“Block Reportin'”, a new collection of writings by the journalist and activist J.R. Valrey, “chronicles the Black experience over the years of 2002-2010”. As both a community activist and a journalist, Valrey, who serves as the Minister of Information for the Black activist organization Prisoners of Conscience Committee (P.O.C.C.), is in a unique position to report on aspects of the Black experience that are rarely aired in mainstream outlets. However, Valrey’s book falls short of its goal in that it features little actual reporting. One would think that the book would feature stories on the hellish aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or Black economic suffering during the recession, reported at the ground level in a way only a community activist can do.
Disappointingly, the book is only a collection of interviews that Valrey conducted over the last decade as host of the radio show “The Block Report”, which airs on Oakland radio station KPFA and other Pacifica-affiliated stations. Some of the interviews have also been published in venues such as the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, a Black-owned paper at which Valrey works as associate editor.
These interviews, though at times illuminating, barely scratch the surface of Black experience. After all, there is only so much information that can be wrung out of an interview, especially when the interviewer seems more interested in his perspective than that of his subjects. Thus, the interviews convey a patchwork version of Black experience heavily tilted towards the P.O.C.C.’s “revolutionary” ideology. The book revels in the language of 60s-style radicalism (Valrey refers to prisons as concentration camps, cops as pigs, and America as “Amerikkka”) and offers perfunctory criticism of the government’s problematic relationship with the Black community. However, this language is not matched by reporting that asks the important questions – for example, “Why are so many Black men imprisoned?” or “Why does drug-related activity plague our community?” Valrey seems most interested in providing a space for his and the P.O.C.C.’s political views.
Take the interview with the author and imprisoned former drug-runner Darryl Reed, for instance. Reed refers several times to the disproportionate crack cocaine sentencing laws, which maintain an 18:1 disparity between time served for crack and powder cocaine-related offenses. This disparity disproportionately affects Blacks, who are more likely to possess crack rather than powder cocaine. Valrey, however, does not seize the opportunity to discuss an issue that is hugely important to the Black community.
Instead, he chooses to ask Reed a dead-end question: “How do you feel, with someone like yourself, doing 22 years, but the people who actually started the crack epidemic nationwide [Ronald Reagan, George Bush, etc.] … haven’t seen a day of jail time?” Valrey pursues this question in several other interviews, despite the fact that it sheds only meager light on the problem of Black imprisonment. It’s just another P.O.C.C. talking point and an instance of Valrey’s insensitivity to where his interviewees want to take the conversation.
As mentioned before, though, the book has several illuminating moments that give glimpses of what the book could have been if Valrey had included actual reporting and allowed his subjects to tell their stories, rather than peddling the P.O.C.C.’s ideology. Valrey’s interviews are best when he steps back. Pieces like the interview with Gary King, whose son was killed by an Oakland police officer, give us a sense of the psychic and emotional pain that attends being poor and Black in America. Mr. King gives a disarmingly honest account of finding his son dead in the middle of the street. The subsequent chronicle of his dealings with the Oakland Police Department is infuriating.
Pieces like that are indicative of what “Block Reportin'” could have been if Valrey had conducted reporting and allowed his work to be a vehicle for voices which we rarely hear: those of the poor African-Americans who he claims to represent. Unfortunately, the interviews often prove to be just what P.O.C.C. Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. claims them to be in his foreword – a “major communications vehicle” for the P.O.C.C.