Alternative Reality: ‘Three Wrongfully Convicted Men, 40 Years, and a City That Still Refuses to be Honest With Itself’

Wiley Bridgeman, left, of Cleveland, embraces his brother Ronnie, now known as Kwame Ajamu, as they walk from the Justice Center in Cleveland following Bridgeman's release from a life sentence for a 1975 murder. The two brothers, who were exonerated after spending decades in prison for a 1975 slaying, have sued the city of Cleveland and the detectives who investigated the case. The federal lawsuit suit, filed Thursday, July 2, 2015, names three Cleveland police detectives and a sergeant and the estates of a sergeant and three other detectives who have since died. (AP Photo/Phil Long, File)

Kyle Swenson was a young reporter at the Scene, Cleveland’s alt-weekly, when he started investigating the wrongful conviction of three black men who were imprisoned in the 1970s for a murder they didn’t commit. The men — Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, and Rickey Jackson, who served a combined 106 years behind bars — were exonerated in 2014, thanks in part to Swenson’s reporting, which informs his new book on the subject, Good Kids, Bad City. Swenson, now a reporter for The Washington Post, recently returned to the pages of the Scene with a long essay, included in the list below, that looks back at the conviction and indicts the city he once called home.

Swenson’s reporting is a testament to the value of local newspapers, as Alec MacGillis, who covers politics and government for ProPublica, points out in his largely positive Times review of Good Kids, Bad City. “One can’t help wondering what life-shattering injustices might go unaddressed in the future,” he writes, “for lack of a curious reporter to take a call or open an envelope.”

MacGillis, who lives in Baltimore, knows about the contraction of the local news industry firsthand. Two years ago, Baltimore’s City Paper, founded in 1977, was shuttered by the Baltimore Sun Media Group. Weeks after its closure, a pair of enterprising editors founded the Baltimore Beat, a print alt-weekly. But the paper couldn’t support itself through advertising revenue and it closed four months later. Now, however, the Beat is back, resurrected as an online-only operation in early March. (One of the outlet’s first new feature stories is listed below.) It is being run as a non-profit, and its editors — Lisa Snowden-McCray and Brandon Soderberg — say they hope, eventually, to revive the print publication.

It’s an audacious act, starting a print publication in 2019 — and recent attempts haven’t boded well for the industry. The Knoxville Mercury, for instance — founded after the city’s longstanding alt-weekly, Metro Pulse, was shut down — closed in 2017 after just two years in print. But there is something about paper, it seems, that lends gravitas and legitimacy to a media outlet.

At the beginning of March, Indianapolis’ alt-weekly, Nuvo, announced that it would no longer be publishing a print edition, and a number of editorial employees were laid off, including Nuvo’s editor, Laura McPhee. Fortunately, the publication will live on as a website, and it will refashion itself as a member-supported non-profit, which sounds promising, despite the staff cuts. 

Still, I get anxious when newspapers trade in paper for pixels. That’s not because I’m a print nostalgist; it’s because these decisions can portend disaster. I think, for example, of The Village Voicethe ur-alt-weekly, which stopped publishing its print edition in September 2017. Though the Voice continued to do good work online, it seemed to me that, without an accompanying print product, it was like a neutered beast. A year later, the Voice went out of business, thanks to the brilliant business mind of retail heir Peter Barbey, whose name I curse every time I pass a New York street corner only to find Time Out and AM New York. 

It’s depressing to me that the city I live in no longer has an alternative newspaper, though I take comfort in the fact that a number of alt-weeklies around the country are still publishing good stuff, including the The Stranger, the Metro TimesOrlando WeeklyTriad City Beat, and Monterey County Weekly — all featured in this reading list.

 
1. “Out For Justice is Out For Change” (Lisa Snowden-McCray, March 8, 2019, Baltimore Beat)

Lisa Snowden-McCray, the editor of the newly revived Baltimore Beat, profiles an organization that advocates for the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated, who often have trouble transitioning from jail. Out for Justice is led by Nicole Hanson-Mundell, who spent a year in jail. This legislative session, in Annapolis, the organization is advocating for “two bills urging state lawmakers to support pre-release centers for women,” Snowden-McCray writes.

It’s tireless, often thankless work. But Hanson-Mundell recognizes how important it is. That’s why it’s so important that the pre-release legislation gets passed.

“How can I deny a woman who just came home and she needs housing? I can’t say ‘Miss, I don’t provide direct services, you have to go somewhere else,’” she said. “I have to tap into my resources and find out who offers housing to newly released women with children. I have to use my connections and advocate for her.”

2. “This Is the Final Thing You’ll Ever Need to Read About Howard Schultz” (Rich Smith, February 27, 2019, The Stranger)

The Stranger has no kind words for Howard Schultz, who, as you probably know, is entertaining a bid for the presidency, much to the chagrin of, well, pretty much everybody. Rich Smith describes the former Starbucks CEO as “Seattle’s most successful bean juice salesman” in this deft takedown.

He has no idea who we are as a country now, no idea how Trump became president, and so much palpable fear that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is going to tax his Frappuccino dividends at a reasonable rate that he’s willing to hold the country hostage unless a moderate wins the Democratic nomination.

So much for hometown pride.

3. “Defiling the temple” (Jordan Green, February 21, 2019, Triad City Beat)

Triad City Beat, which covers North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad — including the cities of Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem — has a long story on Kenneth Fairbanks, a pastor and community leader who was also involved with charitable work in Nairobi. “But four criminal indictments allege that for much of the time Fairbanks was operating his ministry, he was also sexually abusing children,” including his own daughter, Jordan Green writes.

While Kenneth Fairbanks’ supporters cast him as a victim of familial treachery, his daughter, Christa, alleges that he sexually abused her for years, along with other girls, while isolating her to exert control and extorting her silence by admonishing her against ruining God’s plan for their family.

4. “Speed Trap” (Xander Peters, February 20, 2019, Orlando Weekly)

Orlando’s alt-weekly takes a sobering look at meth abuse in Florida, particularly among gay men. Xander Peters’ piece centers on a 29-year-old meth addict named Matt, who declines to give his last name. He got into the drug through Grindr, the dating app.

Matt’s genesis story isn’t uncommon in the community of men who have sex with men, or MSM. LGBTQ-focused dating apps have tried to suppress drug abuse in recent years, even banning certain terms such as “PNP” (“party and play”) and the capitalization of certain letters in members’ bios, such as the capital letter T (“Tina.”)

The depressing kicker to this story leaves little hope that Matt will ever overcome his addiction.

5. “Three Wrongfully Convicted Men, 40 Years, and a City That Still Refuses to be Honest With Itself” (Kyle Swenson, February 20, 2019, Cleveland Scene)

Kyle Swenson, now a reporter for The Washington Post, reckons with the lessons from his new book, Good Kids, Bad City, which examines the story of three black teenagers in 1970s Cleveland who were wrongfully convicted of murder, imprisoned for decades, and then exonerated.

“Good kids, bad city.” I am defensive about the title. The title implies values—the kids are good, the city is bad. I know Cleveland is a proud town but touchy, easy to injure; as I wrote, I had an invisible Clevelander in my head, belligerently asking why I had the temerity to slap the label “bad city” on the town. Was that fair? What makes a place bad, or good? I spent many an hour not writing, arguing with this invisible but touchy Clevelander, justifying the title.

Swenson more than justifies the title in this engaging and thought-provoking essay.

6. “How adult nights at Detroit’s roller rinks are keeping black skating culture alive” (Imani Mixon, February 20, 2019, Metro Times)

As a recreational activity, roller skating is a vital part of black social life in Detroit, according to Imani Mixon’s illuminating piece for Metro Times. I particularly enjoyed Mixon’s description of “Detroit-style skating,” which I knew nothing about.

Detroit-style skating is characterized by its smooth rolling motion that is heavily influenced by the Motown sound that was gaining traction around the same time that skating became a popular pastime. According to skaters who have been on the scene for decades, Detroit skaters don’t ever really stop rolling and if they do, they use the rubber toe stops on their skates, another signature marker of a Detroit skater. The basic move that every Detroit skater has to learn, whether solo or in groups, is the half-turn, which involves turning a smooth 180 degrees for a few beats then turning back in place to continue on the original skating path.

7. “Monterey Bay fishermen catch salmon as far away as Alaska. A proposed copper mine there poses a local threat” (Matt Koller, February 21, 2019, Monterey County Weekly)

Matt Koller does a good job laying out how a proposed copper mine site known as the Pebble Deposit could very well imperil the livelihoods of Monterey fisherman who spend their summers in Alaska’s Bristol Bay angling for sockeye salmon. The mine, if approved, risks contaminating the bay with discarded waste rock.

Fishermen have always accepted a certain degree of risk. But the salmon are certain. A renewable resource, they will keep returning to spawn. Yet Bristol Bay fishermen, including those from Monterey Bay, see the presence of the Pebble Mine—which seeks to extract a non-renewable resource—as a threat to their industry because it has the potential to alter these natural cycles in a fundamental way that will not balance out in the end.

The mine, Koller writes, threatens “the last great sockeye salmon run in the world” as well as “an entire way of life.”

8. “The Story of Chaney Lively” (Laura McPhee, February 21, 2019, Nuvo)

For one of its final print cover stories, Laura McPhee — until recently the editor of Nuvo — pieces together what little information there is about Chaney Lively, the first free woman of color in Indianapolis. She arrived in 1821, in what was then a frontier town, with Alexander Ralston, a Scottish surveyor “tasked with laying out the new city.” Chaney, 21, was Ralston’s housekeeper, though she had originally been his slave, most likely purchased in Louisville. Ralston died six years later, at which time Chaney inherited land.

When Chaney moved into her own home in 1827, there were less than 60 people of color—men, women, and children—living in Indianapolis out of a population of a little more than 1,000. She was the only Black female head of household in the 1830 census, and the first woman of color to own property in the city, most likely the first person of color, male or female, to do so.

In the process of excavating details about Chaney’s life, McPhee also paints a stark portrait of African-American life in Indianapolis before and after the Civil War.

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Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Columbia Journalism Review.