The MOLLY National Journalism Prize
2010 Award Winners
Molly Ivins exemplified the Observer’s founding mission statement, which promises, “We will serve no group or party but will hew hard to the truth as we find it and the right as we see it.” Molly took that philosophy and made it her own: “Keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce.”
In that spirit, The Texas Observer presents the third annual MOLLY Awards, which honor the kind of journalism that Molly practiced in her lifetime—journalism that shines light on the dark side with style, passion and verve. Last year’s winner was Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey, for a four-part series on immigration that pointed out Texas wouldn’t exist without illegal immigrants, ones with names like Austin, Travis and Bowie, rogue itinerants who went to another country seeking fortune and land.
The prize honors the country’s best journalism and commentary, the kind that shreds conventional wisdom and replaces it with accuracy and truth, qualities that seem increasingly scarce these days. As the winning entries this year prove, reality can be much more uncomfortable than the stories we tell ourselves. Sometimes the facts remain foggy, there’s not a happy ending, and justice remains elusive.
But unless journalists turn over rocks and find out who has been squashed underneath, nothing will change. Ivins knew this better than anyone and that’s why these awards bear her name.
This year’s winners were honored at an awards dinner in Austin on June 10. Their work looks at some of the most difficult issues our country faces: from the ugly reality of racial violence after Katrina to the rendition of suspects in the borderless war on terror to how Texas treats its most vulnerable prisoners. This is tough, hard-hitting reporting at its best—worthy of a MOLLY.
“If it Moved, You Shot it”—White Vigilante Violence After Katrina
by A.C. Thompson
From The Nation. Reporting supported by the Nation Institute Investigative Fund, ProPublica, New America Media and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
The winner of the MOLLY National Journalism Prize of 2010 is A.C. Thompson, now a staff reporter at ProPublica, a national nonprofit newsroom that focuses on investigative reporting. Before joining ProPublica, Thompson was an investigative reporter for various San Francisco-area papers. Before becoming a journalist, Thompson worked in juvenile detention facilities, an experience that prompted him to focus his reporting on the criminal justice system, poverty and human rights.
Thompson’s winning story, published in The Nation, exposed the tragic truth behind one of the most insidious rumors spread in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: that gangs of armed black men were pillaging the remains of New Orleans. The rumor hampered aid efforts and terrified residents. It encouraged and hid the reality uncovered by Thompson: Groups of armed white men were attacking—and possibly killing—black victims of the storm.This story helped spur a federal investigation into the events. A companion piece, about the death of Henry Glover, led to indictments against five people, all current or former police officers. Here’s an excerpt from Thompson’s report; the full winning stories can be found at texasobserver.org.
The way Donnell Herrington tells it, there was no warning. One second he was trudging through the heat. The next he was lying prostrate on the pavement, his life spilling out of a hole in his throat, his body racked with pain, his vision blurred and distorted.
It was Sept. 1, 2005, some three days after Hurricane Katrina crashed into New Orleans, and somebody had just blasted Herrington, who is African American, with a shotgun. “I just hit the ground. I didn’t even know what happened,” recalls Herrington, a burly 32-year-old with a soft drawl.
The sudden eruption of gunfire horrified Herrington’s companions—his cousin Marcel Alexander, then 17, and friend Chris Collins, then 18, who are also black. “I looked at Donnell and he had this big old hole in his neck,” Alexander recalls. “I tried to help him up, and they started shooting again.” Herrington says he was staggering to his feet when a second shotgun blast struck him from behind; the spray of lead pellets also caught Collins and Alexander. The buckshot peppered Alexander’s back, arm and buttocks.
Herrington shouted at the other men to run and turned to face his attackers: three armed white males. Herrington says he hadn’t even seen the men or their weapons before the shooting began. As Alexander and Collins fled, Herrington ran in the opposite direction, his hand pressed to the bleeding wound on his throat. Behind him, Herrington says, the gunmen yelled, “Get him! Get that nigger!”
The attack occurred in Algiers Point. The Point, as locals call it, is a neighborhood within a neighborhood, a small cluster of ornate, immaculately maintained 150-year-old houses within the larger Algiers district. A nationally recognized historic area, Algiers Point is largely white, while the rest of Algiers is predominantly black. It’s a “white enclave” whose residents have “a kind of siege mentality,” says Tulane University historian Lance Hill, noting that some white New Orleanians “think of themselves as an oppressed minority.”
A wide street lined with towering trees, Opelousas Avenue marks the dividing line between Algiers Point and greater Algiers, and the difference in wealth between the two areas is immediately noticeable. “On one side of Opelousas it’s ‘hood, on the other side it’s suburbs,” says one local. “The two sides are totally opposite, like muddy and clean.”
Algiers Point has always been somewhat isolated: It’s perched on the west bank of the Mississippi River, linked to the core of the city only by a ferry line and twin gray steel bridges. When the hurricane descended on Louisiana, Algiers Point got off relatively easy. While wide swaths of New Orleans were deluged, the levees ringing Algiers Point withstood the Mississippi’s surging currents, preventing flooding; most homes and businesses in the area survived intact. As word spread that the area was dry, desperate people began heading toward the west bank, some walking over bridges, others traveling by boat. The National Guard soon designated the Algiers Point ferry landing an official evacuation site. Rescuers from the Coast Guard and other agencies brought flood victims to the ferry terminal, where soldiers loaded them onto buses headed for Texas.
Facing an influx of refugees, the residents of Algiers Point could have pulled together food, water and medical supplies for the flood victims. Instead, a group of white residents, convinced that crime would arrive with the human exodus, sought to seal off the area, blocking the roads in and out of the neighborhood by dragging lumber and downed trees into the streets. They stockpiled handguns, assault rifles, shotguns and at least one Uzi and began patrolling the streets in pickup trucks and SUVs. The newly formed militia, a loose band of about 15 to 30 residents, most of them men, all of them white, was looking for thieves, outlaws or, as one member put it, anyone who simply “didn’t belong.”
The existence of this little army isn’t a secret—in 2005, a few newspaper reporters wrote up the group’s activities in glowing terms in articles that showed up on an array of pro-gun blogs; one Cox News story called it “the ultimate neighborhood watch.” Herrington, for his part, recounted his ordeal in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke. But until now no one has ever seriously scrutinized what happened in Algiers Point during those days, and nobody has asked the obvious questions. Were the gunmen, as they claim, just trying to fend off looters? Or does Herrington’s experience point to a different, far uglier truth?
Over the course of an 18-month investigation, I tracked down figures on all sides of the gunfire, speaking with the shooters of Algiers Point, gunshot survivors and those who witnessed the bloodshed. I interviewed police officers, forensic pathologists, firefighters, historians, medical doctors and private citizens, and studied more than 800 autopsies and piles of state death records. What emerged was a disturbing picture of New Orleans in the days after the storm, when the city fractured along racial fault lines as its government collapsed.
Herrington and Alexander’s experience fits into a broader pattern of violence in which, evidence indicates, at least 11 people were shot. In each case the targets were African-American men, while the shooters, it appears, were all white.
The new information should reframe our understanding of the catastrophe. Immediately after the storm, the media portrayed African Americans as looters and thugs—Mayor Ray Nagin, for example, told Oprah Winfrey that “hundreds of gang members” were marauding through the Superdome. Now it’s clear that some of the most serious crimes committed during that time were the work of gun-toting white males.
So far, their crimes have gone unpunished. No one was ever arrested for shooting Herrington, Alexander and Collins—in fact, there was never an investigation. I found this story repeated over and over during my days in New Orleans. As a reporter who has spent more than a decade covering crime, I was startled to meet so many people with so much detailed information about potentially serious offenses, none of whom had ever been interviewed by police detectives.
The Intelligence Factory—How America Makes
Its Enemies Disappear
by Petra Bartosiewicz
In “The Intelligence Factory,” Petra Bartosiewicz goes to Pakistan in search of the real story of Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT-trained neuroscientist who was accused of opening fire on a group of U.S. Army officers and FBI agents at a police station in Afghanistan (only Siddiqui was hurt, shot by one of the soldiers). The circumstances are mysterious. According to documents, Siddiqui was found wandering around a square in the Afghan city of Ghazni with instructions for creating biological weapons and jars full of dangerous chemicals—but she was not charged with any crime other than the shooting incident.
Siddiqui’s whereabouts for the five years before the shooting is in dispute. Some say she was being held in a secret prison, either by the U.S. or Pakistani government, while others say she was hiding in the terrorist underground. Despite speaking with everyone from Pakistani intelligence officers to members of Siddiqui’s family, Bartosiewicz never uncovers the truth about Siddiqui. Not even close. Every person interviewed swore to a completely different version of the truth, and all had their own motives for lying.
The remarkable thing about Bartosiewicz’s deft writing and reporting is that despite (or perhaps because of) the elusive nature of her central subject, she creates a clear and damning portrait of the fallout from the U.S. government’s voracious appetite for human intelligence on terrorist groups—a demand that can never be satiated and seems to demand an endless supply of suspects. As this task is outsourced across the globe, Bartosiewicz shows how easy it is for innocent people to be caught up in the war on terror, seized by authoritarian regimes who are producing prisoners for bounty (i.e., foreign aid). She cites an FBI affidavit that compares intelligence gathering on terrorism to the “construction of a mosaic,” explaining how suspects may not even realize they are in possession of important intelligence, so they could be held because the agency was “unable to rule out” their importance.
Bartosiewicz points out what happened to Latin American countries that served U.S. intelligence agencies during the dirty wars of the ‘70s and ‘80s: They were toppled. As she writes about Pakistan, “A recent poll found that the only nation they find more threatening than India, whose nuclear missiles point directly at them, is the United States. And they have begun to hold their leaders accountable for the association.” In other words, the policy is backfiring. As “The Intelligence Factory” chillingly illustrates, Siddiqui is just one of thousands held by the United States and its allies whose identities, and the reasons for their capture, may never become clear.
Petra Bartosiewicz is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her forthcoming book, The Best Terrorists We Could Find, an investigation of terrorism trials in the U.S. since 9/11, will be published by Nation Books in 2010. She has written for numerous publications, including The Nation, Mother Jones, The New York Times, Salon.com and Hustler, and has worked in radio for the weekly program This American Life. She got her start in journalism at The New York Observer and later attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
For Their Own Good
by Chris Vogel
From the Houston Press
One would think the criminal justice system would invest in rehabilitation for kids as young as 15 who commit crimes like aggravated robbery. At the very least, one would hope the system wouldn’t treat them any worse than they treat adult offenders.
As Chris Vogel exposes in his piece, “For Their Own Good,” Harris County is certifying minors as adults and then putting them into solitary confinement for 23 hours a day—before they are found guilty. The reason, according to officials, is “convenience.” The jail does not want to house the juveniles together because they sometimes fight and doesn’t want them living with adult offenders for the kids’ own safety. Vogel’s reporting indicates that more than 700 youths were subjected to this treatment between 1999 and 2008.
Not only are these young suspects being treated more harshly than their adult counterparts, who are at least able to mingle with other humans, but Vogel’s story shows that they are more likely to be harmed. According to national data, juveniles are 19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than adults. Vogel’s interviews with incarcerated youth are disturbing. One talks about how isolation gave him “crazy thoughts, like you want to hurt somebody or hurt yourself”; another describes living in silence until a slot is opened for a food tray, when he hears other kids “scream and act out, beating on their doors, only to have the noise silenced when the guards reclaim the uneaten food and slam the door shut.”
Equally shocking is that Vogel interviews judges, prosecutors and police about the conditions in the jail and finds either indifference or ignorance. One judge who certifies juveniles as adults says he had no idea the suspects were held in solitary. A Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman points out that it’s not really 23 hours of isolation, since they’re asleep for at least eight of those hours. The sad irony is that these kids do not have to be transferred to adult jail. As Vogel points out in his story, they could be certified as adults and still stay in a juvenile fa
ility, where at least they’d have access to school and r
Chris Vogel, a native of Washington D.C., has been working as an investigative journalist at the Houston Press since 2007. He began his reporting career in New Mexico in 2001, and has written for Washingtonian Magazine, the Albuquerque Journal, Clovis News-Journal and Bethesda Magazine. He has won numerous awards for his writing, reporting and editing.