Peter Noel: the Baron of Baj

Georgia Popplewell investigates how a Trini from “behind the bridge” became a leading commentator on issues of race in America.

Noel and son Peter  Jr on an April 2000 Voice cover. Photograph by Robin Holland/ Courtesy The Village VoicePeter Noel “profiling” in his Village Voice cubicle, June 2000. Photograph by Georgia PopplewellPhotograph by Gerard GaskinPhotograph by Robin HollandStrange bedfellow: Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, Peter Noel and the Rev Al Sharpton cozy up in a Village Voice cover shot, 1999. Photograph by Robin Holland/ Courtesy The Village Voice

Peter Noel and I had first spoken in New York back in June 1998. I was in town for a few days; I’d got his number from a friend of a friend; we arranged to have lunch. I went to meet him as planned at the offices of the Village Voice, where a smug West Indian security guard took pleasure in informing me he wasn’t in. Having arrived in (pre-9/11, still uncaring) New York via Toronto, with its spotless streets and bicycle lanes and folks who waited for the green light to cross the street, I didn’t take it personally. Besides, Peter Noel was a fellow Trinidadian, and sometimes Trinis (myself included) don’t keep appointments, or forget appointments, or run late.

In hindsight, a more likely explanation is that some major incident had taken place in the city, some  happening probably involving the NYPD or Al Sharpton (or more likely the NYPD and Al Sharpton). Two years later I’m in New York again. This time I’m careful to e-mail Peter Noel prior to my arrival, and he actually replies, saying we should meet, which we arrange to do over the phone when I get there. The day before the meeting, however, a group of young black women is assaulted by a group of Latino youths during the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Central Park. The women claim the police have failed to intervene. Race, crime, the possibility of black activist politics coming into play — Peter Noel would be drawn there like a moth to a light bulb. I brace myself for another abortive trip to the Voice offices and the security guard’s withering, “He’s not deeerrre.

But Peter Noel (who, I was to discover later, had recently acquired a Palm VII handheld organiser, bought off one of his “street contacts” for an obscenely low price) is on the ball this time. He does call that morning, apologising. He’s been up all night with this thing, he says. We postpone the meeting till another day.

Am I mistaken, or does the security guard’s face fall, the day I arrive at the Village Voice and Peter Noel is actually in? (Though I do understand his proprietary feelings: Peter Noel, a fellow West Indian made good and one of the few black writers at the venerable weekly, must be protected; his precious time must not be wasted by types like me.)

Upstairs, a cheery intern escorts me to Peter Noel’s cubicle, which looks like it’s been hit by a hurricane: books, papers, binders, manila folders everywhere, the remains of his lunch, the Palm VII sticking out from under something; on the walls, a Polaroid of Abner Louima, the Haitian police-brutality-victim on whom Peter Noel has written reams, photos of his kids, a photo of Malcolm X, hand-drawn cartoons, a life-size target-practice silhouette, complete with bullet holes, posters, including one saying “UAW On Strike”.

My heart warms to this fellow slob who, from the looks of it, hasn’t slept in days, sitting among the rubble wearing baggy fatigues and a red bandana and Nikes — the very look he describes in a March 2000 Voice cover story entitled “When Clothes Make the Suspect: Portraits in Racial Profiling” as “ghetto awareness wear”, the “felon look” that allegedly causes certain members of the NYPD to target black men.

 

Not that toeing the line, sartorial or otherwise, has ever been on Peter Noel’s agenda. He grew up in the gritty east Port of Spain district of John John, where he was exposed to what he calls “real ghetto culture.” “I learned how to cuss. I learned how to slaughter pigs. I was an acolyte. I learned how to beat pan. I learned how to gamble, play wappie, everything. All of the habits that people associate with life ‘behind the bridge’.”

But he also acquired another unusual habit: a taste for newswire stories, which his uncle, a seaman, would bring home in big rolls. “I don’t know where he got it,” Noel says. “He used it to wrap fish or something. But I would read the thing. I loved to smell the paper, and I would read the stories and emulate the way these people were writing, on subjects I pretty much knew nothing about.” One story which made a big impact on him was the report on the death of Martin Luther King Jr carried in the Mirror (the forerunner of today’s Trinidad Express). “I said, ‘I would like to write like this’. The story was so well written. And I started writing short stories in the dialect, based on characters in John John.”

Peter called his narrative about life behind the bridge “Pommecythere”, because it depicted the “sweet and prickly nature of people from John John.” One of the leading characters in it was his Grenada-bred grandmother, who was raising him and his brothers while his mother worked in the US. The same grandmother would later have him sentenced to the strict Caribbean Union College (a Seventh-Day Adventist high school) after reporting to his mother that he was smoking weed (a charge he denies: “I was hanging around with people who were smoking weed; I wasn’t”).

The CUC experience did, however, take him closer to realising his dream of becoming a reporter. By the time he left there at 19, Noel had a collection of handwritten stories which he took around to the offices of the Express. The pieces were decent enough to attract the attention of a busy Owen Baptiste (the paper’s editor-in-chief), who passed Noel over to Keith Smith. “This little guy from John John, he kept pestering me,” remembers Smith, now a legendary newspaper columnist and editor. “He’d bring things for me to read. And I’d tell him, ‘What s*** you write here, boy?’ But he was very earnest, and clearly very talented.”

Noel was eventually assigned to the Express evening paper, the Sun. Skye Hernandez, also a rookie reporter at the time, remembers Noel as being “a provocateur from Day One. He was always daring you to do something. He had energy and a certain drive, lots of imagination.” Keith Smith set about smoothing the rough edges. “I had written a story for him about the disappearing craftsmen in the city,” Noel remembers, “and Keith Smith just took it, ripped it up, and threw it back at me. He said, ‘Boy, learn to type!’” Not surprisingly, Smith made a big impression on Noel, and they remain the closest of friends to this day. “I imitated his style for about a year,” Noel says. “He taught me how to turn that phrase.”

 

Noel left Trinidad in 1978 to join his mother in New York. Interestingly, she had settled in Harlem, which by then had long been eclipsed by Brooklyn as a catchment area for West Indian immigrants. To Noel, however, Harlem wasn’t all that different from John John. “John John had shacks,” he says, “Harlem had abandoned buildings. Both areas had police brutality and drugs. It became a very familiar backdrop for me in terms of how I wanted to write about it and everything in this city and blacks in the city.”

A young black journalist with fire in his belly couldn’t have asked for a better crucible than New York in the 1980s. Always a challenging environment and never one that ever went out of its way to be hospitable to African-Americans, New York in the 80s saw the rise of black activist politics, most notably in the form of three controversial figures, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and civil rights attorneys C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox.

As a self-confessed ambulance-chaser at the Amsterdam News, the prominent African-American newsweekly, and then at the Brooklyn-based City Sun, another dynamic black weekly run by the Trinidad-born Utrice Leid, Noel would experience his journalistic coming-of-age in the context of racial confrontations like 1986’s Howard Beach incident, in which a crowd of whites chased Trinidadian immigrant Michael Griffiths onto a highway, where he was struck and killed by a vehicle; the infamous Tawana Brawley case in 1987; and the 1989 shooting death of Yusuf Hawkins, a black youth attacked by a white mob in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn.

“We did some of the most remarkable investigative journalism, at a time when police brutality was on the rise, in 86–87,” Noel says. “We covered the Howard Beach case. We were quite instrumental in whipping up public sentiment against police around that time.” Noel’s own investigative reporting around the case of Larry Davis, who was accused of shooting police officers, helped win Davis an acquittal.

In the fray at all times were Sharpton, Maddox, and Mason, organising demonstrations and making grand (and often grandiose) statements, mobilising the city’s black community. “They were the main newsmakers at the time,” Noel says. “They were the ones who were articulating rage and pain for black people who were being brutalised by cops.” And there was one young journalist who had what appeared to be limitless access to them: his name was Peter Noel.

“I was able to write the type of stories some of these white reporters from the dailies were trying to get access to,” says Noel of his relationship with the controversial triumvirate. “They would not speak to the white press. The white press was against them for being rabble-rousers, Sharpton was a charlatan, all this kind of stuff. But I knew these people had a constituency, and I gave them that forum.”

Then in 1990, the Village Voice, the celebrated progressive newsweekly founded in 1955 by Norman Mailer et al, was looking for a specialist in “race, crime and black activist politics” to bring some balance to the Central Park jogger case. Who fit the bill better than Peter Noel?

Most young journalists would have leaped at the chance to work at the Voice, but Noel admits he felt an initial reluctance. “I never wanted to work for the white press,” he says. “I never felt I could have used the same techniques — I call my style black advocacy journalism: BAJ [he pronounces it bazh]. And it could be quite offensive.” But the Voice, long-time bastion of New Journalism, in fact proved more than hospitable to Noel’s firebrand style. Noel remembers editor Richard Goldstein telling him, “You need to cross it over, that’s all.” Goldstein showed him a couple of techniques, and soon BAJ was residing quite happily in Greenwich Village.

At the Voice, Noel continued his incisive, no-holds-barred coverage of high-profile race-related events like 1991’s Crown Heights riots, which pitted Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish community against the area’s West Indians; Jamaican immigrant Colin Ferguson’s massacre of commuters on the Long Island Railroad; the Abner Louima police torture case; the Patrick Dorismond case; and the shooting of unarmed West African immigrant Amadou Diallo by four New York City policemen in 1999. His confrontational stance earned him the nickname “Flamethrower” (he’s also been called “Sharpton suck-up”, and according to one report, he once found graffiti in the Voice bathroom accusing him of being a “black activist plant”). The Voice, not originally a paper with a large black readership, became an important shaper of black public opinion, and Noel himself came to matter enough for Sean “Puffy” Combs, in the wake of negative articles Noel had written about him, to feed a false rumour to gossip columnists that he and Noel had been seen dining cordially at a top New York restaurant.

 

It’s a given that Peter Noel’s views exasperate many white readers, but his commentaries on prominent trends and figures in black America (among them racial profiling, DWB (Driving While Black), the Williams sisters, Combs, the Biggie Smalls/Tupac Shakur rivalry, Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell) have also angered hip-hop fans and conservative blacks.

All of this has naturally made Noel an in-demand figure on the political talk show circuit. He appears frequently on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the New York 1 cable channel, and radio stations like WLIB and WKRS, where the late-night show he co-hosts has developed a cult following. His on-screen sparring matches with conservative black commentators like Stanley Crouch and the New York Post’s Robert George (a fellow Trinidadian), and anybody else with belly enough to tangle with a fella from John John, have become legendary.

During 2001’s New York mayoral race, conducted in the haze emanating from Ground Zero and Rudolph Giuliani’s rebirth as a hero of the people, the Village Voice dealt BAJ an unexpected body blow. In retaliation against assertions that a vote for Fernando Ferrer, the candidate endorsed by Sharpton, amounted to putting Sharpton in City Hall, Noel wrote a “rant” exposing the other Democratic candidate, Mark Green, as a “phony white liberal”. “The Voice received 5,000 letters in response,” Noel told me over the phone, “and Donald Forst [the paper’s editor-in-chief] asked me to cool off Sharpton. He said, ‘Write about hip-hop instead.’”

After Noel refused to comply, the paper threatened to cut him to 1,800 words. The black activist plant called it quits, taking BAJ back with him to Harlem. But you can’t keep a John John boy down for long. “I channelled that rage,” Noel says. “Since December I’ve completed two books.”

 

Peter Noel’s Hip-hop Profiling: Rappers, Cops and Guns (A&B Books) will be published before the end of 2002. Playing the Race Card: Al Sharpton and the Bully Boys of Black Rage is being considered for publication by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Noel has also been in discussions with the Village Voice about a possible return

 

FROM THE PETER NOEL ARCHIVES:

BLACK INTERLOPER

Russell Simmon’s ‘Racial Contract’ with Andrew Cuomo

“Although Simmons has been dismissed by some black activists as nothing more than a toothless tiger on his own Phat Farm, his bite may yet prove fatal to the black body politic. The former Mark Green supporter, who remained silent as Green exploited white hot fear of Al Sharpton during the mayoral race, is poised to play a major role in infecting next year’s gubernatorial contest. He is backing Andrew Cuomo’s bid to bar Carl McCall from becoming New York’s first black governor.” (The Village Voice, December 2001)

DEATH GRIP

How the NYPD Explains the Senseless Killing of an Unarmed Black Man

“Once again, the New York Police Department has proven that cops should not police cops. Once again, at a sham trial, the NYPD has come up with a shameful hypothesis — the “grip reflex” — to explain how one of its so-called “finest” could justifiably gun down an unarmed black man he found hiding under a car. Once again, it has sanctioned the notion among some white cops that black blood is cheap.” (The Village Voice, June 2001)

“FARRAKHAN JEWS”

Anti-Zionist Hasidim in Landmark Meeting With Nation of Islam Leader

“Beneath the headline is a photo of Farrakhan flanked by seven bearded Hasidim in black felt hats and long dark coats. On a slow news day, the historic meeting might have been front page. But except for black Muslim readers and the handful of believers who dodged traffic near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge hawking The Final Call and the ubiquitous bean pies, news about the largely symbolic step toward closer relations between Farrakhan and Jews have gone unnoticed in the mainstream media.” (The Village Voice, December 1999)

GROUND HOG

Jesse Jackson Raids the Graveyard — On Al Sharpton’s Watch

“Seizing the opportunity to eclipse political rival Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, once scorned by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, stood shoulder to shoulder with him at Ground Zero last week, wiping out in 15 minutes of ‘shameful grandstanding’ Sharpton’s eight-year battle to portray the mayor as hostile to African Americans.

“Ever since hijackers crashed two jumbo jets into the twin towers, Giuliani has stood guard at the entrance to the world’s most notorious graveyard, waving through friends and political allies while allegedly denying entry to foes.” (The Village Voice, October 2001)

LUNCH WITH ARAFAT

Inside Al Sharpton’s Controversial Meeting With the Palestinian Leader

“GAZA CITY, PALESTINE — As Al Sharpton sped along a dusty road in the Gaza Strip to a historic meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat last week, he and a top aide, riding in the backseat of a black Mercedes Benz, imagined the look on Jesse Jackson’s face. It would be one of disbelief, they conjectured, as Jackson watched his rival dodge the crossfire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and become the premier black statesman on the world stage — brokering peace through shuttle diplomacy.” (The Village Voice, November 2001)

THE BAD BOY CURSE

The Perils of Hanging with Puffy

“Both admirers and opponents of Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs have pointed out that people around him wind up dead, seriously injured, in jail, or bail out of Bad Boy Entertainment, the hip hop strongman’s music citadel. Guns. Shoot-em-ups. Thuggery. Bribery. Shady business dealings. All, real or imagined, seem to be hallmarks of Combs’s troubled history. Some are calling a recent spate of incidents — including the Club New York shooting — the “Bad Boy Curse,” speculating that the “roots” of this tree of tragedy, from which Combs’s estimated $400 million entertainment, clothing, and restaurant empire springs, run deep.” (The Village Voice, March 2001)

PORTRAITS IN RACIAL PROFILING

When Clothes Make the Suspect

“About 50 white and black uniformed and undercover officers who participated in an unscientific survey by the Voice contend that ‘the felon look’ — that ‘Tupac-thug-for-life’ image and posture captured in this week’s cover illustration — account for a majority of the stops and frisks. Using the composite sketch, the cops assigned high and low percentages to every piece of brand-name clothing, headgear, and footwear that they say contributes to the makeup of a racial profile and causes them to confront a person. Whites donning similar clothing rarely are stopped. In the cops’ opinion:

• A baseball cap, worn at any angle, accounts for 10 percent of their stops.

• A bandanna, particularly red or blue, hints at gang involvement and accounts for 20 percent of stops.

• An XXL hooded sweattop, or ‘hoodie,’ accounts for 20 percent of stops.

• Sagging, baggy trousers, especially dungarees, account for 30 percent of stops.

• Exposed plaid boxer shorts account for 10 percent of stops.

• Expensive high-top sneakers — unlaced, suggesting that the person may have done prison time — account for 10 percent of stops.” (The Village Voice, March 2000)

FEAR OF THE WILLIAMS SISTERS

Venus and Serena Battle Charges of Arrogance and the Myth of the Superbred Black Athlete

Although they are idolised by many African Americans, backhanded bad-mouthing of the broad-shouldered, long-legged, and attractive Williams sisters is not uncommon among the blueblood cabals, who imply in their running commentary that poor Venus and Serena just seem out of place in the lily-white world of professional tennis. They criticise the sisters’ game (the way they rush the net — only souped-up niggers could be that good, suggesting that Venus and Serena should be tested for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs); their walk (a ghettoised swagger is unbecoming); their attitude (too moody, withdrawn); their nappy tresses (the colorful beads are deemed “childish”); even their clothing (too FuBu, and Serena is much too obsessed with the color purple); and, of course, their parents (overprotective, amateur psychologists).” (The Village Voice, November 2000)