I know little about the teenager, except that he stood in Washington, D.C., several days ago, spoke to a reporter about ethnic cleansing and, in that moment, ensured that long after the white-nationalist rally ended, he would remain at the center of the tensions it had stirred.
“This is Dan from Long Island,” was how Vox reporter Zack Beauchamp described him in a tweet that included a photo. “Dan believes in ‘peaceful cleansing’ of Latinos and blacks from the United States. He turned 19 today.”
That was all it took.
Twitter did what it does, and soon Dan’s full name was out there, as well as his social media pages and details of his life. Strangers suddenly knew that he liked puns, played the keyboard and was studying mortuary science.
If his intent in coming to the District was to spread hate, the trip instead ended with him as the recipient of it. People wrote:
“Dan is a monster.”
“Dan just turned 19 and is about to find out what happens when angry people that hate racists catch ‘peaceful cleansers’ unaware. Run Dan, run.”
“I believe in peaceful cleansing of Dan.”
And those were just the comments on Beauchamp’s post. On another, in which Dan’s Facebook page and Instagram account were made public, people described calling his college and sending him personal messages that addressed him as “Nazi scum.” One commenter listed the venues where his band performs and encouraged people to call and “let them know that they’re allowing a Nazi to play.”
One person wrote, “just memorized his face so that i can spit in it if i ever get the chance!!”
Elsewhere, people called for violence beyond spitting and used unprintable language.
If we accept that Dan believes what he said at the rally, he is hateful and ignorant. He wants the country purged of blacks and Latinos, which would include me and many of my family members. I fully recognize the danger in his words and the arrogance it takes to believe he is more worthy to live in this country than others.
But, he is also 19, and just barely. His birthday was on the same day as the rally. When he was interviewed, according to a Vox article, he stood alone, having missed the group led by rally organizer Jason Kessler that marched ahead of schedule after they found their numbers dwarfed by counterprotesters.
The pathetic turnout for the “Unite the Right 2” rally speaks to the strength of doxing, or publishing people’s personal information online. After the group’s gathering in Charlottesville turned deadly last year, many of the white supremacists were identified by social-media-savvy strangers through their photos and, as a result, some lost their jobs. Each firing sent the message that racism would not be tolerated in this country.
Police were also able to arrest several white supremacists in the brutal beating of a black man because online sleuths, led by activist and writer Shaun King, pieced together the assailants’ identities from a video of the assault.
But if Charlottesville proved how powerful a weapon doxing can be in the often-obscured face of hate, the D.C. event and what has happened to Dan in the days since, should force us to pause and consider how and when that weapon should be used.
Dan’s age and his lonely position at the rally stopped me and made me question why he was even in Washington on a day when he should have been blowing out candles in front of friends and family. Was he raised to hate? Was he looking to feel bigger than his circumstances had so far allowed him?
Was he dangerous or dumb?
In hopes of finding some answers, I called someone who knew him well — his father.
He was aware his son had attended the rally, but he said he had heard nothing about him speaking to a reporter there or the online fallout it had caused. His voice immediately filled with concern. He described the thought of ethnic cleansing as “repugnant” and said his son was not raised to have those beliefs: “Absolutely not, 1,000 percent no.”
“He’s a stupid 19-year-old who doesn’t understand the ramifications of what he’s saying,” he said.
I am not identifying the father by name to avoid further identifying his son beyond how he was described by Vox. The father said he understands the desire to identify sources of hate speech — “You can’t just have people spouting that stuff” — but he hopes people will also consider that his son is “a stupid 19-year-old.”
Age alone, of course, does not excuse anyone. People younger than 19 have committed horrific acts. And calling for ethnic cleansing is high on the list of awful actions. Dan’s beliefs should concern his parents and authorities at any college he might attend because they are in a position to make sure his words don’t turn into harmful behaviors.
But the reality is we don’t know anything more about Dan than those few sentences he uttered to a reporter at the D.C. event and the sparse details people have dug up about him online. We don’t know if he is going to be the next Jason Kessler, organizing a future hate rally, or if this was a fleeting, albeit idiotic, rebellion.
Make no mistake: I am not defending him or what he said. His belief is indefensible, and it is a direct assault on who I am and many of the people I care about most in this world. But I covered crime in New York and the Washington area long enough to know with certainty that the most dangerous state for a person to reach is a hopeless one. That is when thoughts turn to action and people get hurt.
Go ahead and tweet about “Dan from Long Island.” But in those tweets, criticize his words and counter his message. Show him the strength that blacks and Latinos bring to this country.
Don’t make fun of his appearance or call for bodily harm. Because even if that feels good and feels justifiable, all that does is push him further into a corner, and the only thing we know for certain about him is that he wants entire groups of people eliminated from this country.
So maybe for now — not for him, but for us — we should lower our weapon.
Maybe instead of threatening to spit on him and “cleanse” him, we should try to remember how many potential paths we all faced at 19. What is publicly viewable on his Facebook page does not tell of a person lost so deep in a well of darkness and destruction that he can’t be reached. A recent post shows a dog hugging a stuffed animal and reads, “Find someone who loves you like this dog loves his puppy.”
Maybe instead of willing him to have a future filled with failure, we can try to use him to understand what is currently happening. How is it that a teenager who lives so close to New York City, one of the most diverse places in the world, was so easily pulled into such a detestable, narrow-minded group?
Maybe instead of pushing him further away from the general public, we need to pull him in and show him what he won’t want to see but is so obvious: He is not so different from other misguided young people who belong to the races and ethnicities he wants to see gone.
Many black and Latino teenagers have also found themselves desperately wanting to belong to a group, even when it’s to their own detriment.
Too many of them don’t get the support or the chance to turn their lives around. But imagine how much stronger our society would be if they did.