Finding justice in any case of conflicting stories and emotions is hard, but especially when the story has multiple layers of human contradictions. Consider this: Three straight men are attacked in midtown Sacramento by an assailant allegedly shouting homophobic slurs at them.
The defendant in the case then faces charges that he committed a hate crime, though he is the son of a gay woman. The defendant is also an Army veteran said by his mother to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving his country in Afghanistan.
The elements of this case triggered passionate responses on Facebook and other social media – posts that played an undeniable role in Sacramento police finding probable cause for a hate crime. Prosecutors don’t have to follow police recommendations and routinely don’t – but they will here. Law enforcement authorities share the feeling that this case is solid based on the evidence obtained after a bloody conflict between young men on a warm Father’s Day night near 21st and O streets.
Timothy Brownell will be prosecuted with hate-crime charges in the stabbings of Blake Abbey, Alex Lyman and Weston Richmond – all popular and well-known musicians in Sacramento’s music scene.
But Brownell’s family is adamant that he is not bigoted toward gay people – though his victims are straight. “He was very protective of me and took issue with anyone who had a problem with his mom being gay,” Lori Brownell said in an exclusive interview with The Sacramento Bee. “I don’t think he’s homophobic. He’s never said anything derogatory.”
Surrounded by a loyal group of supportive friends at a court hearing for her son last week, a hearing that drew a phalanx of TV cameras, Lori Brownell said little else except to express sympathy for the victims and their families.
A tight-knit midtown community has rallied behind Abbey, Lyman and Richmond and staged benefit concerts for them at midtown bars. But it doesn’t stop there.
A movement has fermented in midtown to strike back against intolerance because of this case. Well-meaning friends of the victims have exhorted them to lead marches against hate and speak out against hate and stand against hate.
But what’s great about social media – with everyone having a platform – is also what’s horrible about social media, because this case became a tinder box of raw emotions, biases and hearsay all conflated in many irresponsible scribblings on Facebook.
In the middle of it all is Abbey, a reluctant victim stabbed twice in his left arm. The 31-year-old guitarist is also a reluctant poster boy for gay bashing, but not simply because he is straight. Abbey doesn’t want to be a symbol. He doesn’t want to lead marches. He doesn’t want his friends to turn their sometimes well-meaning – and sometimes not-so-well-meaning – emotions about his case into rage against midtown or rage against police.
Everyone keeps telling Abbey that he is “lucky.” That it could have been worse. That he could he be dead now, as if he doesn’t know that after a blade was plunged into his body and he looked down to see his own blood and the bone of his left arm. He ran for his life, thinking he would die, and remembers the perplexed look of strangers who initially couldn’t comprehend what had just happened to him.
He said he doesn’t even know the name of the woman who helped him at Press Club, a midtown bar. He said she wrapped his bloody arm in towels that became drenched in blood. He said she gave him water and took him by the arm toward ambulances.
Whether it was morphine or the loss of blood, Abbey remembers waking up in a haze after vomiting in a hospital. He remembers raging at hospital staff to give him water and he remembers police officers yelling at him to settle down – that the staff was trying to help him. He remembers being taken to the brink of the worst emotion that any living person could feel – that death was near. Nothing made sense. Where were his friends? What happened to them? To his younger brother? He blamed himself.
“Victim’s remorse,” he said last week with his left arm in a sling. “What could we have done? What could we not have done?”
For Abbey, the reporting on the case has missed a critical nuance: He said the stabbing did not follow a physical confrontation. He said it was the other way around. He and has friends were first stabbed and then it got physical. He didn’t really understand what was happening at first when, he said, Brownell shouted homophobic slurs at him and his friends and made comments about them wearing “skinny jeans.”
“I thought, ‘Really. This is 2015,” said Abbey, who is married to a woman. “When he started coming toward us, this dude had the knife out. He’s swinging it, and I thought it was a joke. I thought it was some nerd doing Comic Con stuff. He said: ‘I’m a Marine. This won’t be the first time I’ve done this.’ Then I saw blood on my friend.”
Abbey’s wounds have been reported as “non-life-threatening,” which has seemed callous considering what he experienced.
The knife went through his arm, and the memory of the feeling of the blade sears his mind and soul. From the time Abbey was stabbed, the ensuing days have been marked by the other injuries inflicted on crime victims – realities that few can comprehend unless they have experienced what this is really like.
I have a friend who worked at The Bee years ago who was attacked and beaten in Oak Park. My friend suffered extensive neurological damage that changed the course of his life. But in the days after his attack, well-meaning colleagues and friends couldn’t wrap their minds around what had really happened to him.
Why didn’t he fight back? How bad could punches to his face and head really be? Or friends privately vented their biases about Oak Park and the people who live there. Or, they wondered, why wasn’t our friend the same? Why wasn’t he coming back to work? Why was he taking so long to “heal”?
It’s an ugly memory of how callous we can be when fear causes us to suppress compassion in favor of ignorance and bias in the face of suffering that is not ours.
Abbey is living his own version of events beyond his control.
“I have all these people telling me, ‘I have your back,’ ” Abbey said. “If you have my back, then it’s counterproductive to say (on Facebook) that cops suck or midtown sucks … I have a friend who said on Facebook that when (Brownell) gets out of jail he is going to be really mad.”
The implication: Abbey and his wife would continue to be in danger.
“Or I have people tell me they are afraid to go out in midtown. I don’t want that. People are trying to make me out to be a poster boy, and I don’t want that. I don’t want to rally on K Street. Then it’s going to be on me.”
What does Abbey want? “I just want to go back to work,” he said. “I want to go fishing. I want to hang out with my wife. I want to hang out with my dog.”
“If we’re going to make midtown safer,” he said, “then people need to be kind to each other.”
The point was: My friend should not have been attacked.
The point here is: Abbey and his friends should not have been stabbed. There is no justification for it.
The courts will sort out whether this was, in fact, a hate crime. The courts will sort out Brownell’s state of mind, whether he really does have PTSD, and whatever else happened that led to three stabbings.
All the people raging at Brownell on Facebook should know he has a mother, a father and friends who care deeply about him – and who feel under siege. Those raging against Brownell should remember his mother’s concern for the victims.
Some even have raged against Abbey and his friends and suggested that they did something that triggered the stabbings.
Free speech is a beautiful thing until it’s used to trample the rights of those who deserve their day in court – and who don’t deserve to be stabbed, no matter what happened before a knife drew blood, and opened the other wounds from a host of onlookers and commenters fascinated by blood spilled in midtown Sacramento.