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March 1, 2024

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In 1997, a 13-year-old was beaten by white Chicago teens. A podcast challenges the racial narrative that followed

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Yohance Lacour, shown in his Chicago studio, is the host of the podcast "You Didn't See Nothin," about the 1997 hate crime beating of 13-year-old Lenard Clark in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago. (John J.
Yohance Lacour, shown in his Chicago studio, is the host of the podcast "You Didn't See Nothin," about the 1997 hate crime beating of 13-year-old Lenard Clark in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS) Photo Gallery

CHICAGO — The new podcast “ You Didn’t See Nothin “ takes a critical look at the media narrative that followed the 1997 Bridgeport neighborhood beating of 13-year-old Lenard Clark Jr., a Black child who lived in Chicago’s Stateway Gardens public housing development, going to get air for his bike tire, by a group of white Bridgeport teens ages 17 to 19.

Clark was beaten unconscious and suffered permanent brain damage, and the longest sentence handed out was eight years to Frank Caruso Jr., with two others receiving probation.

The seven-part series by the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalism production company on the South Side, examines the painstaking nuances of the case with host Yohance Lacour, a Hyde Park resident who at the time was 23 and a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Lacour was so incensed by the hate crime at the time that he rallied his friends to deliver some vigilante justice. When that didn’t materialize, he channeled his anger and frustration about the incident and its subsequent media narrative — in which local religious leaders highlighted the redemption efforts of Caruso — into his own journalistic work at what was then called the South Street Journal, now the Chicago Street Journal, a Black-owned community newspaper based in Bronzeville.

Typing Lenard Clark’s name into the Chicago Tribune’s archive system yields 266 stories — from editorials in 1997 and articles in 2010 that mention Caruso’s nuptials to a 2005 book written about the incident, “Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse” by Steve Bogira.

Clark’s assault became national news as the case went to trial. As time progressed, a key witness disappeared for nearly a year until the cases of those charged in the beating were resolved; another witness was killed in 1998 in an apparent robbery on the West Side; and two other witnesses pleaded guilty, saying they stood by while Clark was beaten and did nothing to prevent it, but did not hit him. Both received probation and community service.

Caruso was Clark’s main assailant and the son of a reputed mob boss. After the attack, notable Black religious leaders started pushing racial reconciliation public relations campaigns, trying to quiet the tension between the Black community and the Caruso family. Even Clark’s mother pleaded for leniency for the attackers. A number of news stories at the time showed anger in the African American community about the reported reconciliation between the Clark family and the Caruso family as an attempt to rehabilitate Caruso’s image and protect him while he was imprisoned.

When all was said and done, Caruso served three years in prison before being transferred to a Central Illinois halfway house. And Clevan Nicholson, Clark’s friend who was with him when the attack began, but was able to escape, was awarded $500,000 in a 2001 lawsuit against one of the assailants.

Clark’s story left an indelible mark on Lacour — a father, a leather artist and a former drug dealer who went to prison in 2008 for trafficking heroin and got out in 2017. Lacour pores over the minutiae surrounding the hate crime case with a passion. He looks at events like the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York through the lens of the Clark case, which makes him realize “how far we are from any kind of reconciliation.”

“It was a story that symbolized and represented so much about Chicago and America and race and power to me, that it’s always been close to me and has been a personal flashpoint for me,” Lacour said.

We talked with Lacour about the Clark case and the podcast, which is part memoir, part investigation. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What spoke to you about Lenard Clark compared with other racial violence stories in Chicago history?

A: What I often tell folks is that the Lenard Clark case was kind of like Chicago’s Trayvon Martin. Rest in peace for Trayvon, but fortunately Lenard survived. But in terms of a child being beaten so viciously by such a larger group of older and bigger young men — that’s what made it stand out. … Racial hostility and violence against Black folks in Bridgeport was the norm and as I started talking to residents, their thing is like, it’s been going on forever and if they catch us out of bounds, we know we’re facing a beating.

And at the same time, guys from the projects had gotten to the point where it had become retaliatory. So if they caught young men from Bridgeport on their side of the tracks, which was rare, but if it happened, they would chase them out of there. But this was different because this kid was so little and he was beaten and left for dead. … It was just the extreme level: How vicious the beating was, how young the victim was, that made the difference here, you basically had a child being attacked by men. There’s a difference in age, the amount of attackers, how badly he was beaten, and for going to Bridgeport to get air in his tires. He’s so young, not even knowing what he was doing.

And then for me, it was so close to home. Bridgeport is not really that far from Hyde Park. It was the perfect storm of terrible circumstances.

Q: What has been the feedback so far?

A: Praise for this podcast has been overwhelmingly positive, kind of surreal. I knew we were telling an important story, but I didn’t know how it would be received. I have to attribute so much of that to the team of The Invisible Institute and the audio team there because I haven’t done this before. It’s my story and my voice, but I had an awesome team of journalists and researchers and writers helping me.

Q: How was it walking that line of investigation and memoir? How did you decide what to include from your life versus what to keep out?

A: Every journalist is biased. That unbiased objectivity, that’s mythical. … As a Black man, there’s no way I can move unbiased when I realize there’s so much of the news stories that we make and are a part of that is a result of white supremacy. There’s no way I can talk about white supremacy and remove myself from being a Black man and a victim of it that I am. At that point, the highest level of objectivity I can work with is to be honest and fair about the complexities and the nuances of the characters. While I’m biased, as everyone is, I think that what we were was fair. I think you can be biased and fair.

Q: Was it difficult to go out there and interview the main players in the case?

A: I wound up getting a meeting with Lenard but my initial meeting with him … out of respect for him, I just wanted to meet him first. So my first meeting with him was unrecorded, just to let him know who I was and what I was doing. He was gracious, he sat down with me. I really appreciated him and learned a good bit about him.

But then once I let him know that I was trying to do a story on him, he got hesitant. It was clear he wasn’t really interested in that. He already was kind of media shy. He didn’t trust the media, and most people don’t. I stopped trusting the media after I worked on the case back then. I understood that fully. So it became really hard to do what I had to do to retell the story.

People are shy because they know that they’ve seen people who look like themselves get treated by the media in a certain way and painted in a certain light. So they’re not trying to be victims of those biases from largely white journalists. … He saw a lot of people who looked like him and a lot of people who had credibility and good references that wound up selling him out.

In terms of other people’s reluctance … there were very few people who were reluctant to talk, surprisingly. There were only a few people — the attacker himself didn’t want to talk. I think that’s kind of obvious why. He hadn’t been as apologetic or remorseful as his family has claimed he is. I found him in our quick interaction to still be an arrogant guy.

Another individual who refused to speak was one of the Black men who sided with the Carusos back then, who just didn’t want to revisit this and, honestly, I kind of understand it. If you’re on that side of the story around this case, the only reason you want to talk is if you’re ready to apologize. And if you’re not ready to apologize and be held accountable, then yeah, you don’t want to talk.

Q: Were there any surprises in the research that you didn’t notice when you were in the thick of it in 1997?

A: So when we were trying to figure out the relationship between these Black so-called spiritual leaders and the families of these attackers, what I discovered was the kind of incestuous relationship behind Black gangs of the past and the Italian mafia. You study so much of these cases and these stories and find out so much about how we got here.

It was also interesting to discover there is, to this day, a real relationship between Lenard Clark and the family of his attackers, that he actually does find real value in. I think that’s noteworthy. And I say that with caution because it’s not indicative of the racial reconciliation that took over the narrative. It isn’t anything we’ve ever seen anywhere else.

It’s like George Zimmerman having a positive relationship with the family of Trayvon Martin — you don’t see that. One of the largest things that I took away from this deep dive into the Lenard Clark case and my own understanding of these things is there is hope for progress. I don’t have much hope for true reconciliation.

The other thing that I think is really important about this podcast is that we controlled the narrative. It’s so important for us to do that right now.

I’m watching what’s going on — the banning of books and this attack on critical race theory, which is just American and Black American history. And this attempt to remove talk and education around the Black experience, and white supremacy from textbooks in schools … if you don’t have any understanding of it, you don’t understand context and how we got here.

I think that’s the most important part here to take away, is that if we don’t control our narrative and fight back like hell to preserve history in our lens and our voices then we are going down a serious frightening time.