Deez Interviews: Meet the St. Louis reporter covering race relations, police brutality, crime, and a real life “three billboards” controversy inside a microcosm of America

Today’s interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Nassim Benchaabane is one you’re gonna want to really sit down with. Not only does Nassim paint a fascinatingly genuine picture of life as a local reporter and former night reporter in the heartland, but he also gives us a brutally honest look inside the unique tensions roiling the city — and makes an impassioned case for why covering St. Louis is really just covering America, in a nutshell.

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The interviewee: Nassim Benchaabane (follow him @NassimBnchabane!)

The gig: Reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The hustle:

I'm a plain-old reporter, no specific beat attached. In March I moved to a hybrid afternoon-evening shift, where I cover a lot of different stuff as someone who picks up on breaking news, covers nightly meetings and writes about any issues that don't specifically fall to one beat, as well as story ideas of my own.

For about two years before that I was the night cops reporter, though I also covered anything newsworthy that happened after 6 p.m., in addition to crime.

What was being a night cops reporter like?

The night cops shift tests your patience and your conscience. Some nights you sit for hours in silence refreshing various police logs/social media feeds for hours, until you make your nightly round up of calls to police dispatchers who aren't inclined to give many details of what happened.

Other nights, you're speeding from a raging fire to a multi-car wreck to a triple murder, or you're driving on off-country roads in pitch black darkness avoiding fallen trees and debris while covering a tornado actively ripping apart a small Illinois town. There were nights where I'd go to murder scene after murder scene after murder scene, and they'd all start to look the same: yellow tape and flashing lights, a foot or hand sticking out behind a black felt screen, a mother or sister on her knees crying in a way that almost sounds like laughter. A kid getting dropped off by a bus where three people are lying dead in the street.

You try to talk to witnesses who have ample reason not to tell you anything, so you get what sketchy details you can through unnamed witnesses and your own observation, because because police give limited information.

In a lot of ways I had it easy because my shift was only supposed to be from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. (we didn't have $ to pay for more hours), though half the time I started earlier and stayed much later. But even on quiet nights, it was nerve-wracking being basically the only person covering a metro area of 2.8 million people.

Did you have to change your sleep schedule??

My sleep schedule didn't change much because I'm a stupidly light sleeper anyway and would still wake up in the morning, though I did take a lot of mid-day naps and I had to learn to force myself into bed right after finishing work. A lot of that nearly two-year period was a groggy blur.   

In a time when everyone’s obsessed with the true crime genre, what has surprised you the most about covering crime?

How banal it is, though, I'm biased because I've never been someone who enjoyed true crime stories, which always seem to cover serial killers or crimes of passion or stuff like that, and not the gun-violence night after night that take the lives of countless young black men and women who grow up in areas where it's normal to lose more friends than you can count on your hands by the time you're 18.

Covering nightly shootings, I frequently traveled the half of the city most people couldn't even chart on a map, that probably 75 percent of white people have never even set foot in. I hated that people were always interested in the sexy stuff and my experiences rather than the suffering of people I was writing about — did I feel safe in "those" neighborhoods? Did I see dead bodies?

I naively thought I could write 'that one story' that was so sad, so poignant, so detailed it would galvanize people into action. we've done plenty of those stories — like one about a 15-year-old girl who was gunned down by two masked men because she was a witness in another case; a single mother who was paralyzed by a stray bullet and then later died. My colleagues had been writing stories like that for decades before me.

Sometimes a particularly gut wrenching story would get a lot of retweets, and maybe there would be a town hall, or something. But the problem continues. Because day-to-day crime-coverage doesn't get to the fundamental roots of crime or loos at the intangible effects to show black people lived in what was almost a completely different city from their white counterparts. There are stories we've done that do that, like our award-winning series that measured the trauma to kids who live in struggling neighborhoods; and of course there are individuals who spend their lives trying to make things better. But it's hard not to be completely dismayed by how little large-scale efforts there are to fix things.

What's worse — since I don't write about gun violence as much, I rarely notice it. It's so easy to be ignorant of it.

A huge caveat is that I'm talking about gun violence when crime also includes other incidents (accidental deaths, fires, crashes) and those are slightly different, sad in the way that you might talk to someone who tried to pull someone out of a burning house but couldn't. It's surprising how much those hurt, because they're largely random trauma inflicted on innocent people and less connected to systemic issues that can be addressed.

More on St. Louis: You yourself grew up there — what's it like covering the city as a local?

I was all but born in St. Louis (Algiers represent!) and moved around a ton within the metro area. Now I live in the city.

St. Louis is weird in that it's like a collection of small fiefdoms, a lot of them suburban. The County has nearly 90 different cities — we're talking about three blocks with less than 1,000 people having its own mayor, etc. (How did that happen? Racism, of course: as blacks moved into the city, people moved out. When black people followed the departing jobs and resources, white people moved out again. Then they started incorporating their white-flight enclaves just so they could write laws designed to keep black people out. Repeat and repeat.)

So you can be a local without knowing much at all about different parts of the area — even in the city, whole generations of families live and work in the same neighborhoods.

But working at a newspaper, and given the range of stuff you get to cover as a general assignment reporter and all the historical knowledge of people you talk to, you get to have a sort of kaleidoscopic view of St. Louis and all its going-ons.

I've been tear-gassed with protesters marching against police brutality, been in court with our sitting governor as he went through trial for sex crimes, been in the Cathedral Basilica for a mass for victims of sex abuse where an actual abuse victim standing outside the steps wasn't invited in, seen the city's network of mostly unknown underground tunnels, sat on top of the roof of The Arch TM, etc.

I know all of the city's neighborhoods, the mayor, the trauma surgeon who gives people their own medical packs to they can help gunshot victims, the radical black anarchist who openly carries an AK just to prove a point, the Buddhist former jail warden who runs a nonprofit bakery to hire ex-felons out of prison, the Muslim police chaplain who came here as a Bosnian war refugee and now runs a depot where Syrian refugees can get free supplies.

I realized I hardly knew St. Louis at all before I became I worked at the paper. Every time I think about leaving journalism I remember that its best benefit is that it gives me the feeling I'm really part of a living, breathing city. St. Louis is a hard city to penetrate, it's not like larger cities where the cultural life is easier to locate and find, but once you crack into it you find the arts/food/music scenes are a great mix of world-class and homegrown punk.

It's also changing a lot, growing in new ways — I often think a lot about leaving the city while I'm still in my 20s, but I'm really interested to see what St. Louis will be like in 10 years.

What is the most important story happening in St. Louis now that the rest of the world should pay attention to?

St. Louis, in a ton of ways, is a microcosm for America. Once the fourth-largest city in the U.S., it's seen the decline that the rest of the rust-belt has. It's without a doubt, one of the most segregated cities in the country, split between a poor, black north and affluent white south — literally split along a street, they call it the Delmar Divide (though south city is diverse).

The city police department has one of the highest rates of officers killing people in the country, we have one of the highest homicide rates in the country, jobs are declining while govt officials keep giving huge tax handouts to big box businesses, you've got a potent right-left political divide, etc.  

So rather than one crucial story, I'd say we have a lot of ongoing stories worth paying attention to. Our Prosecuting Attorney, the first black woman to hold the job, is currently refusing to take cases from 28 cops she says are corrupt — in a police department that chanted "Whose Streets, Our Streets" when they mass arrested dozens of people during protests last year.

Our sitting governor stepped down after he was nearly charged with federal crimes. We've got a Republican legislature dictating terms for Democrat cities. People are wondering if the church abuse scandal will resurface in the the Archdiocese here, one of the largest in the country. There's a raging underground fire getting closer and closer to buried nuclear waste!

But one story I think is very unique to St. Louis is the fractured state of the County. You end up having tiny cities competing for resources and funding, so a small city like University City becomes willing to sell its vibrant "Chinatown" of international restaurants to give $70 million of free money to Cost-Co just because they're worried it'll go three miles over another city. If it was all one entity, it wouldn't matter what intersection Cost-Co would go to because they would all get the tax revenue and use it accordingly.

So, the County and City just end up cannibalizing themselves, to everyone's disadvantage. But white suburban people afraid of the big bad city and power-hungry machine politicians don't want to give up power and merge.

Finally, what's a recent article that you're most proud of, and why?

I'm a dumb perfectionist so I can't just say that I'm proud of this story — honestly it could have used more editing and reorganizing (one of the worst things about working evenings is that you're always up on deadline and your editor is basically the copy editors, who don't want to hear from you until they're about to place your story for tomorrow's paper.)

It's about three billboards in a cemetery — one with a sordid history. Once the largest and most prominent black cemetery in the U.S., it was founded by racist white lawyers who wanted to profit by drafting laws that prevented black people from getting buried in the city. So black people would have to come to their cemetery in the county for service and then subsequently neglected by white owners, one of whom let it get so bad — mass graves of 300, unmarked headstones, bones poking out above ground — that she killed herself in a house on the cemetery to avoid scrutiny.

More than 12,000 people were dug up and their bodies removed — to make away for the highway, the airport — to where people now have lost their grandparents’ remains.

I dug through property records and archived newspaper clips for the story, though a lot of that history didn't make it in — like a guy who was in charge of the reburial stole 25 remains for "research"!!

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