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A Calculus of Race and Death?

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, June 3, 2006

The Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the D.C. Black Church Initiative, unloaded both barrels at Kenneth Wainstein, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, in a May 19 letter addressed to Wainstein, copies of which were sent to me, other journalists and media outlets, and public officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey.

The thrust of the Evans missive, which he elected to characterize as "moral outrage," is that Mr. Wainstein's office observes "a double standard when it comes to race." Evans, who is associate pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church at 14th and Gallatin streets NW, wrote Wainstein of his dismay that, in the face of an "alarming rate of Black-on-Black crime (especially males)" in the District, "you have demonstrated that you devalue the deaths of those individuals by the scant amount of resources that you have devoted to solving those cases."

To illustrate his point, Evans directed Wainstein's attention to what he called "the disparity between how your office treats a 'nameless' American-American male killed in the stillness of a dark alley in the District of Columbia and the resources that your office devoted during the recent death of David E. Rosenbaum, the New York Times reporter who was killed in early January."

While expressing outrage at Rosenbaum's death and commending him as a "good citizen" and "first-rate journalist," Evans wrote that Rosenbaum "still should not have received preferential treatment in the investigation of his death."

Then Evans posited this:

"From our vantage point there were three mitigating factors why you did this: 1) he was a white male, 2) he was a prominent journalist and 3) he was Jewish."

Evans acknowledged that he had leveled a "horrendous charge" but then offered as one of his supporting "facts" The Post's coverage of Rosenbaum's death. Evans suggested that The Post gives short shrift to African American men who are murdered but that it featured Rosenbaum's death in dozens of articles. (How The Post's news-gathering indicts the U.S. attorney's office is not made clear.) The U.S. attorney's response to Rev. Evans can be found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions .

Now to the point of today's piece.

Six columns about Rosenbaum have appeared on The Post's op-ed pages, all written by yours truly. Perhaps the Rev. Evans has also concluded that I regard David Rosenbaum as more important than a "nameless African American male." Otherwise why send me a copy of his letter to Wainstein?

If so, he deserves a response.

To the charge of having devoted several pieces to Rosenbaum's killing, I plead guilty. To suggest, however, that I was drawn to his story because of his race or occupation is as absurd as Evans's loathsome declaration that Rosenbaum has draw the attention of the media because he was Jewish.

Yes, his connection to journalism caught my attention. But that does not explain the pieces I have written.

The city is my main beat. What the D.C. government does or fails to do and how that performance affects residents, especially "the least of these" in our community, is my business.

The simple fact is this: A helpless, critically injured, semi-conscious man found on a Gramercy Street sidewalk on the evening of Jan. 6 was cavalierly classified by the city's fire and emergency medical services as a drunken John Doe and treated as a nobody. The city let him down. Therefore, what happened to David Rosenbaum became my business.

It didn't start with him.

On the Fourth of July in 1996, Tia Mitchell, a 16-year-old African American girl, was gunned down execution-style while sitting on her bike in an alley just a few blocks north of the Sursum Corda development off North Capitol Street. She received all of a two-inch mention inside the Metro section of the next day's Post.

The D.C. police's homicide division treated her as just another name in a brown folder. Between July 1996 and January 2004, I wrote 12 columns that touched on Tia's murder, including one that discussed the likely suspect. He was finally arrested, brought to trial and, after a hung jury in that case, was retried, convicted and sent to jail.

In the early morning hours of July 7, 2002, 33-year-old Dawn Rothwell, an African American woman, went over the balcony railing of her 12th-floor apartment in Southeast Washington. She received a one-sentence mention in The Post on July 9. She reportedly had PCP in her system, and her death was ruled an accident.

Five columns in this space were devoted to her death, including an investigation into how the PCP got in her system. One column disclosed the involvement of an off-duty D.C. cop. The police officer was later fired and found guilty of possessing the PCP that Dawn consumed; he was sent to jail.

On Sept. 20, 2004, Jonathan Magbie, a 27-year-old African American man who was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a childhood accident and required around-the-clock nursing care, was given a 10-day-sentence in the D.C. jail for possession of marijuana, even though he had never been convicted of a criminal offense. He died in city custody five days later. Thirteen columns were written establishing how and why Magbie was sentenced, jailed and mistreated while a ward of the city.

Tia Mitchell, Dawn Rothwell, Jonathan Magbie, David Rosenbaum and others I have written similar stories about all have one other thing in common besides their untimely deaths: Our city looked right through them as if they didn't count.

Government, in my book, can't be allowed to get away with that. Not as long as a keyboard is within my reach.

Now, I'm not living in La La Land. I read my mail. There are, indeed some people who believe that African American journalists should stick with African American subjects and that the only victims of neglect and injustice worth writing about are people of color. My reply: To hell with that.

The Rev. Anthony Evans closed his letter to Wainstein with "Your humble servant in Christ." Let's hope our loving and forgiving God also has a sense of humor.

kingc@washpost.com

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