Dharun Ravi, Tyler Clementi and the Hard Work of Truly Stopping Bullies

If we really want to stop bullying, writes Rinku Sen, we can't just do it from the back end in criminal courts. We have to affirmatively, proactively expand the rights of LGBT people, immigrants, people of color and women.

By Rinku Sen Mar 21, 2012

Last Friday, Dharun Ravi, a 20-year-old Indian immigrant, was convicted on 15 counts of illegal spying, bias intimidation and lying to police and prosecutors.* This is a complex case from nearly every angle. The bias charges add prison time to the spying conviction, and the trial itself is among the first to address cyber bullying among young people. Because Ravi is a green-card holder, the conviction also carries the likelihood of deportation. The potential for drawing divisive lines between the gay liberation and immigrant rights movements is enormous, and that would be another terrible outcome in an already horrible story.

To review, Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi were roommates as they started their first year at Rutgers University. They spoke little in the first three weeks of the semester, communicating largely through texts. On September 19, Ravi set up his webcam to watch Clementi’s visit with a man. He watched from across the hall, in Molly Wei’s room. Wei and Ravi turned off the webcam when Clementi and his guest started kissing. Ravi then tweeted that he saw his roommate "making out with a dude," ending with "Yay."

Clementi discovered the green light on the webcam and understood that Ravi had been watching him. Two days later, Clementi asked for privacy again; Ravi set up his webcam and invited friends to watch the live stream with him. The viewing party never took place because Clementi unplugged the computer before his date. Just before the second incident, Clementi reported the violation to a resident advisor, who raised the matter with Ravi the next day, the same day that Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Ravi was not charged with causing the suicide, but there’s little doubt that it formed a heartbreaking and grim backdrop for the case.

First things first. Ravi violated Clementi’s privacy in a way that exploited the latter’s sexuality. The fact that Clementi was already out, or that he and his friend were observed doing no more than kissing, or that nothing was recorded are all things to be grateful for, but they don’t lessen the violation of Clementi’s humanity.

The defense that Ravi was not consciously homophobic ("had NO hatred toward gays," in the words of one petition by Indian Americans) does not absolve him. Most bias is unconscious, but harmful nonetheless.

Bias isn’t just represented by intentional, overt physical violence. It is also manifested in the jokes, the sneers, and the use of sexuality as a point of humiliation, often perpetrated by people who would deny vehemently that they hate gay people. Sunil Adam, editor of the Indian American, goes too far when he writes that, "Ravi would have likely played a similar prank even if Clementi has a girl over in his room…" The word "prank" is wholly inappropriate here, and speculating on what might have happened if Clementi had been straight is irrelevant. Clementi’s sexuality added to the salacious appeal of the live streaming plan. Sure, there are degrees of harm–spying isn’t the same as violence. But that disregard for someone’s privacy exists on a continuum that ends with assault, and the distance between points on that spectrum is shorter than people with privilege generally think it is.

So, with Ravi’s bad behavior established, what are the appropriate remedies?

The verdict has ignited a debate among activists about the value of criminalizing bias crimes. The criminal justice system has so many embedded inequities that satisfaction can be hard to find, and those complexities emerge as soon as one looks through the lens of race as well as sexuality in this instance.

Prerna Lal, an activist in the LGBT and immigrant rights movements, writes, "Ideally I want Dharun and guys like him to spend their lives in service to the LGBT community." No criminal court is going to mandate that. Mallika Dutt, the founder of the human right organization Breakthrough, which works on gender violence in India and immigrant rights in the U.S., has been ambivalent about criminalization as a strategy since her early days, working in the domestic violence movement.

"Our desire to make sure that men who abused women could be held to account led us to a criminalization strategy to the exclusion of almost anything else," Dutt recalls. That strategy, Dutt argues, has had little effect on the scale and scope of violence against women.

Still, in a world with few other options, we might not be able to step away from criminalization altogether. Deepa Iyer, the director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, supported federal hate crimes legislation as well as related state and local laws, but says the consequences have to be proportionate to the act. Iyer notes that the automatic deportation of people with convictions amounts to double punishment.

"When these incidents occur, it’s not just the individual that’s being assaulted, bullied or murdered, it’s the entire community that’s being victimized," said Iyer. "At the same time, when it comes around to the court system, especially around sentencing, these cases and alleged perpetrators need to be assessed for whether the punishment fits the crime." Deportation after a jail sentence–essentially exile for someone like Ravi, who was born in India but raised in the U.S.–constitutes double punishment in Iyer’s mind.

If we really want to stop bullying, though, we can’t just do it from the back end. We have to affirmatively, proactively expand the rights of LGBT people, immigrants, people of color and women. Victims need not just the right to get someone punished–to be victims–but also the ability to earn the pay they deserve, to marry the people they love, to move around the world without giving up control of their own labor.

And we can’t do everything through institutions. We have to be able to talk to each other. Activists in these movements have to model cross-issue, cross-identity relationships so that everyone else can see the effects of greater understanding.

Such changes in both the rules and the way we think are harder to establish than harsh criminal consequences are to win. But that is the challenge ahead of us. Real liberation for all gives us the best chance to protect the humanity of victims and perpetrators alike.

*Ravi’s sentencing is on May 21. This article originally reported the incorrect date.