The managing editor of the St. Louis American, one of the country’s oldest black newspapers, began broadcasting the paper’s involvement in Ferguson.
On the ninth night of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Chris King, the managing editor of the St. Louis American, one of the country’s oldest blacknewspaper s, got word from a protester that “outside agitators” were in possession of grenades. The St. Louis County Police Department had already fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators, and at the media, but the possible presence of grenades suggested escalating violence.
King was monitoring the protests from home, via a combination of onlinestreaming video , Twitter, CNN, e-mail, and texts. He picked up his cell phone—a battered Sprint relic, the letters on the space bar worn down to “Spa”—and, just before 10 P.M., he texted a high-level member of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department: “Guy w brown visor & white bullhorn running around was the guy who brought the Molotovs and may have grenades.”
“White or black,” the police official texted back.
“White man,” King wrote, still watching footage of the protests. He added, “Get that guy. He is dangerous.” (A law-enforcement source told me that the reports of grenades were credible, but that none were confiscated at the scene.)
King’s actions, which may differ from those of more conventional journalists, come out of his history as an activist and an N.R.O.T.C. cadet. King, a bespectacled musician who grew up in Granite City, Illinois, a St. Louis suburb, has supported an array of causes over the years, including the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (a protest against the Shell Oil Company in Nigeria) and the Zapatistas, in Mexico. After college, at Boston University, he wrote for newspapers, including the Times, but he felt conflicted as a journalist. He tweeted recently that while working for newspapers he “never felt needed 1 single day.”
But steady employment allowed him to continue as the lead singer for Eleanor Roosevelt, what he calls a “quirky folk rock” band, and it helped him to support his wife and child. Ten years ago, at the age of thirty-seven, King moved home to the St. Louis area and went to work for the American.
The American’s coverage tends to be either positive or pointed—the paper’s mission centers on advocacy. The print edition, which has a circulation of roughly seventy thousand, comes out on Thursdays, and the Web site publishes daily posts. There are two full-time reporters (one was on maternity leave at the time of Michael Brown’s death, and the other, employed through a grant, is dedicated to health reporting), one part-time reporter, two photographers , and a full-time Web editor, who also reports. In addition to being the managing editor, King serves as the assignment editor, the copy editor , and the chief emissary for Donald Suggs, the publisher.
Suggs was the chief of oral surgery at Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware. (His staff calls him “Doc.”) He chaired the Poor People’s march on Washington, in 1968. A serious collector of African art, he helped to found what is now the Museum of African Art, in New York. In 1981, he bought the financially struggling American, with the goal of giving the city’s black residents a voice. Suggs is black and of a certain age (he prefers not to reveal the exact number); King is white and in his forties. In tweets, King has described himself as “a desk jockey with a text-message game to the halls of power” and his boss as “a fearsome power player.” He told me that “Missouri State University started its Public Affairs Hall of Fame this year, and the three people inducted were Harry Truman, Jack Danforth, and Donald M. Suggs.”
Suggs relies on King to carry out his vision for the paper and, by extension, for the African-American community. King describes Suggs as a modest person who prefers to work privately. “Our publisher has this newspaper so that he can make a difference for his people,” he told me. “Most of what he does, no one ever knows.” (Suggs spoke with me at length, but he was politely reluctant to talk about his back-channel influence. He did say, “The legitimacy of theAmerican, in my view, is that we measure up to our responsibilities as professional journalists. We clearly are advocacy media, but we’re responsible to facts.”)
According to King, as the fever worsened in Ferguson, Suggs “didn’t sit down and say, ‘Oh, why is the SWAT team bombing North County?’ Instead, he said, ‘Who can I talk to to make the SWAT team stop bombing North County?’ ” King said, “In addition to being a small newspaper staff covering a war in our own home town, we also had to fight back. My publisher taught me to go in after them. We went in after them.”
King began broadcasting the American’s involvement in the events unfolding in Ferguson; along with tweets about prayer vigils and crisis-support services, he announced that he planned to contact Senator Roy Blunt and “ask him to go to Ferguson and see for himself the mess.” He also tweeted, “I am hammering people to get to Claire”—Senator Claire McCaskill—“to get to WH”—White House—“to get to Nixon. Jay needs to be made to shit in his shoes.”
Channelling Suggs, King tweeted what could be called micro-editorials. (“It’s a matter of being forced to use political courage.”) When Jake Tapper, of CNN, expressed interest in interviewing a witness with whom King was publicly trying to bond, King tweeted, in response, “I am not encouraging him to do media and he told me he would not talk to me as a journalist. I am an advocate here.” At another point, he wrote, “Declaring yourself a reporter is an impediment, it seems. Social mediators are free to roam & report. I feel like this is changing journalism.”
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When a police official privately asked King to get word to St. Louis county executive Charlie Dooley that Governor Jay Nixon needed to declare a state of emergency and remove the county police chief, Jon Belmar, from command, King called Suggs. Suggs phoned his old friend Mike Jones, a senior policy adviser to the county executive and a former St. Louis deputy mayor. Suggs told Jones that the situation in Ferguson was “now out of control.”
“He said the county police, as currently constituted, lacked the ability to get on top of the situation,” Jones told me. “He’s been a friend for over forty years, and we’ve known each other for thirty-five years of public life, and that’s the first time he’s ever called me and said, ‘Michael, I think you’ve got to do something, and here’s why.’ ” He added, “You cannot underplay the importance of the voice and the standing of the American inside the black community.” Of Suggs, Jones said, “He’s politically sophisticated, with a large world view and a first-class intellect. He’s got standing both in the black community and in leadership elements of the white community. He’s a disciplined, serious thinker, and he’s not going to casually come to a decision. What he thinks matters.”
The next afternoon, Nixon announced that the Missouri Highway Patrol would assume command of police operations in Ferguson. Suggs’s conversations the day before had given county leaders the confidence to support such a high-profile change at a volatile time, Jones told me. “I’ll put it like this,” he said. “The publisher of the Post”—the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—“couldn’t have called me and convinced me of that.”
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Sam Dotson, the St. Louis police chief, has been publicly criticized by the local police union, as well as privately, within his own ranks, for declining to deploy tactical teams to Ferguson on the most violent nights of protest, and for expressing his disapproval of the county’s policing approach. King, though, thinks of Dotson as “a war hero” for refusing to participate in what he calls “theSWAT show.” He considers Dotson a good, “clean cop,” and he and Suggs supported Dotson’s addition to the unified command.
King and I were talking at the American’s offices, which are housed in a one-story brown-brick building in downtown St. Louis. Choking up, King removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “They were totally content to kill the people,” he said. “And there was one person who had the nerve to say, ‘I’m not gonna send my guys there.’ That’s insanely courageous.”
Dotson, after joining the command, suspected that outsiders were coming in from Chicago, California, Maryland, and Brooklyn because the police had not been working intelligence at night. King tweeted reports from sources at Canfield Green—the apartment complex where the Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot Brown—that fires were being set by white men “dressed hip-hop who came up the back trails” from the adjacent town of Jennings. Anarchists, he said, were teaching local kids how to make Molotov cocktails.
On the night that King directed the police to the protester with the bullhorn—“A clean cop is hunting him,” he tweeted, hoping to crowdsource followers into isolating the offenders until officers arrived—thirty-one people were arrested. Only one lived in Ferguson.
At 5:25 A.M. the next day, King went on CNN and told Chris Cuomo that the agitators wouldn’t “be here long.” Somewhat cryptically, he said, “We’re gonna run them out.”
Cuomo asked what he meant, adding, “Because the last thing we want is things done the wrong way.”
“No vigilante justice, no vigilante justice,” King said. “We’ll make sure they’re not here, though.”
King has always felt like an artist first and a journalist second, but he says that now he also feels like a secret operative suddenly made vulnerable. In certain phone calls and associations, he sensed menace, convinced that rogue cops and “mercenaries” were running a “contra” operation. At one point, he sought to verify my identity.
“A fake New Yorker writer would have been a brilliant play,” he said. “You have to consider you’re in a war zone for all intents and purposes, and we have battle trauma.”
Source: Paige Williams for The New Yorker