Without doubt, the Tyler Clementi story is a tragic one. The Rutgers
University student committed suicide last year, plunging to his death from the
George Washington Bridge. It was just days after his roommate allegedly
displayed live video on the internet of Clementi romantically engaged with
another male student.
The high-tech outing was a humiliating experience, but have prosecutors made the
situation worse with the possible misuse of New Jersey’s hate crime enhancement?
Last week, after months of speculation, a New Jersey grand jury finally indicted
Clementi’s roommate Dharun Ravi, 19, and turned what was at first a matter of
invasion of privacy into a homophobic hate crime.
The initial charges might have ended up with probation for Ravi. Now the
enhancement raises the stakes and Ravi faces the possibility of 5 to 10 years of
prison time, if convicted.
The thought of Ravi getting probation for what happened to Clementi may seem
reprehensible to some. In fact, the emotional public outcry calling for the use
of New Jersey’s hate crime statute was loud and clear. But weren’t people
reacting to the suicide more than the privacy breach?
Clementi’s attorney acknowledges that there’s no linking of the webcam incident
to the suicide.
But by applying the enhancement, the grand jury seems to have done just that
while taking advantage of Ravi as the best available scapegoat for a Rutgers
community that failed Clementi.
It’s obvious Ravi didn’t push Clementi off the bridge or tell him to commit
suicide. But where was Clementi’s support from others at the school, his
family, his friends within the music community? Why couldn’t Clementi turn to
them in a crisis? Is it because they were the ones that sent him into the closet
in the first place?
Meanwhile, what Ravi did can’t be described as purely homophobic. It was stupid,
venal, and immature. Does that get you 5-10 years?
As an ethnic, but not sexual, minority, Ravi probably had more in common with
Clementi than most people think. In fact, I’d characterize Ravi not as a hater,
but as a lover of tech and all things digital. Homophobe? I see Ravi as a
technophile, a gadget-loving geek. And when he was able to figure out how
to be a digital Peeping Tom, in his mind that must have been way too cool.
I wonder if Clementi were straight, would Ravi carry on any differently?
I’m not sure.
But I can imagine that once Ravi found someone, anyone, making out in front of
his webcam, it didn’t matter what the orientation of the person. Ravi’s gear
worked. The camera was on capturing the action. His was the moral
sensibility of the tech geek. Get it on-the web. It’s the act of an
immature, stupid kid.
And yet the prosecutors believe the high tech invasion of privacy was intended
to intimidate Clementi solely because of his sexual orientation.
If I were a jury member, for a hate crime enhancement to stick, the prosecutors
would have to prove that Ravi was as rabidly anti-gay as the KKK is
anti-black. A true homophobe wouldn’t have been Clementi’s roommate in the
first place. That alone says there’s not the level of acrimony present for a
true hate crime. Ravi and Clementi may not have been bosom buddies, but to
be roommates at any level takes some degree of tolerance. Even an ounce of
tolerance is more than what’s in the psychological makeup of a truly violent
hate crime perp.
Think of the skin-heads, the hood-heads, and everyone in between. Would a Grand
Wizard of the KKK share a sock drawer with a black man?
Was what Ravi did on the order of what happened to James Byrd, the black man who
was dragged from the back of a vehicle in Texas?
If Ravi were a true homophobe he wouldn’t have stopped with just the web cam
He would have taken Clementi and thrown him off the bridge–that night.
That’s a hate crime.
In my experience covering stories of Asian American hate crimes, there have
always been frustrating technicalities that appeared to favor the accused.
Now I see why.
When you enhance the penalties, you raise the bar in every way, making hate
crimes necessarily hard to prove. You want to get it right. And you don’t want
to let emotion get in the way.
In the Clementi case, the most homophobic thing from Ravi is a Twitter message:
“Roommate asked for room till midnight. I went into Molly’s room and turned on
my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
An expression of homophobia? Or just the enthusiasm of an immature college kid
with no respect for an individual’s privacy?
Scapegoating Ravi is too easy. Days passed before Clementi committed
suicide. There was enough time for the Rutgers community to intervene, if only
Clementi considered anyone at Rutgers a true resource.
Now Clementi’s gone and the prosecutors appear ready to target Ravi. Ravi’s
accomplice hasn’t been charged so she can testify against him. Meanwhile, Ravi’s
dropped out of Rutgers, is free on $25,000 bail, and now faces real prison time
for his act of stupidity. Applying New Jersey’s hate crime statute may have
placated the public’s outcry, but it only makes a tragic case even more so.