On a Thursday night in Ft. Lauderdale last January, three white, teenaged "men" decided to beat up some bums. During a four hour spree, they hospitalized three homeless men, one of whom, Norris Gaynor, a 45 year-old black man, died from his injuries. Fortunately for us, one of the non-fatal beatings was caught by a security camera and broadcast on the news, which resulted in over a hundred identifications of the three teens. The killers were William Ammons, 18, Brian Hooks, 18, and Thomas Daugherty, 17.
Unprovoked assaults of homeless people have been on the rise in recent years. The homeless are perfect bully targets. The essence of bullying is that a person exorcizes their feelings of powerlessness by exercising power over someone even more helpless than the bully. The homeless are near the bottom of the food chain for bullying. Hard or insecure times always bring an increase in bullying, whether in the form of spousal abuse, hate crimes, or plain public rudeness.
Some people, like homeless advocate Michael Stoops, blame the "Bum Fight" series of videos for inspiring a sort of copycat violence. I'll agree with him to a point. I don't think any type of media causes violence--not Goth music, not video games, and not even "Bum Fight" videos. What media can do, however, is suggest directions for the already violently inclined. With out a suggested outlet, these teenaged bullies might have taken their frustration out by pushing around nerds at the mall. The videos, and now word of mouth rumors of bum baiting, suggested a greater thrill, fully adrenalized violence with no fear of repercussion. The homeless don't go to the police and the police don't help them even when they do. In the Ft. Lauderdale killings, local advocates think these teens might have committed other assaults that went uninvestigated because they stopped short of killing someone.
I'll add another factor to videos and an insecure economy to explain why this sort of violence has been on the rise: the general atmosphere of privileged lawlessness that Republican Party has operated under for the last twelve years. The idea that wealth and power entitle one to be exempt from the rules is hardly unique to American Republican Party at this particular point in history. Everywhere and always, the ruling classes have operated under his assumption. But the behavior of the Republican Party over the last few years has been a departure from the general trend of American history, which has been toward greater equality of rights and some sense of shame over flaunting privilege.
The reversal began in the eighties, with the renewed glorification of naked greed and personal selfishness. With the Gingrich revolution, openly rigging the game and grasping power became accepted behavior. Finally, over the last five years, open criminality has been practiced by our "leaders." The Bush administration and the Republican congress didn't even feel they had to hide the fact that they were operating solely to enrich their friends and sell the government to the highest bidder. It's only a small step from unrestrained greed, a lack of consideration for the feelings or rights of others, and a "what are you going to do about it" attitude over financial crimes to literally believing one is entitled to get away with murder. Murder is the logical end result when acquiring and exercising power are seen as desirable ends in themselves.
And this brings us back to the killers of Norris Gaynor. Today the prosecutors in Ft. Lauderdale announced they would not seek the death penalty against any of three.
William Ammons and Brian Hooks, both 19, would have been eligible for the ultimate penalty, but the third defendant was only 17 at the time, so prosecutors chose not to seek the death penalty against any of them.
"As a matter of proportion, it would have been improper for the death penalty to be sought," said Brian Cavanagh, the assistant state attorney prosecuting the case.
I believe Cavanagh is saying that it wouldn't be fair to execute two of the killers while the third got away with merely rotting in jail for his part in the thrill killing. I'm an unwavering opponent of the death penalty, so I have no desire to see Thomas Daugherty executed along with his confederates. However, I have to wonder about the prosecutors' delicate concern for what's fair to a couple of white, suburban sociopaths. If the tables had been turned, if it had been a couple of black, homeless teenagers who killed a white, suburban man, with no other motive than the thrill of violence, would the prosecutor be as concerned about "proportion?"
Justice, it seems, is an entitlement that varies according to our access to power. Not that that's new.