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Meth, Race & Politics. A Year Later, NY Times Looks at the Ed Buck Case

Thursday September 17, 2020

How much of a megadoner was Ed Buck?

The LA-based political activist made headlines when he was arrested a year ago this week for three counts of battery causing serious injury, administering methamphetamine, and maintaining a drug house. 18 months apart, two Black men — Gemmell Moore, 26, and Timothy Dean, 55 — were found dead in Buck's rent-controlled, West Hollywood apartment. In both cases, the injection of crystal meth with a syringe was involved. What prompted Buck's arrest on September 17, 2019 was an incident a week before in which a third Black man sought help after Buck had injected him with a large dose of methamphetamines. He survived, and charges were brought against Buck.

Since then, additional charges have been brought against Buck, including a federal charge of "one count of distribution of methamphetamine resulting in death," reported CNN. That charge was for the death of Moore, who died on July 27, 2017. Moore's death had originally been ruled an accidental methamphetamine overdose by the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner. This past August, a federal grand jury added four additional felonies, bringing the count to nine. Buck currently awaits trial in January 2021. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

In a lengthy report in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, reporter Jesse Barron painstakingly details the case, from Moore's death to Buck's eviction from the drab apartment he had lived in since the early 1990s. Much of the reporting on the outrage against Buck from the Black community as to why charges weren't brought against him sooner has been covered before; and much of Barron's report presents a grim portrait of a privileged man with deadly fetish, and how he was able to manipulate those on society's margins to fulfill it. But it also concerns the insidious grip of methamphetamine addiction (which appears to have included Buck), as well as the divide between those who are well-connected and those who are not.

And then there's the political component, which is likely why the story went viral.

Barron connects the dots as to how the story found its way into the national press. While the story had been reported in the local Los Angeles press, most notably with one published in the WeHoNews, called "Sex, Politics, Meth and Death in West Hollywood," the mainstream media didn't cover the case until Barron's mother, LaTisha Nixon, reached out to an LA media outlet, saying that her son "didn't have the money to pay for his flight or buy the meth the coroner says killed him."

Nixon was put in touch with "Jasmyne Cannick, a well-known political strategist in the Black community in Los Angeles," who became Moore's advocate in seeking justice and retribution against Buck. Cannick was able to track down Moore's diary, which contained evidence of Buck's involvement in his becoming addicted, and she published excerpts on her website.

"Frustrated by the lack of response from law enforcement, the family of Gemmel Moore filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Buck, the county and the district attorney," reports Barron. "Their lawyers tallied several hundred thousand dollars in political contributions that Buck had made to Democratic candidates at all levels of office, from city to federal. They said that Buck was being shielded thanks to his political donations and status. They said that the county does not investigate crimes against Black gay men."

In her attempt to get her story out to the public, Cannick saw the need to reach out to conservative media sources. "Right-wing media showed an appetite," Barron writes, "and Cannick, knowing she was abetting a political machine whose goals she did not share, but wanting to pressure the D.A.'s office, began appearing on Fox News to talk about the case. The anchors exaggerated Cannick's story, casting Buck as a man of huge importance. Steve Doocy, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Dana Perino and Laura Ingraham spun a story of a 'megadonor' sexual deviant who was shielded by blue-city hypocrites. 'He was protected,' Ingraham said."

Ingraham devoted a segment on her Fox show to Buck days after his arrest to spin the political meme. "Influence allowed him to act with impunity," said Black conservative commentator Horace Cooper on the segment. "What we see is what looks like the Harvey Weinstein model or the Epstein model," Cooper said, "where prominent, affluent, influential Democrats in blue cities are literally getting away with murder."

Their spin, though, was greatly exaggerated. "Ed Buck was not a megadonor," Barron concludes. "Among California Democrats, he was marginal — and that was being generous. Nationally, he was a nobody. The photographs with Clinton and Ted Lieu, which illustrated countless television spots, were the kind that anyone can get by waiting in line at an event — "even a free event," as the campaign manager for one of the state's top-ranking members of Congress told me. Rather than a man of influence, they showed a man who wanted to seem influential. Thousands of Americans whose names you wouldn't recognize were bigger political donors than Ed Buck — though Buck, from his gray, rent-stabilized apartment on North Laurel Avenue, took pains to make it look otherwise."

But, Barron adds, the story made great copy for right-wing media. "For Fox, the donor story was political bait. For the white liberals who also embraced it, the donor story did subtler work: It obscured the reality of the race and class of the victims. It was easier to believe that Ed Buck had enormous power than to confront the fact that Gemmel Moore had so little. Without ever donating a cent, you could obtain the most valuable protections in Los Angeles: being white, being housed, having cash around for a lawyer."