The Role of New Journalism in Hood Rat

16 September 2011

Gavin Knight, tell us about the role "New Journalism"  played in writing Hood Rat and how this influenced the character portrayal of David Kennedy.

Hood Rat is written in the style of “New Journalism” where accounts of events and reported speech are described in a fictional style, using the present tense.  This technique is nothing new. It has its roots in the 1960s. In 1973 Tom Wolfe edited an anthology of New Journalism (published by Picador) which included Norman Mailer’s article “Armies of the Night”, a first person account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Mailer used transcripts of tapes for the dialogue and wrote in a novelistic style. An excerpt from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is included as an example of the writer’s determination to reproduce the techniques of the novel in non-fiction. He allowed himself the novelist’s licence to deduce feelings and moods. The key question is – how much licence is one allowed? Are people going to be comfortable with this mode of writing? Few reviews of Hood Rat have referenced the genre. Two exceptions were David Robinson in the Scotsman and Irish novelist Michael Collins in the Literary Review. Collins wrote:

‘In its approach and style, Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat follows the New Journalism that revolutionised the form in the 60s. Suddenly reporters were bringing the techniques of fiction to broadsheet writing, and in the process experiencing the lives of the subjects they wrote about’

I built up 100 hours of taped interviews in the UK.  However, in order to protect their identity and their safety, most of my characters appear under a pseudonym. There are only a handful of real name individuals in the book, two of the most prominent are:  Karyn McCluskey, a pioneering police analyst based in Glasgow, and David Kennedy, the brilliant mind behind the groundbreaking Boston Ceasefire Model. Karyn has said of the book: 

‘Hood Rat is a grim but true representation of lives lost in a square mile of gang territory, of lack of aspiration and the generational nature of gangs in Glasgow – it’s sobering reading. Gavin has been involved with the work of the violence reduction unit for many years and has been part of our journey to reduce violence and introduce innovative and brave practice in tackling gangs’


In Karyn’s case I managed to deliver an account that she felt was close to her experience. David Kennedy’s character is more fictionalized. Since, after the riots, Prime Minister David Cameron said in the Commons that he would be looking to the Boston model, David Kennedy’s brainchild, for guidance in addressing UK violence (and also cited David Kennedy’s work in Glasgow by name), I want to set down here a corrective to my dramatized version of his story.

Karyn McCluskey’s program CIRV in Glasgow was adapted from Kennedy’s Boston model. And so in Hood Rat I wanted to credit Kennedy’s US work in the Glasgow section, even if it meant drastically condensing it as a background story and rendering it in dialogue to fit my semi-fictional narrative style. Condensing such an extraordinary life into thirteen pages proved a challenging task. As an advocate of Kennedy’s work I interviewed him face-to-face in 2009, attended a talk he gave to a conference of police officers, and interviewed him again on the phone. I then wrote a fictionalized, dramatized portrayal whose tone and parameters were dictated by the form and length of Hood Rat, rather than doing full credit to David Kennedy’s character and work. To be clear, all dialogue portrayed as coming from Kennedy was fictionalized.  Many details involving Kennedy were also fictionalized.  Some scenes in which I portray him, his dialogue, and his actions never occurred at all.  At times, as well, the portrayal is at odds with his public and published description of what happened and its role in his thinking and work. My novelistic, impressionistic sketch of him should not be taken at face value. I urge any interested parties to seek out David Kennedy’s own book. Don’t Shoot is out in October, published by Bloomsbury.

I’m very grateful to David Kennedy for taking the time to work with me to set things in their proper historical context.  What follows is a summary. 

David Kennedy had a strong visceral reaction to the crack epidemic when he saw it first hand in a visit to Los Angeles’ Nickerson Gardens depicted in Hood Rat. His hair was not long at the time and although he was working on case studies, these were not on gang crime. He has spoken and written elsewhere that he was convinced at the time that gangs were a non-issue.  This is not 1988; it is late 1985/early 1986. Kennedy was not as seasoned as I portrayed him, since this was in fact one of his first ever field visits, not one on which he had long experience.

He was working on warrants at the time of the Darlene Tiffany Moore murder in Boston, however these warrants were not in Boston. David Kennedy spent a great deal of time talking to street drug dealers for his research and he told me about a gang source in Boston he had who made similar remarks to the dialogue in Hood Rat, but was killed shortly afterwards.  I created a street conversation between Kennedy and a dealer with a concealed firearm, but Kennedy is keen to point out that were he to be aware of an armed gang member on the street he would take steps to protect the public safety.  I spoke to his old friend and colleague Malcolm Sparrow who confirmed they played table tennis together at his house and this scene is based around his comments. David Kennedy is keen to point out that he never denigrated his former research colleagues and, far from having an issue about Harvard not giving him a faculty position, did in fact receive a faculty appointment.

The research and the long journey that led David Kennedy to devise the Boston Ceasefire project took many years.  I made errors in fictionalizing that process.  For example, Kennedy was not involved in Boston at the time of the incident involving guns left behind in the Chez Vous parking lot.  In one line of dialogue the Kennedy character in Hood Rat says he has heard from the ATF Boston that kids’ guns weren’t coming up from southern states.  Kennedy points out that this misrepresents a large body of research he did with a number of colleagues as part of the Boston Gun Project in which they analyzed a range of BATF and Boston Police Department data to identify patterns of firearm diversion.  He states that the ideas that led to that research came from the research team and were in fact in opposition to prevailing law enforcement and public ideas about gun trafficking and diversion.  He states that by reducing that research, which has been of national importance, to law enforcement gossip undermines its credibility, the findings, and the practical work that has flowed from it. 

In an exchange with the cop in the car, the officer says that the kids armed themselves because “when you deal crack, you need firepower to protect your turf.”  Kennedy’s character then disagrees saying: “They are not all crack dealers. They are just scared kids.” Kennedy says this is a misrepresentation.  He states that the real insight that he got from line officers and others in Boston was that while nearly all youth murders and victims were gang members and drug dealers, the violence was driven by fear and non-drug disputes.

I depict how in 1994 race relations with the Boston Police hit a low-point after a 75 year old Accelyne Rev Williams died of a heart attack during a police raid. Amid this tense atmosphere I show Kennedy’s character talking to the Ten Point Coalition, of black ministers. At the end he suggests they work more closely with the police. This never happened.  In addition, the last line is misleading, since from the very beginning, the Ten Point Coalition had its own relationships with the police, and was singled out in Boston and nationally for its forthright position on black-on-black violence and its insistence, against many powerful voices in its own community, that it was important for the police to deal with violent offenders and for the community to support that.  By the time Kennedy began his work in Boston Ten Point and the police department had been working very closely for years.

The most dramatic element of the Boston Ceasefire project was the call-in.  I wanted to present a strong impression of a call-in and drew upon a powerful description I saw David Kennedy provide to a conference of senior police officers in London. I then attributed elements from a Cincinnati call-in to one in Boston. My intention here was to capture the key elements of the programme impactfully and to set up the description of the CIRV call-ins in the Sheriff’s Court in Glasgow.

I also witnessed the power of David Kennedy’s rhetoric at a conference in London and drew on background and comments Kennedy gave me to depict him giving a speech, conveying the important message that the fight is not over.  This speech never happened. 

In Hood Rat David Kennedy suggested that Karyn go down to Red Hook Community Court, where she encountered Judge Calabrese. I was unaware that Kennedy did not know the judge.  He also points out that it is not the case, in any US city, that police officers routinely find automatic weapons left on the street.

I drew many of the details in the scene involving Boston police detective Paul Joyce from John Seabrook’s excellent 2009 New Yorker article, also called “Don’t Shoot.”

For the full story of a remarkable man and his work, go to the website www.nnscommunities.org or read Don’t Shoot, out in October.

Gavin Knight
September 2011

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