Bernard Baran died on September 1. Suddenly. A stroke perhaps, suffered while at home with his boyfriend and niece. Baran had had a short life of freedom. In the annals of sex panic, Volume 1984, the chapter on daycare child abuse madness, his name is not as well known as some. And yet he was the first daycare worker to be falsely accused, prosecuted, convicted and put away as a dangerous pervert. He was 18 years old when he came out of the closet in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; 19 when he was convicted; 19 when he suffered the first of dozens of rapes and physical assaults in prison; 41 when—thanks to the dedication of what would become the National Center for Reason and Justice (NCRJ), his lawyer John Swomley and a few journalists (notably Jim D’Entremont)—the court conceded that his prosecution had been a sham, and he was freed. That was in 2006.
Eight years to feel the rain, the grass, love’s embrace unshackled. Then it ended, at 49.
Baran was not truly vindicated when he died. Not in the eyes of the law, represented here by the Democrats’ foul hope for governor, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. Coakley had a chance, in 2007, to acknowledge the state’s grievous wrong against Baran, call off the local prosecutor’s effort to throw him back behind bars, and grant compensation. Instead, Baran endured years of waiting until 2009, when a court again ruled for him; and years of lacerating negotiations for compensation before Coakley conceded a pittance for his twenty-three lost years. She refused to expunge his record, forcing him to seek redress again from the courts, which would have broken him.
Pause, then, in memory of Bernard Baran, a human man who survived with curiosity, gentleness and humor intact. Pause, too, to honor Bob Chatelle and his colleagues, who have expended decades resisting reckless prosecutions while supporting dozens of people wrongfully accused of sex offenses.
This is not, however, the moment to retell Baran’s story, which was ably reviewed here years ago by Katha Pollitt and is documented, with links to public records, at freebaran.org.
It is an inciting moment. At the crux of Baran’s tribulations is a hard truth, a moral and political catastrophe that exceeds his or any single case. It isn’t one weird time in history or one homophobic local prosecutor. It isn’t the national daycare hysteria that locked up so many innocents, or the disgraceful Martha Coakley, who inscribed her name among the enemies of justice by keeping Gerald Amirault imprisoned when the case against him and his Fells Acres family was demonstrably false. It isn’t, finally, even innocence affronted, for such is but an inevitable byproduct. It is the lust for prosecution, the clang of the prison door; and the liberal/progressive/feminist hand in enabling the police state and confusing punishment with justice.
Releasing the hand, extinguishing the lust, disabling that state, are the imperatives of our age. And any invocation of freedom or human rights or bodily integrity that does not also recognize this is hypocrisy.
“Police state?” I hear the objecting murmurs now. The spectacle of Ferguson, Missouri, ought to have scattered illusions about what lay beneath the scrim of placid life, but since most Nation readers are not black youth a hair trigger away from a police special or grenade launcher, it may be necessary to follow the wire linking Ferguson to swelling violence budgets and shriveled social ones, to “quality of life” policing and spatial control of the poor, to police-cordoned “free speech zones” and mass arrest of protesters, to the border “fence” and Border Patrol surge, to the “cleanup” of Times Square’s XXX underbelly for hypercorporatized, hyperpoliced space, to random police stops and dog sniffs, to random drug testing, to the ubiquity of surveillance cameras, to NSA snooping, to the $350 billion US security business, to TSA full body scans, to drug blimps, to asset forfeiture and consequent corruption, to immigrant detention, to “zero tolerance” at schools, to enhanced penalties for “hate crimes,” to sex-offender registries, to civil commitment, to torture as policy, to legalized discrimination, to legalized suspension of constitutional rights for ex-cons, to the redefinition of pimps as “traffickers” who (in California anyway) may be sentenced to life, to vice squad entrapment systems, to law upon law passed amid the clamor for safety, to… the gulag of prisons advertised along America’s highways, the captives most of us cannot see except weekends on MSNBC, the road signs warning against picking up hitchhikers who may be escapees, the statistic we all know—or maybe don’t—that about 7 million Americans are in prison, on probation or parole, roughly one out of every thirty-five adults.