This past March, a Philadelphia man named Christopher Knafelc jumped onto the train tracks at a local SEPTA station to save a man who had fallen off the platform and into harm’s way. His story quickly became a tale of heroism and redemption; Knafelc, it turned out, was a “recovering drug addict with a long rap sheet,” according to the Associated Press, a man who “often wondered if he was a good person.”
The answer was yes: Knafelc’s act of bravery meant he could hold “his head a little higher, viewing the good deed he did, and the praise that followed, as another sign that he is on the right path in life,” according to the AP. “It did help reinforce that I’m a good person,” Knafelc said. “I questioned that a lot because of my colorful past.”
This past included charges of theft, a DUI and child endangerment. But the media narrative was clear and feel-good. Knafelc’s act of heroism had redeemed him, proved his worth to society. “It’s amazing,” a transit worker told reporters. “This incident may be the start of really good things for him.”
Knafelc, who is white, is not nearly as well known as Wesley Autrey, the African-American “Subway Samaritan” who in 2007 achieved instant fame after he saved a 20-year-old film student on the train tracks in Harlem. Unlike Knafelc’s case, in which no train was pulling into the station, Autrey saw the lights of an oncoming train and nevertheless, threw himself over the man, lying in a drainage ditch as train cars passed over them. It was an extraordinary act of courage; Autrey was showered with praise and gifts; Donald Trump presented him with a check for $10,000 and saluted him in the pages of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People issue. He was even an honored guest at George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union Address, where he received a standing ovation.
It probably didn’t hurt that before he was hailed as a hero in such official quarters, Autrey was a “modest, hardworking construction worker” and Navy veteran who strived to be a parent to his kids, unlike his own father. “The world looks at black men as deadbeat dads,” he told New York magazine. “But that’s not me.”
But what if it was? What if it turned out that Autrey had a rap sheet like Knafelc’s? Worse, what if it turned out that he had a history of violence and had done time in prison for hurting people? Would “convicted felon” have trumped “hero”? Would he still have been welcome at the White House?
It took just one day for Charles Ramsey, the black man who helped save Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight from a ten-year living nightmare in a Cleveland home, to go from hero to “hero” in the press. “America is embracing the hardworking dishwasher,” the New York Daily News reported on May 8, calling him “America’s hero neighbor.” The next day, the Daily News headline read, “Cleveland ‘hero’ and Internet celeb Charles Ramsey has a criminal past.”
The new narrative turned on revelations that Ramsey is “a convicted felon whose rap sheet includes three separate domestic violence convictions that resulted in prison terms,” as the Smoking Gun revealed on Wednesday afternoon. As word spread and people considered the unfortunate “irony” that this man had committed violence against his wife, adulation turned toward disappointment, hand-wringing and bemusement. (“Perhaps, one might think, it’s unwise for a brand to want such a man as a spokesperson,” Time’s Brad Tuttle wrote in a post about a previously discussed McDonald’s endorsement.) Blog posts were hastily updated; others were written to maintain that he was still a hero, regardless of his past. “The fact that a convicted abuser intervened to stop abuse is a good thing, not a scandal,” Joan Walsh argued at Salon, while also leaving open the possibility that “more details may yet emerge to complicate Ramsey’s character.” (It would be “shameful,” she wrote, if it turned out that he knew anything about his neighbor’s crimes and stayed silent.) At Poynter, the episode was a lesson in “the dangers in lionizing someone at the heart of a breaking news event too soon.”
Behind the backlash against Ramsey was right-wing Cleveland radio host Dave Ramos, who first posted links to his Cuyahoga County criminal profile under the headline: “Hometown ‘Hero’: This Story Stinks.” Ramos insisted that the public was “being fooled” by Ramsey’s portrayal in the press and was determined to set things straight. (Never mind that he had no confirmation that the record he posted actually belonged to the correct Charles Ramsey—that was just a lucky guess.)
To Ramos, it was apparently intolerable that a man that looked, talked and acted like Ramsey could possibly be hailed as a hero. He didn’t bother trying to conceal his racism, citing dubious “sources” who told him that “Ramsey appeared on a local TV station accompanied by an entourage of more than a dozen men, would not budge from the TV station’s green room, and had to be escorted off of the station’s property by police.” In other words, he is not only criminal at the core, he is threatening and generally obnoxious. “He couldn’t freaking speak English!” Ramos said on Twitter, after boasting that he was the first to break the story about his criminal record.
But few seemed as eager to publicly revel in the exposure of Ramsey’s past, even commenters on Ramos’s website. Comments at the Smoking Gun were largely angry and indignant, demanding to know why anyone felt compelled to dig up dirt on a man whose actions were admirable, regardless. On Facebook, the Daily News reported, Ramsey’s ex-wife posted old photos of her former husband, writing, “Ok so for the record ppl do change and you shouldn’t hold the past against someone. The (main) thing is Charles Ramsey did a good deed and those girls are safe.”
Speaking on his own behalf, Ramsey told TMZ that his past actions “helped me become the man I am today and are the reason why I try to help the community as much as I can,” words that one blogger dismissed as a “valiant effort to put a positive spin on some despicable actions.” It makes sense that such a response might come off as self-serving; too many are willing to forgive domestic violence if it is committed by somebody whom people want to love and admire—see celebrities and sports heroes—and the blunt tools offered by the criminal justice system have proven woefully ineffective in addressing domestic violence.
But the question of whether Ramsey is or is not a hero—a term he himself rejects—is ultimately not the most helpful or important, especially when we recall that all those we like to call “heroes” are, in fact, flawed human beings, even if those flaws are never exposed. As a fixed category, the notion of a “hero” applies to very few people in the American imagination—mainly to those who put on a military uniform—and a man like Charles Ramsey fits much more neatly in the public mind into a different fixed category—not just “felon,” with all its permanent implications, but “criminal,” a label automatically assigned to black men. In particular, the notion that black men who have committed violent acts cannot change and should be forever defined by that violence is what fuels our harshest prison policies. If there’s any value in the current debate over Ramsey’s “checkered past,” to me, it is that so many people are daring to suggest that a man who went to prison for a series of violent crimes can be more than that; that people are more than the worst things they have ever done.
Nowhere is this concept more absent than in our criminal justice system, which has lengthened sentences, foreclosed on parole and made pardons a near impossibility. Although the problem of mass incarceration has entered the public consciousness, thanks largely to the excesses of the drug war, the harshest penalties for violent crime (or those labeled “violent” because of any number of aggravating factors) continue to go unquestioned. For anyone who takes prison reform seriously, or is aware of the aging prisoner population, this should be a problem. “The reality is that close to half of the national growth in imprisonment since 1980 consists of increased punishment for ‘violent’ crime,” Berkelely law professor Jonathan Simon has written. “If we are to cut into that growth, and just as importantly, permanently reduce the public appetite to punish drug users and other non-violent prisoners, we need to revisit the policies that send so many to prison for so long.”
But even criminal justice reformers, for understandable reasons, tend to shy from taking on punishments for people who commit violent acts. Legislation across the country is aimed primarily at “nonviolent offenders.” Anti–death penalty activists focus largely on innocent people sent to death row—while widely pushing the next-most-punitive penalty, life without parole, for the guilty. Even behind bars, prisoners serving life without parole have less programming and are less eligible for compassionate release. When it comes to those who commit violent crimes, our most punitive instincts still rein.
Race has everything to do with this. Fear of black criminality continues to drive permanent punishment, based on the idea that African-Americans are less capable of rehabilitation or redemption. So African-American kids are given life sentences at a staggeringly disproportionate rate. So Assata Shakur finds herself on the FBI’s Most Wanted List forty years after the crime for which she was accused, based on the claim that she represents a threat to public safety. So Texas prisoner Duane Buck faces execution date after execution date in part because a state psychologist told jurors that, as a black man, his potential for “future dangerousness” was higher. I recently sat in a Memphis courtroom as a white prosecutor pointed at a black man whom he hoped to send back to death row, imploring jurors not to be fooled by the “well-dressed, well-groomed” man before him. “Not quite the same as he was back then!” he cried, triumphantly, pointing at a sixteen-year-old mugshot of the defendant, confident that the dark image of him in a hoodie would look threatening enough to scare the jury. You can put a black man in a suit, in other words, but underneath it he is still a criminal.
Some criminals, like some heroes, are allowed to be complex, as we are reminded in the wake of mass shootings committed by white men who are immediately scrutinized for signs of mental illness. Confusion and debate over what Ramsey really is—criminal or hero (or jolly Internet meme)—shows how little complexity we afford people like him. It may have taken an extraordinary action, the saving of three white girls, to make him worthy of people’s collective empathy—and it’s certainly likely that if his criminal record included, say, first-degree murder that this empathy would largely evaporate. But if we more broadly applied the logic of legions who have lept to his defense as a changed man, if we started thinking that more people might be worthy of a second chance, we might start to change the conversation around prisons and sentencing.
Every day behind prison walls, inmates—some elderly, some caring for them—wonder, like Christopher Knafelc, if they, too, are “good” people; if they, too might have contributed something to the world if they had been given the chance to try again. Charles Ramsey did. Can we dare to imagine that there are many others like him?
Youth activists from across Florida are rising up to defend a pushed-out high schooler from Polk County. Read more at StudentNation.