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George Curry

Cleveland's Charles Ramsey: Hood or Hero?

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(NNPA) When some of us saw the first video of Charles Ramsey, the colorful Black dishwasher in Cleveland who is being celebrated as a hero for rescuing three White women captives from horrid conditions in a Cleveland house, we had a flashback to Antoine Dodson, who became a flamboyant Internet sensation after saving his sister from a would-be rapist in their Huntsville, Ala. housing apartment, and Sweet Brown, who barely escaped a fire in her Oklahoma City complex.

But more than any other famous “hilarious Black neighbor” Internet sensation, the coverage of Ramsey – and his criminal past – raises serious questions about how we treat a hero with a troubled past and, yes, how Blacks and Whites look at the same event through different prisms of race.

First, as they say in TV news, let’s go to the videotape.

“I’ve been here a year,” Ramsey said in an interview with WEWS, a local television station. Referring to Ariel Castro, the suspect arrested for holding the women against their will, Ramsey said, “You see where I’m coming from? I barbeque with this dude. We eat ribs and whatnot and listen to salsa music…

“He just comes out in his backyard, plays with the dogs, tinkers with his cars and motorcycles, goes back in the house. So he’s somebody you look, then look away. He’s not doing anything but the average stuff. You see what I’m saying? There’s nothing exciting about him. Well, until today.”

Ramsey explained that Castro “got some big testicles to pull this off, bro.”

He added, “I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty White girl ran into a Black man’s arms. Something wrong here. Dead giveaway.”

There was plenty wrong, as Ramsey learned when he put down his McDonald’s Big Mac and answered a call for help from Amanda Berry, who had been last seen in 2002 on the eve of her 17th birthday. The two other women were Georgina “Gina” DeJesus, who had been missing since 2004 at the age of 14, and Michelle Knight, who disappeared in 2002 at the age of 21.

While being hailed as a hero, Ramsey was the object of both racism and ridicule.

Though we’re reluctant to publicly admit it, some African-Americans cringed at the sight of Ramsey. His hair, curled in the back like Al Sharpton’s do and as slick as Chuck Berry’s, is interspersed with what we once called post office hair – each nap has its own route. This is one of the few cases where a person’s mug shot looks better than his real life photo.

To put this in context, think back to when Black civil rights protesters dressed up in their Sunday’s best, knowing they were going to get physically assaulted by police and White supremacists. Then, as now, image matters. Especially when one of us appears on TV. Still, there are plenty of people in our community who look like Ramsey and their speech and appearance make them no less valuable than the best dressed and most articulate among us.

Some have suggested than many Whites take delight in seeing Blacks caricatured in the image of Charles Ramsey and Antoine Dodson.

“Perhaps it’s time for the world’s meme artists to stop assuming that any black dude getting interviewed on local news about a crime he helped to foil can be reduced to some catch-phrase or in-joke,” Miles Klee wrote on Blackbookmag.com. “It’s just baffling that we’re trying to find a way to laugh about what is, in itself, a harrowing turn of events.”

Most of us knew, or at least suspected deep down, that something about Ramsey’s past would surface, causing further embarrassment.

The Smoking Gun website disclosed on May 8 that Ramsey “is a convicted felon whose rap sheet includes three separate domestic violence convictions that resulted in prison terms.”

Blacks instantly asked: Why is something that happened a decade ago – and had nothing to do with Ramsey’s heroism – relevant today? Cleveland’s WEWS-TV, facing a backlash from viewers, apologized for reporting on Ramsey’s criminal past.

“While the story was factually sound, the timing of it and publication of such information was not in good taste, and we regret it,” the station said on its Facebook page.

Normally, I would agree that Ramsey’s criminal past, certainly in this situation, should be irrelevant. But there’s nothing normal about this case. Unfortunately, Ramsey invited the scrutiny when he said he suspected domestic violence because he “was raised to help women in distress.”

In view of that assertion, Ramsey’s domestic violence convictions – hardly a record of helping women in distress – became fair game and should have been reported by the news media. But the reporting should not end there. Ramsey’s ex-wife, since remarried, said Ramsey eventually apologized for battering her and they now interact on “an okay basis.”

In addition, she posted two earlier photos of Ramsey on her Facebook page. She told the Smoking Gun, “For my daughter’s sake I show he didn’t always look hood.”

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

South Africa's Best Kept Secret

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(NNPA) JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – When Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress comrades were plotting to overthrow the White minority-rule apartheid regime in South Africa, Lilies Farm in Rivonia, just north of Johannesburg, served as their secret hideout.

Today, 19 years after South Africa made a bloodless transition to a democracy with the election of Mandela as its first Black president, the picturesque land, now called Liliesleaf, is South Africa’s best kept secret.

Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe bought the farm in 1961 to serve as headquarters for the underground Communist Party and as a safe house for political refugees, including Mandela and Govan Mbeki, the father of Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as president.

Goldreich and his wife, Hazel, served as the public face of the sprawling residence. To the outside world, they were living a life of affluence with plenty of Black handy men around to make their life easier. But the carefully crafted public perception masked plans to end minority rule by violence. The farm gave birth to MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe – the Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the African National Congress.

“From its headquarters the National High Command had planned its campaign of guerrilla warfare, sabotage and violence, Joel Joffe wrote in The State vs. Nelson Mandela: The Trial that Changed South Africa. “It has installed a radio transmitter, known as Radio Liberation, and had made a study of armaments and explosives and produced plans for large-scale production of grenades, time-bombs and other explosives”

On the carefully manicured land was a large manor house for the owners, with several outbuildings that housed revolutionaries posing as workers.

“I moved in under the pretext that I was the houseboy or caretaker who would look after the place until my master took possession,” Mandela, an attorney, wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “I had taken the alias David Motsamayi, the name of one of my former clients. At the farm, I wore the simple blue overalls that were the uniform of the black male servant.”

The groundwork for converting the farm into a museum began in 2002. The restoration project preserved the farm’s original character; approximately 60 percent of the infrastructure uses the original bricks.

A tour of the museum includes a stop in a room with a 3-D presentation that incorporates video, and photographic images of the ANC leaders and their surroundings. Using two aluminum “navigators,” visitors can look back at various aspects of apartheid. In an adjoining room, an old radio plays the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech by ANC President Albert Luthuli, who was honored for leading a non-violent struggle against apartheid.

Across the lawn, in a row of living units, is Mandela’s old apartment. Inscribed on a rectangular window outside are the words: “Room 12 Nelson Mandela’s Room.”

Before stepping inside, I took a deep breath, realizing I was about to walk into history – literally. After pausing, I slowly followed the tour guide inside, where I was suddenly face-to-face with a large photo of a young, dapper, smiling Nelson Mandela. His hair is neatly parted in the middle. The impeccably dressed Mandela is outfitted in a double-breast suit stylishly finished off with a pocket square.

The only furniture in the room is a desk used by Mandela. The writing on the desk stated, “On 20 April 1964, Nelson Mandela delivered his Statement from the Dock at the opening of the Defence case at the Ravonia Trial. He chose to not make a statement to avoid being cross examined. He spoke for five hours, clearly presenting his role in the underground movement and his conviction that the Liberation Movement had no choice but to resort to armed struggle against a white government that refused to listen to the grievances of its non-white people…”

The trial was preceded by a July 11, 1963 police raid on the farm that captured 19 revolutionaries. They were charged with sabotage, conspiring to launch a violent revolution against the state, and advancing the cause of Communism. Eight ANC members, including Nelson Mandela who was already in custody at the time of the raid, were sentenced to life in prison. Mandela served 27 years; Walter Sisulu, 26 years and Govan Mbeki, 24 years.

In the epilogue to Joel Joffe’s book, Edelgard Nkobi-Goldberg noted that documents recovered after the trial showed “…The American CIA and the British M15 kept Liliesleaf under observation. Both secret services had long been actively engaged in these activities at least from the time of Nelson Mandela’s international travels in 1962. They had informed the South African security service about everything that happened during his journey and followed his movements after his return to South Africa. And that might have led to his arrest.”

Regardless of what prompted the arrests, there is no doubt that the Ravonia Trial put South African apartheid on the world’s agenda. Although the museum is advertised as a tourist spot, it remains one of South Africa’s best kept secrets.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

Remembering How Black South Africans Won their Freedom

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(NNPA) JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – A trip to South Africa provides painful reminders of the protracted struggle to establish democracy, how the United States propped up the White minority-rule government and the courage Black South Africans demonstrated to win their freedom.

A key aspect of the struggle is vividly captured in the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum in the heart of Soweto, not far from the homes of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu. The name of the museum itself is steeped in unforgettable history. The most compelling image of the Soweto student protest of 1976 is a photo taken by Sam Nzima.

In the foreground of a crowd of Black student protesters is a tearful Mbuyisa Makhuba, a high school student, running with the small, limp body of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson and his screaming sister, Antoinette, running beside them.

The teenager’s story is told inside the museum under the heading, “An individual life can change society.” It begins: “Hector Pieterson lost his life under police fire on June 16, 1976 during a student march protesting Afrikaans as the language of instruction in African schools. He was thirteen years old. News of his death and the violence that subsequently erupted in most African townships in South Africa spread rapidly across the world. In his death Hector Pieterson became a symbol of the plight of the black South African youth under the yoke of Apartheid.”

It continued, “His public funeral commemorated, as does this museum, all those who died as a result of the tragic events of June 16, 1976 – a turning point in the struggle towards a true South African democracy.”

Hector Pieterson became one of many martyrs of the fight against apartheid, a rigid system of racial segregation designed to keep the White minority in control of the country’s political, economic and social system.

In fact, Pieterson’s last protest march was prompted by the ruling National Party’s decision to force Black schools to use Afrikaans – which Bishop Desmond Tutu called “the language of oppression” – and English in equal measure.

On April 20, 1976, students at Orlando West Junior High School went on strike, refusing to go to school. The protest quickly spread to other schools in Soweto. On the morning of June 16, an estimated 20,000 students started walking from the junior high school to Orlando Stadium, where they had planned to hold a mass rally before continuing to the regional office of the Department of Bantu Education.

Instead of allowing the students to walk peacefully, police barricaded the march route and unleashed dogs on the crowd. According to some news accounts, students stoned the dogs and police soon began opening fire on the students, killing 13-year-old Pieterson and 22 others that day, all but two of whom were Black. At the end of a series of protests, called the Soweto uprising, estimates of those killed ranged from 176 to more than 600.

The violent attack on the children thrust the African National Congress (ANC) to the forefront of Black political protest and ignited international protests. But that did not curb the all-White police force’s appetite for violence.

A quote from Steve Lebelo, a student at Madibane High School, describes the violence that was inflicted on the community in the immediate aftermath of Pieterson’s death. The quote, which also hangs in the museum, recalls:

“It was on the 17th and 18th, when police went out and systematically were killing people. I do know that suddenly there was the infamous green car. It was a 3800 Chev, it was a green car, and at the time they were used mostly by the police. We suspected that they had a sniper in there who picked up people at random and shot and killed them. I do know a friend of mine who was killed on the 19th of June, under the same circumstances. He had gone to the shop, and as he came back from the shop carrying a litre of milk, he was shot by a sniper and killed.”

Above the quote is a photo of a green Chevrolet, loaded with White men, with rifles sticking out of the windows.

There are other reminders throughout the museum. There is a picture of a small, naked child being drenched in a bottle of water to soothe her pain in tears. Another photograph contains student protesters, with one holding up a sign reading, “To hell with Afrikaans.”

Erected in 2002, the museum honors the memory of the students who died in the uprising. A brick bearing each name is built into the ground just steps from the entrance of the museum, which is only two blocks away from where Pieterson was killed.

The inscription about Hector Pieterson in the museum ends by noting, “When National Youth Day is celebrated each year on June 16 at the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum, it becomes a national site of commemoration, also reflecting current changes in the articulation of the South African democracy.”

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

The Boston Marathon's Media Frenzy

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(NNPA) I am a certified news junkie, but even I had to step away from the oversaturated media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings. Anyone who has covered crimes on a smaller scale than the twin explosions in Boston knows that investigators don’t have instant answers for everything and it’s ridiculous to think that in a frenzied atmosphere, accurate information will be available in abundance. But that did not prevent news outlets and social media from rushing to be first rather than calmly waiting to be accurate.

The result was a string of embarrassing mistakes that did little to comfort a nation on edge, a nation that still hadn’t gotten over the shock of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Of course, this is not to suggest that everything reported by the media was wrong. The news media helped disseminate photos of the two bombing suspect that eventually led to their being identified. The media was able to pass along instructions for people to remain in their homes until the suspects were captured. And most of us learned what had happened in Boston by watching television, going to the Internet or social media.

Ironically, on the day the Pulitzer Prizes honoring excellence in journalism were announced – The Denver Post won the award for breaking news for its coverage of a mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. that left 12 dead and 58 injured – news outlets were making major blunders while covering the Boston bombings.

Among the most egregious:

  • The New York Post gave an inflated death count, saying there were “ at least 12 dead.” At the time, three people had been killed.
  • The Wall Street Journal reported that police had discovered five additional explosive devices in addition to the two that been discovered, a statement that was later retracted.
  • In what it called a “world-beating scoop,” the New York Post reported that a Saudi national was a suspect in the case when, in fact, he was a witness and a victim.
  • At 1:45 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17, John King reported on CNN that a suspect had been taken into custody. That was false.
  • King also erred when he reported last Wednesday: “I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things. I was told by one of these sources who is a law enforcement official that this is a dark-skinned male.”

PBS anchor Gwen Ifill tweeted, “disturbing that it’s OK for TV to ID a Boston bombing suspect as a ‘dark skinned individual.’”

King’s description of the so-called suspect sparked a lively discussion on the National Association of Black Journalists listserve.

Askia Muhammad, a columnist and radio host, wrote, “How did they know that sand n—er was a suspect? He must have been wearing a towel on his head.”

Roger Witherspoon, a veteran journalist and public relations executive, said: “Well, now that the FBI has released photos of the two men who apparently carried the bombs, I’m puzzled. Perhaps there’s a problem with the contrast on my TV, but they don’t look dark skinned to me.”

The Associated Press, Fox News, and the Boston Globe also mistakenly reported that a suspect had been arrested in the case. The reporting was so inaccurate that the FBI issued a statement that said:

“Contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack. Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”

The Boston Police Department scooped journalists when it announced Friday, via Twitter, that an arrest had been made in the case.

In view of the grievous errors made in covering high-profile crimes, news outlets should spend less time showing yellow police tape, flashing police lights and hyping their own reporters and more time explaining to the public that in an ongoing investigation, they will not get the facts before the next commercial break.

We should have learned this lesson from the experience of covering Newtown, Conn., when there were conflicting accounts on everything from whether Adam Lanza had forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School or had been buzzed in to whether he or his brother, Ryan, was the shooter.

As President Obama said, “In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes jumping to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it’s important that we do this right. That’s why we have investigations. That’s why we relentlessly gather the facts.”

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

Political Maneuvering over the Budget

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(NNPA) There has been much discussion about the big picture items in President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2014. If the devil is in the details, as politicians like to say, some parts of Obama’s budget will mean hell for some needy citizens.

Before getting into the details, let’s talk approach. As I have often said, I am not a fan of some of the tactical approaches Obama takes. I understand that his reasoned approach – as opposed to the meat cleaver style of House Republicans – is far better than the GOP alternative. Still, it makes no sense to offer a compromise position in advance of actual negotiations.

A report by the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a nonpartisan think tank that analyzes government policy and programs, notes, “It is unusual for a President to include these kinds of compromise policies in his budget. Typically, the President’s budget would include policies that are more akin to an opening bid in a negotiation — that is, the President’s budget generally reflects his preferred policies. This budget, in contrast, reflects the President’s position at a stage of the negotiations after several rounds of offers had been made. This budget differs significantly from the approach taken in earlier Obama budgets.”

Clearly, compromises will have to be made at some point – even compromises President Obama will not want to make – but this is not the time to make them.

Robert Greenstein, president of CBPP, said: “Politically speaking, I had thought that the White House should not put these concessions in its budget, as distinguished from offering them in bipartisan negotiations if and when Republicans agreed to dedicate substantial savings from curbing tax credits, deductions, and other preferences (known as ‘tax expenditures’) to deficit reduction. The Administration took a different approach. Having done so, it is appropriately insisting that the part of its budget that contains the President’s last offer to Boehner is an indivisible package — that policymakers cannot cherry pick the budget cuts on their own, as some Republicans are already suggesting, without taking the accompanying revenue increases.”

Given President Obama’s overtures, one would think reasonable people would meet him half way. But the operative word is “reasonable.” Instead of also making concession, Republicans have become even more recalcitrant.

“When it comes to deficit reduction, the playing field is not level,” Greenstein stated. “The President is sticking with his final offer to Boehner despite the anger that it’s creating in his party and his political base due to the chained CPI and other proposals.

“The Speaker and other Republican leaders, however, have buried their last offer to Obama in December and are ignoring the fact that it included $400 billion in revenue increases beyond what policymakers enacted at the start of the year. They now brand any new revenues as unacceptable. The contrast between the President’s approach and that of Republican leaders is striking.”

Beyond the political wrangling, there is plenty to be concerned about.

“The budget proposes to replace sequestration for all years — 2013 through 2021 — with other deficit-reduction measures. While most of the proposed deficit reduction is in the form of higher revenues and lower entitlement spending, the budget also reduces funding for discretionary programs by $200 billion below the already austere caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA),” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report states.

“The $200 billion in proposed cuts are evenly split between defense and non-defense programs, consistent with the President’s December offer to Speaker Boehner. Non-defense discretionary programs include a broad set of government functions, such as education, public health, law enforcement, veterans’ health care, housing supports for low-income families, and scientific and medical research.”

Calling the non-defense discretionary program funding “ill-advised,” The center’s report noted, “The BCA funding caps already significantly constrain this area of the budget. In fact, under the BCA caps, spending for non-defense discretionary programs is on track to reach, by 2016, its lowest level on record as a share of the economy (these data go back to 1962). This area of the budget, which has been cut significantly in recent years and is not a driver of longer-term deficits, would be cut still more deeply under the President’s budget.”

In addition the CBPP said, “The budget would increase the income-related premiums paid by upper-income beneficiaries and gradually expand those premiums to cover a larger fraction of beneficiaries. It would also increase cost-sharing for new beneficiaries by raising the deductible for physician services, introducing co-payments for certain home health care services, and introducing a premium surcharge for those who purchase Medigap supplement plans that provide near-first-dollar coverage (which encourages greater utilization of health care services).”

There are plenty of good things in the president’s proposed budget, including his plan to expand early education and infrastructure investments, but Obama needs to break his addictive habit of making major concessions to Republicans before sitting at the bargaining table with them.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

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