Tyler Clementi's freshman year roommate, Dharun Ravi, has been convicted of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, tampering with physical evidence (related to deleted tweets), witness tampering, and hindering prosecution or apprehension (lying to police). He faces up to 10 years in prison and possible deportation. While he has spent most of his life in the U.S. -- his family moved here in 1997, the same year I began my freshman year at Rutgers College -- he holds a green card and is not a U.S. citizen.
Clementi's death quickly became a symbol of fatal bullying and the tragic results of homophobia. But Ravi is a scapegoat. He is not responsible for Clementi's death. The webcam viewings (one accomplished and very brief, the other aborted by Clementi) were wrong and immature. But Ravi should not be sent to prison for using extremely poor judgment. Ravi, a teenager like Clementi, likely thought of the viewings as nothing more than a prank in a world where more and more of our lives, thoughts, and images are played out online.
Shortly after they began their freshman year at Rutgers, Ravi and a friend briefly viewed Clementi and another man in his dorm room through the camera on Ravi's computer. Afterwards Ravi tweeted, "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."
Ravi allegedly tried to spy on Clementi again, two days later, but Clementi, who had figured out what was going on, unplugged Ravi's computer and aborted the second viewing, which Ravi had reportedly announced on Twitter. After seeking advice on message boards and from a friend, Clementi decided to report Ravi to his Resident Advisor. Clementi appeared to be weighing his options; at first, he seemed dismissive, and then, understandably, angry, according to his online chats and message board postings. There was nothing despondent, hopeless, or desperate in his online conversations about Ravi's actions, or in his outward behavior shortly before his suicide, according to The New Yorker's exhaustive report on the case, "The Story of a Suicide."
On September 22, 2010, the next day, Clementi reportedly spoke to his mother on the phone and attended a three hour orchestra rehearsal where he and another violinist discussed the piece they were practicing. That evening, Clementi bought a burger at the student center, traveled to New York, and killed himself.
Fifteen minutes after Clementi announced on Facebook his plans to commit suicide, Ravi sent him a text message. Ravi claims he didn't know of Clementi's Facebook post until the next day. Ravi wrote:
I've known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic. I don't want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it's adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don't want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.
Soon after Clementi's death, two fellow alumni and I wrote a letter-to-the-editor in the Rutgers Daily Targum. We had all met our freshman year at Rutgers College, in 1997. We wrote:
Most people aren't born with a rock-solid sense of integrity, but rather meander towards one through a series of pitfalls and epiphanies. Freshman year of college is kind of like a repeat of middle school, and people often do incredibly stupid and insensitive things just to gain social points. College represents many people's first exposure to outward homosexuality (and even sexuality in general).
In the piece we called for compassion and forgiveness -- not prison and vilification -- for Ravi. Maybe it helps to make sense of Clementi's death by creating a narrative, a cause (bullying, homophobia, spying) and effect (suicide.) Maybe it helps to make sense of Clementi's death by fabricating a villian. But incarcerating and/or deporting Ravi only compounds this tragedy.
I read the piece in The New Yorker about Clementi and Ravi on my train ride home from work in New York. My stop is New Brunswick, which is blocks from the Rutgers campus. As I stepped off the train, I continued reading, passing college students and big red R's for Rutgers on my way. I wished for a different ending. I wished that there was no reason for me to know Tyler Clementi or Dharun Ravi's names.
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