The Punk Rock Journalist Making Real News at the Source
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because once your news goes real, it’ll never go back.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Adam Clay “A.C.” Thompson’s story is as unlikely as it is picaresque. A self-professed “mess” in high school, he was the ultimate refusenik, and his parents — mom was a county welfare worker and dad was a press officer for the federal government — just hoped for some modest level of adult functionality, a blue-collar job that’d keep him in an apartment and out of trouble.
“My grandfather had been a printer,” says the now-45-year-old Thompson from his digs in Northern California. “So I tried printing until I realized that it was, like, the most boring job in the world.” What wasn’t? Hopping in a van with a pit bull and three guys in a grindcore band and making for the punk rock mecca for the politically inclined, San Francisco.
“A couple of rednecks called him a faggot, so he threw his Coke in their face and they chased him,” says union organizer Ben Sizemore, describing his first encounter with Thompson in 1992 during the summer tour of Sizemore’s band Econochrist. “At the time, Adam had dreadlocks and wore a 5-inch-long bone through his septum. His arms were covered in big, black tribal tattoos and he wore dirty, all-black clothes. He looked like some kind of punk Amazon tribesman.” A fight ensued, the rednecks beat a hasty retreat, cops showed up. “Adam has always believed in social justice,” Sizemore tells OZY, “speaking truth to power.”
I knew that using leased aircraft, the CIA was rendering suspects from battlefields to torture chambers for enhanced interrogations.
Which was a prerequisite for the reporting work he would do, earning him a slew of honors — the 2005 George Polk Award for his “Forgotten City” series about San Francisco’s public housing crisis and the 2013 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for his reporting on vigilante shootings of Black civilians after Hurricane Katrina — but it doesn’t explain how he got there. Ed Oasa, an Oakland private investigator? That’s as good a place as any to start.
Because nothing about his brief stint at San Francisco State University before dropping out would. Or the fact that Thompson didn’t know a whole lot about writing or punctuation or grammar. But he knew he wanted to do editorial and so ended up at YO!, the magazine put out by Youth Outlook. And then the (now-defunct) San Francisco Bay Guardian, where he started to burrow into the sinews of the city to see beyond what the rest of us came to comfortably believe was news.
Then, in short order, an investigative piece on a Chinese graffiti artist shot to death by a white guy and, Thompson’s first big catch, the dismantling of the legacy of San Francisco’s Black police chief Prentice Earl Sanders. Sanders and fellow cop Napoleon Hendrix, detectives at the time, played a role in framing John Tennison and Anton Goff for murder, a crime for which the men drew a life sentence in 2003. A sentence from which Tennison and Goff were later exonerated, scoring at least 2 for the good guys.
“I learned most of what I know about reporting not from any reporter,” Thompson tells OZY, “but from Ed Oasa.” Namely, how to investigate, how to get people to talk, research, stakeouts and more — all of which would come in handy when Thompson decamped to Kabul in 2005.
“I didn’t know people in the intelligence community,” Thompson says. “But I knew that using leased aircraft, the CIA was rendering suspects from battlefields to torture chambers for enhanced interrogations.” So, along with Trevor Paglen, a geographer and author obsessed with mass surveillance, Thompson reverse-engineered the CIA’s so-called extraordinary rendition program.
Dressed in traditional Afghan garb and trying hard to blend in, Thompson and Paglen used their skills as local investigators to build a case, brick by brick, without waiting for approval, assignment or official go-ahead. They followed paper trails from suburban Massachusetts to North Carolina to Afghanistan to see which shell companies owned what and where, and poured it all into their book, Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights, laying bare the agency’s secret operation that transported hundreds of prisoners to detention centers, or black sites, in the wake of 9/11.
It was precisely the kind of skill set Thompson would call on years later when he traveled to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “I was a child; I was naive,” he says, recalling that time. “But this is what reporters do.”
“How many bodies have I seen? How many times have I seen family members find dead family members?” he asks. “A lot.”
Thompson spent 18 months reporting the piece for ProPublica and The Nation. In the end, seven cops were indicted for shooting civilians and systematic corruption, kicking in some institutional reforms that have stuck.
Today, after bouncing between coasts, Thompson is back in Northern California, living with his wife and adopted son. ProPublica and Frontline have him producing TV series, and producer David Simon crafted a character, L.P. Everett, based on Thompson for the HBO series Treme.
And perhaps in response to the increased wattage of the lights shining on him, the Anglo-Arab-Jewish Thompson is going back in and back under. His focus this time? Hatred, from death squads operating in America — usually the product of carrying out-of-country wars back in country — to extreme right-wing hate groups. The cost to finish the series? About $6 million, but this is of less interest to him than being able to come home after work and shake off all of the shit he’s had his head in at work.
Scott Kelly, a founding member of the band Neurosis, seems to peg Thompson best. “I remember once he had just gotten into a fight with some guy in a car who had cut him off in traffic while he was on his bike,” Kelly recounts. Post-fight? “He was super hyped, righteously pissed and smiling, all at the same time.”