Biggest Black Movement Criminal-Legal News Stories 1994-2010

Our research project is using articles from mainstream newswires (as archived in the Linguistic Data Consortium’s Annotated English Gigaword) and Black newspapers to identify Black protest events in the 1990s and 2000s. This is an under-studied period in Black movement history. In this article we summarize the most newsworthy episodes of this period. Although mainstream newswires and Black newspapers generally agreed about which were the most important news stories of these decades (in terms of how many articles they printed about them), there were some exceptions. (These are sorted by the total number of news stories we have about each case in our data.)

Important context: Our data begin in 1994. The biggest story of the decade was the videotaped beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers in 1991 and the not-guilty verdict of those police in 1992, which precipitated six days of rebellion, disorder, arson and looting during which at least 60 people were killed (most of them killed by police or shop owners). This episode has been the subject of a great deal of academic research and is generally agreed to have opened a new more pessimistic era in the Black movement. Another big story that does not appear in our data is the 1995 trial of OJ Simpson for the murder of his wife, which was widely discussed in racial terms although it did not involve any significant Black protests.

Episode (Dates)

NW rank (# articles)

BN rank (# articles)


Jena Six (2006-2007)

3 (62)

1 (156)

A series of events in the fall of 2006 involving a noose at a high school and over-charging of Black youths after a fight grew slowly into a a big news story in 2007 that led to a big rally in the small town of Jena, Louisiana on September 20, 2007 and dozens of solidarity events around the country. Solidarity events stressed both overcharging of Black youths and undercharging of hate crimes. (138 events coded)

I’ve written a blog post about this sequence.

Diallo (1999-2000)

2 (73)

3 (86)

New York police fired 40 bullets into unarmed Amadou Diallo as he stood on his front porch on February 4, 1999. There were almost daily protests in February and March including staged civil disobedience arrests at the police station that gained increasing attention. The officers were indicted and then found not guilty in a trial in Albany in January 2000. There were more protests after the acquittal. (110 events.)

Mumia (1994-2010)

6 (24)

2 (106)

Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1982 of killing a police officer in Philadelphia in 1981 and sentenced to death. There were ongoing Black protests throughout the 1990s and 2000s against his execution and claiming that he was innocent. The death sentence was overturned by a federal court in 2001 but the request for a new trial was not granted. Mumia continued to seek a new trial throughout the 2000s and there were many events in support of his case or inviting him to speak through remote communication. As the rankings indicate, these events were covered much more in the Black newspapers. (199 events)

Cincinnati (2001-2002)

1 (74)

6 (46)

The weekend before Easter in 2001, a Cincinnati police officer shot Timothy Thomas in the back as he fled on foot from a traffic stop. “Four days of rioting” became the trope in newswire coverage. News stories indicate repressive policing of peaceful protests including an unprovoked incident in which police drove up and shot bean bags at people after the victim’s funeral. A lawsuit about the police had been filed before the Thomas killing and its settlement became wrapped up in the story. Protesters also gained support for a tourism boycott against the city. The Cincinnati Black newspaper and other Ohio Black newspapers are not available in full text from Ethnic NewsWatch, doubtless reducing the Black newspaper count for the case. (100 events.)

I’ve written a separate blog post about this episode.

Sean Bell (2006-2008)

4 (25)

4 (76)

Sean Bell was shot and killed by New York police in November 2006. There were many protests in 2006 and 2007 demanding the indictment of the police and then a long series of peaceful but disruptive protests in 2008 after the police were acquitted. (91 events)

Nooses 2007

7 (16)

7 (43)

In the wake of the publicity about the Jena Six case, there was a rash of hundreds of noose hangings and related symbolic hate crimes in the second half of 2007 and a great deal of news discussion of these events along with movement calls for stronger penalties for hate crimes. (27 events)

National Day of Protest (1996-2009)

49 (1)

5 (47)

This is an ongoing story in Black newspapers that is ignored in the newswires. Every October 22 between 1996 and 2009 there were events around the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality. This received the most coverage in the first year, 1996, but was mentioned nearly annually after and often incorporated whatever was the big issue in a particular year. (199 events)

Oscar Grant (2009-2010)

5 (24)

10 (24)

Oscar Grant was killed by Oakland transit police on New Year’s Day 2009. A video recording of the killing was shared on social media. Protests in January demanding prosecution of the officer began peacefully but became disorderly and newswire coverage focused on the disorder. The involved officer was found guilty of manslaughter in July 2010 given a light sentence. There were both peaceful protests and some disorder, with the newswires focusing on the disorder. Black newspapers covered solidarity protests in other places. (47 events)

Louima (2007)

8 (23)

11 (23)

Abner Louima was tortured in the bathroom of a New York police station. There were initial protests demanding accountability. Officials did not defend the officer who had done the torture, but the officers who watched and failed to intervene were initially convicted but had their convictions reversed. Most events occurred in 1997 but Abner Louima appeared at later events covered primarily by Black news sources reminding people of the case. (16 events)

Gammage (1995)

21 (4)

8 (28)

Jonny Gammage was killed by asphyxiation in a police hold October 12, 1995 after a traffic stop involving officers from several police departments in the Pittsburgh area. Protests in October and November sought to have the officers indicted. The trial occurred in 1996, and the officers were acquitted in November 1996. There were protests in 1997 seeking to involve the Department of Justice and keep the pressure on. The newswires barely covered the case, but Black newspapers (especially the local Pittsburgh paper) gave extensive coverage to the ongoing struggle (32 events)

DeptofJustice07 (2007)

16 (6)

9 (28)

Al Sharpton and other Black activists sought to build toward a movement on the energy from the Jena protests and organized a big rally in Washington, DC on November 16, 2007 followed by a free concert the next day. Crowd estimates for the big rally ranged up to 50,000 and it was covered in 27 Black newspaper stories, but only six newswire stories. A series of smaller rallies at DC-area churches building up to the big rally and the free concert were covered only in Black news sources. (9 events)

Dorismond (2000)

9 (12)

13 (18)

Patrick Dorismond was killed on November 16, 2000, while the Diallo protests were still going on, by undercover New York police when he angrily refused their request that he sell them illegal drugs. Dorismond’s sealed juvenile records were released by city authorities in an attempt to make him look bad. There were protests about the killing and about releasing the records. Protest became disorderly after Dorismond’s funeral; some news sources blamed the disorder on police for aggressively trying to keep the crowd in too-small an area. Protests continued into the summer demanding indictment of the officers, which never happened. Newswire coverage was more intense through the funeral in late March and largely ended afterward, while Black news coverage continued through July. (32 events)

Decatur99 (1999)

10 (10)

12 (18)

Black high school students got into a fight at a football game on September 17, 1999 and were punished by expulsion. Protests supported by Jesse Jackson and Rainbow/PUSH began in October about the punishment and became almost daily in November. A lawsuit sought damages for the expulsion. Jackson was arrested and there were counter protests. Events continued through February 2000. (23 events)

Above cases were top 10 criminal/legal episodes for either newswire or Black newspapers. The two cases below were ranked #14 and #15 in total articles, with a disparity between sources in emphasis.

NooseColumbia07 (200&

11 ( 9)

16 (14)

This episode is a subset of Nooses07, discussed above. A noose was hung outside the office of a Columbia University professor two weeks after the Jena protest and led to several campus protests. It probably received more coverage than other noose events because it was in New York and students protested about it, although most of the news stories mentioned the noose but not the protests. (6 events)

Riverside_TyishaMiller (1999-2000)

34 (2)

15 (16)

This episode was mentioned in the newswires only in the context of Al Sharpton visiting in support. By contrast, it received extensive coverage in Southern California Black newspapers. Tyisha Miller was holding a gun but unconscious in her car when she was shot by a Riverside, California, police officer. Officers had been called because her friends could not get her out of the car. There were extensive protests about this shooting. The officers were fired for failing to follow proper protocols, but not charged criminally. There were protests when the officer who fired the shot was hired by another law enforcement department in the area. There is a research article that compares the coverage of the local Black newspapers to the local mainstream (White) newspapers. (23 events)

Research study: Huspek, Michael. 2004. “Black Press, White Press, and Their Opposition: The Case of the Police Killing of Tyisha Miller.” Social Justice 31(1/2):217-41. Available through Jstor.

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