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by The People’s Minister of Information JR
I remember being 17 years old and amazed at how articulate the young writers were that I met at Youth Outlook magazine. They were politically astute on everything that was brought up. Some of them, like Kevin Weston and Malcolm Marshall, were soft spoken, while some of the others, like Ri’Chard Magee, Charles Jones, Cash, Ladii Terry, Krea Gomez, Lyn Duff and Hanif Bey, were ghetto-hardened.
At this time in my life, I was searching for who I wanted to be. I would come to the Youth Outlook meetings and just listen, because at the time I did not feel like I was sharp enough in the mind to have a conversation at the level on which they were speaking. I remember thinking that I have to get to that level.
I would read all of their pieces and research the topics that were discussed at the meeting. At the time, I was just writing for extra money. I had not yet seen the power of writing and journalism.
Right around that time, the Million Man March took place and Kevin and Ri’Chard went. I remember how the pieces they wrote made me feel. I couldn’t believe that my new potnas, my homeboys that I would see on a daily basis during the summer, could write with such passion for the young Black experience.
I started to work on pieces even though I was only half-confident in my abilities. I remember writing my pieces over five or six times before I would take them to Kev to review. When he gave his OK, I took my writing to Nell Bernstein for final editing.
The next year, as a senior at St. Joseph Notre Dame Catholic High School in Alameda, I joined the school newspaper. My mother made me attend Catholic private schools for most of my life, trying to shelter me from the ills of the ghetto.
While I was an editor at the school paper, I started writing about controversial topics, like Muslim basketball player Mahmud Abdul-Rauf refusing to stand for the national anthem during NBA games. My argument was that he was paid to handle the basketball, not salute a country that our people had been fighting for centuries to end slavery and for our human rights to be acknowledged.
There was a firestorm of controversy around this piece. The newspaper advisor, a light-skinned Black Cuban, Mr. Grant, asked me in an after-school meeting if I would be willing to pull the story because the school administration was not comfortable with my stance. I refused. He backed me, and it was printed.
Later on that year, Kevin had me and a female writer write a piece for Youth Outlook about the racism that Black youth experienced in Bay Area private schools. Both were eventually printed in an Examiner newspaper column.
In my piece, I talked about how my white history teacher had ignorantly said that all Blacks looked alike – while we were reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” in class. I disagreed with her in class, arguing that Black people can look as different as African leaders Mandela, who had tightly curled hair with slanted eyes and dark brown skin, while Qaddafi had a tan complexion with stringy big curls. She reluctantly acknowledged my comments at the time, but I was driven to make sure that the world knew how enraged I felt at this white woman’s ignorance.
Days after the piece came out in the newspaper, I was called into a meeting during school, where six or seven teachers grilled me and school administrators threatened to sue me for defamation of character. The school even went so far as getting a good friend of mine at the time to turn on me. He argued with me in front of the administration, saying that I was lying. I brought a Chinese girl, who ended up being the valedictorian, in to say that she heard the teacher make the comment.
Spooked by the turn of events, because I did not know my rights, I called Youth Outlook to talk to Kev and Malcolm about what I should do. Kev and Malcolm took it upon themselves to call the school, acting as major editors at the Examiner, and threatened that if the administration kept harassing me they would assign more stories on the topic to be printed, and they would be willing to duke it out in court. The school knew that the newspaper had high-powered lawyers to deal with these types of issues.
A day or two later, the history teacher came to me and said that she had a religious epiphany: Jesus came to her in a dream and told her to drop the issue. I thought to myself half-jokingly that the white racist teachers at my school considered my journalism mentors to be Jesus. I was sold on the power of journalism from that day forward.
My confidence grew as I wrote and conversed more and more with the Youth Outlook team of writers. In the late ‘90s, Kev wrote under the name Poe Hymm for a politically radical Black newspaper called the SF Bay View. It was the first time I ever saw the writing of someone I knew in a Black newspaper.
I would search far and wide for the paper every time it came out, so I could read Kev as well as some of the others who were writing at that level. It would take me years to build up the courage to approach the Ratcliff family, the publishers of the paper, to see if they would be interested in my writing. At this point, I have been writing for the paper almost non-stop for the last 14 years.
On another occasion, in ‘96, Kev told me about a Black revolutionary youth organization that he helped to found and invited me to a Young Comrades meeting in Emeryville, a city right outside of West Oakland, to discuss an upcoming Huey Newton birthday party that they were organizing and that Tupac was scheduled to perform at.
We missed the meeting, but when I went to the conference, at Castlemont High School, a few weeks later, I was inspired by the legacy of the Black Panther Party and the community organizing of the young people and Panthers who put this event on. I joined the Black political Oakland-based organization the Young Comrades, and that was the beginning of my organizing in Oakland, California.
Kev always supported me when I was mired in controversy. In 2008, I called Kev to let him know that fellow local Black reporter Chauncey Bailey had just been murdered. A few days later he asked me to come to a meeting of journalists who were talking about organizing a consortium of writers to write about the impact that this murder would have on the Bay Area, the Black community and journalism.
At Kev’s invitation, I came and listened for the most part. At the first meeting, Robert Rosenthal of the Center for Investigative Journalism formed the Chauncy Bailey Project (CBP), then zeroed in on me and asked me if I would be willing to let the CBP writers write some interview questions under my name, for $1,500, since the defendant, Yusuf Bey IV, made it plain that I was the only journalist he would do interviews with and that he trusted.
I refused. I told them that I was a reporter and not the police. It was not my job to try and trap people.
I also told them that I would be interested in investigating police involvement and corruption in the Chauncey Bailey case. They were definitely not interested in that angle. After my initial refusal, Rosenthal called Kev and told him that he had phone records that said that I was on the phone with the accused while he reportedly staked out Bailey’s house the night before he was murdered.
Kev asked me to come in because he did not want to talk to me on the phone about the severity of the threat that Rosenthal was issuing. I met with Kev about the accusations and agreed to come to another Chauncey Baily Project meeting. When I did, Rosenthal offered me $3,000 to write about where the Bey family went after the FBI and local authorities trashed and destroyed their homes and the Black Muslim Bakery.
Again I refused. I wanted to write about police corruption in the case, and again they were not interested in such a thing. Rosenthal flew into a rage at the meeting, turning red as a strawberry, and threatened to have stories written about my relationship with the accused that could eventually get me subpoenaed in one of the biggest murder cases of the decade. I stood strong.
A few days later, Bob Butler, who was then president of the Bay Area Black Journalists Association, called me and tried to intimidate me into doing an interview with him about my relationship with the Beys for the Tribune. I asked him why he was lapdogging for the system – helping Rosenthal try to intimidate me in a case that was filled with police and governmental corruption.
I did not do the interview, so Butler, at the behest of Rosenthal, published an article in the Oakland Tribune irresponsibly mentioning me, trying to make me look like a possible suspect. A police officer even visited my listed address looking for me soon after this incident.
I struck back with articles in the SF Bay View newspaper detailing how Rosenthal, Butler and the Chauncey Bailey Project were trying to intimidate me into becoming their journalistic informant. They responded by doing a cover story on me in the Eastbay Express on April 8, 2008, calling me an agent provocateur in the title of the story.
Kevin was in my corner the whole time, giving me advice based on what was being said at New America Media offices, where Kev worked and where the Chauncey Bailey Project held their meetings. We talked almost every day about the severity of the picture that the Chauncey Bailey Project was trying to paint of me and what I could do about it.
I never caved in, and Kevin never asked me to. We both saw what was happening: Sandy Close, Robert Rosenthal and the Chauncy Bailey Project were trying to use Kev to get to me, then use me to get to the Beys. It wasn’t happening. I chose the bed of nails over their carpet of roses, and my pockets and career have paid dearly for it, but my self-respect and dignity are totally intact, I still have widespread support and the community has confidence in my work.
In 2012, a week after I was shot on an East Oakland street, I got a text from Lateefah telling me that Kev was in critical condition with a flesh-eating virus and leukemia and if I wanted to see my homeboy alive I needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible. So I called some of our mutual friends and they saw to it that I was able to get to the hospital in Santa Clara to see him.
When I came in, I saw a sea of familiar faces, but when I saw Kev hooked to all those machines unconscious and his loving wife Lateefah right by his side standing strong for all the visitors but visibly troubled, I had to leave the room to collect myself. There was a rush of emotions.
For one, Kev seemed almost immortal to me because any time I had any issue pertaining to journalism, he would gather up his weed, roll a blunt, and have me take a walk with him to the side alley so we could discuss the issues that I was having. We laughed, debated, argued, disagreed and confided in each other.
So when I saw him looking like he was about to go out of commission, I never ever thought about the fact that one of us was going to die first until that day. It was like seeing a close family member whom you did not know was sick on their last legs. I remember watching Lateefah be a good host and consoling people at a time when it was her who should have been consoled.
In fact, I was told Kev had days to live, and I believe wholeheartedly that Lateefah’s love kept his immune system intact as long as it was. Lateefah, you are proof that love can conquer all.
After a few weeks passed, I remember talking to Lateefah on the phone and her inviting me to come to the house to see Kev. I was still healing from my recent ordeal mentally and physically, so I did not take her up on the offer right away. I talked to Kev extensively about both of our brushes with death, as well as the state of Black journalism in the Bay. When we started talking about our craft, we didn’t miss a beat.
Two weeks before Kev passed, I went to hang out with him at his house. He hadn’t been taking my calls so I asked Lateefah what was up with him. She told me that he was not doing too well mentally. So I popped up over his house while he was laid out on the couch.
I could see the sickness visibly eating at him, but when he opened the door, his eyes lit up, and he smiled like in the old days. We did not speak a word about the elephant in the room; enough energy had gone to that. Kev in typical fashion badgered me about expanding my journalistic horizons and urged me to think outside of the box, if I was going to survive as a journalist. He told me how important he thought that my journalistic voice was.
We talked about how we could do more to integrate the Globe, the SF Bay View and KPOO because the Black media in the Bay were taking a beating from the economy, presenting the very real threat that real Black media may go extinct in the Bay.
Unfortunately we did not get a chance to move on any of these ideas before Kev exited stage left, but I had to write this mostly for his daughter, wife and family so that they could know the giant that Kevin Weston was to me. Salute to one of the greatest editors that I know. Salute also to Lateefah for giving Kev a love he’d never seen before and for showing that there is still such a thing as Black love.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and the newly released “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos from the Celebration of Kevin Weston’ Life held Saturday, June 28, at the Delancey Street Foundation, 600 Embarcadero, San Francisco