Journalist JR Valrey, who was born in 1978, grew up mostly in Oakland, where the legend of the Black Panther Party was all around him. The Panthers, founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, gained fame when they sent out armed patrols to defend the Black community in Oakland from the Oakland Police.
“My most vivid memory is when Huey Newton died,” Valrey told me. Newton was shot and killed on the street in 1989 in West Oakland, not far from the apartment where Valrey and I met for our interview. “My grandmother made a point to tell us, her grandchildren, to not believe the slander, that Huey Newton was somebody who represented for our people, and that we needed to always remember that, and always remember that our family stood on the side of Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party, and not the police.”
“That was probably my second political message. My first one was when my mom told me it was a white man’s world, so I got to do twice as good.”
“I’ve always been an avid reader, my whole life,” Valrey said. “I knew I wanted to be a writer in the fourth grade.” His teachers singled him out for praise. As a teen, he got an early start in the media. He got involved at 17 with a magazine called Youth Outlook, put out by New American Media.
And he began doing radio with the help of hip-hop journalist Davey D. “I met Davey D on the street,” Valrey said, “and told him I wanted to do radio. He said, ‘Meet me this Sunday at 8:00 in the morning,’ and I don’t think he thought I was going to be there, but I was there. And ever since then I was a part of his crew.”
Davey D brought Valrey into Youth Radio and into The Friday Night Vibe, a music show on KPFA. Valrey also went to work on Street Knowledge, Davey D’s program on the commercial hip-hop station KMEL. “I’ve always been into music, even more than sports. One of the reasons I even became a reporter and wanted to work at KMEL was to be closer to music that I liked. A lot of people that I write about are musicians. I write probably more about culture than I do about politics, but my political stances are a little different, so I get more attention for that.”
These days, Valrey produces the Block Report, a radio segment that plays on KPFA and other Pacifica (and non-Pacifica) stations and is an associate editor at the Black-owned San Francisco Bay View newspaper in San Francisco. His forte is coverage of political prisoners and police issues. He is also Minister of Information for the Prisoners of Conscience Committee. The POCC has chapters around the U.S. and internationally and is led by Fred Hampton Jr., the son of Black Panther Fred Hampton, who was assassinated by police in 1969.
“A lot of the people around here are Panthers,” Valrey said, “or knew Panthers or are members of the Black Guerilla Family, which was an organization that Field Marshall George Jackson of the Black Panther Party founded. The revolution is very deep in Oakland. It’s not so cosmetic as it is other places. It’s not just about bandannas and t-shirts and concert throwing and posturing. I think it’s more grassroots here and more ingrained in the spirit of the people.”
Valrey has read widely about the Panthers, including many of the memoirs and essays Panthers wrote in their later years. In the course of his reporting and organizing and hanging out, he spoke with many Panthers one-on-one, which he values even more than book learning.
Valrey even spoke in person more than once with the iconic political prisoner and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal – through glass in the visiting room of the prison where he sits on death row in Pennsylvania. I asked him how he thinks Mumia is able to do radio reporting so well from behind bars.
“I think he’s brilliant, for one thing,” Valrey replied. “And I think it’s his way of fighting the system from where’s he’s at with what he has available to him. He’s a soldier, and he’s an inspiration and an example for somebody like myself.”
It became apparent speaking with Valrey that he is driven by an urgent sense of the political; that change for his constituency, the Black community, is more important to him than any other purpose his work might serve.
I offered to Valrey that there had been a debate around the publication of George Jackson’s book “Soledad Brother” in 1970. Jackson, writing letters from a maximum-security prison, said America had become fascist. Some said Jackson made that analysis because of the conditions he personally faced, but that the larger society still offered some democratic freedoms.
Valrey countered that Jackson was correct, “then, and even more so now.” He illustrated his point: “The fact that there are over a million Black people in prison is fascism … the fact that [NFL quarterback] Michael Vick did more time for dog fighting than Mehserle will do for killing Oscar Grant on television is fascism.”
BART Officer Johannes Mehserle fatally wounded Oscar Grant when he shot him while he was being held on his stomach on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station on New Year’s morning of 2009, in plain view of a crowd of people, some with cell phone cameras. The filmed evidence was what made the murder of this young Black man especially unusual.
“The fact that there are over a million Black people in prison is fascism … the fact that [NFL quarterback] Michael Vick did more time for dog fighting than Mehserle will do for killing Oscar Grant on television is fascism.” – JR Valrey
It was repeated on TV hundreds of times. Mehserle was sentenced in November 2010 to two years for involuntary manslaughter, which meant less than a year in prison for him, given credit for time spent.
I asked Valrey to sum up his thoughts on the Oscar Grant case. “It just showed,” he said, “that not much has changed from 1810 to 2010. It was probably some of the best evidence that we’ve had on a national level that the election or selection of Obama is merely political theater.
“It doesn’t serve the interests of the Black community, and I think that the murder of Oscar Grant was just a perfect reminder that Black people are still being lynched.” Lynching is a tactic of terror, the arbitrary killing of a few Blacks with the intent to keep the entire community afraid of white power. Valrey’s point is that the Black community today is subject to police terrorism.
After Grant’s killing, there was a demonstration at the Fruitvale station, which spilled over into a nighttime street rebellion, where property, including police cars, was destroyed. Valrey believes the reason Mehserle was brought to court and charged with murder and the reason the Justice Department took an interest were because of the harshness of the actions taken by demonstrators.
“The sit-ins, the prayer vigils, the going to court – none of that did shit. They only responded when shit started getting set on fire.”
While covering the event that night, Valrey was arrested and charged with setting a dumpster on fire. He spent a couple of days in jail and had to raise $10,000 bail. He got an attorney and spent 13 months waiting for trial.
Valrey told his radio and newspaper audience he didn’t do it, and explained he was not carrying matches or a lighter when he was picked up. The day the case was to come to court, the district attorney dropped charges against Valrey because they had no evidence.
Valrey had been profiled, if not targeted. He suffered punishment by process, a common enough occurrence, when someone must jump through legal hoops when innocent, suffering because of the misjudgment or malfeasance of the police or the district attorney’s office.
Did Valrey have experiences with the police at a young age that contributed to his critical viewpoint as a man? Of many examples, he chose to tell me two. One officer in East Oakland threatened him with a gun when he was a young teenager, after accusing him of dealing drugs in front of his grandparents.
“He knew I wasn’t selling any drugs or anything. I just didn’t stop when he said to stop, when he tried to tell everybody to freeze. He made a spectacle of me. He put his gun in my face, actually put it close to my lip. And nobody in the community could do nothing, because we weren’t organized as a community.”
Then at the age of 16, Valrey was sexually assaulted by an Oakland cop, who stopped him on MacArthur Boulevard, pulled his pants down and groped his butt and genitals through his boxer shorts. Valrey said in an e-mail: “It is routine for police in the Deep East Oakland area and in West Oakland to sexually humiliate you, if you are young and Black, especially male.
“The first line of defense for the white power capitalist system is the police today. But this sexual humiliation has been a tactic used on African people dating at least to the early years of slavery by the Europeans.”
In March of 2009, on the exact same block of MacArthur, a young Black man named Lovelle Mixon was profiled and pulled over on a traffic stop. He had violated parole and faced going back to jail. His reaction was to draw a pistol and shoot the two cops who had stopped him and then finish them both off with shots to the head.
“The first line of defense for the white power capitalist system is the police today.” –JR Valrey
He then ran to his sister’s house, where he had an assault rifle, and got in a closet. When police arrived, he shot at them through the closet door and apartment wall, killing one officer and wounding another. The police responded with a fusillade. Mortally wounded, Mixon still managed to shoot and kill a fourth officer.
Valrey covered the Mixon case extensively, countering the racism he found in the reporting in the local media. He wrote in the Bay View: “Now that the rabbit has the gun, the police and media want us to forget the despair that they now feel is the same way we repeatedly feel when we are indiscriminately killed in the streets by police.”
Something “crystallized” in Mixon, Valrey said, and Mixon captured the imagination of some in Oakland. As I came to understand it in conversation with Valrey, resentment against the police in the Oakland ghetto was like electricity in the air, and Mixon was like a lightning rod. One day his life just blew up.
“Days after his showdown with police,” Valrey noted, “Lovelle Mixon was accused of rape, although the media or police never said he was pulled over because of rape allegations. I am from the East Oakland neighborhood where Lovelle killed these officers, and the people who knew Lovelle said they had never associated Lovelle with rape.
“What is interesting is that after Nat Turner’s revolutionary massacre against slavery, he was accused of rape. This has always been one of the most powerful propaganda tools that the white supremacists’ establishment has used against Black men, when they are trying to turn public opinion against us.”
Valrey is finally getting wider recognition for his unusual career. A new documentary film, “Operation Small Axe,” which borrows its title from the Bob Marley song, covers him and the stories of Oscar Grant and Lovelle Mixon. Also a book of his interviews, titled “Block Reportin’” is due out early in the new year. His website,blockreportradio.com, offers access to his reports and interviews on a variety of topics.
Will things get better for Valrey’s children? “I’m doing what I think makes things better,” he said, “organizing and trying to create a better future. In the long run we’re organizing for a new reality.”