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February 6, 2000

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 Carr.]

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
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 wasn’t working. Once inside, Ferrechio went straight to Anigbo’s 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 school’s 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.

Ferrechio’s 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 stone’s 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.

Ferrechio’s 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 Ferrechio’s 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 tensions.

“This is not about race,” says Times Editor in Chief Wesley Pruden. “This is a First Amendment issue, No. 1. And No. 2, it’s 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 shouldn’t 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.” (It’s worth mentioning that cultural nationalist Garvey was a journalist by profession.)

Sherwood thinks District residents are tiring of both the message and the messenger.

“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 Anigbo’s 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 reporter’s 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 wouldn’t be much of a story,” he says.

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 Post’s 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 can’t 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 haven’t 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 isn’t likely to say she’s 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 school’s namesake, Marcus Garvey students learn that black emancipation begins with racial pride and solidarity. Now Anigbo’s every hire and her personal history are getting the full pat-down, but efforts to portray her as a crackpot aren’t 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.

Anigbo’s 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 couldn’t 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.

"We’d like to get this resolved as soon as possible," the source continued. "We don’t want to see this case fester and increase racial divisions in the community.” Of course, those horses have already left the barn.

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