Just Beyond the Frame: On Kyle Swenson’s “Good Kids, Bad City”

Just Beyond the Frame: On Kyle Swenson’s “Good Kids, Bad City”

Kyle Swenson | Good Kids, Bad City | Picador | February 12 2019 | 304 Pages

There's a quiet moment in 2014—and you can watch it on Youtube—where a former local TV news reporter is interviewing journalist Kyle Swenson in Cleveland Scene editor Vince Gzregorek's old Tremont living room. Outside, sheets of early winter snow and a flurry of jubilant emotions are blowing across town.

Earlier that day, two men—Rickey Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman—were formally exonerated of 1975 murder charges in a Cuyahoga County courtroom. (A third man, Wiley’s brother, Kwame Ajamu, had gotten out of prison in 2003 and would be exonerated in court a month later.) For Jackson, his 39 years in prison constituted the longest case of wrongful incarceration in U.S. history. All together? The men lost 106 combined years in prison. This was national news, and cameras from around the country captured the heart-rending magnitude of these three men’s smiles and tears. Just some kids from Cleveland, finally allowed to resume their lives after a city had conspired to steal them away so long ago.

Something had gone right. After all the twists of deceptive legal biases and volcanic War on Crime political pressure, the truth had won out in Cleveland.

How that happened is a complicated story, but Swenson, surely, has played his role. In Grzegorek's living room that day, Swenson, on leave in his hometown of Cleveland from his staff writer job at Miami New-Times, explained his vantage point on the court hearings downtown. The former Scene staff writer had helped get the great ball of justice rolling a few years prior. He’d set the thing in motion.

“I think it ... is a testament to doing longform writing and reporting,” he says stoically, dazed from a week of watching the facts he’d uncovered unravel into cold courtroom reality. “The magazine—because we had that space and it gave me that support to do that kind of long writing and reporting, I think that was really integral. There were so many moving pieces to the story, I think you needed that bigger platform to tell it.” Across six months of work and some 5,000 words of searing investigative journalism, Swenson, a staff writer at Scene from 2010 to 2012, conveyed the series of corrupt tunnel-vision decisions enacted by the city's political perpetual motion machine in 1975 that led to a long, slow tragedy played out at mind-numbing length. Three lives, sidelined.

The product, in 2011, was a Scene feature titled “What the Boy Saw.”

Now, Swenson has richly filled out the contextual fringes of that story in a new book, an even bigger platform, Good Kids, Bad City (which echoes the title of another Scene feature he wrote after the exonerations). Published by Picador, the book chronicles the American socio-economic underpinnings of a criminal justice system and a city that could do such a thing: convict three clearly innocent young men and sentence them to death. It was only through the fortunes of unrelated civil litigation that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Ohio's capital punishment statute in 1978 and kicked the three wrongfully incarcerated inmates into general population and a seemingly endless sojourn behind bars. That decision spared them the finality of a city’s sin, but now what?

On one hand, this book is a portrait of those three men's lives. Supported by hours of interviews with Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers (Ajamu was born Ronnie Bridgeman), Swenson conveys a trio of childhoods caught up in the seismic shifts of race relations and politics in 1960s and early-1970s Cleveland. Then, at a shocking clip, those boys were launched into a miserable, unwelcome bildungsroman in prison. Childlike summers slammed headlong into eternity.

The testament to longform writing and reporting is on display throughout. Here, Swenson has the time and space to settle into a loftier pitch—the history of institutionalized racist segregation in the U.S. and the urban fallout of oppressive federal law enforcement policy.

It’s a sweeping indictment, all told, and Cleveland—the titular city, the villainous foil, the idea—is not spared the grand middle finger of journalistic work. A lot of things went wrong in the tangled stories of Rickey Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman and Kwame Ajamu’s lives. A lot of work was needed to explain a complicated past.

Swenson might understand if you recall “the Rickey Jackson story” as only a surprising Cleveland dateline picked up by Brian Williams a few years back, but he wouldn't let it slide. What happened here did not occur in a vacuum—no matter what it might look like on TV.

This is an important tension in Good Kids, and Swenson revisits it regularly. In the process of writing about this story for Scene and for this book, he is confronting this issue on his own terms. A suburban kid facing down the painful epiphany that the American criminal justice system is broken. These are not random glitches, but, rather, he learns, natural byproducts of a cultural code.

However, as academics grappled with the increasingly visible trend of wrongful convictions in the U.S.—spurred by the legacy of anti-war civil rights litigation in the 1960s and the advent of DNA evidence processing in the 1990s, the rise of the Innocence Project—the problem never quite made the leap to real public discourse. It took a backseat to stories about police officers killing black men in the streets or, sometimes, the impact of the foreclosure crisis on hypersegregated black communities in the urban core. Complicated and necessary stories, all. But the racist themes coursing through the country’s history of wrongful convictions never seemed to make it into the paper.

“Despite regular news about exonerees winning freedom, there has not been a fuller conversation or call for reforms,” Swenson writes. “Media versions … almost always frame wrongful convictions as stand-alone travesties, the wrong man suffering through hellish circumstances, random bad shit visited upon a poor-luck sucker. A larger context is almost always missing.”

Last fall, Serial spent its acclaimed third season analyzing the minutia of the Cuyahoga County judicial system. In its wake, local residents and civic organizations began charting public discussions, salon gatherings, ticketed “dinner + dialogue” events. The local NPR station ran its own podcast, called Cleveland Talks Serial, to digest the sinister implications of court cases dissected by Serial's reporters. This has been a good thing for the city, something of a public reckoning.

Good Kids, Bad City should earn something similar—a full conversation or a broadside call for prosecutorial reform in Cleveland. The City Club is already pitching in, offering space in its own ongoing book club for discussion about this story of three men and, hopefully, this history of a city’s struggle with justice.

Whether any introspective aftermath happens is up to the city—the very civil society that has played a role in every institutional failing that continues to keep one version of Cleveland closed off to the other.

This is the piece that Swenson has written, the thing he’s placed into the canon of local journalistic inquiry. He opens the book with a stirring prologue that lassos inner-city redlining, the U.S. foreclosure crisis, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District graduation rate (52 percent when Swenson began his work on this story), lead poisoning, Anthony Sowell, 137 bullets, the U.S. Department of Justice consent decree with the Cleveland Division of Police and so on. “It was hard to tally the net effect all this institutional calamity had on your average Clevelander,” Swenson writes. “Wherever this country was going, whatever the twenty-first century would look like, you started to wonder if Cleveland would get there in one piece. Or at all.”

In the middle of that raging storm, three kids from Cleveland continued to age in the pooling misery of the state prison system.

It’s a big, complex story, but there’s also another piece on a parallel track. Swenson, who now works at The Washington Post, is seen here working through his station as a white guy from Cleveland—a city he loves, a city he’s coming to understand. There’s a sort of ontological musing about the nature of Cleveland riddled throughout his work, a yearning for some meaning in all of this. Several questions drive the energy in this book, and central to Swenson's curiosity is: “What does a city owe the people who call it home?” Is this something we should all be asking?

For Cleveland residents, the outsized shot at a real answer to that question will help explain much. For others, Swenson's work provides a glimpse into the shadowy recesses of coaxial Nixonian-Reaganite law enforcement policies (a federal government’s well-heeled forced entry into local police departments) that still crash through poor, segmented neighborhoods of cities that long ago lost out on economic success. This is an American story, after all, and it’s a gripping read.

Throughout, Swenson's sentences buzz with lively metaphor and colorful verbs. (Close readers of Scene from around the turn of the decade will remember his electric prose.) The front lawns of Glenville are “fizzy with bugs” in the quiet hours before the 1968 shootout. Broad wooden porches “melt” into overgrown lots. Public transit lines “weave a cat's cradle across the town.” On attorney Terry Gilbert's tempered visage, smiles make only “fugitive cameos.” A crack-addled witness is “whittled skinny like a dying tree,” “the twin jets of fear and guilt … snapping at his ankles since he was a boy.”

The effect is often psychedelic: We're treated to a cinematic kaleidoscope of Ronnie Bridgeman's boyish charms, Eugene Terpay's rotten detective work and the asymmetrical drug enforcement pressures of a lumbering, clanging era of American history. Swenson dilates the very passage of time with his pacing, underscoring both the immediacy of the grand crime at hand and the heavy passage of eons suffered unnecessarily by three kids from Cleveland.

To open, the prologue drops the reader in 2011, the year Swenson published “What the Boy Saw,” a landmark Scene feature at the time that even boasted a slick vintage design. In daunting sepia tone on the cover, a crowd of onlookers and beat cops stands over the dead body of Harry J. Franks. Somewhere just beyond the frame, Jackson and the Bridgeman boys are moving presently through late adolescence, early adulthood, growing up, feeling out the aftershocks of a neighborhood murder. Who could know what would happen next?

Earlier that year, Swenson meets Kwame Ajamu (out of prison since 2003). The two strike an unlikely tableau near the site of the murder, casing each other in the first days of what the writer would later call a collaborative work. A bus drives by, tracing the route that the state's star witness took when he first embarked on his saga of coerced testimony against the kids. Ajamu points out easy physical evidence that the boy simply couldn't have seen what he said he saw, and Swenson, eager to take on the mammoth investigation that had landed on his desk, begins to grasp the sinister truth left behind in 1975. Maybe Kwame was for real.

“From white-lie shading to outright prevarications, reporting, I learned early, largely involves unknotting bullshit,” he writes. Turns out, there was more to the story than what Cleveland’s public officials had sold the people way back when. Still is.

And so, this is the other part of the story. Swenson was 25 years old when he vaulted into this decades-old criminal case. He'd grown up in Cleveland, and he'd sniffed out enough news in this town to know that there are truths beneath the paving stones. There are stories to tell, deeper trenches to plumb.

If journalism is a practice of sustained learning, then the work of a journalist is to chisel away at one's sense of self—to hone a perspective on something beyond the daily grind. Then, as the inevitable deadline careens violently into focus, the journalist shares what’s been learned.

Swenson and I are both former Scene staff writers; when he left for sunny Miami in 2012, radio silence ringing in his ears after the initial publication of “What the Boy Saw,” the magazine hired me to take his spot in the bullpen. A month later, Sam Allard joined our staff. He and I worked under editor Vince Grzegorek, who'd come up with Swenson in the preceding generation of fiery Scene journalism. My point here is that Swenson's work, and particularly the force of his 2011 feature on these wrongful convictions, was an omnipresent influence on what Allard and I poured into the pages of Scene reporting from 2012 onward. (I left the magazine in January 2018.) The echo of that past perspective lingered in our editorial office. Swenson, who later came back to Scene as a writer-at-large while he put late nights and poetic calisthenics into first drafts of Good Kids, Bad City, was a beacon for us greener reporters.

Halfway through the book, we return to the nascent Swenson-Ajamu meetings. Before they gathered on a wintry morning at the site of the murder, Swenson first met this man at a downtown Starbucks. “For twenty-eight years [Ajamu] had told people his story, only to watch them dismiss it as improbable,” Swenson writes.

What's a reporter to do?

“You gotta ask yourself,” legendary Cleveland journalist Michael Roberts would tell Swenson over drinks, as the young writer began stitching this yarn, “what's it say about the town?” Swenson tells the reader that he didn't have an answer at the time, stumbling quizzically as he was into the reporting process.

His own middle-class vantage point and monolithic racial privilege had helped foster the sort of professional detachment that sometimes helps a journalist get by in the churn of banal courts coverage. But this piece, this journalistic statement, this was about three guys’ lives! Swenson was really in it this time! Here, he was facing down the bigger questions, the sorts of confrontations that would keep a lesser reporter back at the office, thumbing through last week’s council minutes. These were high stakes, and the upstart writer from the eastside ‘burbs took a swing. This is not an easy task in a city that’s hellbent on keeping those questions quietly archived in the records room.

What does this story—the theft of precious decades from young black kids who’d watched their city gnash its teeth over a national civil rights movement, who’d watched zeitgeist gunfire light up the neighborhood, who’d only wanted to grow up with their pals and live out this fleeting moment—what’s it say about the town?

Later that year, as the story came together, as the work carved out a place in his life, Swenson writes, he landed on an answer. Now, eight years on, his conviction is laid bare.

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