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The Atlantic Finally Admits Its Police Abolition Piece Is Based On A False Narrative

A police officer managing crowds at the US Women's Soccer Team Ticker Tape Parade in New York City. Photo by Spurekar/Flickr.

“We called 911 for almost everything except snitching” reads the first line of an Atlantic article, “How I Became a Police Abolitionist,” by social justice activist and lawyer Derecka Purnell. Her deeply personal essay, first published July 6 in the Ideas section, tells of her childhood in a polluted neighborhood surrounded by violence and beset by fear, using one particularly disturbing memory of a police officer shooting their cousin, just a “boy,” in the arm for skipping the basketball sign-in sheet in front of Purnell and her sister, who had been playing basketball but were forced to hide “in the locker room for hours afterward.”

“When people dismiss abolitionists for not caring about victims or safety,” she writes, “they tend to forget that we are those victims, those survivors of violence.”

“This story means everything to me,” Purnell wrote on Facebook later that day. “I cried a lot while writing it.”

An investigation by The Federalist encompassing newspaper archives, police department records, questions to The Atlantic, the police union, and the office of the mayor, however, called the story — including facts about the neighborhood, the timeline of the incident, and if the incident described even happened at all — into question.

Four days, six comment requests, and one follow-up story later, The Atlantic issued a series of major corrections that confirmed The Federalist’s investigation — and gutted the Purnell’s story of the police violence that made her “a police abolitionist,” rendering it a story about a private security guard shooting his adult cousin. Although the updated story no longer involves personally motivated and barely punished police violence against children, it now includes mention of a police investigation. Additionally, a contemporary news article uncovered by The Federalist using the updated timeline details pending police charges against the shooter.

Someone in the neighborhood, it appears, called 911.

A Very Different Story

“The first shooting I witnessed was by a cop,” the story read from 7 a.m. on July 6 until 1:37 p.m. on July 20. It detailed a police officer shooting a “boy” on city property in front of children over a personal feud, then seemingly suffering only a short suspension from duty at that rec center:

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 prescribed abolition of police departments were followed sooner, she wrote, “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 an Atlantic editor, whose praise remained online Monday night.

On Monday afternoon, The Atlantic updated the above paragraphs (material changes bolded) to read:

The first shooting I witnessed was by a uniformed security guard. I was 13. I remember that the guard was angry that his cousin skipped a sign-in sheet at my neighborhood recreation center; the victim told police it had started as an argument over ‘something stupid.’ I was teaching my sister how to shoot free throws when the guard 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 guard was back at work the following week.

“An earlier version of this article described the shooter as ‘a cop,'” the more-material of the two Monday corrections reads. “In fact, he was an armed, uniformed security guard working at the municipal recreation center, employed by a security company under contract with the city of St. Louis. In addition, the author was 13, not 12, at the time of the incident.”

The Atlantic still refuses to share any corroborating evidence or if they did a fact-check on the original story before publication, although a search of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s archives encompassing the now-broadened timeline reveals an early-2004 shooting at Buder Recreation Center, less than three blocks from Purnell’s old address.

That article, published March 9, 2004, is titled “Security Guard Is Charged With Assault,” and reports that, “The security guard, 23, and his cousin, 18, were quarreling at the center about 4:50 p.m. [March 8] when the shooting occurred, according to Richard Wilkes, a Police Department spokesman. The victim was shot in the arm.”

“Wilkes,” the 2004 article concludes, “said there were no other injuries and no children were involved in the incident.”

When asked if The Atlantic spoke to the victim, spoke to the guard, or acquired a police report, Anna Bross, a vice president of communications at the magazine, replied, “To start, you can find coverage of the incident in local newspapers in 2004.”

The article’s title and call for police abolition remain unchanged, although the story justifying her activism is no longer about (1) a police officer shooting (2) a child (3) without serious consequences, and is about now (1) a private security guard shooting (2) an adult (3) and being charged with assault. The magazine decided police bringing charges within one day, however, was not worth mentioning — and the 18-year-old victim is still simply described as just a “boy.”

“I’ve reshared this essay with corrections about the shooting I witnessed,” Purnell tweeted more than five hours after the correction went live. “I was not 12. I was 13. The shooter was a uniformed private guard with a badge and gun. When we say abolish the police, that includes private police, too. thank you for reading <3.”

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.

Monday afternoon Sunshine Law requests to the St. Louis Police Department and city hall on police responses to the Buder Recreation Center in March 2004, and on park employees or contractors facing discipline, had not yet been returned, although the police quickly replied that they would send records over. Missouri law gives government three days to respond to requests, and in every request the previous week, the city beat that timeline.

While still declining to say if the article was fact-checked before it was posted on July 6, and if so by who, Bross emailed that she “will keep an eye out for the significant corrections or updates to your piece(s),” referencing The Federalist investigation that fact-checked the article for them.