Northwestern Student Editors, Meet Avi Adelman, Your Nightmare, Your Mentor

Some of what Avi Adelman does harks back to an earlier era of American journalism.
Some of what Avi Adelman does harks back to an earlier era of American journalism. United Artists / Wikipedia
There’s a big brouhaha going on now within the journalism trade about an apology published a couple of weeks ago by editors of the student newspaper at Northwestern University. The editors of The Daily Northwestern said they regretted the way they had reported on a student protest.

I really worry for the seven people who signed the apology if they actually intend to stay in this business after they get their degrees. They all sound like wonderful, thoughtful young people who seriously need to change their majors.

People in this craft don’t have to be totally insensitive, but it helps. Well, I’m way overstating that. I take it back, halfway. What I mean is that it helps to have a thick skin, and sometimes it also helps to have a tiny bit of shrapnel tragically lodged in the part of the brain that deals with confrontation. Nobody ever said this work was pretty.

In their apology, the editors said this: 

“Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe — and in situations like this, that they are benefitting (sic) from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it.”

The apology ignited a firestorm among working journalists around the country who lectured the student editors at Northwestern about the First Amendment and Watergate and free speech and so on — all the boring things we tend to talk about when we want to lord it over people we perceive to be our enemies.

And I am not arguing with that basic perception. Anybody who thinks we shouldn’t publish something because it might “retraumatize” somebody (not a real word) is definitely an enemy of the free press and freedom of speech. Show me somebody with a formula for making all speech positive, and I’ll show you Joseph Stalin.

“I have a strong background in public service attitude.” — Avi Adelman

tweet this

But that’s not the part I’m worried about. I am truly distraught about all of those nice young people at Northwestern — tremendous candidates, I bet, for many other useful callings — going into a business where they will be abject and absolute failures. They’re too nice. They haven’t got the shrapnel.

You want to meet somebody who gets it done out there? Meet Avi Adelman. In his decades as a freelance journalist, neighborhood activist and intimidation artist in Dallas, Adelman has always been anathema to a certain kind of salaried journalist who will tell you what he does lacks dignity. To which I say, yes, that’s what’s good about him. Where other people bear their dignity, Adelman has guts.

For a long time several years ago, Adelman, now 63, was active in the Greenville Avenue part of Dallas where a bitter conflict was raging between bar owners and nearby residential neighborhoods. Adelman, who lived in one of the most affected areas, appointed himself to shoot photos of drunk young women squatting to relieve themselves in shrubbery, which he then posted online. His blog, The Barking Dog, was a national pioneer in the use of the internet to achieve social change.

And, man, talk about retraumatizing. How would you like to wake up Sunday afternoon to a text from your mother: “OMG, is that YOU going to the bathroom on Belmont Street? It SURE looks like YOU!!!!”

Many people in those neighborhoods today will tell you that Adelman’s journo-terrorism was a significant factor in the ability of the area to achieve stability and to force the bar owners to the negotiating table. But the shrapnel can go both ways with Adelman.

As I know from personal experience, if you get on Adelman’s bad side, there is no kid-glove treatment. Avi Adelman does not do kid glove. But he’s brass knucks when he’s on the side of good, too. He gets it done.

“I have a strong background in public service attitude,” he said to me this week. “I mean, for God’s sake, 15 years of Barking Dog? You think that was fun? Greenville Avenue was going down the fucking tubes. I have a belief that you need to be active in your community.”

I was talking to him this week because Adelman just won a $345,000 settlement from DART, our regional transit agency, in a hard-fought legal victory. And guess how it started? Adelman was arrested downtown in 2016 shooting photos of paramedics trying to revive a man on the ground having seizures possibly brought on by smoking K2, a form of synthetic marijuana.

A DART police officer stepped in front of Adelman and told him to go away, because, well, obviously, taking photos of some poor guy having seizures on the sidewalk is terrible, right? If those editors at Northwestern want a case study of retraumatizing, this would be it. Wait until that guy’s family sees him on Twitter.

So what is Adelman, a retraumatizing ghoul? For that, you have to know how he got downtown to take the pictures and why he was shooting them: “If you remember so long ago,” he said, “we had this big issue of K2 overdoses, the brain freeze drug, downtown. One young lady was robbed in her car. I think she’s still in treatment.”

Adelman was listening to the Dallas Police Department dispatch system on his home scanner, a practice right out of the old Front Page days. DART police use the new kind of dispatch technology that cannot be monitored easily with a home scanner, but the Dallas Police Department still had the old analog equipment that anybody can listen in on.

click to enlarge
The editors of The Daily Northwestern apologized to student protesters for "retraumatizing them" by publishing photos of the protest.
Jim Schutze
During the epidemic of K2 overdoses downtown, which went on for two months, Adelman was listening to Dallas police in order to follow a very specific issue: “The Dallas cops were making comments (on the radio) those two months that the DART cops were throwing the bodies of the K2 victims (off DART property) over to the city’s side.”

"Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive." — The Daily Northwestern

tweet this
He says now that nothing ever came of those accusations. “But the cops and paramedics were saying it over the radio, and that’s what piqued my interest.”

So let me just pause and make an observation here. Adelman’s motivation for taking the photos was related to the safety and well-being of the public, the relationship between two police agencies and the basic human dignity of the K2 victims themselves, who shouldn’t have been tossed around like bales of hay.

Not that they were. But the way you find out is by listening to the scanner, jumping in your car, going downtown in the middle of the night and pushing your way into a bunch of puke and blood to find out. For that, you need some shrapnel.

The DART cop who arrested Adelman ordered him off the scene nine times before she cuffed him. He never left. That’s serious shrapnel.

She arrested him for criminal trespass, because he was on DART property without a transit pass and refused to leave when she ordered him to do so. DART dropped the charges a week later and issued a statement saying Adelman had done nothing wrong.

Adelman, who has dealt with DART cops for years, wasn’t willing to let it go at that. He was convinced DART cops would go on using the no-ticket thing as what he calls a “throw-down charge” to arrest anybody anytime they felt like it on their property.

Adelman’s lawyer, Tyler James Bexley, battled DART to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, where he argued a key trespass issue. The court agreed with Bexley that a person who is in a public place violating no law does not become a trespasser just because a cop tells him to leave.

Bexley told me: “The police officer’s justification in this case was, ‘I told him to leave the property, and he didn’t follow my orders. Therefore I could accuse him of criminal trespassing.’”

Not so, said Bexley. The cop’s order to leave, if it’s not based on any underlying violation of the law, is not by itself probable cause for an arrest. The court agreed with Bexley. DART agreed to a settlement soon after the ruling.

In his press release announcing the settlement, Adelman said, “DART refuses to post their photography in public policy on their website, unlike dozens of transit agencies around the country.

“Their police officers will continue to intimidate and arrest anyone taking photographs on DART property, which is really public property. Another photographer will be arrested by DART Police in 2020.”

I asked DART by email to respond. DART spokesman Mark A. Ball wrote back: “It is not necessary for us to post federally recognized rights, such as the ability to take a photograph in public, on our web page. To further acknowledge that is redundant.”

Adelman, who has a journalism degree and is a member of several professional journalism associations, says he will use part of the settlement to make contributions to freedom of the press causes. And that’s great. But I don’t really like that term, professional journalism.

I don’t think we are a profession. We might be a craft, except that most of the real crafts I know about, like throwing clay pots, take much longer to learn. I tend to use the word trade. I worry about the word, profession, because I think it may encourage a lot of very nice young people at places like Northwestern to join us when they really should not.

They’ll be more than smart enough, of course, and they’ll have wonderful educations and good personalities and great teeth, and I’m sure if I sat down with them they could totally enlighten me about retraumatization, a topic where I’m probably just an idiot.

But it’s the shrapnel. What are you doing up at 3 a.m. anyway listening to a police scanner? It’s cold out there. You’re really going to pull your jeans over your pj’s and race downtown so you can take pictures of some poor homeless man twitching in his own piss on the sidewalk? And now you’re going to get yourself arrested and tossed in a holding cell with puke-buckets to sit on? You couldn’t have called it quits and gone home after she ordered you to leave the eighth time?

No, you couldn’t call it quits, because you’re Avi Adelman, a real journalist, and the real work is really ugly sometimes. I don’t think they teach that at Northwestern. And that’s not fair to the students. Somebody needs to tell them before it’s too late — before they show up here.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze