When it comes to homicides, the news is not the story.
I’m a homicide reporter.
I open my Tweetdeck dozens of times a day. I have search terms set to let me know if someone tweets about DC homicide, DC murder, Washington murder, or any other combination you can think of. In the morning my Google Alerts come in with news articles with the same terms. Most of the time, the columns stay stagnant and the emails are old news or unrelated. Until someone who looks like me is killed.
Add in the hint of something “sexy” or politically relevant to the mix, and the tweets turn into a tsunami.
Seth Rich and Kevin Sutherland had both of those, among a few other things in common. They were both American University graduates, both worked in Democratic politics, both men in their twenties with their lives ahead of them, both murdered in D.C. And both had their own news waves.
Rich’s murder has led to a gluttony of misleading news reports and conspiracy theorists have tied it to a Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential run. There have been reward prizes and allegations of cover ups. Just this week, a new report from Fox News has set off a renewed flurry of coverage in the nation’s capital.
Sutherland’s murder led to a eulogy on the house floor and a review of DC’s release programs for mentally ill suspects.
One reason for this coverage? Both of these men were white.
If we’re going to talk about conspiracies and cover ups, let’s talk about the ones we ignore.
When Michael Dupre Price was killed last week, Fox didn’t show up to tell his story. Thousands of people didn’t tweet, national news outlets didn’t converge and then diverge to publish hot takes on inaccuracies of the initial coverage.
Perhaps if Price had worked for a congressman or a national campaign there would be conspiracies about his death. It would probably benefit him too. When Tricia McCauley, a white artist, was kidnapped and killed, the killer was identified after police circulated a video that was then widely shared. More publicity could lead to a tip. But Price never got the chance to go to college, to live that life. He was born to a life of strife, his mom addicted to crack and his death was “inevitable.” If a conspiracy is a complex of factors leading to an end, this is our collective conspiracy.
When friends were visiting the city this weekend and remembered what I did they asked if I was paranoid, always worried about being killed since I report on it so extensively. I always have the same answer.
“I’m the safest person here.” I am a white, 27-year-old female who was born in the right zip code. Statistically, I tell them, my greatest chance of being killed in this city is by my boyfriend. We laugh uncomfortably. But it’s true. Out of 137 murders last year, two white women were among the victims — and suspects were arrested within three days.
By now half the readers of this piece have turned off. Rolling their eyes at another “social justice” activist. Someone who would describe them as politically progressive and looking to right the injustices of the world.
But I have no political soap box. My job is to run D.C. Witness, which tracks every homicide in D.C. It’s not about politics, or activism, it is about people, lost lives and numbers. Cold, dispassionate numbers. You won’t find me at crime scenes at 2 a.m. TV news tends to do that job. They show up, get b-roll of the caution tape, shots of stoops and evidence markers, then pack up and move on. It’s after the homicide that my work starts — collecting the data about each person killed, trying to paint a picture of what their life was like and following up on any homicide cases that come thereafter.
There is a cliche about sunshine cleaning out the shadows. In the two years since I started to gather the data, the sunshine of the numbers is blinding. Three out of every four homicide victims is a black male, though they make up less than a quarter of our population. When the police department started publicizing missing persons more widely on social media a few months ago, celebrities and news outlets started campaigns to raise awareness. There’s no campaign for the 123 black men killed last year.
Murder suspects wait an average of two years for their day in DC court. And in two years only one murder suspect has been found guilty of murder. The rest have taken plea deals, or have been found not guilty.
Seth Rich and Kevin Sutherland didn’t deserve to die but they do deserve to be remembered. But so too do the other victims of homicide. Because if we shine an equal light on their lives and how they were lost perhaps we can get past social justice to social repair.
And then I will be delighted to be put out of a job.