Back in May of 2011, an arsonist lit up South Buffalo’s Mackinaw Street by lighting the home of a recent African immigrant on fire. The arsonist himself was not captured, but as police determined that the case was one of “Arson for hire,” this ended up being less of a pressing concern than finding the man who had hired the arsonist to set the fire. To that end, the police arrested 58-year-old Michael Fijal and charged him with the crime, even though he hadn’t purposefully set the blaze himself.
Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, Federal investigators suspect that the crime might have been a hate crime, and are looking for evidence of this. Fijal has not yet been tried.
However, none of this is the reason this story of a depraved, but unfortunately not uncommon crime has captured a much wider audience than just the residents of South Buffalo. No, what made this story become so notable is a truly extraordinary man-on-the-street interview that the local TV station WIVB-TV conducted with one of the unnamed residents of South Buffalo. Watch the original report that WIVB-TV put out on the subject here:
Even from the short clip included in this initial report, it’s clear that the reporter, Ed Drantch, was having trouble believing what he was hearing. And indeed, those few seconds of tape sparked a media scandal, with some people believing the man was a symbol of all the horrid irredeemable racism that has yet to be solved in American culture, and others believing him to be a blunt truth-teller. Pressure mounted until the station, WIVB-TV, had to release the full, unedited interview with the man. Watch it here:
As you see, the full context of the interview does this unnamed would-be racial realist no favors. He explicitly singles out African Americans and excoriates them for “wrecking” parts of Buffalo, and does it with such blase calm that it’s difficult not to be a little unnerved. The interviewer, Drantch, has trouble even getting his questions out at points. And more troubling still is the interviewee’s assertion that “A lot of people feel this way; they just won’t say it.”
It was at this point that the story began to go viral, as a local radio show hosted by two shock jocks calling themselves Shredd and Ragan picked it up and actually managed to get hold of the man involved, who seemed to want to correct some of what was said. However, when the interview opened, it became clear that far from wanting to correct his own sentiments, he just wanted to correct the original report for getting his neighborhood wrong. The two hosts didn’t let him get off with just that, though, and managed to get through a deeply uncomfortable interview which outed the man in question not so much as a hardened bigot, but simply as a very excessively sheltered human being. He also gave his name, which out of respect for his safety, we are not printing.
However, at this stage it isn’t just a pair of random radio hosts who want to talk to this strange, “Gangs Of New York”-esque figure. In fact, a prominent local politician wants to have a few words with him. Ellicott District Councilman Darius Pridgen, an African-American, issued a challenge to the man, which was faithfully reported by WIVB:
From the transcript of Councilman Pridgen’s letter provided by WIVB:
Thank you for your coverage which exposed the views of a gentleman who expressed his very strong views concerning minorities and racial separation. This was a very difficult story to watch but one that I feel is very necessary if our city is to ever move forward in race relations.
The coverage of this subject is too important to isolate to one story centering around the gentleman’s comments. Leaving this as an open ended story may nurture more racial hatred and racism in our city. I believe this is the right time to take a giant step forward in bringing a clearer appreciation to the issue of housing discrimination, prejudice and racism in Western New York. I am asking that your station host a discussion on race in Western New York. I think that an intelligent, moderated, constructive conversation has the potential to heal, bring understanding and move our community in a positive direction.
Finally I would like to reach out to the gentleman who started this very important conversation to invite him on a very friendly tour through the Eastside to show him portions that he may have never seen and in turn take a tour of his neighborhood and hear his concerns. I would pay full expense for the tour, protect his identity, and agree to share our, hopefully adjusted, insights publicly if he would allow.
Darius G. Pridgen
Where will this odd case of racial animus go from here? Who knows. But those looking for a symbol of persistent racist tension in American society need look no further.