In St. Maarten, early in the morning of Thursday, April 6, a young islander screamed Faggots! and, brandishing a tire iron, smashed the skulls of two gay men from New York City.
The Caribbean island of St. Martin has two sides.
St. Maarten is part of the Netherlands Antilles, an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands; St. Martin is part of Guadeloupe, a possession of France. The islands surface covers only 37 square miles, and its population is about 70,000, but the two sides have separate governments, separate law enforcement systems, and distinct though entwined cultures. Tourism is the economic livelihood of both. License plates here are stamped with the phrase Friendly Island.
Bamboo Bernies, on Maho Bay on the Dutch side, has a thatched roof and a cartoon mural depicting black cannibals carrying a plump white man to be roasted on a fire. As in many places on this island, everything looks small and whimsical, almost like a toy.
Early in the morning of Thursday, April 6, under a breezeway by the bars outdoor pool, a Rastafarian-looking man from the French sidewho, according to several sources, once had been convicted of assault with a machetestood face-to-face with a stick-thin woman he had known since elementary school. He was flirting with her, she was having none of it, and that made him angry.
She dared him, If you hit meI dont care if Im a girlIm gonna hit you back.
Breaking eye contact, he glanced away and saw a man with an arm around another man.
After that, the woman says with relief and regret, he completely
forget about me.
The previous night, down the street from Bamboo Bernies, five gay men from New York walked into Sunset Beach Bar, where a sign reads Topless Women Drink Free. They had cocktails, and Ryan Smith, a 6-foot-7, 26-year-old researcher at CBS News, made out with his boyfriend, Justin Swensen, a 6-foot-3, 23-year-old fashion model with a faux-hawk. A bouncer warned them, You have to stop doing that. This isnt a gay bar.
Their friend Dick Jefferson, 51, a senior broadcast producer for CBS Evening News, remembers that Smith went off on the bouncer and said, We can do whatever we want wherever we want. You cant take that away from us, and thats where I said, Ryan, shut up, and persuaded the group to leave.
Jefferson says he told Smith, Their country, their rules.
On the way back to their rented villa, the argument continued. Did they, as gay men, have an obligation to adapt their behavior to the standards of this foreign culture, even if they believed those standards were wrong?
The next evening at Bamboo Bernies, when the Rasta guy spotted Smith and Swensen embracing, he and several friends began harassing the couple. Those present have slightly different memories of the scene.
Smith recalls, They were saying things that apparently meant gay, and they were saying, You shouldnt be here, you should be dead. In response, Smith adds, I said nothing. We came to the realization that we had to be very careful. We would never want our life jeopardized by being gay.
Swensen says the men were not speaking English. The only thing that I could understand was batty boy, the Jamaican slur for gay, or faggots. All of these guys started making fun of us, and I looked at one of the girls in their group and I was like, What is their problem? and she just shrugged like, I dont know. Bouncers separated the two groups.
A local woman who saw the altercation heard the islanders holler, Oh, what kind of a bullshit is that? We dont like that kind of shit. We dont promote those type of stuff, having gays here. She says that after security arrived one of the gay men said to the harassers, I hope you are happy with what you did now. One of the islanders then picked up a chair, she adds, Like, Get off my faceI thought he would have thrown it.
Swensen acknowledges he teased the man who was threatening him with the chair: What are you gonna do? Give me a lap dance on that? And he said, No, Im not gonna give you a lap dance.
After that, security ejected the islanders from the bar. One witness heard them complain that the reason they, not the tourists, were being ejected was that the tourists were white and they were black.
As they were being thrown out, witnesses also say that Swensen blew them a kiss. I honestly dont think that I did, Swensen says, but Im not gonna put it past me.
That maybe was not a smart thing to do, says Taco Stein, a pale, bearish Dutchman with a walrus mustache who serves as St. Maartens chief prosecutor. But is that bad? No, its not. But its stupid. In the end that might have been the thing that got this guy so fucked up that he decided to beat him up.
The following week on Good Morning America, Justin Swensen said of the attackers, We did nothing to provoke them ever once.
Let me just say something, begins Jimmy Goldman, the pugnacious, voluble American who owns Bamboo Bernies (and, among many other restaurants, Jacques-Imos in Manhattan). Nothing someone does or says justifies violence. I believe that.
As he sits on an outdoor patio at the bar, his big, flowing white shirt glows in the night. He looks like Nathan Lane minus self-doubt. But to sit here in someone elses country, when someone asks you to move, even if its not nice how they said it, if Im a tourist, I move. I dont taunt. What happened is, some words were exchanged. Justin reaches over to Ryan and gives him a hug. A waitress hears a local kid going, What are you doing? Youre not supposed to be doing that shit here. Justin said, Were in love, leave us alone. (Swensen and Smith both deny they said this.)
The conflict grew; the aggressors were shown out, Goldman says: End of incident, all right? That happened at 2 in the morning or so. My doormen say to Ryan and Justin, What do you want to do? You should be escorted to your car.
No, no! We want to go hang out and party at the bar. So they go back to the bar. Ultimately, we cant force you to be escorted out.
After the islanders were ejected, Swensen and Smith went to look for the friends they had arrived with, Luke Kalat and Sabio Concialdi, who had been in a different part of the bar and seen nothing of the confrontation.
On their way out the door, Swensen says, I asked the bouncer to walk us out, and he just said, Go have a drink at the bar and wait. I think I just said, Whatever. Lets go.
The group walked through the parking lot and onto a small roundabout in front of Sunset Beach Bar. Kalat, a 26-year-old hairstylist, recalls, Out of nowhere this car comes rolling towards Ryan and slams on the brakes but not fast enough to stop from hitting him. And they started yelling profanities like faggot! The car continued playing cat and mouse with the touristsswerving away, swerving back, and nearly running into Swensen, who jumped on top of the car and jumped off the back. That really set them off.
Concialdi, a scruffy 30-year-old model and photographer, says the car stopped. Two guys got out of the passenger side, and then the driver got out, he says. It was a clown car, dude. I was like, How many people can get out of that tiny car? The girls were trying to get the guys to leave. They didnt care what the chicks were saying. They were throwing rocks the size of softballs. One hit Ryan right in the small of the back and almost knocked him down. And they were throwing spray-paint cans. And they were lovin it. I see the guy go back to the car, and I heard a cling, cling and I saw that tire iron, and I was like, I am outta here. I saw them go after Ryan, and Ryan looked so scared he couldnt run. He got whacked three times on the same spot, on the head.
Into this commotion walked Dick Jefferson and Thomas Sickler, a 21-year-old self-described New York socialite, who had been at a nearby casino. Arriving at the roundabout, Jefferson says, he asked the primary attacker, who had not seen Jefferson until that instant, Whats going on? And thats all I remember until I was sitting there holding my head.
He too was hit with the tire iron, and Concialdi saw a guy stomp Dicks heada bunch. And kicked.
Sickler and several bystanders were calling the police, and, Sickler says, The crazy nigger with the tire iron was screaming at me with his terrible French accent, Who are you talking to? and I said, Oh, shit! I ran into this group of Europeans and said, Keep that fuckin nigger away from me!
The attackers fled in their white Suzuki, and Concialdi helped Smith stand up. I sat him down, and he was, like, Is it bad? Is it bad? It was like a giant flap of skin open. And then a flap of muscle open. And then white skull. And then white powdery fragments of skull. And then a little sliver of brain I could see through his skull. Is it bad? Is it bad? And it wasnt even bleeding. And then suddenly it was bleeding. It was weird. There was no blood, and then there was so much blood.
Swensen says he held Smith, who was saying words that didnt make any sense. I dont even think they were real words so much as just stuttering and trying to talkand Tommy is screaming for an ambulance, and a security guard came out to say, Dont worry, an ambulance has been called. The police have been called. The only other thing I remember is, I got up at one point to wash my hands off in the ocean because they were so covered in blood.
The police and ambulance did not show up, by most witnesses estimates, until about 45 minutes later. The police did not get out of their cruisers. They did not take statements from witnesses. Bystanders told them the attackers license plate number; they did not write it down.
At St. Maarten Medical Center on the outskirts of the Dutch capital, Philipsburg, both Jefferson and Smith underwent CT scans and Smith was placed in intensive care. By this time Smith was counting his fingers and reciting part of the alphabet incessantly. After a few more hours, Swensen says, Smith finally emerged from gibberish but could say only, I love you.
Jefferson, who produces CBSs Election Night coverage and has overseen coverage of crises including the Oklahoma City bombings, called the national desk at CBS News to report the attack and then made phone calls all night to arrange an air ambulance for Smith and himself. Later he noticed a nurses note on his medical chart: Doctors order: bed rest. Patient ignored.
He and others also called the police repeatedly, asking them to come to the hospital to take statements. A detective finally arrived almost 12 hours after the attack, just as Smith and Jefferson were about to be taken by ambulance to the airport, where they were to be rushed to Miami in a Learjet.
Jefferson says the detective told him, Youre leaving. Youre not going to be around. Why should I bother taking your report?
The next day, both Smith and Jefferson had brain surgery. Jeffersons skull fracture was cleaned, and a titanium plate was implanted. Smith also needed a metal plate in his skull, but his brain was too swollen for the operation until almost two months later, after he had returned to New York.
Immediately, the attack on Jefferson and Smith became a minor story in the media and a major one on some gay Web sites.
Smiths personal storyhis parents learned that he was gay when Swensen called to tell them he had been attackedprovided a dramatic hook for some reporters. Others imputed geopolitical significance to the attack.
On April 12, Time magazines Web site ran a story headlined, The Most Homophobic Place on Earth? It focused on antigay atrocities in Jamaica, and argued that much of the rest of the Caribbean also has a long history of intense homophobia. Islands like Barbados still criminalize homosexuality, and some seem to be following Jamaicas more violent examplea point illustrated only by Jefferson and Smiths experience in St. Maarten.
Such exaggerations were fueled by a handful of local newspapers. First, a hateful piece in the tiny St. Maarten newspaper Today praised the attack, and mockingly regretted that Gay bashing is now a no-no. The islands largest newspaper, The Daily Herald, condemned the beating but suggested that if the culprits felt the need to prove their manhoodthey at least could have had the guts to fight them fairly, with their bare hands. But The Daily Heralds coverage of the attack has been fairly aggressive; a Herald reporter interviewed Smith and Jefferson in the hospitalwhich is more than can be said for the police.
Regarding the Caribbean more generally, the medias hasty cries of homophobia were inflated. True, eight Caribbean countries still have antisodomy statutes on the books, but only Cuba and Jamaica have a reputation for enforcing those laws. Furthermore, its difficult to argue that island culturesexcepting Jamaica and Haitiare overwhelmingly homophobic. Caribbean attitudes toward gay people range as widely as attitudes in the southeastern United States. Yet this isolated incident in St. Maarten almost immediately inspired reckless generalizations about the people of that region and ill-conceived threats from some gay leaders itching for vengeance.
A press release from the Human Rights Campaign quoted a letter from its president, Joe Solmonese, to the Dutch ambassador in Washington, D.C., warning that a slow investigation would most certainly give pause to members of our community who are planning any future travels to the area. (In fact, the Netherlands has no jurisdiction over St. Maartens law enforcement system; but Solmonese, who says he received no answer to his letter, adds that my legislative research staff said that he was the representative of St. Maarten in Washington, D.C.)
Blogger Andy Towle, on Towleroad.com, wrote, Based on the negligent response from the authorities on St. Maarten, I think its time for a boycott.
The St. Maarten police departments investigation of this attack has been slow and sloppy. It is cause for outrage, for anyone concerned with basic principles of justice.
The crime occurred on the Dutch side of the island, but all of the suspected assailants live on the French side. Because the French do not extradite their nationals, Dutch authorities were initially hamstrung. Two suspects were arrested at a reggae show at Bamboo Bernies the following week. Two more turned themselves in several weeks later. But the man accused of wielding the tire irona 21-year-old nicknamed Duracell, whose identity has been an open secret on the island since the attackremained at large for more than two months. In a nearly unprecedented agreement, French authorities agreed to cooperate if the 120 pages of documents related to the case were translated into French, which caused more than a months delay. By the time the documents were sent to the French side in late May, Duracell had reportedly fled to Guadeloupe. Then, to everyones surprise, on June 12 he surrendered at St. Maarten police headquarters in Philipsburg, accompanied by a lawyer.
But like all involved, Duracell has his own version of the story. He says he was not the one who wielded the tire wrench, chief prosecutor Taco Stein explained. Now we will have to interrogate them more because their stories have turned against each other.
St. Maartens chief commissioner of police, Derrick Holiday, did not return numerous phone calls from this magazine, nor has he responded to a request from Stein for a report on the police investigation.
Yet police negligence does not appear to stem from antigay bias. According to many on the island, its just business as usual for the islands police. Locals can tell a never-ending string of stories of armed robberies and assaults that police refuse to investigate. The police officers who were on duty when the attack took place are not trained to be detectives and do not take statements from witnesses at crime scenes, according to Stein.
Im not making excuses, but this is reality on a small island. We have a police force which is understaffed, Stein says. They are also underpaid: Most cops make about $1,000 net per month. Many jobs in tourism, security, and casinos pay much better. Theres the saying, If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.
We look rather sophisticated, but we actually are an underdeveloped country, Stein adds apologetically. We want this island to be a place where justice prevails, where it is safe to live. We dont want to be a banana republic.
Rich Campbell, CEO of Atlantis Events, a gay travel company that has taken eight cruise ships to the island in the past nine years, says, St. Maarten has been the most gay-friendly place weve been to in the Caribbean by far.
RSVP Vacations (owned by PlanetOut, which also owns Out magazine) has taken more than 60 cruise ships to the island, and that companys president, Paul Figlmiller, says, Its as safe a place to go as Key West or Provincetownas long, that is, as you dont find yourself in need of police assistance.
The attack on Jefferson and Smith does raise some important political questions, according to Campbellbut not about homophobia in the Caribbean. Sometimes we create our own problems in the media by looking at a situation like this and instantly jumping to the conclusion that theres an underlying reason that these things happen, he says. Some people judge gay men on a notion of who we might be rather than who we actually are. When we start doing that to a Caribbean nation or any other people, were no better, and that worries me.
Jefferson, who has fully recovered from his physical injuries, notes that theres a lot of misdirected anger surrounding his attack, and Ive been saying since day one that I want it to go to the right place. Though he initially talked about a boycott, hes changed his focus: Id like the people of St. Maarten to stand up and say, We deserve better, and it shouldnt take an attack on a bunch of Americans to realize that we deserve better from our police department. Not just because of tourism but for ourselves.
Smith still has difficulty speaking, which magnifies his bewilderment at the difference between the experience he sought on St. Maarten and the one he had.
You dont think that this place, this islandyoure there to get away from work, get away from the world that would have dangers and headaches, going to an island, going to the beach, to play a game at a casino, and then all of this happens. To realize that you were really vacationing in a place that has really no apparatus to protect you.
And the people who are all part of that magical world, they are promising you a good time, but they are not necessarily you or I. They have all of these different He stammers, searching for a phrase, and comes up with world stories.
Well, the cast of the island, Smith continues, theyre not what they are billed to be. We go there not to be any different from them as far as respect, and certainly Justin and Iwhat we did in the bar, to give each other a hug, to then be together as a pairthat becomes something that is very threatening
His voice, raw with frustration, trails off.
The following week, surgery to implant a titanium plate in his skull is successful. A few days later, he e-mails me to say that he has returned to work, and he jokes, I have some great new scar pictures, ha ha.
Bamboo Bernies owner, Jimmy Goldman, says, No one ever told you that the same protections that you have as a citizen in the U.S. are here on this island. Thats your assumption. And its the assumption of every person who gets off the cruise ships. What happened here in terms of the enforcement is something that we accept, but we dont like it.
He asks, Do you fault a developing island for your false assumptions?
At the core of this cloud of testimony, however, is a very short story. It has a beginning, middle, and end that explanation cannot touchand that no world story begins to excuse.
Early in the morning of Thursday, April 6, a young man swinging a tire iron tried to kill two other men.
He smashed their skulls.
The result so far has been a travesty of justice, which by all accounts is the local standard.