Over the weekend I got a Facebook message from a woman I met while living in Georgia. “Not sure if u knew my son michael. He was kill one year oct 16, last year,” Decatur resident Veronica Edwards wrote to me.
Our paths crossed in early 2014 when I interviewed her about a statement she made in October 2013 before the Decatur City Commission. Her brief and highly emotional comments imploring the city commission to enact a moratorium on the demolition of single-family homes made a lasting impression on me. She begged her city’s leaders to protect her and her elderly neighbors as gentrification pressures were making life unbearable in the neighborhood she and her family had called home for nearly 50 years:
Of course when we came to the Decatur neighborhood, it was called the “white flight.” They took off. You all took off and went away. We endured. We stayed. Now it’s time for you all to have our back.
The Decatur City Commission ignored her pleas and so did the local press. Not a single reporter who attended the October 2013 hearing or who subsequently reported on its outcome contacted Edwards.
Veronica’s son, 30-year-old Michael, died after being shot in a parking lot off Memorial Drive in Southeast Atlanta. He was one of three black men shot that night. He and Derrick McGinty died; a third man recovered.
One month later the Atlanta Police Department had few leads and no suspects. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other local media outlets reported that the police were conducting an intensive neighborhood canvass looking for clues. Local NBC affiliate 11 Alive’s headline for the November 2014 neighborhood canvass reads: “Two mothers want justice for their sons murders.”
There have been no updates to the stories since 2014. Atlanta police reported few clues. Witnesses told them there were at least two shooters and that they fled in a red vehicle. Veronica wrote to me that law enforcement had identified a suspect but the person had an alibi: his girlfriend told police he was with her when the shooting occurred.
Local blogger Dan Whisenhunt’s Decaturish site, winner of back-to-back Creative Loafing awards as Atlanta’s best blog, wrote this about the murder and the police efforts to identify the people responsible for killing Edwards:
It was the same number of words the site devoted to Veronica’s 2013 city commission statement: zero.
After the 2013 hearing and subsequent public revelations about Decatur’s police department’s alleged civil rights abuses — racial profiling and harassment of African Americans and muslims — I began asking people I was interviewing for my book on gentrification in Decatur about local journalism.
One woman I spoke with in October 2014 succinctly, but effectively, said: “The press has failed us.” Decaturish and most other local news sites report about men of color as criminals or as exceptional individuals. Reading Decaturish, folks are left with the impression that Decatur’s only criminals are young black men. Or, they can read about what author Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in his recent book, Between the World and Me, as, “sentimental ‘firsts’— first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor— always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit.”
Ordinary people of color are invisible in Decatur.
When I wrote to Decaturish editor Whisenhunt in February 2014 about his site’s coverage of African American issues he replied, “If you don’t like my work, then don’t read it.” After threatening legal action, Whisenhunt added, “This will be the last communication I expect to receive from you. Any subsequent communications will be reported to the authorities.”
I wonder if we lived in a different world whether Veronica and Michael Edwards’ stories would warrant more than a few paragraphs in metropolitan news sites and silence from the only source of daily news in Decatur.
Michael Edwards left a wife, two sons, and a grieving mother. This will be the second Christmas Veronica celebrates with her mother (in her 80s) and her 107-year-old grandmother. “The holidays around the corner,” Veronica told 11 Alive last November. “You’re used to having certain ones there, him, his love, his spirit and it’s just awful.”
Last weekend she told me that she was “adjusting” to her new normal. “All I know to do is stay prayed up,” she wrote.
© 2015 D.S. Rotenstein