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by Brian S. Wise
2 October 2002
Makers of videotapes showing homeless men fighting each other are being charged with conspiracy to solicit assault with deadly force. Why is what they did wrong?
When you’re Ryan McPherson, Zachary Bubeck, Daniel Tanner and Michael Slyman, the fun never stops.
Explains the Associated Press: “In one videotape, a homeless man is seen ripping out his front tooth [note the emphasis on front tooth, in the singular] with pliers. Another rams his head into a steel door, and others stomp and pummel each other until they are bloody.” Okay, and? “Authorities say the makers of the tapes [Bumfights] offered homeless men food, shelter [in the form of hotel rooms], liquor and money to hurt each other, then sold [hundreds of] thousands of the videos … over the Internet. Four men accused of making and selling the tapes have been charged, prosecutors said Wednesday [25 September].” Charged with what, exactly? McPherson with “offering $25,000 each to two San Diego-area homeless men … in exchange for their refusal to cooperate with authorities investigating a Feb. 6 fight on one of the videotapes” and “conspiracy and obstruction of justice.” The others? “Conspiracy to solicit assault with deadly force.” And now the most unsurprising part of the story, the ages of the defendants, in the order listed above: 19, 24, 21 and 21. (Should you wonder where a 19 year old happens across $50,000 for bribe money, it’s from the sale of the Bumfights video, 300,000 units at $20 apiece.)
Civil libertarians and defense attorneys have to eat no matter how tempted we are to disallow them this necessity, and more often they’re making their livings defending cases like this. A search of ACLU’s website uncovered not a single mention of the controversy surrounding Bumfights, but thankfully everyone has a defense lawyer. Ryan McPherson’s defense lawyer is named Jan Ronis, who contends, “It was all an act. This was all in the interests of let’s call it art.” All right; in looking over the preview made available at the Bumfights website, some of the activity does look staged. But if the product in its entirety is an act, then the man who was photographed with a shattered ankle, and who was then rushed to hospital for treatment, is the greatest thespian Mankind has ever managed. Professional wrestling is an act, too, but at least Vince McMahon has the decency to let you in on the joke.
So what’s the conservative to think? Typically he will dismiss the video as compassionless inhumanity, a heartless disregard of his fellow man, et cetera; my reaction continually teeters back and forth between mild surprise and outright indifference. While I couldn’t care less if two grown men acting of their own free will fight one another, there’s something to be said about whether anyone who agrees to strike another man with his fists, for vodka and cigarettes, is ever actually acting of his own free will. And it bears mentioning that, even though one by and large chooses his “addictions,” he rarely chooses to be mentally ill, another common denominator in not only the homeless, but the success of things like Bumfights as well.
There’s always an opposing view to even the most strident logic, and in this case it happens to come across as heartlessness as opposed to honest inquisitiveness. More than a few people have written to say, “No one can reasonably dispute these four kids 1) took advantage of lesser men, and 2) did so at first for their amusement and ultimately for their own financial benefit. Other than the alleged bribery, what’s the crime?” One would also not be unwise to wonder whether or not there would be charges and lawsuits had the video only sold 10,000 copies, or had remained a home movie as opposed to becoming a financial enterprise.
To the first question: In the general sense, you cannot set the mentally infirm in direct line of harm for your personal amusement, and certainly not for profit. Why? Well, because anyone who cannot fully think for himself isn’t necessarily in the best place to decide if another person should be swinging a fist at his head. This society at least takes the idea of infirmity seriously enough to mandate, and then rightfully enforce, certain protections that keep college aged kids from crippling the homeless with a pack of smokes as compensation.
To the last question: No; obviously, had not the video made someone a millionaire, neither arrests would have been made, nor lawsuits filed. This society also takes the idea of financial reward for misdeeds, whether real or imagined, very seriously. Which is why the cases will never see a jury; not only will the video continue to be sold, but the homeless in question will be salaried for their appearance in the future. Perhaps then they will no longer be homeless, the only bright light in this case.