With Zack Stoner's killing, Chicago loses vital voice covering overlooked community

By Charles Preston/CPJ Guest Blogger on July 10, 2018 11:11 AM ET

Zack Stoner, left, pictured with two members of Good Brothers, a community group he was part of. Stoner was shot dead in Chicago in May. (Charles Preston)

I weighed the possibility of being killed for writing this. Seriously. I know that shedding light on or speaking about particular persons and issues can increase the likelihood of being murdered, especially in Chicago. To some this may seem like hyperbole or another introduction to a hit-piece on the city's violence, exaggerating statistics and depicting young black men solely as irredeemable brutish bucks; no, this isn't that. However, I feel compelled to "Keep it 100," sharing my truth to make more people aware of the complexities that stunted a young man's growth and to prevent the unnecessary loss of another life.

This is for an independent journalist named Zachary Stoner, better known as ZackTV1. I send my condolences to his loved ones.

Why the fear in writing this? Because I'm a journalist choosing to publicly speak on Chicago street business that I have no ties to. You don't speak on street business if you're not of it, or in it. As a knucklehead youth growing up in the Roseland neighborhood (Zack was from there too), I learned not to tattle or snitch. This is sacred tacit code that is religiously followed to prevent our friends, babies, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and cousins from being imprisoned and separated from us. The street handles its own. Historically, the justice system has killed, incarcerated, and unjustly served black people at an abominable and disproportionate rate. If it can't be abolished and replaced with a system that honors our humanity, our own operations of accountability and justice--no matter how flawed--will continue to exist for those never considered in this country's conception of liberty and freedom.

I believe I'm flirting with death when I flirt with that code, and my fears are inflated by being a visible journalist who still resides in the hood. It's real out here.

Chicago is Chiraq to some. Many argue about the origin of the nickname and even more dislike it, but they can't deny its validity. Being that Iraq was under U.S. Occupation and a volatile war zone, the nickname Chiraq suits the reality of the neglected poor black people who know that death resides only blocks away. Drill rappers owned the term and made it infamous through violent and sometimes heartfelt verses over thumping bass and eerie piano loops. Zack reported live on-the-ground in Chiraq and maneuvered accordingly, having a keen knowledge of gang territories and knowing the appropriate time to interview people. He was a master of his craft and birthed this nuanced style of YouTube street journalism.

But this was Zach's daily work, covering the narratives of the most marginalized and criminalized in the city. Known as '"The Hood CNN," Zack primarily interviewed gang members (including known shooters) and unsigned local talent--the people ignored by the majority of Chicago's politicians and people. Zack never conducted an interview unarmed. It wouldn't be smart when interviewing men and boys marked for death by other men and boys who live several blocks away. He did this for six years, only counting on himself for protection.

He became a beloved figure because of it. He was integral to the "drill music" movement by being the first to interview rappers Chief Keef, RondoNumbaNine, L'A Capone, and many forefathers of the genre. He garnered community support through extending his YouTube platform to unrecognized musical talent and charitable activists. For six years, many people grew to love and respect the towering, wide-smiling man with the camera, and accepted him as a cultural icon within the underground black community of Chicago.

Zack's charismatic and comedic nature made his interviews entertaining, and sometimes uncomfortable. At times, you'd ask yourself if he was trying to patronize his interviewee, inform the viewers, or actually engage in a serious meeting of the minds. You can tell the level of respect he had for his interviewee by his questions. I believe he wanted to relate to and entertain his audience while exposing uncomfortable truths that many ignore. For example, when he interviewed Chicago rapper Kidd Kenn, Zack asked him the sort of silly questions about his sexuality that a homophobic man would. Through his style, Zack was able to use his platform to not only break new talent, but to provide a new and marginalized perspective--a gay rapper's perspective.

With Zack's death, the city--and more importantly the hood--lost a journalist who was not only willing to report the stories of the rebellious unheard, but also to commit time in trying to resolve neighborhood conflict. Zack's activism included gun buy-back events in his beloved Roseland community, brokering a peace treaty between two rival gangs in Altgeld Gardens, mentoring youth, being a point of contact for young men contemplating homicide, providing lawyers to families, and handing out free clothes to the homeless. It is unusual for a journalist to take responsibility in providing solutions to the violence that they report on. I never knew that Chicago needed Zack until he became the pioneering figure he grew to be. Now that he is dead, I feel a part of Chicago died too.

No one knows for certain why Zack was killed, but there are whispers and theories about his death. Here is what I know. Zack was gunned down in his Jeep on the 700-block of South Clark Street around 1:30 a.m. No one is in custody.

However, various YouTubers have played private detective by conducting their own investigations and presented numerous theories on the murder, including that it may have been over his reporting on cases he was warned against covering; that it was over his affiliation with a gang faction; or it was connected to T-Streetz, the rapper Zack featured in his last Instagram story. That widely believed rumor forced T-Streetz to turn himself into the police to clear his name. Five days later--the same day as Zack's funeral--T-Streetz was killed.

I don't know what could have been avoided, but I do recognize that Zack lived his life like a trapeze artist, balancing his street affiliations, making money, and trying to stop Chicago's violence. He didn't fit a trope. He was formerly incarcerated and college-educated. He hustled his self-made DVDs and sponsored community giveaways. People may say he amplified violence on his channel by featuring rappers belonging to different gang sets around the city, but he also informed the world about the reality of Chicago.

Recently, a friend sent me a direct message on Twitter. She is a CPS teacher and asked me to do a story on the kids in Parkway Gardens, also known as O-Block, and their affinity for violent media. It's the neighborhood that drill music forefather Chief Keef made known to the world through his chart-topping hits. My response was, "You want me to get shot, huh?" She immediately understood, and I don't believe she seriously wanted me to do it. She was just frustrated that no one seems to give a damn or expose the true stories coming from that community.

She didn't need me. She needed Zack.


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