Thursday, April 17, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

What have we become when suicide becomes entertainment?

Can there be anything more soul-shredding than your child committing suicide? Yes: discovering that his/her death provided entertainment for a cheering crowd.

Who does that? Who goads a person into killing him or herself? I never thought about that much before. Neither did Kathie Yount of Harrisburg, Mo. Until she returned a missed phone call from her son Dylan one random day and a strange voice answered. He identified himself as a medical examiner, and told Kathie that an unidentified man’s body was on the sidewalk six floors below her son’s apartment window at Hallidie Plaza in San Francisco.

In her iPinion Syndicate column, “Suicide baiting — they cheered while my son jumped,” Kathie writes that she didn’t need to wait for identification. She knew.

“When I hung up, I knew everything was forever different. That was the moment when I died, too, right then, and everything was spinning, spinning, spinning…”

I met Kathie through iPinion, and learned a term I’d never heard before: suicide baiting. You see, Dylan didn’t just jump off a window ledge over the Forever 21 building on Feb. 16, 2010. He was taunted by a leering, cheering crowd — one that included multiple police officers, who apparently not only did nothing to stop Dylan from jumping but also didn’t discourage anyone from yelling, “Jump!”

While reading Kathie’s column, a fuzzy memory started poking for attention. My daughter, who lives in San Francisco, told me that her ex-boyfriend witnessed a suicide at that building, and not for the first time. They’d both witnessed a man jump to his death at the H&M building in Union Square in 2008 while walking along. A crowd had gathered, and they stopped too.

“I don’t know why we didn’t just keep walking,” my daughter says. “We didn’t stay to be entertained by any means but we were just kind of frozen in the moment. It was simultaneously so real and so unreal. Will he or won’t he jump?”

Curiosity. That’s a normal human reaction. She couldn’t not watch. But then she says, reality started sinking in.

“This wasn’t something I was watching on TV or in a movie. This was for real. And I might actually witness someone die.”

But, with a negotiator on the scene and the passage of 20 to 30 minutes, she thought maybe he wouldn’t jump.

And then he did.

“I remember the sound and the mixed reactions of people in the crowd. The show was over and I burst into tears. I immediately regretted sticking around. It was like coming out of a trance.”

Stunned and horrified. Also normal human reactions. But what happened when Dylan jumped was not a normal reaction. The crowd started taunting him. Ridiculing. Challenging him. Jump! Jump! Jump! And, all the while, taking cell phone videos to see who could post it online first.

So, there’s something even worse than your child jumping to his death, worse than discovering he was egged on: discovering, after the fact, that his death has become online entertainment. A joke. A meme. Grumpy Cat.

“Even as I was drowning in grief, a parallel and documented horror was happening that I was not aware of, because my loved ones were sheltering me from it,” writes Kathie. “For that night and for many days after (I was terribly and vocally suicidal; he was my only child) they kept me from knowing that my son’s death had gone viral in the most horrific way imaginable. The very same people in Hallidie Plaza who had provoked my son’s death were now uploading their grisly trophy pictures and graphic death videos onto the Internet, creating a new death porn that has a shelf life of forever in our digital age.”

Just when you think humanity can’t sink any lower — it does. Gang rapes of passed-out teenagers, suicide baitings, beheadings — all just online amusement.

What the hell is the matter with us?

At least one videographer turned in the other direction. A young man who was filming street dancers spotted Dylan on the ledge. He videoed him, but became aware of the crowd. These weren’t the silent, curious, horrified onlookers at the H&M suicide two years earlier. This crowd was almost gleeful — laughing and capturing the “excitement” on their cell phones — up to and including the moment he jumped. Even more shocking — nobody burst into tears and turned away in horror as they had in 2008. Many seemed excited, as if they’d just witnessed a trapeze act or tightrope walk.

See it for yourself: http://youtu.be/qvpVbWsUOtc.

The young man didn’t post any footage of Dylan’s jump, but rather, videos and images of the onlookers. Deeply troubled by what he saw, he raises the question: How do we stop this from happening again? He asks why law enforcement didn’t do anything. And, he poignantly notes that Dylan seemed to be hoping someone would stop him.

“His (Dylan’s) window was open as if he was hoping maybe someone would come and grab him. By the time they got to the building, he already jumped. They took their time.”

Why was it an hour before a negotiator arrived? Considering that the San Francisco police department had experience with this very same scenario in 2008 (and surely numerous others), why did they fail so miserably this time? Why didn’t they try to silence those who taunted Dylan? Why isn’t suicide baiting illegal? At the very least, isn’t it disturbing the peace? And, at worst, assisted murder?

In corresponding with Kathie over the past few weeks, I’ve found far more ground on suicide baiting than I can cover in one column. Watch for “part two.” In the meantime, I encourage you to read her iPinion column, and subsequent poem, and visit her Suicide Baiting Prevention Facebook page. Kathie is channeling her grief and despair into activism. Into saving lives. Her fortitude blows my mind.

You say “suicide baiting” doesn’t apply to you? Kathie might have said the same thing — before that random day when someone else answered her son’s cell phone.

— Email Debra DeAngelo at debra@wintersexpress.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com

Debra DeAngelo

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