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The Dept. of (my) History: Marky Mark Revisited

I was just hanging around my house this quiet Sunday afternoon, reading James Lee Burke, when my Twitter feed started exploding about Mark Wahlberg. Let me explain…

In 1993, Wahlberg was touring as Marky Mark when I unearthed the court papers that revealed he’d been convicted of hate crimes as a teen in Boston. This was at the height of his white Calvin Klein underwear fame, when he was touring with the Funky Bunch and cashing in on the crossover appeal of hip hop.

The court papers were a window on life in Savin Hill, the racially tense section of Boston where Wahlberg’s large family lived among black and Asian households. On June 15, 1986, 12-year-old Shamele Coleman just wanted to get home safely with his brother and sister when a Mohawk-toting Wahlberg chased them, hurling rocks and chanting, “Kill the nigger.” The Coleman kids got away, but the next day, when Shamele was returning from a school trip with his class, Mark was back, this time with ten kids, taunting the class and, according to an affidavit from a teacher, throwing large rocks. After he was arrested and hauled into juvenile court, he kept himself out of jail by swearing never to harass “any person because of that person’s race, color or national origin.”

Two years later, after dropping out of school and being arrested for shoplifting and larceny, Wahlberg violated that promise in a confrontation with Thanh Lam, a native of Vietnam who passed him carrying two cases of beer. According to the court records, Wahlberg yelled “Vietnam fucking shit,” and hit Lam across the head so hard that his stick broke in two. Leaving Lam unconscious, Wahlberg ran toward a bystander named Hoa Trinh and told him, “Police coming, police coming. Let me hide.” Trinh tried pushing him away, and got punched in the eye for his troubles.

(All of these documents, and more, are archived on TheSmokingGun.com.)

Considering that Wahlberg later admitted to hitting “the gook in the head with a stick,” and was sentenced to two years in the Plymouth House of Corrections — he served 45 days —it was reasonable for me to ask whether, six years after the incident, he’d undergone the kind of humanitarian conversion that allowed him to become a hip hop messenger of healing.

As the clock ticked down to deadline, I finally reached him at a hotel in Kansas City, where he was due to perform that night. He was 22 — he’s 49 now — and his image was already immortalized in huge billboards, on album covers, on MTV. He was polite, up front, and clearly struggling with equivocation.

“I was also injured in the fight,” he said at one point about Lam. “But the officers weren’t taking any explanation. Everyone was pointing fingers.” Talking about the aftermath, he said, “Nobody talks about how I was on parole for three years and never did a thing. What’s fucked up is that now that I’ve been trying to stay out of trouble, this shit seems to surround me.”

At another point, however, he seemed to be looking into the future. “I’m not gonna blame it on my father not being there, or my older brother being in prison,” he told me. “I’m not going to blame it on anything but myself.”

When we were done, I played the tape of the conversation for my editor, Richard Goldstein. He slowed me down enough to ask the question that I’ve asked many times since: Can’t people change?

The closest I’ve come to Wahlberg since is on a movie screen. But I’m flummoxed about the blowback to his recent post: “The murder of George Floyd is heartbreaking. We must all work together to fix this problem. I’m praying for all of us. God bless. #blacklivesmatter.”

As a 22-year-old, he was already struggling to become a different person. I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is on ignorance. But we’re not going to solve anything if we can’t believe that it runs out at some point.

I’m reposting the original piece for posterity…

Quarantined: Cardinals Have No Teeth — and other things you learn birdwatching online


Sometime between Donald Trump’s canonical comparisons to Lincoln and the Murder Hornets, I realized I had to change my browser preferences so Google News isn’t the first thing that pops up when I open Safari. 

But what to fill it with? This morning, I chose the Audubon Society’s “Get to know These 15 Common Birds.” And after a day of having no idea about what’s going on in Washington, I can tell you this…

* The Rock Pigeon, better known as the city pigeon, mates for life. In courtship, the male puffs out its chest, and struts in circles around the female. This is often mistaken for being threatening. Really, pigeons are quite sentimental.

* The Northern Cardinal is the most popular state bird. It’s also the subject of a common misconception, especially among sports teams (see University of Louisville), that it has teeth. Please write this down: Cardinals do not have teeth.

* The crow family is confusing. Between the American Crow, Fish Crow and Northwestern Crow, no one has any idea what they’re seeing. And this doesn’t even account for the Hawaiian Crow or Tamaulipas Crow. I’ve read this column on telling them apart ten times today, and will no doubt read it countless more.

* My new favorite bird is the European Starling. Or, more precisely, my new favorite birder is Eugene Schieffelin, who in 1890 is said to have introduced it to our shores because he thought that America should have every bird mentioned in Shakespeare.

* If I was a bird… I’d be an American Coot. “Coots are tough, adaptable. Although they are related to the secretive rails, they swim in the open like ducks and walk about on shore, making themselves at home on golf courses and city park ponds. Usually in flocks, they are aggressive and noisy, making a wide variety of calls by day or night. They have strong legs and big feet with lobed toes, and coots fighting over territorial boundaries will rear up and attack each other with their feet. In taking flight they must patter across the water, flapping their wings furiously, before becoming airborne.”

Tomorrow’s website is going to be Stargazing Basics from skyandtelescope.org.

Take that Google News!

Dept. of (my) History

Last night, PBS aired a documentary about a tragedy that has drawn national attention and comparisons to the notorious case of Emmet Till — the death of an African American teen-ager named Lennon Lacy, who was found hanging in the open in a trailer park in Bladenboro, North Carolina in 2014.

I covered the story for ESPN’s Outside the Lines, and it was difficult not least because our crew kept getting chased out of Bladenboro by suspicious locals. Still, we were able to raise substantial questions about the coroner’s finding that Lacy had somehow strung himself up on a jungle gym in the middle of a trailer park and staged his own suicide. 

Now, the filmmaker Jacqueline Olive is taking up the subject again with Always In Season. And it is still urgent. Old questions mix with new ones, such as why an investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division “found no evidence to suggest that Lacy’s death was a homicide” when the 17-year-old was surrounded by a cast of characters that ooze suspicion. 

For instance, Lacy, an outsider to Bladenboro until his mother moved him there to be closer to her extended family, spent a lot of time around a drug-addled neighbor with three kids who let him think that he was her boyfriend, even as she saw men at all hours of the night. In fact, according to our reporting, Lennon watched a visitor with a rap sheet that included violent crime go into her home shortly before he left his own house at 10:30 pm on the night he died. 

There were sundry other characters — residents who’d been in and out of jail, figures in a rural Southern pot boiler. But Bladenboro, the town where he was thrust, was the most suspicious character of all. In the early 1950s, it was paralyzed by rumors about an evil monster — The Beast of Bladenboro — that supposedly rampaged through its fields, disemboweling livestock. Through the years, locals have learned to laugh about it, even host a festival celebrating The Beast. 

Less funny were the charges of vote tampering that put Bladenboro back in the headlines recently, and led to a special election for the state’s District 9 in September.

The character in the Lacy case who always seemed most curious to me was a high school friend who lived half a football field away. His parents were well known in the neighborhood for letting him invite buddies to brawl in the back yard until someone passed out— even cheering them on. I’d heard that there was video of that friend putting choke holds on his friends in front of his parents. Olive, to her great credit, found it. It’s utterly riveting.

Did Lacy die of an accidental strangulation on the night he left his house? And did someone string him up to make it look like a hanging in a small town that is still trying to escape the shadow of its past?

That’s a deeply disturbing question. But it’s one that the film muddies with a provocative pairing.

The first half of “Always In Season” concerns the phenomenon of African Americans who stage brutal reenactments of lynchings — in particular the 1946 quadruple hangings in Monroe, Georgia, where the victims were chased by a white mob. 

It’s hard to argue with the concept Never Forget. And the reenactments are purposely hard to watch. What troubles me is the connection between that part of the film and the Lacy case, which makes it seem as if hangings are alive and well in the South.

Lynching itself is a complex word. While some associate it strictly with hangings, a wikipedia page devoted to it defines it as “the practice of murder by a group of people by extrajudicial action.” A landmark study from the Equal Justice Initiative tracked 4,000 lynchings since 1877 and stopped at 1950. Supplemental research moved the timeline up to 1959.

A spokesperson for the EJI has yet to respond my inquiry about more recent cases it tracked. But wikipedia lists the 1981 murder of 19-year-old Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama, as one of the last in this country.

Olive, however, uses the Lacy case to suggest otherwise. The text on her film’s website, which includes a noose, reads: “When 17-year-old Lennon Lacy is found hanging from a swing set in rural North Carolina in 2014, his mother’s search for justice and reconciliation begins while the trauma of more than a century of lynching African Americans bleeds into the present.”’

In a recent talk in Wilmington, NC, Olive conceded that she was knee-deep in a film about reenactors when she heard about the Lacy case. Her decision to pair them must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

But I fear the final product, which was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Moral Urgency at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, is misleading. We have enough racial trouble in America these days — the emergence of a white supremacy underground that is getting bolder and more technologically sophisticated by the day — without giving the impression that African American teen-agers are still dying by the noose in the South. 

I hope Lennon Lacy gets the justice he deserves. I also hope viewers will not be confused by the message of this celebrated new film. The story I reported involved poverty, drugs and lack of education in a small town — not, as suggested, a new rise in lynchings.

I’m curious to hear what you think…

(A version of this appears on Facebook.)

Dept. of (my) History

In November of 1982, when I was 20 and the editor of the student newspaper at NYU, I wrote about AIDS for the first time. The eeriest line in the story is this: “As of January, 958 cases have been reported worldwide.” According to the World Health Organization, 74.9 million people would go on to get infected with HIV, and 32 million would not survive. I reprint this story, which I recently found in a stack of old files, as a little bit of history to show — in real time — what it was like to be in Greenwich Village at the dawn of the epidemic.