Media Literacy, News Digest, and Report-Back from Trial — Week One

From ALKQN Support

On Monday, October 22, the NC Latin Kings federal racketeering criminal trial began at the Middle District courthouse in downtown Winston-Salem. Seven Hispanic men face judgment from a sixteen-person jury composed of black people and white people. Some defendants wore ill-fitting suits donated by the NC ALKQN Legal Defense Coalition.

The plush red carpet, vaulted ceilings and long wooden pews of the courtroom recall religious architecture, and each sworn witness initiated their testimony with a solemn oath to God. Each of the defendants faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

A half-dozen hulking U.S. Marshals flanked the codefendants, dressed in loose, unbuttoned blazer jackets that hung long past their waists, a fashion designed both to conceal their firearms and to facilitate ease of use. Some wore military crewcuts, others responded to information relayed to them on devices that coiled like phone cords behind their ears.

Seven public defenders have the opportunity to cross-examine each of the prosecution’s list of more than 150 witnesses. Michael Patrick, the lead defense attorney, has no formal litigation expertise with the complicated Racketeer & Corrupt Influence act under which the men are being charged—he is a personal injury lawyer. Some of the defenders perform languidly, some are soft-spoken, other seem more suited to cinematic lines of firebrand questioning.

The government’s two-person prosecution team consisted of Trial Attorney Leshia M. Lee-Dixon of the Criminal Division’s Organized Crime and Gang Section, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. J. Lang for the Middle District of North Carolina. Lang brought vitriol and venom in his opening statements, using histrionic in his gestures and voice to bring some gravity and sex appeal to a indictment that looks comparatively dull.

Lang and Dixon aren’t new to prosecuting people as gang members. Lang coordinated the District Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), a Department of Justice initiative partnering local and federal law enforcement officials to reduce gun violence implemented under former President George W. Bush. Dixon has been involved in a number of drug busts and organized crime prosecutions.

Dixon’s capable litigation comes as a late roster change—originally, a different prosecuting attorney was assigned to the case, but he requested to be recused of his duty in order to go on a honeymoon with his new wife. An even later change to the game was the removal of Jason Paul Yate’s public defender after she claimed a personal illness in her family had become stressful enough that she no longer felt capable of representing him. Yates, who is alleged to have been instrumental in generating the split-off faction of Latin Kings in North Carolina at odds with Cornell’s ALKQN, is expected to face trial some time in 2013.

For decades, the livelihood of both Lang and Dixon has depended on a narrative of escalating gang activity in NC. It is both their means and their end that the NC ALKQN be characterized as a monolithic criminal organization without redeeming qualities as civically engaged young men.

Chris Briese, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Charlotte Division, has groomed this perspective; in a statement issued after the December raid, Briese boasted: “The gang’s attempt to portray the Latin Kings as a public service organization did not deter the FBI and our law enforcement partners from uncovering their scheme.”

He also called the arrests “an outstanding example of the tireless work of the Safe Streets Task Force, (SSTF)” a law enforcement partnership similar to the PSN, but dedicated to the specific pursuit of branding the NC Latin Kings as a criminal enterprise and dismantling them. On December 6th, 2011, the day of the raid, the SSTF was awarded more than $50,000 by Greensboro’s City Council.

On Oct. 7th, School Guilford County School Board member Deena Hayes explained to a group of churchgoers at AME Zion church in Greensboro that she had a hard time understanding the way law enforcement personnel interact with “gang activity.” In 2008, when Cornell joined the school safety committee on which Hayes served, the officers from the Greensboro Police Department left the board.

Hayes was surprised by the GPD’s unwillingness to work with Cornell, who she said was guilty of nothing, and had every right to be there. She said she now suspects the police worried it would reflect poorly for them to be involved in proactive dialog with Cornell while they were actively pursuing a RICO prosecution of he and some of his associates, which began as early as 2005 and was well underway by 2008.

So far, testimony from cooperating witnesses and paid informants has made for the bulk of the government’s prosecution strategy. Luis Rosa, Allen Jordan, and Brothers Anthony Vasquez and Robert Vasquez Jr., all took the stand last week. Jordan and the Vasquezes were officially stripped of their crowns, or kicked out of the organization, in 2008 and 2009.

Before his incarceration, Cornell has contended that the Vasquezes and Jordan violated the bylaws of the NC ALKQN, which mandates, most relevantly, abstinence from criminal activity, but also certain social standards of respect and integrity.

Rosa, a member in good standing up until the December raid agreed to cooperate only after spending 3 months in jail and struggling with a heart condition.  Several other former Latin Kings expected to testify are under 25 and/or have recently born children to take care of.

But babies aren’t the only thing that can change the way people tell stories. It’s critical to understand how “objective coverage” and facts can become misleading. This article is composed of data collected by members of the ALKQN Support coalition, and is biased inasmuch as it presents data that we hope will tend towards the exoneration of the wrongfully indicted Latin Kings of NC.

Racist superstructure notwithstanding, there remains the plain matter of systematic failure that regularly meets those bold enough to challenge the misconduct of law enforcement but naive enough to do so through established legal channels.

Case in point: with the help of Attorney Anita Earls, a coalition composed of several members of the NC ALKQN, ministers, community activists, and police accountability advocates filed a Title VI complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. in October, 2010. This complaint formally requested that a litany of power abuses, harassment, profiling, and brutality perpetrated by the GPD be investigated by the federal government.

Over this past summer, several government documents surfaced that revealed the failure of the DOJ to conduct any investigation into the complaint whatsoever. The DOJ offered no excuse as to why the complaint, which was submitted through proper legal channels, was ignored. Some 49 civil and criminal cases against the GPD by current and former officers of color are pending.

But in an atmosphere where white supremacy, gang hysteria, and the prison industrial complex are so influential and invisible, this abuse of state power by way of neglect should come as less of a surprise. In fact, it’s pretty smoothly ingrained into the way people of color who struggle against power structures are understood as dissenters: they tend to be dismissed as frivolous troublemakers being loud for attention. We feel it’s important to provide an alternative to this narrative as it occurs in media outlets that may be swayed by these structures.

No one publication is uniformly guilty for furthering this sort of dismissal. But editors tend to assimilate news stories into familiar categories that are juicy enough to move newsprint and get clicks. It should be noted that both Yes! Weekly and the Greensboro News & Record have dedicated reporters to the trial.

For example, Robert Lopez, a features reporter for the News & Record, is responsible for day-to-day coverage of the trial. Lopez’s coverage is a step in the right direction — concerning the NC ALKQN and Jorge Cornell in specific, the N&R had ran almost exclusively regurgitated police reports until Sunday, Oct. 14th.

That’s when Lopez ran a story called “Is Jorge Cornell a Gangster or a Crusader?”.

Lopez does his groundwork, and took the time to interview several close friends of Cornell who could attest to his character, evidence that he intended to balance the N&R‘s coverage of Cornell.

But Lopez is still at the mercy of a publication that integrated the Greensboro Daily News into its fold in the early 80s. In 1979 after Nazis and members of the KKK and  murdered 5 members of the Communist Workers Party, the Greensboro Daily News focused on assassinating the character of Nelson Johnson, a who himself suffered a knife wound in the attack, and who had been involved in armed self-defense in resistance to racist state policies in the 1960s.

In that article, Johnson is said to have incited a riot, and mentions that four persons were killed and 10 were wounded. Distributing facts in this way is misleading at best; it is often simply deceptive. Focusing on the histories of survivors of abuse and violence is coercive and inexcusable. This is the pedigree of the Greensboro News and Record. Of course reporting and editorial styles change with the times, and not every article the N&R produces is problematic in this way. But because news stories rely so heavily on an abstract understanding of the “spirit of an age”, racist reporting like this can sometimes be allowed. We have to realize that, just as much as folks in 1979 probably weren’t aware of the extent of atrocities being minimized in that news article, we are liable to minimize the same sorts of unforgivable brutality if we misrepresent the facts of the Latin Kings trial.

Robert Lopez’s writing has been strictly balanced by his editors in order to temper the notions of certain of the N&R‘s presumed readership. Lopez, like the prosecuting attorneys, both creates and reinforces misnomers in his reporting. Melodramatically reminding us that “[t]he origins of the Latin Kings are shrouded in mystery” might be meaningful to readers in New York or Chicago, where the Latin Kings have a contrasting history. But in Greensboro, the origin is crystal clear: there were no Latin Kings here until Jorge Cornell moved to Greensboro in 2005, established the NC ALKQN (a distinct body from the Latin Kings of other regions) and began recruiting troubled youth of color in an attempt to make a positive change in the community.

Jordan Green deserves esteem for the consistency and depth of his coverage of the Latin Kings for the past 4 years. His latitude as a hard news reporter for an alternative weekly tabloid format paper has made for some important archivism in the case of the NC ALKQN, and Green has frequently avoided archetypical gang journalism.

But it’s easy to sensationalize in cases like this; to be sure, the trial means to criminalize a sensation more than it does any sort of substantial crime—RICO indicts thought and intent by design. Asking, as Green did in his article in Yes! Weekly last week, what the “code of silence” tattoo on Cornell’s neck signifies is one of these sensational moves. Of course it could mean that Cornell is a gangster who refuses to talk to cops because his every move represents a metered step toward the furtherance of a vast criminal network on the order of your favorite mafia movie. Or perhaps, like most people, he finds it distasteful to chat with law enforcement personnel.

For Cornell specifically, that distaste might be because any conversation with them tends to lead to his arrest—he’s been to jail for felonies 18 times in the past seven years, and every single one was dismissed, continued indefinitely, or ended in a not guilty verdict. This is not to mention the violent sorts of “appropriate use of force” employed by GPD officers during arrests that is almost universally under-reported or not reported at all.

This is just an example. Tempering the flashy details available to an average spectator with context is paramount in minimizing media bias in this and every court case. Even if a story is composed of 100% direct quotes from witness testimony, the way they are arranged on the page and referred to will lead you to different conclusions. Moreover, who you hear saying them, and what kinds of stories are being told before and after, will contribute to the story you take away, regardless of the facts at hand.

If you treat that the testimony of informants as truth, as Robert Lopez does in his October 22nd article on the trial, it’s easy to forget that there is a possibility the facts being presented represent a fabricated history, sewn together by federal investigators and coached into consistent reality by prosecuting attorneys. The gaffes and backtracks by Robert Vasquez Jr. migh remind folks that this is an ever-present peril in constructing an acurate narrative of the history of the NC ALKQN.

The tendency to defer to the shorthand of FBI boilerplate when it comes to understanding the ALKQN is understandable. The Latin Kings is a violent brand in many states, and not all leadership has undergone the sea change evident in NC. The documentary series “Gangland” aired by the “History” channel has probably done more than any other media node to singlehandedly discredit contemporary associations of people of color, especially those unafraid to call out law enforcement for misconduct, and those who arm themselves for self-defense. There’s no accounting for good TV.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of media consumers to sift through data and make judgments on their own. Recognizing this task as perilous helps. Remembering that every news outlet — including the ones claiming to be objective and balanced — has motives beyond simple truth-telling, is crucial. Familiarizing yourself with the weapons used by those more interested in perpetuating a familiar story that’s “sexy” — a word used unironically by Assistant D.A. Robert Lang in his opening statements for the prosecution to describe the nature of some of the details he’d be presenting the jury — is critical.

So, for the future, it would be better to be vigilant than to simply take this article at its word.

We encourage you to do so.

1 Comment

  1. martpent@gmail.com

    I’d love to see an article for people who don’t know anything about this, maybe supplemented with some links for more. Thanks!

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