The Synthesis is a local weekly newspaper in small-town Chico, California, generally specialized in Entertainment news—stories of local bands, the bar scene, and arts.
Recently, the small paper is branching into more critical hard-hitting news analysis. Emilano Garcia-Sarnoff published “Heart on Fire: The Murder of Marc Thompson” on September 29, which is about the recent death of a Chico State Sociology major found in a burning car in a remote area. Emiliano wrote about a young African-American man he knew casually from a card game, but who was dead September 3, some six weeks after the card game.
On December 13, Ethnography.com’s Julie Garza-Withers who knew Marc quite well, is following up with a hard-hitting analytic article in the Synthesis about Marc’s death “A Season of Homicides: The Murder of Marc Thompson.” The article is about the inability of the police to conclude the murder investigation yet. Three months after his death we do not yet know how Marc died, how he arrived at the remote area, or why the killers burned his car a little over three hours after he was last seen alive. Who killed him? Why was the car set on fire? How did the person who set the car on fire leave the remote scene? And most importantly, Julie asks, why has there been so little reaction by the local press, authorities, and other opinion leaders in Butte County? There are after all only 6-10 murders per year in a County of 220, 000 people. Murder is thankfully rare—and the circumstance of being found murdered in a burning car even rarer. Can’t the police investigate this murder, which is so strange? Except for the Synthesis—which is first about entertainment, not crime—the story has disappeared from the news.
As sociologists, Julie and I are particularly pleased that the Synthesis described the role that “the running conversation” in framing—or not framing—Marc’s death. “The running conversation” is a sociological term first developed by Herbert Blumer in the 1950s describing how societies frame and reframe particular events so that a palatable “narrative” develops. This talk, the running conversation, is shaped by people in power, not the little folk who do not have access to the bullhorns of society which in Butte County include the local newspapers, press officers from the police and university, politicians, radio stations, and a television station. In developing the “running conversation” opinion leaders frame “the story” in a way that helps society challenge its own problems. Or not—after all many stories are ignored and never framed and never become a source for social change, or anything else.
Julie fears that this is happening in Marc’s case after only three months. The strength of Julie’s article I think is that it offers up a number of plausible frames, without forcing the reader into any single one. Why was Marc killed? She doesn’t know and is challenging the police to find out so that the greater Chico community can give meaning to what still otherwise a meaningless murder.
The first question seems to be was race involved? Marc was a 25-year-old activist for racial justice, and played a major role in a locally produced film about the nature of race on college campuses. Only 1.8% of Butte County is African-American, and four African-Americans were murdered in Butte County and then burned up in cars in 2013-2014, which is 20% of all murders (and that doesn’t count blacks who were murdered and not found in burning cars!). Last year’s “murders in a burning car” resulted in the quick arrest and conviction of the perpetrator—or perhaps not. The same person did not kill Marc, obviously, but maybe this is a group? Or a copy-cat? We just don’t know.
Or maybe it was a robbery gone badly, and Marc was unlucky? But then why would a car have been left in such an odd place and burned in a way that the body was sure to be quickly found? Again, we don’t know.
And then why was Marc’s father’s name on the second report in which the fire was reported, even though he did not make the call? Such questions unnerve Marc’s family and his friends. The running conversation has of course begun on the streets, but still has not made itself into the press, a situation Julie’s article is attempting to remedy. The problem is that without the help of the sheriff and the investigative process, no one really knows, and the catharsis that is needed in the aftermath of such a horrible event slips back to only those who knew and loved Marc.
Anyway you can read Julie’s Synthesis article yourself. Many thanks to the Synthesis for letting a concept like “the running conversation” slip into the article. Such a willingness to experiment journalistically is what keeps good newspapers alive, and communities thriving.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.