Friday, March 23, 2012
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He says that he read about the story for a couple of weeks before he started writing about it. It felt too sad and too familiar to cover, and he was too used to writing about similar stories that were routinely ignored by the media.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Generally, this stuff just sort of goes away, and I think as someone covering it, you sometimes get subject, regrettably, to a sort of fatigue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why did you start writing about it?
TA-NEHISI COATES: One of the things that happened is on the blog that I write for The Atlantic, they have a Daily Open Thread, and I went in there one day and I saw that they were talking about it. And I said – actually, I posted in the Thread, I said, you know, I’ve known about this and I’ve been following this and I’ve been reading about it, and I cannot bring myself to write about it. It’s just entirely too depressing.
And something about saying it [LAUGHS] made me realize that, in fact, I had just started writing about it [LAUGHING]. And so, if I was gonna write about it, you know, in a Comments section, I needed to come out and talk about it. And then it just kind of blew from there in a way that I really, really didn’t expect. The thing to remember is for weeks Trymaine Martin’s parents were trying to get access to the 911 tapes. The chief of police was refusing to release them, not only until his report was done, but until the prosecutor’s report was done. Basically that would – would have been months.
Some amount of pressure did build, and those tapes were released. Zimmerman says that it’s him screaming on the tapes, that he was actually screaming for help. That may well turn out to be true, but I just have to say, listening to those tapes it sounds a lot like a child. It’s just absolutely, absolutely horrifying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I was looking on The Atlantic site –
TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -and they had a kind of tick-tock of how this story made its way onto the front pages of American newspapers and in the leads of TV news programs. And it seems to start with Trymaine and you and Charles Blow. You were early, writing about this story.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Not as early as Trymaine who was especially early. I can’t speak for Trymaine and I can’t speak for Charles. I will tell you this: My interest in these sorts of issues date back to my time as a student at Howard University and having a friend who was killed by a police officer, who had done nothing, and feeling that no one would care. I will live with that for the rest of my life.
These are not abstract for a lot of us. Some of us, and I know myself, who have been stopped by police, have been encounters that we thought could have gone another way, when we see these cases we see our sons, we immediately see us. It sounds like – you know, it’s high-fallutin’ or metaphorical. I don’t know how I can make that any more real. It’s like covering a war, when you actually live in the war zone. It’s a very, very real present, horrifying possibility.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that the story of the death of Tryvane Martin could be the beginning of a tipping point where these stories do get the attention they deserve?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I think it depends on what sort of tipping point you’re talking about. I think it might be a tipping point for Stand Your Ground laws. Just this week these was a gentleman who got off on a Stand Your Ground law. A judge dismissed the case. He saw somebody stealing his radio from his car. He went to chase the thief, withdraw, ran. He chased the man down and stabbed him to death. He claimed the guy made a stabbing motion, so that was why he felt threatened. I think those sorts of cases will experience a lot more scrutiny in a way that they didn’t before.
As to the general issue that brought me to this case, how young African-American men interact with police, people claiming police powers who are, in fact, not police, that’s gonna be a long, long, long fight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have a hugely popular blog, and you have an extraordinary relationship with your readers, and there are a lot of them.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You cover the big issues of the day.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you were resistant to this one. I know this is the question I started with.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes, right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was it your readers really who compelled you? Was it simply in response to what they were saying, or was there something inside you that said, you know, “If not me, who?”
TA-NEHISI COATES: I think it’s very easy to feel alone, even though you’re in a crowd, even though there’s everybody there. And when you see your readers talking about it before you, you realize, in fact, you are not alone. And this sounds so stupid and overwrought, but you take a kind of courage, because you – you do want to be talking about things that matter. And I talk about these sorts of issues with such regularity, and they just disappear.
There was a gentleman, Shem Walker, who was – I’ll never forget – is killed out in Brooklyn. He mistook an undercover cop who was on his mother’s stoop for a local tough. Him and the undercover cop got into a scuffle after he tried to evict him off his mother’s stoop, and he ended up shot dead. I don’t want to replay that case for you, but I tell you that to say we still don’t know who the cop was. All we know is that Shem Walker’s dead. [LAUGHS] And this is contested by no one.
And so, these sorts of things happen so much that you, yourself, even – and, and it’s – it’s horrible to admit this, but even as the writer, you can become depressed. You can start to despair. And maybe some little voice in the back of your mind can start to say, “Does it even matter, does it really matter?” That’s a destructive thing that I’ve just admitted to. But it’s there, I think.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic.