A.C. Thompson

Reporter at ProPublica

2013 Convocation Address

Lorimer Chapel

Thank you. It’s really, really wonderful to be here. I want to thank everyone here at Colby College. It’s a true honor to be with family, with friends, with colleagues. And nobody’s said anything nicer about me than that [the introduction], I don’t think.

In true fashion, in my style—and there’s an editor here who can attest to this—I’ve taken this night very seriously. I’ve been fairly nervous about it for a while. I’ve been rewriting just recently, and there’s an editor in this room who will tell you that one of my very bad traits is to constantly rewrite—way past deadline.

This is why I’ve been a little bit nervous. Usually when you go to journalism events—and I’ve been to a lot—there’s a speech. A speaker, a reporter comes up to the lectern, and really, it’s not that serious. It’s just kind of filler before everyone goes out drinking and gets to the real business. And this is different. This is different. The people who’ve spoken here in the past have given some really, really remarkable talks. And I know that to be true because I went back and downloaded them and read a whole bunch of them. So I don’t know if I can tell you anything that lives up to what’s been said here before—anything as memorable—but I’ll give it my best shot.

I also have one important announcement before we go any further. Shortly before I left California, my three-year-old son gave me a very important instruction. He said: “Remember to thank the donkey.” [Laughter.] My wife said, “Wow, that would make an unusual speech.” For the record, I do not know who the donkey is and why he or she needs a shout-out.

I’ve been reading Freedom’s Champion, Paul Simon’s biography of Elijah Lovejoy. I’ve been struck by Lovejoy’s refusal to be silenced, even as the threats came in. And thinking about Lovejoy has made me reflect and look back at the sort of events that shape our lives, the incidents that propel our personal narratives. And I zoomed in on something in my life.

When I was a teen, I remember reading an absolutely gripping story in the Washington Post. It was about a young man from the D.C. area who had gone to his family’s homeland, Chile. He was a young photographer. At that time, that country was ruled by the dictator Augusto Pinochet. And this young man perished. He was in a protest against the regime where he was beaten by military officers, set afire, and murdered. And I remember when I read that story, and part of what gripped me about it was that it wasn’t just a hard news story; it was a narrative, it was a tale, it was something that got you into that moment. It was cinematic. It was literary. And the story rattled around in my cranium first for days, then for weeks, and then for months.

I thought, here was a young guy who was just a little bit older than me, and in a remarkably arbitrary, capricious, and terrible fashion, his life had been stolen. His name was Rodrigo Rojas. And the U.S. government, I came to learn, had helped put this guy Pinochet in office. And all this made me realize: journalism has power. It has the power to name those who trample on human dignity, has the power to name those who aid and abet them, has the power to name those who suffer as a result. And this was a big moment for me in my life. It was a realization.

I began writing the news in my early twenties. I had great mentors at a newspaper by and for young people, called Youth Outlook. They taught me the fundamentals of this trade, and I consider it a trade, like building houses or fixing cars. They taught me how to structure and punctuate a sentence, things I was unable to do at the time. They taught me how to craft a lead. Most important, though, they encouraged me to get out and talk to people at street level, to find the voices that had been pushed to the margins. And early in my career I began asking myself a simple question at the beginning of the reporting process for each story. I would say, “Is this a story about human suffering that is needless, that is unnecessary?” And if the answer was yes, I would plunge in. And to this day, most of my stories are about awful things happening to decent people. That’s my beat, that’s my genre, that’s what I do. That’s how I wound up in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2007.

I had a friend there. She was collecting material for a book about disasters, and she called me, and she said, “I keep hearing these stories about armed white guys shooting African-American men in the wake of the hurricane, and it seems like this happened, but I need someone to come down here and figure it out for sure.” And she said, “I’m not an investigative reporter, but you are, and you need to come down here.” And my friend, Rebecca Solnit, great author, essayist, thinker, had come across what seemed to be incriminating footage in an obscure Danish documentary called Welcome to New Orleans. She’d become fixated on a brief interview with a man named Donnell Herrington, who recounted a horrible ordeal in Spike Lee’s opus When the Levees Broke. That’s what I had to go on.

So I flew to New Orleans and I figured it would take me week to figure out if this was a story. And I figured I would probably get the story done, if it was in fact a story, in two or three months. I’d be done, I’d be on to the next thing, and that would be it. Problem was, I was naïve, I was Bambi, had no clue how deep things were there. And I wound up spending the next three years of my life reporting on New Orleans. Not three months. Not a week.

Just tracking down Donnell Herrington was an epic challenge. It was something I wasn’t prepared for, and I’m pretty good at finding people—that’s what I do. But I remember how his phone number wouldn’t come up in any of the high-priced databases that we were paying for. It wouldn’t show up anywhere. The last address I had for him was an abandoned housing project that had been abandoned in the wake of the storm, in the Seventh Ward. Just the simple things like that, finding someone, were difficult there. I went through the archives of New Orleans Times Picayune and I found an obituary for one of his family members. And then I started digging for numbers for all of them. Maybe somebody’s got a working number, maybe somebody’s number is up to date and can put me in touch with him. I finally got through to a sister, who put me in touch with Donnell, and I met him on the balcony of his favorite daiquiri shop. It was there, in his soft Louisiana drawl, that he told me his story.

I remember us just being two people from completely different life experiences, different parts of the country, having this conversation. And he said, after the storm roared ashore—when the levees had failed, the floodwaters had filled the streets—he was walking through a largely white neighborhood with two companions, both of them African-American teenagers. They were hoping to get to an evacuation point. He said, “All I wanted to do was get on that bus to Houston, and I’d heard that there was a bus to go to Houston.” And if you were at the panel [discussion] earlier, it’s this kind of thing where there’s no good information after a disaster. So he’s hearing this from people he meets on the street. It’s an evacuation point. And it was.

But it turned out that it wasn’t an evacuation point for Donnell and his companions. Because, he said, as he was walking through this largely white neighborhood a burly white dude approached him and, without saying a single word, pointed a shotgun at him and squeezed the trigger. The buckshot, Donnell told me, hit him in the throat, shredding his internal jugular vein. Another shot hit him in the body. Donnell said he’d nearly died. He said he’d been shot simply for being an African-American man in that neighborhood at that time.

I checked out Donnell’s story. I talked to the people who’d been with him that day. They said they’d fled when Donnell was shot. But they said a group of white guys with guns caught him. The gunmen, they said, tormented and threatened to kill them before eventually letting them go with a warning. This was the warning: “Tell your friends and neighbors they are not welcome in this neighborhood.” Even though there was an evacuation point set up there by the Coast Guard.

I went to the hospital to check out Donnell’s medical records. We go to the hospital and we’re in the medical records room, and there’s a clerk looking at the computer screen, and looking at Donnell, and looking at me. And then she’s looking at the computer screen, and then she’s looking at Donnell, and she’s looking at me. I didn’t know what was going on. After several minutes, she finally said something. She said, “You say your name is Donnell Herrington?”

“Yep,” Donnell replied.

And she looked kind of baffled. She paused and she said something to this effect: “Lemme level with ya. I got somebody in the system with a similar name, Daniel Marrington. And he’s got the same social security number that you say is yours. So I’m trying to figure out if there’s some kind of identity theft thing going on here.”

Donnell was very calm. Me? I’m never calm, but he was calm. He said, “Well let me explain. You see this scar on my throat?” And he had a scar [draws finger down the right side of his throat] like this. “Right after Hurricane Katrina, somebody shot me in the throat. And I got brought to this hospital. And when I first came here, because I had a big hole in my throat, couldn’t talk very well. So you might have written down my name wrong. Think it’s possible.” Actually let me rephrase that. He said, “I thinky’all might have written down my name wrong.”

It turned out to be a typo, and the hospital had corrected the mistake by the third page of Donnell’s records. When we finally got his chart, it showed me that he had in fact been blasted with buckshot, just like he said. I called his surgeon, and I passed on a message. I said, “Hey, Donnell says he wants to thank you for saving his life.”

And the doctor said, “You don’t know how close to dying he was. Everything that you’re coming to know is what I understand to be the case here.”

I stitched the evidence together one clue at a time. A possible witness reached out to me. This person had lived in New Orleans but had moved away after the hurricane. This person said they knew who had shot Donnell, but then the person disappeared. The reporters in the room, they know this scene. This person wouldn’t answer my phone calls. So a colleague and I got in a car, drove through five states, drove through the night, wound up at the doorstep of this person, and I knocked. The person came to the door and said, “I figured you’d show up. I’m ready to talk now. Let’s sit down and do this interview.”

The witness, and I was now convinced this was a witness, named names. We got enough confirmation to produce video, web, and print stories identifying the alleged attacker. The U.S. Department of Justice brought federal hate crimes charges against that man, Roland J. Bourgeois Jr., and after many, many delays, he is scheduled to stand trial later this year.

I met with somebody else who sent me down a very different path. This person said, “Hey, I was in New Orleans and I came across this crazy document. I don’t think it’s related to those hate crimes, but it sure is weird, and,” again, “you should check it out.” The document was a brief statement given by a man named William Tanner. In it he sketched a strange tale involving a dead man, a burnt car, and abusive police. I had been reporting on cops for probably ten years at the time, and I read this and I just didn’t know what to make of Mr. Tanner’s statement. But in time, I started to figure it out.

It went something like this. An unarmed man named Henry Glover had apparently stolen some goods from a kitchen store in a strip mall shortly after the storm. A cop there at the strip mall saw him and shot him with an assault rifle. Not knowing any of this, William Tanner had picked up Henry Glover in his car as Henry Glover bled, and tried to save his life. But Tanner unknowingly took Henry Glover to the people who were least likely to help him, the NOPD. He drove Henry Glover and two other men, to a public school that had been converted into a SWAT team location, a SWAT team campground, and there NOPD officers allegedly attacked William Tanner, the two other men who were there, and left Henry Glover in the car to die. Then, the officers heisted Tanner’s car, drove it to the Mississippi River, set it afire with Henry Glover’s body inside it, and just left it there. They just left the scorched car there, just down the road from the fourth district police station, where nobody knew anything about this. Just left it there. And three years later when I was investigating the story, the car, incredibly, was still there. It was still there, and it was ruined and rusting in the Louisiana heat.

It took me a long time to process what that might be about, and this is what I think it was about. I think it was an act of extreme hubris. I think that it was a statement from the badge-wearing criminals at the New Orleans Police Department, that, “We can get away with whatever we want.” That’s what I think that was about. I think that’s why the car was there. Because, clearly, if you don’t get rid of the evidence, you don’t really care about anybody coming after you, holding you accountable, punishing you for your crimes. The federal government eventually brought criminal charges to five men, all of whom where police officers or supervisors at the time of the killing. Some of them have gone to prison, some of them haven’t. The case has been tangled up in court, it’s been a mess—some of the convictions have been overturned and another round of trials is looming. But just for the record, since we’re all here together, there is absolutely no dispute about who burned up Henry Glover’s body and reduced it to nothing but charred flesh and bone fragments. There was an officer who testified in federal court that he did that. That’s what he did. That’s what seemed like a good idea to him. But there is a mystery that remains, because somewhere along the line, somebody took Mr. Glover’s skull or ditched it or did something with it, and it remains missing. It’s never been returned to his family, and they’d like it back. This is something they’ve said publicly: “Would you please give us Henry’s skull back. We’d like it.” That’s pretty disturbing.

I spoke to the family of another man, Keenon McCann. He’d been shot by police near the Superdome. The police said he’d been brandishing a gun. But as I looked into it I found there was no evidence to support this claim. Really what it looked like to me is they’d put a bunch of holes in a perfectly innocent dude. Keenan’s family was terrified of going on the record, and that’s not any kind of exaggeration here. They were terrified that if they said something, something awful would happen to them. They said, “Look. Look what’s already happened to Keenon. You can’t give us protection. Something terrible could happen to us.”

This was a different thing than what I was used to. If you go to Oakland, California, where I live, if you go to New York, if you go to Chicago, very often people who have been the victims of possible police misconduct and abuse, they want to speak up. But in New Orleans I found person after person scared to talk. It took me about a year to get Keenon’s family to speak on the record, and that’s the key point I think I want to make to you tonight. The heroes to me in this narrative? Those were the people who spoke up. Those were the people who, like Lovejoy, knew that they might be harmed, knew that something bad might happen to them. But they talked. They had lost loved-ones, they’d witnessed crimes, and they found the courage to speak. Donnell, he was scared and angry. So was the witness to that shooting. So were William Tanner and the Glover family. So was Keenon’s family. And in them I see similarities to Lovejoy. They refused to shut up even in the face of danger, and I am inspired by their actions.

I’ve got to say this too. I used the word “I” a lot tonight, and I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Journalism is never a solo endeavor. It simply isn’t. There were a lot of times where I was living by myself in a threadbare hotel in New Orleans, going out and doing my interviews, trying to get cab rides to neighborhoods that cabs didn’t want to take me to, and I was alone. But it’s not a solo endeavor. My wife, Laurie, supported me in this work. I was gone so often during this time period that for real I would come home sometimes and I didn’t know where the trash can in the kitchen was, I didn’t know where the salt and pepper shakers were, none of that stuff. Yeah. I thought she was going to ID me at the door sometimes. My editors, including Steve Engelberg, who’s here tonight, helped sculpt this work. Steve gave me directives that I found at first sometimes very aggravating, but I eventually realized they were very, very smart. And I worked many times with many great reporters, videographers, researchers, and producers.

My most enduring memory of reporting these stories is this. Shortly after I began looking into what happened to Henry Glover, I called his mother, Edna. I said, “I’m reporting on violence that occurred during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and I’m trying to figure out what happened to your son.” Edna was very quiet and she said, “Well, would you like to come over to my house tomorrow and talk about him?”

So I met her the next day in a public housing development on the west bank of the Mississippi. I thought it would just be me and her talking and, again, I thought maybe there’s some good explanation for what happened to Henry. Maybe this isn’t a story. When I showed up there that morning, I got this shock, because when I came to Edna’s small house William Tanner was there, the man that tried to save Henry Glover. Henry’s sister and brother, and aunties and uncles, and cousins, and nieces and nephews, and neighbors were all there and they were all packed into this little room. There were probably fifteen people stuffed into Edna’s little living room. And some of them had very strong suspicions, some of them had been there for part of this. They thought that Henry had probably been killed by the police, that his body had been burned by the police, but nobody knew for sure. Nobody knew. They had questions, questions, questions. They all wanted to know, “Hey, what happened to Henry? Can you help us figure out what happened to Henry? We want to know. We want to know.” They said, “Why won’t anybody listen to us? Why can’t we get any answers out of the police department?”

I was really struck by this, and it took me a long time to connect this, but I was struck by this. What I realized is that many years before I had read the story about the final hours of a man named Rodrigo Rojas in Chile. Now here, in my own country, I was writing a story about the final hours of a man named Henry Glover. And I was sickened by how similar they seemed.

That’s what I have to share with you.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award

About the Fellow

A.C. Thompson
A.C. Thompson

A.C. Thompson, a reporter whose work led to federal charges against seven New Orleans police officers in connection with the shooting of civilians after Hurricane Katrina, received the 2013 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism Oct. 27.

Thompson, 41, who works for ProPublica, explained in his address how he chooses stories. “Early in my career,” he said, “I began asking myself a simple question at the beginning of the reporting process for each story. I would say, ‘Is this a story about human suffering that is needless, that is unnecessary?’ And if the answer was yes, I would plunge in.”

In his talk the told of Donnell Herrington, shot twice by white vigilantes as he sought refuge from Katrina’s flooding. He chronicled the death of Henry Glover, first shot by a police officer, then left to die in a car which was later burned by another officer with Glover’s body still inside.

Thompson praised his sources as the courageous heroes of his stories— people at real risk if they talked about police abuses. “They refused to shut up even in the face of danger, and I am inspired by their actions.”

The day began with a conference on college journalism in the information age, attended by 40 students from seven New England colleges. A panel discussion followed, probing the evolution of crisis coverage from the JFK assassination and the space shuttle Challenger disaster to the Boston marathon bombings. The convocation in Lorimer Chapel capped the day’s activities.

The committee that chose Thompson for the award comprises Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard; Mike Pride, editor emeritus of the Concord Monitor; David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Rebecca Corbett ’74, senior enterprise editor for the New York Times; Gregory Moore, editor of the Denver Post; Professor Dan Shea, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby; and Steve Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica (who recused himself from the vote).

Last year the Lovejoy was awarded to Bob Woodward, who 40 years earlier helped break the Watergate story that toppled President Richard Nixon. Past winners include Jerry Mitchell, whose reporting brought Ku Klux Klansmen to justice for civil rights era murders; Paul Salopek, currently on a 22,000-mile reporting walk; Daniel Pearl (posthumous) of the Wall Street Journal; and David Halberstam.

About the Lovejoy Award

Colby College remembers alumnus Elijah Parish Lovejoy through the annual Lovejoy Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate courage, integrity, and craftsmanship.

Born in Albion, Maine, Lovejoy graduated from Colby in 1826. On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Ill., the newspaper editor and publisher was killed after he refused to stop publishing anti-slavery editorials. He was called America’s first martyr to freedom of the press by John Quincy Adams.

Current Lovejoy Selection Committee Members include Matt Apuzzo ’00, reporter and investigative correspondent, New York Times; Nancy Barnes, senior vice president and editorial director, NPR; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor, Los Angeles Times; Marcela Gaviria, producer, PBS FRONTLINE; Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Colby College; Martin Kaiser, former editor and senior vice president Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mindy Marqués, vice president and executive editor, Simon and Schuster, former editor, Miami Herald; and Ron Nixon, global investigations editor, Associated Press.

For more information, visit colby.edu/lovejoy