If VH1 launched “Behind the Music” in 2013, the docudrama would last about 15 minutes instead of an hour. Social media, multiple digital channels, and local broadcast news integrated seamlessly on-line has boiled the cycle from obscurity, to fame, to hero status, to myth, to over-exposed celebrity, back down to fraud, hypocrite and cautionary tale down to about 48 hours. That is what we are seeing right now with Charles Ramsey, the savior of the Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, three women held captive in a row house in Cleveland for almost 10 years.
America has been riveted over the last 48 hours by the tale of three women, held as captive sex slaves in a Cleveland house by three brothers for over a decade. Brothers Ariel, Onil and Pedro Castro separately kidnapped Berry, DeJesus and Knight over 10 years ago and kept the women chained, abused and desperate in Ariel’s house for over a decade. The entire nation was engrossed in the story of these missing girls, especially Amanda Berry, whose plight led to national media attention and nation-wide searches. Meanwhile Ariel Pedro, her captor, played the perfect neighbor — always friendly playing with kids and holding community barbecues. And while there were scattered calls to police about strange sounds or sights near the house, the Cleveland Police Department never did more than a tertiary drive-by. Thank goodness Charles Ramsey lived next door to Ariel Castro.
The 43 year old Charles Ramsey has become a national hero for saving the three women held captive in the Castro house and doing what the police never did, truly intervene. Relaxing on a day off of work, Ramsey heard Amanda Berry screaming for help from his neighbor’s house and went to investigate. In interviews, he said he feared it was a domestic violence situation and in a decidedly un-NIMBY-like move he broke in Castro’s home, freed Berry and helped her call the police. His subsequent interviews about the rescue, his folksy but humorous asides about race, class and being a good neighbor have made him a national uncle. For about 48 hours.
Aisha Harris at Slate.com wisely pointed out that Ramsey’s rise to fame is buoyed in part by the “Wacky Black Neighbor” internet trend popularized by Antoine “Hide yo Kids Hide yo Wife” Dodson and Sweet “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That” Brown. And while similar to these previous memes, Ramsey is actually tapping into a different thirst in American culture. He saved the lives of innocent women held in bondage for 10 years, and made some poignant comments in his first unvarnished interviews about his experience. He is praised by black folks at the Root.com for his candid comments about race, much to the chagrin of the local Cleveland reporter interviewing him.
“I’m eating my McDonald’s, I come outside, and I see this girl going nuts, trying to get out of the house,” he told CNN affiliate WEWS. He later added, “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway!”
Ramsey then charms CNN’s Anderson Cooper by explaining that he was just doing what any American should do and that he doesn’t care about the reward money.
“No, no, no. Bro, I’m a Christian, an American, and just like you. We bleed same blood, put our pants on the same way. It’s just that you got to put that – being a coward, and I don’t want to get in nobody’s business. You got to put that away for a minute…I tell you what you do, give [the reward] to them. Because if folks been following this case since last night, you been following me since last night, you know I got a job anyway. Just went picked it up, paycheck. What that address say? […] 2203 Seymour. Where are them girls living? Right next door to this paycheck. So yes, take that reward and give it to—that little girl[.]”
And finally, Jason Capehart of the Washington Post reminded us of why being a good neighbor like Charles Ramsey is something we should all aspire to. If the Charles Ramsey story were a VH1 “Behind the Music” episode, we’re at about the 42 minute mark, the band has just released their second hit album, and the future looks bright. Before, drugs, jealously and scandal inevitably tear them down. In this case, the Smokinggun.com has dutifully looked up Charles Ramsey’s background to discover not only a rap sheet, but a disturbingly relevant rap sheet as he had a long history of domestic violence and even served time for beating his previous wife. So NOW where does the story go?
The comments section under the Smokinggun.com story are telling as most Americans lash out at the “media” for running this hero story and always trying to take people down.
I don’t give a rat’s ass that he was charged with domestic violence. He pled guilty and paid his debt to society for it. Maybe it was drugs or alcohol. None of us know why! We ALL have a past.
I don’t care what he did except for yesterday. Bugger off.
Of course, there will be others who will write that Ramsey was just as much of a monster to his ex-wife and daughter as Castro, that a man with his past is no hero and was just in the right place at the right time. However, I suggest there is a third way to look at these new revelations that do not diminish his past or his present noble actions. Perhaps all those years in prison, the drug rehab and the enforced domestic violence counseling that Ramsey received actually made a difference. One of the most telling parts of Ramsey’s interview is the fact that he intervened because he thought this was a domestic violence case. What better example can we have than a former abuser learning from his mistakes and then getting involved in helping others? That is certainly a better example of the criminal justice system working than the half dozen cops and 9-11 operators who did nothing over the years despite community complaints. His 15 year old daughter has every right to cut his pictures out of all family albums, just like Gina DeJesus family has every right to hug and praise him until they are hoarse. Good Samaritans, good neighbors and heroes don’t have to be perfect in America, just have to stand up for what is right when it counts and go above and beyond what they have to do. Charles Ramsey’s past doesn’t make him less of a hero, it makes him more of a human being. And aren’t we all more inspired by the idea that heroism can come from anyone with any past? I know that I am.
DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at www.drjasonjohnson.com or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson.