Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Brooklyn Folk Festival!

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Hannah Davies, my 4th cousin once removed.  (Doesn't everyone know their 4th cousin once removed?)  In her position as Policy Advisor at the U.N. Mission in Liberia, Hannah had an assignment that required her to work in New York City until mid-July.  While she didn't provide any details regarding this "assignment", Hannah suggested that Marilynn and I meet with her somewhere soon for some live music. 

Taken at face value, Hannah's request seemed very innocuous.  However, the last time the three of us got together for live music was on the evening of May 1, 2011, to see The Smoking Popes at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn.  If that date rings a bell it's because that was the night that Osama Bin Laden was killed during a firefight with the Navy Seals.  I wondered, could Hannah be hoping for a reprise of that night, this time involving someone like Bashar al-Assad of Syria?  A few days later, Hannah wrote back suggesting that we go to a Folk Festival.  When?  May 20th!  Where?  Brooklyn!!  Despite severe misgivings that I was being drawn into international intrigue, I agreed to go.

On the day of the event, Marilynn and I drove from Cranbury to Brooklyn to meet up with Hannah at high noon.  As we approached our rendezvous, the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall, Hannah was nowhere in sight.  We assumed that she hadn't yet arrived until we saw her standing under an overhang, deep in the shadows.  When I questioned her somewhat covert behavior, she made a comment about trying to avoid the sun — a plausible explanation since people from England are rarely exposed to it — but my misgivings intensified.  What was going on here??

We spent the next half hour wandering the streets of Brooklyn without seeing any evidence whatsoever of a Folk Festival.  We finally stopped for lunch at an outdoor cafe in MetroTech Center and asked a few people for directions.  No one had even heard of this festival!

After lunch, Hannah suggested one more stroll down Jay Street in search of the Festival, but by then I had had enough.  I was just to about to confront her and expose her clumsy attempt at orchestrating international affairs when ... there it was!  The Brooklyn Folk Festival!  As shown in the photo at the top of this post, it was not an outdoor Hoboken-style street fair with roads blocked off and live performances at a variety of venues.  Quite the opposite:  the entire Festival took place inside, behind the doors of a warehouse cleverly labeled "Sid's Hardware"!  

Clearly, I had let my imagination run wild.  And, although initially dismayed that the Festival was entirely indoors, a Brooklyn Brewery draft beer quickly remedied my mood.  The three of us then spent the next four hours enjoying a variety of folk performances. Some of the highlights:

Brett Ratliff
  • Kentucky Banjo Styles Workshop led by Brett Ratliff.  I've never been able to play a musical instrument worth a damn, but it was very interesting watching Brett play the banjo and even more interesting watching him teach his technique to a bunch of people who came to the festival with their banjos.  An audio of one of the riffs that he taught the group can be heard here.  Keep in mind that when Brett played the riff it was much faster! 
Marilynn and I dancing a square
  • Square Dancing! At about 4pm, a large space just inside the lobby was cleared away to create a dance floor.  A few of the days' performers then came forward to form a bluegrass band.  A caller than appeared and invited the audience to square dance.  Marilynn, of course, joined in immediately.  Hannah and I had just gotten a beer, so we hung back.  After the first break, though, I had to join in.  Everyone was having too much fun!  At some point in time, Hannah snapped the photo on the right, documenting the event and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that she needed a new smart phone.
Wretched Refuse String Band
  • Wretched Refuse String Band:  Any band with a name like this deserves to be listened to at least once.  This band, though, deserves to be listened to again and again!  They are billed as "New York City’s oldest, largest, and most eclectic local bluegrass and old-time string band" and have been performing for more than 35 years.  Excellent musicianship and very entertaining.  Even better, it was clear that they enjoyed playing as much as the crowd enjoyed listening!  A small taste of what it was like can be found in this video clip.
Brotherhood of the Jug Band
  • Brotherhood of the Jug Band:  Yep, the guy with the black hat on the far left in this photo is playing a jug.  I might be wrong, but I think this is purely an American invention.  I've always loved jug bands and this ensemble was no exception.  They played a variety of instruments (jug, harmonica, banjo, mandolin, guitar, drums, percussion) and at least four of them took turns singing.  Excellent stuff.  Here's a 30-second clip that captures their performing style.  Too bad it isn't longer. 

All in all, it was another great afternoon/evening of music in Brooklyn with Hannah — even if there wasn't any international intrigue involved!   (I still scanned the New York Times the next morning, though, just to be sure ...)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Few Thoughts About the Dharun Ravi Case

I've been following the events surrounding the suicide of Tyler Clementi since the story broke back in September of 2010.  It's a story that has received worldwide attention but, if you're unfamiliar with it, take a few moments to read this account.  

Tyler Clementi's decision to end his life was indeed a tragic event but, unfortunately, it was not a rare one.  According to statistics compiled by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the third leading cause of death for kids between the ages of 10-24, accounting for over 4,400 deaths a year.  Another 149,000 kids in that age group receive medical care each year for self-inflicted wounds.  Having experienced the teenage years as a kid and as a parent, I'm aware that they are difficult, but it was startling to learn that suicide is such a high cause of adolescent death.

It's virtually impossible to read about Tyler Clementi without feeling sympathy and grief, both for him and for the entire Clementi family.  As the case unfolded, though, I found my sympathies unexpectedly extending to Dharun Ravi as well.  Although  his actions indicated a high level of insensitivity and questionable morals, I was amazed to see him become a nationwide symbol of bullying.

THIS is a bully!
According to (a government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) bullying is the "aggressive" and "repetitive" use of power to "control or harm others".  OK.  I'll buy that.  It totally agrees with my personal definition which is "John Sitterly", a kid who lived on Holmes Street and chased me and my friends whenever he saw us walking home from school.  Think Scott Farkus from "A Christmas Story" and you won't be too far off.  Almost everyone reading this blog was either bullied as a kid or knows a kid who was bullied, mentally or physically.  It's not hard to spot. 

But do Dharun Ravi's actions against his roommate fit the definition of bullying?  Were they aggressive?  Were they repetitive?  Was it Ravi's goal to either control or harm Tyler Clementi?  Or was it simply a 20 year old kid playing an incredibly insensitive and invasive prank, one that violated basic human decency and his roommate's right to privacy?  Prior to the initial webcam spying incident, there's no indication of any aggressive or repetitive behavior by Ravi against Clementi.  Following that incident, Clementi easily prevented a second spying incident by turning off Ravi's computer.  Clementi also felt sufficiently empowered to lodge a formal complaint, asking for an immediate roommate swap and punishment for Ravi.  Keep in mind, all of this happened in the span of two days!  To me, this doesn't sound like bullying.  It sounds like one kid doing something extremely stupid, being caught doing it, and being faced with certain expulsion from college as a result.  Dharun Ravi is hardly a saint, but if you want to see true poster-boys for bullying, check out this story.  Or this one.  

THIS is a hate crime!
As amazed as I was about Dharun Ravi becoming the nationwide face of bullying, I was absolutely dumbfounded when he was charged with a "hate crime".  The FBI describes a hate (or bias) crime as follows:
"a criminal offense committed against a person, property or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin."
Yes, Tyler Clementi was gay.  But there is no evidence whatsoever that Ravi's actions were motivated by a pathological bias against gays.  It would be just as valid to suggest that Ravi was biased against Italians because the name "Clementi" sounded Italian!

Since there was no body of evidence to support a "hate crime" conviction, I was absolutely convinced that a jury of his peers would acquit Ravi of that particular charge.  I was wrong.  As it turns out, under NJ law, the jury had to convict Ravi of a hate crime if they believed that:
  1. A crime was committed
  2. Clementi had been "intimidated" as a result of the crime
  3. Clementi reasonably believed that he was targeted because he was gay.  
It did not matter if Ravi's entire life's history showed no bias against gays.  As long as the jury concluded that Clementi believed Ravi was biased, that was sufficient to convict Ravi of a hate crime.  Clearly, the NJ anti-bias legislation needs to be updated or, better yet, eliminated.  I'm confident that there are already enough laws on the books to cover crimes against humanity.

There's one final bizarre twist to this story.  Technically, NJ doesn't have a law against "hate crimes".  Our statute is officially known as an "anti bias" law, although this distinction is lost on almost everyone, including most legal scholars.  However, the judge overseeing this case, Judge Berman, seized upon this nuance to  proclaim:
"This individual was not convicted of a hate crime. He was convicted of a bias crime and there's a difference. I do not believe he hated Tyler Clementi. He had no reason to. But I do believe that he acted out of colossal insensitivity."  
This gave Judge Berman the opportunity to sentence Ravi to only 30 days in the county jail rather than the 10 years expected for a true "hate crime".  The end result was predictable:  no one was happy.  

  • Bruce Kaplan, the prosecutor, will appeal the sentence because it does not reflect the seriousness of the conviction.
  • Steven Altman, Ravi's lawyer, will appeal the conviction itself, stating that the jury was wrong in convicting Ravi on the more serious counts.
  • And Steven Goldstein, chairman of the Garden State Equality group concluded: "Dharun Ravi today got one third the jail time that some shoplifters in our state get.  Stunning."

This one is far from over .