[There was a video here]
Last year, a man named Bayna El-Amin smashed a chair over the head of another man named Jonathan Snipes at a Chelsea Dallas BBQ. Snipes, who is gay, initially portrayed the attack to DNAInfo as bias-related and unprovoked. Because El-Amin fled the scene and wasn’t arrested until over a month later, the public didn’t get to hear his side of the story. That, along with our cultural imperative to believe a victim when he speaks out, meant that Snipes’ narrative prevailed. (Snipes’s boyfriend, Ethan York-Adams, was also involved in the altercation.) It seemed an obvious example of “anti-LGBT hate violence,” in the words of City Councilman Corey Johnson, until an important detail emerged: El-Amin himself is queer.
When I found conclusive evidence of that, last year, it made the story infinitely more fascinating. If El-Amin had called Snipes a “faggot” before their brawl, as Snipes alleged, could it still be considered a hate crime, especially given the intricacies of queerspeak, in which not all “faggots” are equal (out of the mouth of a gay man, the word can be neutral, endearing, or hateful, though probably not exactly in that hetero-bias manner)?
The incident was initially investigated by NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit, but according to the Manhattan D.A.’s office, reached earlier today, El-Amin was never charged with a hate crime. Last month, El-Amin was convicted of two counts of attempted assault in the first degree, a class C felony, and two counts of assault in the second degree, a class D felony—no hate crimes. His sentencing is scheduled for next month.
The fact that this was not ever charged as a hate crime by the D.A. did not stop the Village Voice from running the following paragraph this week in a story headlined “Scarce Victimhood: The Unsurprising Case of Bayna-Lehkeim El-Amin” by the writer Grace Dunham:
A short iPhone video of the fight went viral, and El-Amin soon turned himself in. The attack was almost immediately upgraded to a hate crime. Today, convicted, El-Amin faces up to fifteen years in prison.
Except, as we’ve just established: El-Amin was never accused of a hate crime by anyone whose opinion actually matters.
Seemingly carefully, the piece did not explicitly state that El-Amin was charged or convicted of a hate crime. But the placement of that sentence—“The attack was almost immediately upgraded to a hate crime”—in between El-Amin turning himself in and being convicted certainly implied it. This isn’t a fabrication, per se, but it sure looks intentionally misleading.
The piece goes on to discuss hate-crime legislation, a worthy topic that is out of place in a story about a man who was never charged with or convicted of a hate crime:
El-Amin’s case tracks with what some see as the fatal flaw of hate crime legislation — that its oversimplification of fault into a strict binary does not fix the underlying problems that lead to the crimes in the first place. “In addition to their failure to prevent harm, they must be considered in the context of the failures of our legal systems,” wrote the legal scholar Dean Spade in the seminal work Normal Life. Spade writes that because of socioeconomic factors, the definition of what a hate crime even is tends to favor those who can afford to plead their cases in court. In other words, hate crime laws are as susceptible to selective application as the rest of the American legal system.
This is appallingly misleading. It undermines Dunham’s point—that El-Amin was unfairly charged in the court of public opinion because of his size and blackness—by padding it with irrelevant information. That Snipes struck El-Amin first (with a purse) was a crucial bit of information that he left out of his initial account but was revealed during the trial. (Dunham’s account adds that El-Amin told a friend in the days after the attack that Snipes called him a racial slur.)
It’s absolutely true that this story is much more nuanced than initial reports made it out to be. The worlds of criminal justice and gay life are fraught with racism, and black people pay a disproportionate price for merely existing in either. Dunham’s instinct to humanize El-Amin via the accounts of his friends is potentially illuminating, which makes her sideways argument and half-truths that much more confusing. Dunham, for example, never examines El-Amin’s criminal record, which includes probation violation, credit card theft, drug possession, and several counts of forgery. None of these things make him a violent monster (or “hulking brute” as the New York Daily News put it), but two decades of criminal activity under the belt of a man facing 15 years in jail are at least worth a mention—and certainly more relevant to this particular case than any argument about hate crimes legislation.
Also, no one in the story seems particularly bothered by the fact that regardless of the nature of the initial conflict, El-Amin ended it by hitting a man over the head with a chair, which is not exactly the same as hitting someone with a purse.
In the piece, Dunham charges:
All told, the media portrayal of the dispute at Dallas BBQ last May created a simple scenario with binary roles — perp and victim — not what, according to El-Amin’s friends and supporters, might just have been an ordinary barroom fight.
But Dunham’s prescription is to merely invert the binary, distorting the story in a different way.
After I reached out to the Voice, Dunham’s story was amended with the following editor’s note:
*This article has been updated to clarify that while the incident was first investigated as a hate crime, El-Amin was formally charged with Assault, not Assault as a Hate Crime.
The sentence discussed earlier, “The attack was almost immediately upgraded to a hate crime,” has been removed, and a caveat to the above-quoted paragraph regarding hate-crime legislation has been added:
Though El-Amin was never formally charged with a hate crime, his case tracks with what some see as the fatal flaw of hate crime legislation — that its oversimplification of fault into a strict binary does not fix the underlying problems that lead to the crimes in the first place.
And yet, the piece remains a piece about hate crimes, pegged to a crime that was only briefly investigated as such, over a year ago:
But he’s also big and black, making his story an example of the arbitrariness activists and scholars say is inherent in hate crime laws. “We’re praying for a reduced sentence,” said Sean Coleman, a friend of El-Amin’s. “Fifteen years. The rest of his life is at risk. We need folks to know how unfair this is. I’m not saying Carlos shouldn’t be held accountable. But this was a dispute. If he is accountable, then why aren’t all parties accountable? Why did they get support, and he didn’t?”
With misinformed friends like these (or at least the implication of them, given the way their quotes are placed next to sentences about hate crime laws), who needs racist white gay enemies?
I reached out to Dunham via email and Twitter to get a sense of the thought process that went into writing this piece, which she sold on Twitter in the following fashion:
wrote about Bayna Lekhiem El-Amin, a queer Black educator accused of a hate crime, and those fighting on his behalf https://t.co/48eD3jJFZW— Grace Dunham (@simongdunham) June 23, 2016
I also emailed Dunham’s editor on the piece, Rallian Brooks, who informed me of the additions to the piece, as detailed above. “We’re owning this one,” he said.
I told Brooks I’d love to read and run his explanation as to why a story pegged to what wasn’t a hate crime is about hate crimes, but I have not yet heard back. I will update this post if and when I do.
Update: It has been brought to my attention that Grace Dunham is Lena Dunham’s sister. Perhaps I should have realized this when I was working on this story, but I didn’t because I do not think about Lena Dunham’s life often enough to remember the name of her sister. I think that was for the best, anyway. I am glad I was able to evaluate the ineptitude of the Voice story on its own merit, without even the mild prejudice that may have tainted my opinion had I realized who Grace Dunham was.
Nonetheless, this is an interesting detail.