Four days after the facts of a powerful, moving, and deeply personal defund-the-police story in The Atlantic began to unravel in the face of a Federalist investigation, the magazine remains silent. The investigation encompassed newspaper archives, police department records, questions to The Atlantic, the police union, and the office of the mayor, and found the city has no apparent recollection of the serious incident alleged in the magazine — and the writer and editor still have no answers.
On July 6, The Atlantic published social justice activist and lawyer Derecka Purnell’s “How I Became a Police Abolitionist,” an article that she opened with a story of the polluted neighborhood and culture of fear she grew up in, leading to the first shooting she says she’d ever witnessed: a police officer wounding a young boy in a St. Louis recreation center for skipping a basketball sign-in sheet. Purnell used the story as the base of a strident, impassioned call to abolish the police, whom she compared to slavers.
The first shooting I witnessed was by a cop. I was 12. He was angry that his cousin skipped a sign-in sheet at my neighborhood recreation center. I was teaching my sister how to shoot free throws when the officer stormed in alongside the court, drew his weapon, and shot the boy in the arm. My sister and I hid in the locker room for hours afterward. The officer was back at work the following week.
If her sweeping policy prescriptions were followed sooner, she later writes, “I wouldn’t have hid in the locker room for hours because of a police shooting, and maybe my sister would have a better jump shot.”
The article was widely shared among top journalists and activists, including Atlantic editors and reporters. Using Purnell’s cited age and vivid description of her neighborhood, The Federalist uncovered when and where the shooting she describes would have occurred, later using a deep-dive public records search to confirm the author’s age and former address on the 2600 block of Hickory Street.
A Sunshine Law request to the St. Louis Police Department was quickly answered, revealing 23 police responses to the Buder Recreation Center and 38 to the nearby 12th & Park Recreation Center between 2001 and 2003. None of the responses included anything like an officer shooting a young boy. None even involved a shooting, except perhaps one attempted suicide at the 12th & Park rec center.
Similarly, a broad, three-year search of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch turned up 37 stories mentioning both police and recreation centers, but nothing that was remotely similar to the described incident. Mayoral spokesman, former reporter, and then-resident Jacob Long told The Federalist Purnell’s claim “didn’t sound remotely familiar,” and the head of the St. Louis Police Officers Association agreed.
The article is published in the Ideas section of the magazine, but two Thursday emails and one Friday email to Ideas Editor Yoni Appelbaum have gone unanswered. On Friday morning, the author of the article responded to Thursday’s request for “any other stories or corroboration of this incident,” claiming the magazine had the evidence. “Hi Chris – the Atlantic found it,” she wrote. “Take care.” When asked about this, Appelbaum remained silent.
Appelbaum appears to have had internet access, writing five original tweets in the 36 hours since the first request was sent. The majority of the tweets are attacks on President Donald Trump, including one blaming him for school closures, one blaming him for school openings, and one on the U.S. Constitution’s apparent inability to contain “the depth of Donald Trump’s moral vacuity.”
On Friday evening, The Federalist reached out to Atlantic Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, bringing the investigation, the author’s claim, and his editor’s silence to his attention. Goldberg has yet to respond, and Purnell’s story of a police officer shooting a child in front of numerous witnesses in a seemingly unjustified attack in a city rec center remains published and without any note, clarification, or correction. In a similar vein, numerous staff tweets praising the article remain live.
While it’s unclear what kind of fact-check process articles in the Ideas section are subjected to, if any, The Atlantic’s fact-check professionalism was once storied. A 2018 essay by Atlantic Research Chief Yvonne Rolzhausen, “How To Fact-Check The Atlantic,” details the incredibly thorough process she says is typical of original reporting in the magazine. A Sunday afternoon email to Rolzhausen asks if the police abolition article was subject to her department’s oversight, and if so, who confirmed the story — and how did they confirm it. Thus far, she has not replied.
Purnell has led a prolific career, including writing for The New York Times and a stint at the helm of The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy. Because of her impressive rise from poverty, she’s been the subject of multiple profiles and has been asked to write more than one personal essay on why she is an activist. Despite this, her article in The Atlantic appears to be the first mention of this incident in her publicly available writings.
“This story means everything to me,” Purnell wrote in a public Facebook post when the article was published. “I cried a lot while writing it. I’m crying now. Thinking about… kids I grew up with who could have been saved if we had a different world.”
“When people suggest that we don’t care about safety or violence, they forget that we are survivors of violence, too.”