherwood. This school, which is called the Marcus Garvey School
after all, is not a very hospitable place for a white reporter. (Its worth
mentioning that cultural nationalist Garvey was a journalist by profession.)
Sherwood thinks District residents are tiring of both the message and the
I think that racial tension in the city is much higher, and what
happened at the school is part of that. It is black people that are being downsized and
having their benefits eliminated. They feel they are under assault and the have the
feeling that the Congress and the media are against them, Sherwood says.
Sherwood says that while he is in no way justifying Anigbos action,
he points out that reporters, black or white, are not universally welcomed inside many
District schools, chartered or not. I once went into Sidwell Friends School and was
met by two beefy security guards that made it clear that I would be moved along if I did
not leave immediately. In this instance, the principal saw the reporters presence as
an invasion and responded in a way that created some problems.
And because it was a reporter who got roughed up at the school, Sherwood
believes the incident received play beyond its merits.
The very fact that reporters were the alleged victims blows the
story up. If it were a parent or some nobody, this wouldnt be much of a story,
Jo-Ann Armao, assistant managing editor for metropolitan news at the Washington
Post, says she initially resisted giving the incident big play.
There were a lot of discussions here about how we played the story,
and some of the people thought it was important because the incident occurred while the
reporter was doing their job, but we decided to not make a big deal out of it, Armao
says. The Posts first story ran on Page 3 of Metro, but once the charges
and countercharges began to fly, the Post jumped in.
After days of flamethrowing, the Times stepped off the gas in its
coverage and its rhetoric, perhaps sensing that winning the battle would put them in a
hell of a war. But on Wednesday of this week, they ran a Page One story about a
10-year-old charge against Anigbo that was never pursued by the U.S. Attorney a
fact worth mentioning, but certainly not on Page One. The Times knows that a
large-scale racial melodrama is not good for the city or the news business, but the paper
apparently cant help itself.
Even though it continues to throw lightning bolts in print, the Times
seems to be looking for a way out. Both Pruden and Bruce Sanford, a lawyer for the Times from the law firm of Baker & Hostetler (Washington
City Paper has used Sanford as well) mentioned that an apology from Anigbo might be a
good place to start, a clear indication that early words about pursuing every legal
remedy have cooled. Bear in mind that we havent filed anything,
Pruden reminded. (Even as they were hinting at some sort of olive branch, Pruden and
Sanford made it clear that Ferrechio was injured in the scuffle, suffering bruises to her
legs and arms, along with a sore neck from having her hair pulled.)
But Anigbo isnt likely to say shes sorry anytime soon. Her
charter school, which is just 3 months old, was founded in an effort to teach young black
men ages 8-14 that they should never apologize for who they are. In the spirit of the
schools namesake, Marcus Garvey students learn that black emancipation begins with
racial pride and solidarity. Now Anigbos every hire and her personal history are
getting the full pat-down, but efforts to portray her as a crackpot arent going to
work. She is a former teacher with a doctorate in the psychology of education from Howard
University who ran a school in her house before the Republicans in Congress mandated the
formation of charter schools.
Anigbos version of the events of last week lacked consistency
Ferrechio went from mere trespasser to knife-and-racial-epithet wielder in a span of days.
However, her press conference created enough uncertainty to prompt U.S. Attorney Eric
Holder to hand the hot potato to a grand jury, instead of simply prosecuting the case. The
decision was politics of the most pragmatic sort and has nothing to do with standard
criminal procedure: His office said it couldnt recall any school assaults that have
gone to a grand jury. And misdemeanors, which probably include what took place at Marcus
Garvey, are almost never handled by grand juries.
Speaking from the distant end of a 10-foot pole, a federal law-enforcement
official was candid about the community dynamics at work.
The ultimate decision will come from a grand jury. We thought it was
important to get a sense of what the community felt an appropriate resolution will be.
Emotions are running high, and we need to know what degree of seriousness we should place
on this, the source said.
"Wed like to get this resolved as soon as possible," the
source continued. "We dont want to see this case fester and increase racial
divisions in the community. Of course, those horses have already left the barn.