Still expecting truth, justice, and the American way
There was no soccer after school in the 1950s. No gymnastics, dance, aquatics or taekwondo for us. We had TV: a black and white tyrant we adored as we willingly suspended our disbelief each day at 4:30 to embrace X-ray vision, iced-breath, and mortal FLIGHT. Faster-than-a-speeding-bullet-flight. Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy — all agreeably managed by the avuncular Perry White — peopled our psyches daily.
This after school rendezvous offered a peek into an adult world where mild-mannered, moral journalists at the Daily Planet saved the people of Metropolis in every episode. Never mind that the Man of Steel’s cape fluttered in the void of outer space. Never mind that no one ever connected Clark Kent to the caped crusader. Superman stood heroically atop the world, bravely fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.
Five days a week, four weeks a month, nine months a school year, we heard, “truth, justice, and the American way.” The phrase was a lynchpin of our youth. It is ingrained in us. Superman’s mission became part of the poetic faith of my generation. No matter what, Truth, Justice, and the American Way would prevail.
And so, we came of age. We stood together decades later — many times — in front of our TVs to witness how truth, justice, and the American way were coming along. Increasingly, we found that justice is not always about truth at all, but always about “law.” We discovered that justice is largely a tool of the very rich. We could barely believe what evidence many fickle judges allowed or disallowed at trial.
We worried that truth and justice might become as obsolete as the phone booth where Clark Kent morphed into a champion of human rights. It confounded us that most who win inside our courts are those who have the best and most expensive lawyers, and our collective consciousness is peppered by the bizarre cases of O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman. The legal process, we must conclude, is seriously flawed, codependent on both money and luck. Worst of all, most of us think that none of this will ever affect us personally. We do not seriously believe we can ever possibly become litigants. Until we do. And so I came to Yount v City and County of San Francisco when I was 62. I was expecting grandchildren. Instead, I got suicide baiting.
Suicide baiting is the malicious encouragement of suicide. It is how my only child Dylan Gifford Yount died, mentally confused and provoked to jump to his death. Even as he lay pitifully scorned, alone in his death throes on the sidewalk in front of the Forever 21 store in Hallidie Plaza, San Francisco on February16, 2010, his taunters cheered him.
Now, I am the only Yount left in the equation of Yount v City and County of San Francisco. I remain alone in what once used to be a loving family. Nothing in my life had ever prepared me — or my son — for what happened in that dehumanizing last hour of his life.
Dylan had never experienced any mental illness that we knew of, had never made any prior attempts, had no drugs or alcohol in his system. We do not completely understand what happened because not much research on impulse suicide or means restriction has been made, let alone suicide baiting.
About his suicide baiting, we know five things. We DO know that if Dylan was looking for a reason to keep on living that Mardi Gras Tuesday from a random crowd of anonymous people, he never got it. We do know that the cruelty directed at him galvanized his death wish, even though he was ambivalent all the way to the end. We do know that he had to be convinced for almost an hour to jump. And we do know that 90 percent of all those who somehow make it through a suicide attempt will not go on to die by suicide. Most importantly, we know that first responders have the best chance to control what happens in a suicide baiting.
They can stop it. Handcuffing and leading away just one person yelling “jump” would go a long way to serve as a deterrent for others thus engaged. Clearing the area completely of tormentors seems basic. Using a bullhorn to be heard over the chaos would make good sense. Treating the potential victim with respect and compassion makes even more sense. Toss phones, inflatable air cushions, Knox boxes to enter buildings quickly, trained negotiators, knocking down doors to save lives rather than just to arrest criminals — in short, even giving a diddly damn about a fellow human being in distress would all affect a positive outcome.
Suicide baiting must also be recognized as a crime. The California law criminalizing suicide baiting says, “anyone who deliberately aids, advises, or encourages someone to commit suicide is guilty of a felony”; in many other states and other jurisdictions, the encouragement of suicide is considered manslaughter.
Like the majority of Americans, I did not know about suicide baiting when I first began my quest to understand my son’s last hour on earth. Since that Shrove Tuesday, I have become more knowledgeable in this very narrow field of suicide study. I have found many incidents of known, documented suicide baitings, with California frequently popping up more than any other state. I have tried to accumulate what I have found at our Suicide Baiting Prevention site, which is open to anyone, simply byGoogling that term.
This is the work I do to keep from drowning in inescapable grief. When I think of what Dylan must have thought before he died — that he did not deserve to live, that his life was a joke, that he was a “fat white boy” — I cannot breathe. Dylan’s humiliating death has been characterized by many as mob or arena entertainment comparable to the Coliseum life-and-death- games in decadent Rome. It is still surreal to me.
In fact, I have not lived a single normal day since Dylan’s death and probably never will. People tell me I am courageous and brave for bringing this lawsuit. That is not so. There are days when I cannot get out of bed and nights when I cannot go to sleep. I had never heard about the lucid dreaming I experience on the nights I do not experience nightmares. It still seems very unusual to me that a retired English teacher living back here in Missouri would need to point out suicide prevention strategies to the SFPD.
The San Francisco Police Department is the eleventh largest police force in America, one of the “best compensated,” according to their police chief, Greg Suhr, himself, THE highest paid chief of police in America (yes, Google it). The SFPD serves a city with a $7 billion annual budget, inside a state that has slipped to ninth as a WORLD economy, just ahead of Russia.
By comparison, I would never have been able to justify such a gargantuan expense of this lawsuit — so far, more than four times what I paid for my house in 1974 — if Dylan had had siblings. It is not my attorneys’ fault that I am poor, and I do not expect them to work for free, but it is sad that justice is yet another disenfranchisement for the poor. If only the rich can afford litigation, are we willing to say only they deserve justice?
More importantly, would we have ever gotten to this point if the police had been forthcoming with the truth? Throughout, I have begged for two answers: I asked to know what they did and what they were supposed to do.
I still cannot answer either of those questions. It is still unclear whether the SFPD actually has a written standard operating procedure to employ in a suicide attempt. If they do, they should have used it. If they do not have an SOP, they should develop one.
Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention and sometime trainer of the SFPD, tells us there are around 100 suicides in San Francisco each year. Really? One every 3.65 days? In a potential jumping scenario, is their plan to tape off a jump zone and stand down until the victim leaps? Will they regard the suicidal person as human garbage whose humanity they mock, whose remains they hose off their sidewalks after they have “snickered?” Will they continue to serve as entertainment managers for the amusement of the depraved? If morality alone is not a strong enough persuasion to compel them to stop a suicide baiting, then what about enforcement of the law? This is what drives lay people like myself crazy. Is there no accountability for members of the eleventh largest police force? Are their police above the law?
Dylan’s death remains a disgusting, depraved, shocking event, not only for those of us who love him (present tense) but also for those who caused it to happen (yes, I believe that) and for those who watched, too frozen in shock to move or to react. I have spoken with many witnesses from that day who say they will carry the scars of the suicide baiting trauma with them forever.
At the Suicide Baiting Prevention page, we have steadily posted and/or created all the advice we can locate and/or generate about what people should do it they find themselves inside a spontaneous suicide baiting crowd. One of the SBP administrators is a gifted academic in psychology and philosophy, and her contribution will distinguish research in this field. The other SBP administrator, besides me, is a suicide survivor herself, trained in counseling and dedicated to suicide prevention and grief counseling. She, too, will save many.
Clearly, I am the weakest of us three. At many times — on most days — I would like to just give up, surrendering to the sorrow and despair I always carry. Often, I feel as though the SFPD has baited me to wage this judicial bid and are just waiting for me to deplete all my personal resources and then give up. When these discouraging thoughts keep me from my work, I try to remember the two greatest reasons why I make this fight, one that I did not start. This lawsuit was born from an official denial of information I still feel I am entitled to know.
First, the thought of helping others helps me. This is the world, the only one we have. If we do not show we can do better and actually be as good as we should be, then we deserve the world we all have a hand in making, both by our active and inactive contributions. I have come to actually fear those who are silent when they should speak. One of my favorite comments at SBP was from a former student who said she would never hesitate again to speak up for what is right after finding out about Dylan’s death. Speaking out, lobbying for education and training, and simply raising awareness are ways to honor all those who have died by suicide without our understanding and help.
Second, I think of D. and ask what he would want. He was an altruistic and good man, spiritual and gentle. He would not want me to join him yet. He would want me to do everything in my power to continue to fight for justice. As a child, he had a little red cape that he loved wearing, and he watched the Superman movie with Christopher Reeve many times. Dylan would never want anyone else to die in a suicide baiting again. I can no longer tell my son how much I love him, and I ache to discuss this all with him. Beyond the reach of my arms, Dylan lives inside my heart. This work is what he would expect me to do. I know it.