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Arno story overplayed by Post-Dispatch.

The Kirkwood school bus incident, or call it the Al Arno case, uncovered racial tensions not only on a school bus, but in the community and the media, especially the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Arno is the white Post ad salesman who stopped a school bus, carrying mostly black students, and tried to find out who threw white paint or correction fluid from the moving bus onto his car. Bedlam erupted and Arno threw water, trash and soda on some students. He said he spit on them after he was spit on.

Two of the black middle-school students, accompanied by a parent or guardian, told police Arno used the N-word. Arno was charged and subsequently convicted in municipal court for seven assault violations and one of disorderly conduct, and fined $2,750.

Arno was not charged with being a racist because there is no such charge. But in a way, that's what he has been convicted of. The case became racially charged, and had enough debatable points that blacks and whites could come to opposite opinions of whether Arno was racist.

Arno testified that he never said the N-word. Of nine students from the bus who testified at his trial, seven said they never heard him use a racial epithet. The bus driver also said he never heard Arno say it.

Post ad salesman

No one was hurt in the incident, except Arno, who was cut on the head when a student hit him with a book bag. School officials or police never determined who threw the paint.

His lawyer, John Kilo, said the incident was blown out of proportion by Arno's own employer, the Post, which played up the racial angle from the start. Television and radio talk shows picked it up. Many who commented thought Arno got railroaded, although they felt he made a mistake by getting on the bus and causing a disturbance.

"If it weren't for the race thing, it would have attracted little or no attention. Al's not a racist. He went on tilt briefly. He got on that bus with the purest of motives, to find out who damaged his car. He was under siege. He was the victim from the start, until the end," Kilo said.

The Post coverage of the incident had repeatedly mentioned Arno's alleged use of the N-word. A handful of black editors pushed for more stories. Dee Amos, a black who was in charge of police and court reporters, ordered a longer first-day story, instead of a cop item, when she heard Arno was a Post employee and that two students said he called them a racial name.

Did Amos think the incident was racially motivated? "No doubt," she said. "You don't get on a bus and terrorize kids. I wanted to know if he had a gun."

Amos, who has since gone to another paper, was always looking for racial bias in crime stories, say reporters she supervised.

Many readers criticized the Post for the stories. Readers' Advocate Carolyn Kingcade said in a column that because Arno was an employee of, the paper the Post had "to go a step further" so readers would not think he was getting special treatment.

But the 21-year employee did get special treatment. He was fired. Arno's union, the St. Louis Newspaper Guild, got him reinstated by an arbitrator who found that Arno was under work-related stress at the time of the incident.

Arno, 54, was the paper's top salesman in 1998 and was given a $5,000 bonus. His colleagues said his actions on the bus were out of character for him and attributed it to stress on the job, where he was regarded as a workaholic.

Arno and his family were humiliated by the publicity. A black editorial writer at the Post castigated him for "outrageous behavior" and put his actions in the context of the Columbine High School shootings. An NAACP official was asked to comment and called for him to be prosecuted for a hate crime.

Radio talk show host Lizz Brown, a frequent critic of the Post who is sort of a liberal Rush Limbaugh-Rev. Al Sharpton combination, started her own vitriolic campaign, calling Arno a racist. She organized a boycott protest against a grocery chain that advertises in the Post. She had protestors in front of the Kirkwood city hall the night of Arno's trial. Children carried signs calling him a racist.

This writer asked to be on her radio show to offer a different point of view. She said OK, but when I arrived at her studio, puffing, she said I had been dropped as a guest. (A real bummer because the elevator was out and I had to climb 13 flights of stairs.)

Linda Lockhart, am African-American Post section editor who helps determine what play stories receive, defends the Post's coverage. She was one who pushed for more Arno stories. "Arno's actions were outrageous," she said. "It is a big deal. Any parents would be upset. This is a case of an adult assaulting children."

Lockhart said the racial angle came from the N-word allegations in the police report. "Arno made this a racial case, not the Post-Dispatch," she said. "I don't think the average black child would say things that aren't true."

Don Franklin, a veteran reporter who is black, said he was involved in some of the early reporting. "I was surprised the editor types were working so hard to show this guy in a bad light. I was trying to tell them that anybody could go nuts for a minute," he said. "They were going overboard, writing stories every day when there wasn't anything to write."

Franklin said if it had been his car that was damaged, "I would have gone on that bus to find out who did it. I might have gone nuts too. A person can get very upset.

"I don't think the Post-Dispatch had any solid grounds to fire the man," Franklin said.

One white reporter said he and others felt they could not protest because they would have been seen as racists too. "Can you think of anyone who has been more vilified than Al Arno--for violating a municipal ordinance?" the reporter said.

Arno has declined comment, but here's what he said at his trial: "Everybody started yelling obscenities, like taunting me. Somebody spit on me. I threw some water and they would move back'. I just wanted to find out who threw the paint on my car. I didn't want to touch anybody. I did spit back. I felt they were trying to intimidate me and protect the identity of the person who thew the paint."

Odell Mitchell, a black who is a Post photographer, said whites can't understand what indignities members of a minority feel. He said that's why the allegations of the black children are more believable to blacks than to whites. "There's a lot of racial tension and when things flare up, people will take a defensive position." He said it was too bad someone, like a minister, couldn't have stepped forward to mediate the problem.

Denise Hollinshed, a black Post reporter who was once a police officer, said she would not have gotten on the bus, knowing it would only incite the kids. "He probably didn't have a racist thought. Things were being built up for him. But firing was necessary because he was representing the Post-Dispatch."

What happened in a split-second on Sept. 16 changed Arno's life. But for a second earlier or later, the paint would not have hit his car, a 10-year old Buick which he kept meticulously clean. And he would not have gotten on that bus, lost his cool, and then be accused of being a racist.

Other what-ifs: Had the bus not been segregated by whites sitting in front and blacks in the back. Had Arno called police instead of getting on the bus a second time. Had all the students been white. Had Arno not worked at the Post. Had there been some apologies and forgiveness shown, rather than name-calling.

Editor's note: Lizz Brown agreed to write a commentary about the Arno case, but has not turned in her copy as SJR goes to press.

Roy Malone is a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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Author:Malone, Roy
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
Words:1381
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