Dave Chappelle was finishing his set for “Netflix Is a Joke” at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles when a man from the audience, Isaiah Lee, jumped onstage and attacked him. He had in his possession a switchblade, a deadly weapon.
I don’t know about you, but it seems like a premeditated and criminal act to me. This is how the Los Angeles police saw it too and charged the perpetrator.
How did LA District Attorney George Gascón handle the incident? As expected, not good. Gascón ruled Lee’s attack—a premeditated, albeit thwarted, assault with a weapon—a misdemeanor.
The maximum sentence Lee can face on these charges is 18 months in prison and a $4,000 fine. He is being held on $30,000 bond. With such a low threshold for release from prison, Chappelle’s attorney, Gabriel Crowell, asked the judge for a restraining order. It was granted – 100 feet.
Lee pleaded not guilty to these lesser charges. His court-appointed lawyer is asking for a restorative pardon and no jail time. If it wasn’t a high-profile case, he might have gotten the requested release card.
The reasoning provided by Gascón’s office is tortured and reflects the habit of mind that currently tortures Los Angelenos: Chappelle was not hurt; while Lee stormed the stage and tackled Chappelle, he did not raise the gun. Under such circumstances – recorded on tape – Gascón’s office could not “ethically” charge Lee with a crime, despite Lee knowingly evading security and bringing a deadly weapon to a public event. And while he didn’t fire the gun at Chappelle, he did in the ensuing melee with security, which could explain the assailant’s broken arm.
Another reason for Gascón’s clemency? His office said there was no evidence that Lee had any prior animosity toward Chappelle. Really?
Lee has a rap video showing him standing on the hood of a police car – reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter riots – in a track titled “Chapell”. Still, Gascón says an examination of the lyrics found nothing threatening. I’m surprised he also didn’t deny any connection because Lee didn’t spell Chappelle’s name correctly.
Rolling Stone uncovered the most plausible motive: Lee’s brother Aaron says Isaiah has mental health issues, was homeless, and at homeless shelters in Los Angeles he developed many friendships and a concern for the trans community – a community desperately trying to undo Chappelle. “Yeah, that definitely could have been a factor,” Aaron said.
Comedy and free speech die on legal appeals like these. Gascón’s decision is a whistle for the current John Hinckleys to commit acts of violence and fuel our species’ natural thirst for vigilante justice. “Don’t commit the crime if you can’t do the time” loses its meaning.
In effect, Gascón provides legal incitement to commit crimes. Incentives matter a lot. It’s Common Sense 101: If you want less of something, you tax it. If you don’t tax it, expect more. As comedian Howie Mandel said, “You saw what happened at the Oscars, and I thought that just triggered – violence triggers violence. And I think that’s the beginning of the end for comedy.
And not just comedy. Unchecked violence erodes the preconditions for civilized life. Law enforcement must be blind to status, race, gender, etc. To be fair to Gascón, his negligence is an equal opportunity: All The citizens of Los Angeles do not feel protected – because they are. Whether they are white, black, Asian or funny, they all experience sustained and legally instigated aggression.
In the 1980s, Tom Wolfe’s novel “The Pyre of the Vanities” captured the logic of poor public choices that destroy the conditions of civilized life. Now that Bonfire Logic is back and not just in LA. New York – Wolfe’s scene for his masterpiece – San Francisco, Portland and Chicago are all burning.
What should you expect if crimes are treated as misdemeanors? More crimes.
What should you expect if you announce that you will not pursue flights under $900? An epidemic of “petty crime” that closes shops and undermines the safety of civilized life.
There are limits to good intentions. The law cannot give the benefits of virtue to vice, of industry to indolence, of knowledge to ignorance, and of freedom to the lawless. These fruits must be earned and protected by laws and incentives.
A generation ago, New York’s bonfire was extinguished by a return to common sense and policies that reflected it. Seeing the positive results, other cities followed suit. The good news is that we know how to put out the fire. We have refused to do so, at least until now, in order to be able to “reimagine” society – but this reverie has become a living nightmare. Now we have to wake up.
A good first step? Los Angeles, don’t undercriminalize this psychopath. Accuse Isaiah Lee of being the criminal he is – and throw the book at him.
Guy Shepherd is the editor of Planned Man.
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