Author Archives

I recently graduated from the University's of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and currently freelance in Brooklyn. All of my work can be found at

My Journey to the Heart of the FOIA Request

Illustration by J.D. Reeves

Spenser Mestel | Longreads | September 2017 | 21 minutes (5,400 words)

On July 2, 1972, Angela Davis was sitting in the Plateau Seven restaurant in Santa Clara County, California, a few blocks from the courthouse where she’d spent the previous 13 weeks on trial for criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. The jury had just started deliberating, and Davis was eating with Rodney Barnette, a friend and former Black Panther. While the two talked, a local reporter emerged from the courthouse pressroom with news for Davis’s family and the activists gathered there: Four black men had hijacked a Western Airlines 727 jetliner carrying 98 passengers and were en route from Seattle to San Francisco. (Later it was confirmed there were only two hijackers, one man and one woman.) Not only were the hijackers demanding $500,000 and four parachutes, but they also wanted these items delivered by Davis, who was to stand on the runway of San Francisco International Airport in a white dress.

When the news reached the restaurant, several patrons around Davis and Barnette suddenly surrounded the pair’s table; these were in fact FBI agents dressed in civilian clothes. Almost a year earlier, Davis had been charged in California with aiding and abetting a murder. Though she hadn’t been at the scene, authorities alleged that guns she’d purchased were used to kill a superior-court judge. The Black Panthers relied on sympathetic Vietnam veterans, like Rodney Barnette, to acquire arms and train new members to use them. Barnette, however, had left the Panthers four years earlier following a suspicious interaction. At a meeting, a stranger claiming to be part of the “Panther Underground” had called Barnette into a back office and told him to beat members who arrived late. Barnette objected. (“We can’t do that to our own people,” he said an interview later. “How could we differentiate the police beating people, and us beating people?”) The man suggested he leave the group.

“I always thought he was some FBI agent,” Barnette would tell an interviewer in 2017. “Some agent provocateur or informant that all of a sudden appeared to try to split the party up.” This unnerving feeling of suspicion persisted even after Barnette left the Panthers. The FBI continued to interview his family members in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles, where Barnette had moved and gotten a job as a letter carrier. Despite stellar evaluations from his superiors, in 1969 Barnette was fired from the Postal Service, after less than a year on the job, for living with a woman he wasn’t married to, which qualified at the time as “conduct unbecoming a government employee.”

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After Marriage Equality, to Party, or to Protest?

Spenser Mestel | Longreads | June 2017 | 16 minutes (4,021 words)


June 26th, 2015 starts out as a regular Friday. At my summer internship at a financial fraud firm in Midtown East, Manhattan, I try to finish my work early so I can leave by 3 p.m., as I’ve done for five of the past six Fridays, but all I can manage is to listen to the fluorescent lights hum. I’m hungover. With a heavy sigh and a hand on my forehead, I go to open my project for the day. Just then, a friend texts me: “We won.” It takes a minute to register. I’d had a feeling the decision might come today, but I shrug, stand up, and walk to the office kitchen to make tea. My head hurts.

I walk back to my desk, a small cubicle, and sit down inside the wall with my name (misspelled) on a temporary laminated sign. I stare at the icon under my cursor, “Anti-Money Laundering,” and decide to check the news instead. I scroll past the soaring rhetoric and indignant vitriol — nothing I haven’t read before. The other summer intern walks past my desk. “We won,” I say without inflection. “It was five to four.” She smiles and sits down at her computer. Then, I see Nic, an analyst, and the news starts to feel more urgent. “You and I can finally get married,” I yell to him from across the room. He shifts in place, his eyes darting between the rows of people seated between us. “Yeah, let’s go right now,” he says with a forced laugh. No one looks up from their screens, and I sit back down at my desk. The fluorescent lights hum.

Still a little groggy, I check Facebook on my phone and watch a video of the spectators waiting to hear the decision outside the Supreme Court. “I’m so scared,” a voice says off camera, “I’m shaking.” Then the crowd erupts around two women, who start hugging. The one facing the camera has her eyes shut tight behind rectangular glasses, her left hand pressing her partner’s head against her own, the other holding a sign: Be Proud. A demonstrator with a rainbow bandana around her neck smiles and speaks into a microphone: “We weren’t sure. We weren’t at all sure, but how could you not be here for this?”

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Unprepared: The Difficulty of Getting a Prescription for a Drug That Effectively Prevents HIV Infection

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Spenser Mestel | Longreads | December 2016 | 23 minutes (5,642 words)


I’m sitting on the examining table at Student Health in Iowa City, digging a nail into the cuticle of my right thumb, waiting for Robin, the physician’s assistant. Over the course of my grad school career, she’s walked me through a half dozen of these STI checks—swabbed my throat and rectum, handled my urine, drawn liters of blood, and sat patiently to answer my many questions.

She opens the door and sighs. “I’ve got good news and bad news.”

I hold my breath. My ex-boyfriend, Zac, has been my only partner since the last test a few months back, at the beginning of summer, while I was still in New York City. We both tested negative and always used condoms, but I’m remembering a conversation we had while eating in bed about a guy he’d gone on a couple of dates with a few months earlier. Zac was staring at the TV and fumbling with his hands.

“We were starting to hook up, and he told me that he’s HIV-positive.”

I’d dropped my samosa. “What?”

“No, no, no. He told me before anything happened. He said that him and his boyfriend had a threesome once, and the condom broke.”

A threesome and the condom broke.

I look down at my hand. At this point, I’m digging my nail into my knuckle.

“The good news is the tests came back negative.”

I exhale.

“The bad news is I can’t prescribe you Truvada.”

There is no rational reason for me to think I have HIV. I would have avoided this stress altogether if I weren’t interested in Truvada, a pill approved in 2012 to help prevent the contraction of HIV, also known as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP. I’d heard about the drug at a party in New York and immediately looked it up on my phone. Of the 657 San Francisco residents the study followed for 32 months, zero tested positive for HIV.

“I want to prescribe it,” Robin says, pulling out a prescription pad, “believe me, but the doctor I work under won’t allow it, not until we have the right protocols.” She writes down a name and hands me the paper: “Try Dr. Nisly at River Landing. She runs an LGBT clinic on Tuesday nights.” In the past three years, she’s never referred me to the LGBT clinic, never even mentioned that there was one. As I fold the paper, I remember the first time I met Robin, right after I’d moved to this Midwestern college town from New York. I’d been on guard when she asked if I had sex with men or women or both. “Men,” I said, scanning her face for twitches, her voice for stutters. I waited for a loaded question or curt tone. They never came. Read more…