OP­POR­TU­NITY TO CHANGE

A decade af­ter my bad judg­ment hurt Buf­falo’s Black com­mu­nity, the les­son res­onates

Calgary Herald - - BOOKS - MAR­GARET SUL­LI­VAN Wash­ing­ton Post

I think it was around the time that a com­mu­nity ac­tivist started burn­ing copies of the Buf­falo News in a trash can in front of the news­pa­per build­ing that I called the Rev. Dar­ius Prid­gen.

I was the top ed­i­tor of the pa­per and we — well, let’s be clear, I — had messed up. Badly.

There had been a ter­ri­ble mass shoot­ing a few days be­fore, in the early-morn­ing hours of Aug. 14, 2010 — the worst in the city’s mod­ern his­tory. Eight peo­ple had been shot, four of them killed, out­side a down­town restau­rant where a wed­ding an­niver­sary was be­ing cel­e­brated. (A fifth man would die years later af­ter be­ing par­a­lyzed as a re­sult of his in­juries.) All of the vic­tims were Black.

But for many days, no one knew who had pulled the trig­ger or why. And as a fright­ened city tried to piece to­gether what had hap­pened, we pub­lished and promi­nently dis­played a story delv­ing into the crim­i­nal back­grounds of some of the vic­tims, on the grounds that this in­for­ma­tion could be a part of the puz­zle.

The Black com­mu­nity was fu­ri­ous, ac­cus­ing the pa­per of deep­en­ing the pain of fam­ily and friends who were mourn­ing and bury­ing their loved ones. They were right: The story un­in­ten­tion­ally put the blame in pre­cisely the wrong place.

I knew I needed to ad­dress this anger, so I sug­gested to Prid­gen — a prom­i­nent pas­tor on Buf­falo’s largely Black East Side who had of­fi­ci­ated at some of the vic­tims’ fu­ner­als — that I come out to True Bethel Bap­tist Church and sit down with some com­mu­nity mem­bers to talk it out. I pic­tured sit­ting around a ta­ble with per­haps a dozen peo­ple.

He agreed — though, as he re­called this week when we spoke again by phone, he wasn’t sure what I was up to. We didn’t know each other well.

“What was the story with this woman — white, ac­com­plished — were you sin­cere or just look­ing for a head­line, or some­thing else?” asked Prid­gen, a for­mer Buf­falo School Board mem­ber, now the pres­i­dent of the Buf­falo Com­mon Coun­cil.

Still, he put the word out, expecting about 100 peo­ple to show up.

When I ar­rived at True Bethel that evening, just four miles from the news­pa­per of­fice, the park­ing lot was fill­ing up. About 700 peo­ple turned out for an emo­tion­ally charged meet­ing that lasted for hours. For much of it, I stood at a lectern, kept my mouth shut, and lis­tened to peo­ple like Ch­eryl Stevens, whose son-in-law was among the dead.

“I feel that we were vic­tim­ized twice,” she told me. “What you did to us was you poured salt on the wounds that had not even healed.” Oth­ers brought up dis­crim­i­na­tory cov­er­age go­ing back decades, long be­fore I was in charge.

Prid­gen told me this week that he was re­lieved, when I walked in, to see sev­eral Buf­falo News staffers had de­cided to ac­com­pany me, and that quite a few were Black.

“I quickly scanned the staff, and when I saw di­ver­sity, it started to change the nar­ra­tive in my mind,” he said.

Since I had be­come ed­i­tor, we had more than dou­bled the num­ber of Black and other non-white peo­ple on the news­room staff, and pro­moted some of them to man­age­ment po­si­tions. But on this story, I had failed to con­sult with those ed­i­tors ad­e­quately. That, I’m sure, would have made a big dif­fer­ence.

As tough as that evening was, I was touched by their sup­port­ive pres­ence, which I hadn’t asked for.

“Some­what sur­pris­ingly, it turned into a heal­ing mo­ment,” Prid­gen said. It wasn’t be­cause of any­thing I’d said that evening, but be­cause of what hap­pened af­ter­ward: a sig­nif­i­cant years-long ef­fort to deepen and im­prove the pa­per’s con­nec­tion to the Black com­mu­nity.

We formed a com­mu­nity ad­vi­sory board, put key re­porters and ed­i­tors — in­clud­ing me, of course — through out­side train­ing on keep­ing an open mind, check­ing im­pulses for bias and mak­ing more sen­si­tive de­ci­sions; and we started to cover the East Side in more thor­ough and con­sid­er­ate ways.

These days, news­rooms all over the United States are in tur­moil over racial is­sues, sparked by the death of Ge­orge Floyd at the hands of Min­neapo­lis police. Top ed­i­tors have re­signed or been fired, and jour­nal­ists of colour — in­clud­ing at The Wash­ing­ton Post — are push­ing hard for pay eq­uity, more rep­re­sen­ta­tion in top man­age­ment and greater news­room di­ver­sity.

“It’s our moon shot,” jour­nal­ist Farai Chideya told CNN’S Brian Stel­ter on Sun­day — a rare chance to seize the his­toric mo­ment and make long-over­due change hap­pen in news­rooms where true di­ver­sity has never been achieved.

Cri­sis does cre­ate change, or at least pro­vides the op­por­tu­nity for it.

Prid­gen told me he re­called a col­umn I wrote af­ter the True Bethel meet­ing, in which I promised the pa­per would do bet­ter. “I re­mem­ber you said that what hap­pened left you ‘shaken and dis­turbed,’ or some­thing like that,” he said.

His rec­ol­lec­tion was re­mark­ably close, given how long it’s been. I had writ­ten, in some­thing of an un­der­state­ment, that I was “shaken and changed.” What I didn’t re­al­ize fully then, but do more now, is how lucky I was to have the op­por­tu­nity to change.

I got the chance to make amends, to be more em­pa­thetic, and to see a lit­tle more clearly. I don’t pre­tend to be par­tic­u­larly en­light­ened, and cer­tainly we all have plenty more to learn, and a lot of work to do.

But I would ex­press the ef­fect that painful but valu­able episode had on me a lit­tle dif­fer­ently now. It left me shaken, changed — and grate­ful.

LINDSAY DEDARIO/REUTERS

Demon­stra­tors in Ni­a­gara Square in Buf­falo, N.Y., march in protest against the death in Min­neapo­lis police cus­tody of Ge­orge Floyd. Floyd’s death has be­come a defin­ing mo­ment of cur­rent his­tory.

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