Thursday, September 30, 2010

GONE TOO SOON: Justice for Two Bullied Boys

When Houston resident David Truong arrived home on Thursday evening, he saw his stepson, Asher Brown (right), curled up on the floor. Truong thought Asher was listening to music or reading. If only. Asher was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Once the back story was revealed, one could safely say that Asher Brown was bullied to death.

Asher, 13, had told his parents that very morning that he was gay. Smaller than other children, described by his step dad as a bit “clumsy,” Asher was also a follower of Buddhism. According to news reports, one of the boys who continually taunted him had tripped him and caused him to fall down a flight of stairs at school – twice. Reportedly, this followed 18 months of continual bullying by a group of boys who called him derogatory names associated with homosexuality, and who made fun of him because of his Buddhism. The parents’ appeal for help from the school administrators fell on deaf ears.

Upon reflection, one could say Asher was rather evolved for a barely pubescent boy. To have come to terms with his sexuality, to have made steps to understand a rather complex philosophy, and to endure the constant wrath of his peers suggests that Asher was a person of real substance. But every person has a breaking point. Here is what Asher’s mother and stepfather had to say about him:

The same day that Asher’s suicide was reported, there was another suicide in the news. This time it was a male Rutgers University freshman and violin prodigy, Tyler Clementi. Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi and another freshman, Molly Wei, both 18, conspired to plant a webcam in Clementi’s room and broadcast a live image over the Internet of Clementi having sex with another male student. When Clementi (right) found out, according to two witnesses, he jumped to his death from the George Washington bridge.

Many of you who are reading this were bullied when you were children. I was. I was an asthmatic kid who couldn’t do much running with the other kids, and I was the only Jew as far as the eye could see in my middle-American, middle-class, mid-20th century neighborhood. I was different. It seems in our culture we can sum it up like this: Different, bad; Conformist, good. If you were bullied as I was, you were probably fat, or foreign, or gay, or learning disabled, or quirky, or physically weak, or naturally artistic, or poor, or physically disabled, or … well, fill in the blank. You were different. Tyler Clementi was reportedly an introverted, gay violinist. A prototype for bullying, you might say. Watch:

We could chalk the whole bullying sub-culture up to youth, ignorance and peer pressure, I suppose. But how, then, do we explain the husband who continually bullies his wife, even to the point of physically abusing her? And how do we explain bullying within the corporate system? I worked in the corporate system for what seems like 100 years, and I witnessed repeated instances of bullying in board rooms, in office settings and in the presence of clients and co-workers. I witnessed male corporate bullies verbally abusing female subordinates, seemingly so that they could maintain the status quo of the corporate boys club. I witnessed female corporate bullies verbally emasculating male subordinates in the name of 1970s feminism and progress. Bullying is really about power. And the power that it represents is really about ego. It seems there is an ego-centric need among some humans to belittle other humans.

Bottom line: I believe Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei (below, right) should be charged with first degree murder, which of course, implies full intent to kill. If they did not intend to physically kill Clementi, they surely intended to murder his spirit. So far they have only been charged with crimes related to privacy, which carry maximum prison sentences of three to five years. There is legal precedent to at least charge them with civil rights violations. What is clear is that Clementi, whose body has not been found, died because of Ravi and Wei.

I believe the boys who taunted Asher Brown should be expelled from school, turned over the juvenile authorities and tried in court as adults – for murder. The boy who tripped Asher and caused him to fall down a flight of stairs twice had intent to cause bodily harm. The fact that Asher did not die until later, by his own hand, does not change my mind. I believe bullies murdered Asher Brown. School administrators, who now claim they never received complaints of bullying from the parents, are clearly lying. I believe they should be tried in court, as accessories to Asher’s murder. It is now about accountability.

Had he lived, Asher, a Buddhist, may have brought peace in the world. Clementi, a skilled musician, may have brought melodic art into the world. Ravi, Wei and Asher’s tormentors brought nothing into the world except pain and death. In our society, when one brings about pain and death, they are tried by a jury of their peers and punished. Am I missing something here, or are these individuals not criminally responsible for the deaths of two young people? And since they are, I want justice.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


If you had never heard of Ines Sainz, or TV Azteca before this week, you most likely have by now. For the past decade, Sainz has been a reporter for Azteca, the second largest Mexican television network. And even though this week was full of events like the last primaries before the November election and fiery anti-American demonstrations in Afghanistan, Ines Sainz emerged as the chief headline-maker. It seems Sainz entered the New York Jets locker room, with full permission to interview Mark Sanchez. Apparently the Jets started catcalling and making offensive comments toward Sainz and before you know it, big headlines coast to coast.

Remarkably, the big controversy here does not seem to be whether it was okay or not for the players to do what they did. The controversy has more to do with Sainz’s tight clothing. The good old American boys club has risen up en masse to blame Sainz for what happened. And the most boisterous part of the American population has also risen up in defense of the players. Sainz, they say, has jeans that are too tight, a chest that is too big and a gender that is unwelcome in the locker room of a professional sports team. Reportedly, when another reporter in the locker room asked Sainz if she was okay, Jets lineman Kris Jenkins (above, left) piped up with, “This is our locker room.”

None other than Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show the next day, “The locker room is a refuge for the players. What was she doing in there anyway?” He then referred to Sainz as “bootylicious.” Associated Content, from Yahoo put forth this headline: “Ines Sainz Says 'No' to Provocative Dressing as Her Breast Pours Out of Her Shirt.” During a FOX interview later that day, while Sainz was explaining to the anchorman what happened, FOX put up a photo of Sainz in a form fitting short dress and pulled in a tight closeup. Then they showed a photo of Sainz in the jeans she was wearing the day of the incident, at which time the anchor said, “There are the jeans you were wearing. Could they get any tighter?”

It gets worse. Clinton Portis (right) of the Washington Redskins chimed in with these comments: "And I mean, you put a woman and you give her a choice of 53 athletes, somebody got to be appealing to her," he said. "Somebody got to spark her interest, or she's gonna want somebody. I don't know what kind of woman won't, if you get to go and look at 53 men's packages." Portis had nothing to say about the Jets behavior. Evidently he believes any woman in sexy clothing is fair game for caveman humor. Later he apologized for his comments, clearly having been called on the carpet by the higher ups.

There’s more: Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (left) got all a-Twitter about the incident. He tweeted this: “All I can do is LOL at the jets Female Reporter! She walks into a locker room full of men and think some one not gonna say nothing LMFAO. I don't know what was said to her or whatever but u just have to know u going into a TEAM LOCKEROOM, and if its that serious WOMEN STAY OUT!" Dockett was accommodating enough to include a photo of Sainz, with this comment: "Now why would u wear this!!! IM DONE!!"

Predictably, Dockett apologized later, after the inevitable slap on the wrists by the big boys in Arizona.

The day this all happened, I was driving home with WRNO 99.5 FM playing on my radio, listening to media throwback/talk show host John Osterlind, during the coveted evening drive time hours. Osterlind devoted a significant part of his show to the Sainz incident, clearly put out that anyone in America could be the least bit upset about how she was treated in the locker room. I called in and told Osterlind that he sounded just like a guy who blames a woman for getting raped because she had on a tight skirt. I also told him that it’s not 1965, and the culture has shifted. I told him if the same thing happened in a corporate setting, the offending catcallers would be called into Human Resources and perhaps their jobs would be on the line. Osterlind’s response: “Paul, you got me all wrong. I’m a feminist. I love women.” Oy. Then he thanked me for the call and disconnected me. Ah, the power of radio.

Later, Osterlind put forth his theory that Sainz got what she wanted out of the whole ordeal. After all, he posited, the next morning she was interviewed on the Today show by Meredith Vieira and on every other major network. Osterlind’s contention is that Sainz wanted the publicity. He also repeatedly referred to Sainz as a “so-called reporter.”

It is clear that Osterlind is in the majority as it relates to the reaction to Ines Sainz. No one has taken the time to mention that Ines Sainz has a law degree from the Universidad de la Valle in Mexico, and a master’s degree in tax law. I’m thinking that before the entire U.S. population writes the woman off as a flake, we might want to step back from her breasts and recognize her credentials and the fact that she has reported for Aztec TV for almost a decade.

Let the masses fight it out about Ines Sainz. I’m more focused right now on the Jets players. We are here in post-feminist America, in 2010 having this same old conversation we used to have ad infinitum in the 1970s. The same day the Sainz incident happened all of the predictable women’s groups came forward with the buzzword, “harassment,” and men coast to coast came forward with “shut up.” We start to think maybe we have taken a step forward and then a bunch of 20-somethings with too much testosterone pumping through their bodies and more money than any kid would ever know how to handle, show us the step forward we thought we had taken was a façade. Same old, same old.

Why did someone in the Jets organization not go down to that locker room and spit out the word “respect” to these guys and start to lift the bar on this kind of throwback behavior? Are we going to perpetuate the “boys will be boys” b.s. for yet another generation at the expense of everybody else? Here is what we get for allowing this frat boy mentality to go on: Just this week, Floyd Mayweather was arrested on domestic abuse charges in Vegas for allegedly punching the mother of his child in the head. Oh, and let’s not leave out NFL legend and CBS sports analyst Shannon Sharpe, who was arrested this week for allegedly forcing a woman to have sex with him and threatening her life. Gainesville, FL police reported this week that Florida State player Chris Rainey was arrested for sending his on-again, off-again girlfriend a text message that said simply, “Time to die, bitch.” And let’s not forget Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger,(left) currently serving a four-game suspension for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman in a bar. And while we’re at it, how about former NFLer Mark Fields who beat up the mother of his child, outside of a day care center while the child was present?

The list goes on. Athletes are still being given a major pass on behavior that other citizens know will end their careers, their marriages and their big, fat paychecks. Every time we let a bunch of NFL players do their male bonding thing by humiliating a woman, we validate their free pass to buck societal norms, to empower themselves to chuck gentlemanliness for savagery and to simply further their misguided sense of entitlement. Two words for these guys: Grow Up.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

And Then Five Years Passed

If you live long enough, you come to find out that the phrase, “This too shall pass” is more prophecy than cliché. My final exam in “this too shall pass” was Hurricane Katrina, which blew in just over five years ago. What has passed since then is the initial widespread panic, some of the anger at the U.S. Government’s inept non-response, and the confusion about what to do next. However, what remains is a distinct memory of all of the above that will guide many of us New Orleanians for the rest of our lives. We feared the total loss of our city, and if you have been to New Orleans, you already know a greater loss there really could never be. New Orleans is all about its natural magic, and if we had lost that to a hurricane, nothing would ever have been the same.

Five years later, we are ourselves again, but with one important addition. Katrina never really leaves us. Here is how it shows itself. Two New Orleanians will be talking to each other about something they did in the past. One of them will inevitably say, “Was that before the storm or after?” And in some cases, they’ll just say “before or after.” New Orleanians now measure everything in their lives according to before Katrina happened or since it happened. Further, it is common to talk about flooding now. Before Katrina, flooding wasn’t really a topic, ever. Just last night I was telling somebody that I would someday like to move to Bayou St. John [a New Orleans Mid-City neighborhood].My friend’s immediate response was , “It floods over there.”

I believe we are going to define the first decade of the 21st century by the mighty triumvirate of 9/11, Katrina and the BP oil spill. And we’re still working to get over all three incidents. We Americans are quite divided right now on the issue of whether a Muslim Mosque should be established on the grounds of 9/11. As for the oil spill, although it has stepped back from the headlines, it is still very much an issue in S.E. Louisiana. BP appears to be making efforts to bow out of the aftermath of this tragedy by unreasonably delaying payments to thousands of people who filed legitimate claims for loss of income or property. And Katrina? Well, as predicted, national media descended upon us in late August to “commemorate.”

They focused on the French Quarter, downtown and uptown. They showed lots of freshly painted houses, blooming gardens, a tree-lined St. Charles Ave with its resurrected streetcar line. They saw tourists and lively hotel lobbies and old New Orleans with a bit of a facelift. But if only they would drive a few miles outside of safe zone and take a look at parts of St. Bernard and parts of Eastern New Orleans. There they would see communities that are merely a shadow of their pre-storm condition. Vacant houses, houses without roofs, vacant lots with just parts of the foundation of a house left and more. They’ll see potholes verging on sink holes; they’ll see overgrown fields that used to be residential blocks. They will see Katrina, five years later, up close and personal, and it is a site that leaves newcomers stunned.

And now with part of the city amputated from the rest of New Orleans, the next phase begins. Just days before the five year mark, the blame game started. Cops are coming forward to say that after Katrina, they were under orders to shoot looters. Do what you have to do, they allegedly were told – “if you can sleep with it.” And guess who supposedly said that: New Orleans’ shady former police chief, Warren J. Riley,(left) who at the time was second in command. We are being told that there was a meeting of some sort inside the Harrah’s Casino building, and that’s where the directive was given. If true, essentially the top cop was telling his subordinates that a stolen laptop and a human life are of equal value, so go on – shoot them. If true, it is a lesson in inhumanity that we learned from Katrina. Riley’s response: "I didn't say anything like that. I heard rumors that someone else said that. But I certainly didn't say that, no.”

Somebody’s lying, but who? And while that battle rages in the city, elsewhere who else but Brownie himself is speaking up. You remember Michael Brown, (below, right, with Chertoff) the then head of FEMA. Just days after the storm President Bush told him, “You’re doin’ a heck of a job, Brownie.” That stellar job performance Bush referred to involved Brown’s negligent management of his agency that resulted in people living in the Superdome for four days in 100 degree heat. He now claims any negligence came from people over his head, like Michael Chertoff, the homeland security chief at the time. And now, five years later, Denver radio host Michael Brown shows up on the anniversary, in New Orleans. Wait – it gets worse: He has a book coming out about his experience during Katrina. Brownie -- Brass balls or total cluelessness? You be the judge.

Katrina’s back on the front page, much to the regret of many of us who live here. August 29, 2005 was the day that every single New Orleanian learned they could not depend on law enforcement or their own government to save their lives. The explanation was that they could not get supplies in. That’s odd, I think, because two days after the storm I got in my car and drove straight out of the city onto I-10 and left the New Orleans behind. If I could get out that easily, why couldn’t they get in with food and water and medical help? Media was everywhere in New Orleans within 24 hours. How did they make their way in but the most powerful government in the world did not? We were lied to. The worst part of being lied to by your own government is simply that you can never fully trust them again. It tells us that here in the Southeastern quadrant of the U.S., we are on our own, flying without a net.

The winds and the floods stopped a long time ago, but Katrina is still happening. That’s hard to convey to those who are not here, but we who are here know it well. We know that a lot of office space in downtown New Orleans is vacant, and has been since Katrina. Companies are afraid to come here. We know that those responsible for the inept response have yet to be held accountable in a meaningful way. The top five got away with, well - murder. They are Kathleen Blanco, Michael Brown, Ray Nagin, Warren Riley, and the ultimate failure, President George W. Bush. We know that people lost their lives when they could have been saved. And most importantly, we know that the best and the worst of human nature and behavior exhibited itself on those soggy post-Katrina days, and if nothing else, the storm was a life lesson in selfishness, selflessness and compassion.