S: How did you get started as an investigative journalist?
AC Thompson: It was the mid to late nineties and I was a jobless bum rocking the couch circuit. I had a friend who was a punk rock guy, Rez, a global squatter/writer who introduced me to an editor he was working for. The editor was Sandy Close from the Pacific News Service. She liked what I had to say, and the meager writing skills that I had at this time, so she pulled me in and mentored me though writing boot camp. She made me miserable at times, but she got me to develop my skills, and got me jobs writing. So I went from being a jobless schmuck to getting gigs with the Oakland Tribune, the Hearst Examiner, Salon and such vehicles.
S: When did you start to work for the Guardian?
ACT: The first work I did for them was in ’98 as a free-lancer. The first story I did was about a graffiti writer, a Chinese-American kid. He was climbing up a drain pipe in the Tenderloin one day when a guy who lived in the building the drain pipe was connected to shot and killed him. The guy thought he was a burglar. He wasn’t. He just wanted to do his art. The story I did covered what wasn’t in the Chronicle. There was a culture clash element to the story: a middle-aged white guy killed a Chinese kid. Eventually there was a grand jury investigation of the shooting. In the summer of ’98 I came on to the Guardian staff full-time.
S: Your beef seems to be police corruption, abuse of authority, and social injustice in the city. Your last piece that I read, however, was about Area 51 and the Nellis Air Force Base, the secretive US military installation in Nevada. What drew you to this subject matter and the Great Outdoors?
ACT: For me, the things I write about have to have a hidden truth that can be excavated. This means buried facts, and secret information, that has been kept away from the public. I think you can do a story that pulls that information out, brings this treasure to the surface. If this quality is not there, then I have less interest in the story. Maybe that’s not a good thing but personally, it’s what makes me go and inspires me to pursue a story.
I get a rush out of following corporate paper trails, audits, internal documents, tax returns. Going through someone’s trash and getting an insight into how they live is interesting. Having someone slip me an internal SF police department memo or manual on how to control snitches is interesting. If I can bring this secret stuff into a story then I want to do it.
In the case of Area 51, that’s the height of hidden truths and secret information that we, the public, can’t get at, so I was interested in getting access to this information. In the story I wrote about Area 51, I accompanied Trevor Paglen, a Berkeley geographer I knew from East Bay punk rock days, who now takes interested parties on tours through the mountains surrounding the region with a high powered telescope. His theory was the American people have a right to spy on what the US Government and its corporate contractors, are doing with American tax payers’ money. So we tramped around through the snow, over ridgelines in the early morning, to spy into the base with the telescope. There are quite clearly huge amounts of money going into Area 51, and the Tonopah Test Range right down the road from there. In fact, there are huge amounts of American money going into clandestine military installations around the globe. I think we should all be trying to figure out how to get in there, and figure out a little about what’s going on in these places. What comes out of these regions could be something like the Stealth Bomber, a technology that won’t really change the course of history – or Area 51 could produce something like another nuclear bomb. The Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was the blueprint for these places. The organizational structure has been repeated everywhere, stressing compartmentalization and secrecy and astronomical sums of money have involved with all of them.
Military analysts can help you look at these figures. The budget for black military operations has doubled in the last ten years. This accounts for billions and billions of dollars that nobody has any oversight over. This increase started during the Clinton Administration, but spiked in the last five years.
I’ve been interviewing a lot of military analysts, really smart people who’ve studied for years what’s going on with black/covert military budgets, and they’re the people to talk to about this stuff. One of them said to me “Look, the other day the Navy held a press conference and there were only a few people there. The Navy spokesperson told me that US nuclear submarines now only need to be refueled every three decades.” He said when they came out with them, twenty-five years ago, they needed to be refueled every three weeks, then every six months. Think about that. This is a quantum leap in nuclear efficiency. It’s a leap of inordinate magnitude. He told me that a billion dollars had to go into figuring out how a nuclear submarine could be made to only have to come in for fuel every three decades, but nobody ever saw that money going into this, and the Navy never really trumpeted this. So tons of money are going into things like that, things that are not good for the environment, not good for anything. These secrets will eventually leak out, but in the meantime nobody knows.
S: It seems like the worst thing that happened to the powers that be was the end of the Cold War, and that the best thing that happened to them was to find a replacement for the Cold War with the war on terrorism.
ACT: In some ways the global pseudo-conflict that is going on right now is more variegated, and shadowy, than the Cold War. There used to be actual nation-states that you could point to and say “These guys are the Evil Empire, we need to blow them up.” Now it’s not so much about nation-states, with the exception of one or two countries you can name, like North Korea. Now it’s tribes of people, sects and groups of people. That could mean that what’s going on is more of an Orwellian conflict than the Cold War was. It may be that 75 years from now we’re still going to be looking for a jihadi who is hiding under our bed, who may not even exist at all.
Dig this. I was talking to an FBI agent in DC about a year ago and he was saying “I’m so bored.” He told me that they had everybody working on counter-terrorism these days, but there weren’t that many terrorists. He said he was chasing shadows and wanted to go back to doing drug busts. If you look at the number of real terrorist arrests that have come down in the last five years, there are really very few. Nevertheless we are still managing to maintain this massive spending that melds the warfare state with the war on drugs and the war on terror. Basically it’s all aimed at a non-existent enemy. Sure there are real terrorists in the world, and people that would like to fly airplanes into tall buildings in the US, but there aren’t that many of them. The maintenance of a massive spending boom is part of the hidden nature of this.
S: From a conservative political science position, there are geo/political spheres of influence in the world. China will control Taiwan to a greater or lesser extent while the US will have an influence over Latin America and the Caribbean. From an amoral Realpolitik position, you know, a Henry Kissinger perspective, the US is probably overextending itself in the Mideast. That’s not our sphere of influence. I think the US is engaged in a high-stakes poker game over whether or not it can control the global oil supply through its military.
ACT: I think that’s correct. It’s always reductionist to boil things down to one element. The United States always undertakes any major endeavor for a multiplicity of factors, a confluence of reasons. If we were to boil it down to any overriding one, of course its oil, in this case. When you have Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about hydrogen-fueled cars and both National Geographic and the Economist running cover stories on “The End of Oil?” you realize that people are starting to catch on to what is a looming global cataclysm in terms of energy.
S: When the oil runs out, if there isn’t any substitute provided to maintain our infrastructure, people are going to have to start producing their own food again, and not importing it from geographically remote locations.
ACT: The bioregionalism thing has always struck me as a real solution to that. One of my colleagues wrote an essay where he said, “Maybe America is too big.” He argued that it would have been better if the country had been split into several different regions. Sometimes I wonder if that’s not the case. The current model of existence is not sustainable at all. The thing is, we are waiting for some kind of enviro-catastrophe to set everything right. The system will collapse, the world will end, and then everyone will be forced to do the right thing. Maybe that will work. I hope so.
It’s also a product of our Judeo-Christian imagination that we think things rise to a pinnacle, there is a conflict, and then the conflict gets resolved. I think that’s part of our cultural mythology. I think it maybe would be a good idea to jettison some of that and try to acknowledge slow motion conflicts, and deal with them before they reach cataclysmic levels, which I don’t think is something we’re programmed to do culturally.
S: Have you read Rebecca Solnit?
ACT: No, I haven’t.
S: Well she wrote about the Nellis Air Force Base and the native cultures of both California and the Great Basin in a book called Savage Dreams. What she figured out talking to Shoshone and Miwok Indians, as well as anthropologists, linguists and ethnobotanists, is that the Awaneechee Indians of California practiced a subtle form of macro-horticulture that was actually very workable in the environment they had. They would start forest fires in Yosemite Valley, which preserved the meadows from encroachment by brush, and kept a lot of space between the oak trees and oak groves, the acorn being one of their main foods. For a good harvest you needed a lot of space. One of the central dogmas of the National Park Service is that nature is static, but nature is never static. Yosemite Valley was inhabited by humans, and altered by the same, long before Europeans entered the place. While the native impact on the natural world was more subtle over time than with European or African farmers, there was an impact nevertheless. She also wrote about how the Shoshone and Paiute nations worked with the deserts of Nevada and Utah.
ACT: I channeled Solnit to a certain extent probably. Paglen was a serious student of hers. A lot of his thinking and writing is really influenced by her.
The thing about Area 51 that I really think draws the attention of conspiracy folks and UFO heads is, regardless of whatever got suggested on The X-Files, something really nefarious and wasteful is going on there and in Roswell and Los Alamos. There’s also quite blatantly banal evil going on just down the road from us in San Francisco at Lawrence Livermore Labs, where they’re spending billions of dollars annually to build nuclear weapons. They’re also updating and doing so-called stockpile stewardship for old nuclear triggering devices. The Lawrence Livermore scientists and bureaucrats can fuck off. They’re quite honestly miserable, misanthropic people who are taking our money and investing in destroying the planet. And we pay no attention. There’s no sexy pop culture cachet attached to exploring what’s going on at Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore. Maybe that’s more significant than what’s going on at Area 51. That was the other thing I was trying to get out of this story.
S: How does an idea or a lead develop into a story?
ACT: A lot of things start with a tip and people will say this is going on, and you should check it out. A lot of times it will come from a person who is well positioned: a government insider, or a lawyer who is working on a case and has seen this phenomenon develop involving the government or a corporation. Sometimes activists will tip me off. From there it’s a matter of testing out a thesis, and trying to find evidence that supports or disproves this thesis someone has put forward for me. Sometimes it’s just a fishing expedition. Paul Lozada was an infamous San Francisco cop I had known about, because his name cropped up in my reporting various times. When I saw that he was filing a civil suit against the city I thought, “No matter what I find, this is going to be interesting.” The court files for the civil suit consisted of six volumes, and there was a ton of interesting stuff in there. From that spun off a ton of interesting stories. There’s different ways these things start, and that you can follow.
S: What are you working on right now?
ACT: Right now I’m doing a series called “Forgotten City”, which is about the public housing experience in San Francisco. It’s sort of a reality TV show on paper, if reality TV was real. I’m chronicling the lives of folks on the extreme underside of San Francisco. There’re interesting things that crop up there. This is another thing I’m inspired by: the narrative of hanging out with people in the housing projects in San Francisco and hearing their stories, and meeting their families and friends, and tracing their lives, because these are stories that don’t get told. Outside of Black San Francisco people are unaware of key dynamics in the housing projects and African American slums of the city.
The other day I was going through the Sunnydale Projects with this sort of OG that mentors youth and we rolled from Lake View, which is in the south-west of the city in Oceanside, to Sunnydale on the east side. There this older activist sees a couple of kids he mentors in Lake Side and we talk to them. He asked why they weren’t coming out to the youth center, and they said “Man, we just don’t feel comfortable coming out there. We feel it’s too hot over there.” There was a beef going on between black dudes in Lake View and Sunnydale, a black on black conflict. That’s something a lot of San Franciscans are unaware of – that the mobility of African Americans in the city, young people in particular, is severely limited.
The story goes on and on. We ran into this other dude who says, “This kid has been stealing cars, man, and getting into all kinds of chaos. I saw him rolling in a car and he’s too young to drive and I said ‘Pull your ass over. I’m going to beat your ass.’ Then when they parked the car, they parked it better than I can. They’d been stealing cars for a while.” Then it turns out that one of these young, thugged out G’s from the projects is gay, and he’s openly gay. There’s a story nobody knows: there are young, gay men that are trying to gang bang.
S: It seems if you’re an African American kid in the macho ghetto and you’re gay, you’d have to try twice as hard to show how bad-ass and ruthless you were.
ACT: I would imagine. I’m going to hang out with this kid some more and figure out some more. I was hanging out at the barber shop in Sunnydale with a guy who is 24 but who has already done three or four years of pen time. He’s telling me: “Yeah, in the pen the white gangs have split into northern and southern factions like the Mexican gangs” or the Sureños and Norteños. This is a thing I just learned hanging out at the barber shop in the projects. So this is a story I’ll develop. Things just sort of spill out.
Another story is about the guy who runs that barbershop: an ex-con who has been in trouble with the law for years. He’s been in and out of prison forever but now he’s trying to get off parole, off paper and con apartments, and he runs this little barber shop out of converted project space. All of these kids come in and he mentors them. He drops knowledge on them. He’s got a tattooed teardrop next to his eye, and he says it’s not that cool to be a G, because you end up broke, illiterate and dead. Kids come in and if they don’t have money he cuts their hair for free. He takes a board and puts it over the arms of the barber chair so he can reach them because the kids are small. It’s an amazing scene.
S: Are you going to write a book?
ACT: I’m going to write a book about the dudes I helped to get out of prison in 2003: John Tennison and Antoine Goff. In 2001 I started writing about them when they had already been in the State Pen for 10 years. They had been framed by the former Chief of Police of San Francisco, Earl Sanders, Detective Napoleon Hendrix, and other police officers associated with the CRUSH violent crimes unit, for a murder that had occurred in the Sunnydale Projects in 1989. George Butterworth was the prosecutor. When I started writing this story it didn’t look like they’d ever get out, and there was all kinds of evidence that suggested they were innocent, that the government’s case was complete bullshit. When I looked at the evidence, the transcripts, and interviewed witnesses, it seemed evident that the prosecution and the police engaged in misconduct. As the story developed, everything spilled out. They had coached witnesses to lie. They had hidden exculpatory evidence from the defense: witnesses who said that the men were innocent and that another had done the killing. They hid the existence of these witnesses from the defense. When the actual perpetrator confessed to the crime saying, “I’m the guy that killed him,” they didn’t tell the defense. These guys engaged in blatant malpractice of the law and malfeance that lead to John Tennison and Antoine Goff going to prison for thirteen years. Eventually they got out in 2003. Some lawyers read my story and took their case pro bono and busted their asses for three years to get Tennison and Goff out. Now Tennison and Goff are fighting a civil suit against the city saying we’d like to be compensated for the thirteen fucking years of our lives you stole when we were branded as murderers, when we weren’t. I’d like to write a book when the whole saga plays itself out, called A Black on Black Crime, because the two homicide detectives were famous African-American detectives, and the two dudes who were framed were innocent average black dudes from the hood.