Tuesday, February 27, 2007

When So Called Good People Do Bad Things

This Texas Monthly article titled The Beating Of Billy Ray Johnson by Pamela Colloff, about an assault and the appalling response to that assault, reminds me of so many people who can appear good and upstanding on the surface while their actions and their attitudes prove them to be far less good than they appear.

Wes [Owens] drove less than a mile up the road to his father’s property and turned into a wide, grassy pasture where pickups were parked in a circle around a bonfire. According to court documents and police records, it was after midnight when they arrived, and about a dozen people were sitting on their tailgates drinking beer. When they looked to see who Wes had brought from town, they burst out laughing. One girl overheard twenty-year-old Colt Amox snicker, “Wes has a crazy n[-word] with him.”

Wes would later say that he had never intended for Billy Ray to become the night’s entertainment, but from the moment they arrived, the joke was on Billy Ray. [...] Someone suggested that he reach into the fire and pull out one of the burning logs, and as Billy Ray bent down to comply, Wes stopped him. “Don’t be stupid,” he said.
In this case it wasn't Billy Ray who was the most underdeveloped, it was those who turned him into an object of entertainment which opened the door to turning him into a disposable object. This attitude isn't limited to any one race or gender because this attitude isn't genetic. People choose to be like this and they can either be supported or shunned for this choice.

It's important to note that this demeaning behavior wasn't even close to being accepted by everyone present and one woman spoke against the behavior directly, telling Wes, "It's not right." It's impossible to know if any of those who left because they didn't like what was happening considered that they were leaving a man in a physically dangerous situation with those who thought what was happening was right.

I have no tolerance for people who feel entitled to use other people with no care for the harm they create. So often when people like this get charged with a crime, everything they do becomes a mistake or a misunderstanding or the fault of the victim. If personal responsibility is mentioned at all, it's the victim who failed.

In cases like this where "good" people are accused of crimes against less than "good" people you can really learn a lot about people's real character (vs. the character they say they have) when they share their insights on the case or when they reveal who they have the most sympathy for or when they say who shouldn't have taken an action or who most deserves the benefit of the doubt.

To combat the attitude which minimizes crime that attitude needs to be countered by other "good" people. If those who don't approve remain silent that silence will be taken as support.

People who disagree with mistreatment need to think about strategies to keep themselves safe while they focus on how to keep the target of mistreatment safe. One strategy is to turn mob mentality on it's head.

Just as people will commit acts of violence as part of a group that they wouldn't commit alone, people can learn to commit acts of intervention as part of a group without the violence. This takes as much forethought as others give on how to get away with disregarding human decency.

Opposing violence isn't limited to in-person actions. Just as some violent groups use the Internet to find like-minded people, those who oppose violence can do the same. We can also speak up loud and clear that not tolerating violence doesn't mean we are ignoring the basic human and civil and constitutional rights of those accused of crimes.
When I visited Linden last fall, few white people would agree to speak to me about the case. Those who did were wary of being quoted, and few of them showed much sympathy for Billy Ray. Anger still ran deep, and not at the defendants; it was Billy Ray, somehow, who had brought this upon Linden. [...] Billy Ray was not even mentally disabled, I was informed by the executive director of Linden’s Economic Development Organization, Russell Wright. “He cooked his brain on drugs,” he explained. To see things any other way was to see Linden in a very ugly light.
This reaction dehumanizes the victim in an attempt to normalize those accused and minimize the severity of the crime, but dehumanization facilitates horrific crimes by turning them into victimless crimes. So denial does more than impact one specific case, it feeds the rationalizations of future criminals.

This exchange at the end of the article say it all:

“What do you think about what happened?”

Billy Ray furrowed his brow, and Lue and I had to lean forward to hear what he said next. “Wasn’t right,” he said, shaking his head. “Wasn’t right.”

If we truly and absolutely want to prevent crimes we must respond with this level of clarity. To respond to crime by saying, "Of course it wasn't right, but ..." is to nullify our opposition to that crime.
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posted by Marcella Chester @ 9:10 AM   1 comments links to this post


At February 27, 2007 9:27 PM, Anonymous Victoria Marinelli said...

Awesome post. Anything that calls attention to the menacing problem of "groupthink" (particularly as it relates to sexual violence) is much appreciated by me.

I'll refer back to this later, when I get around to a long-deferred piece I've been working on addressing the groupthink/ mob mentality problem as it relates to violence against women and youth in prostitution.

Thanks for your work here.


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