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“Death of a Young Black Journalist”

This summer, I wrote about the unsolved murder of Charnice Milton, a young D.C. reporter who embodied, in many ways, the power of community journalism and its insistence that every human life — no matter how “anonymous” or far from power — matters. Milton didn’t define her gig as covering crises, as so many of us do; she wrote about local geeks and students and growers of things. You can read my piece, and learn more about her life and work, here.

Charnice Milton.


“Kidnapped at the Border”

Kidnapped: Brayan Godoy (left) and his brother, Robinson, were travelling from Guatemala to join their parents, in Trenton. In Texas, a woman in a white car said, “Get in!”Check out my New Yorker piece from last spring on the vast migrant extortion business, across the U.S. and Mexico:

I focus on the kidnapping of two smart, resourceful teenage boys from Guatemala, Brayan and Robinson Godoy, who fled gang violence last year on a journey to join their parents in Trenton, New Jersey (as unaccompanied minors). In south Texas, the boys were seized by rogue opportunists who extorted their family for cash, in a pattern that’s currently victimizing thousands of families much like theirs each year. The piece, titled “Where are the Children?”, explores how a broken immigration system feeds this trend, by empowering organized crime — much as is true, these days, in the Mediterranean, when it comes to refugees fleeing Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and other crisis zones.

I try to cover the U.S./Mexican extortion crisis from both sides of the border, writing about my bus trip into the heart of Mexico’s drug-war territory with more than forty Central American mothers, in order to search for signs of their missing children and husbands (most of whom disappeared en route to the U.S.). Some were lost to Mexico’s domestic kidnapping and extortion market, through which cartels and their subsidiarie  s prey upon the poorest, squeezing them for cash and labor. The Godoy family’s saga continues — the boys now face possible deportation — so I hope to post an update before long. Thanks to the brilliant Katie Orlinsky for her powerful photographs.

Tougher border security has made migrants more vulnerable. Routes are more perilous, and organized crime controls many smuggling operations. One activist says, “The harder you make it to cross, the more people can charge, the more dangerous the trip becomes.”

Let’s return to this?

So, an obvious admission: this site has fallen into derelict territory. I’ve written a bunch of New Yorker pieces that I’ve yet to post, and now, in better-let-than-never fashion, I’m going to finally toss a few of them up here, along with a pledge to try to maintain this a bit more semi-regularly. Thanks to all the readers who’ve been sending along such interesting story leads, reflections, investigative ideas, etc. — I’m always grateful and intrigued to hear from you.

To keep things cheerful for once, we’ll start here: with a photo from the recent New Yorker Festival after-party with my colleagues Kalefa Sanneh and Andrew Marantz, at the top of the Standard, where I got to meet, among other heroes, Tavi Gevinson of the utterly perfect Rookie. Sanneh Stillman Marantz2015+New+Yorker+Festival+Wrap+Party+Hosted+Oo-BMwLnUpgl

Rwanda and the Little Cafe

I tend to write grim and depressing stories, but even amidst those, there are often people who stand out for their light and insight; I forgot to post this piece about a few such characters in New Haven, who helped to bring some of the horrors of the Rwandan genocide to light via a fax machine at Lulu’s cafe, a little shop in East Rock. Lulu and her surgeon friend, John Sundin, created their own sort of fascinating version of conflict correspondence via a coffeehouse bulletin board/notebook, in the pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram era. You can check out the story on

Hiroshima: An Anniversary

Sixty-nine years ago last week, a slender woman named Tomiko Shoji was struck and sent aloft by a bright white light. She’d just arrived at her secretarial job, at a tobacco factory, and was standing by the door when the flash occurred; the light’s source had a nickname, Little Boy, but it meant nothing to her at the time. She flew backward under the crushing force of the office door, passed out, and awoke with shards of glass in her head and an expanse of bodies around her—some dead, some alive but dazed, and many more, she soon found, floating “like charcoal” in nearby rivers. The nineteen-year-old climbed up and out of the shell of her younger self; she had survived the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Nearly seven decades later, Keni Sabath, Shoji’s youngest granddaughter, started to wonder: Had the bombing’s aftermath reshaped not just the psyche of her bachan (grandmother), but also her own?

Read my interview with Shoji and her family for The New Yorker here — it’s a story about the inter-generational transmission of trauma, which many war survivors/veterans and their families may recognize. Photograph via Popperfoto/Getty.

What can journos learn from lawyers, and vice versa?

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 5.37.40 PMI’m looking forward to being part of a public conversation at Penn Law School this coming Monday, for a whole slew of reasons:

1. The talk came about at the invitation of Prof. Louis Rulli, the school’s Director of Clinical Programs who is also a particularly creative thinker in the realm of public interest law.  In my recent story on police abuses of civil asset forfeiture laws, I highlighted the work of Rulli’s civil practice clinic in defending Philadelphia families who’ve had their homes seized without much due process.  Some of the cases his students have worked on are pretty jaw-dropping. I’m eager to learn about the other sorts of issues they’re tackling, within and beyond civil forfeiture.

2. I like the question Prof. Rulli has posed for the occasion, which, to put it loosely, goes something like: “What are we to make of the relationship between public interest lawyers and journalists?” What insights can journos glean from lawyers — what methodological tricks of the trade, what concrete knowledge about where systems of governance are working and where they aren’t, etc.? And what can public interest lawyers take away from feature reporters — about the powers of narrative, for instance, and its impact on public perceptions of a given policy or set of facts? There are interesting sub-questions, too, about how to preserve fairness, objectivity, and complex independent thinking when working as a reporter in tandem with litigators who have a different set of professional  imperatives.

3. It’s going to be a conversation, rather than just a talk. And I like that, a lot, because there’s plenty I’m eager to hear and learn from professors and students — down to the nitty-gritty of how they chose their cases, how/whether they think about legal complaints through a narrative lens, etc.

4. They made a really nice poster.  To sum up, the event is Monday, Nov. 4th, from 4:30 – 6:30 PM, in Silverman Hall, Rm. 240A.

The Best American Magazine Writing 2012

I’ve been meaning to announce the debut of “The Best American Magazine Writing 2012,” in which you’ll find my New Yorker story on labor abuses of third-country nationals in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as some powerful reporting by a handful of friends (Matthieu Aikins) and journalistic heroes (Lawrence Wright, John Jeremiah Sullivan).  It’s available here.