The­ater out­burst re­flects where we are

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

Eigh­teen years ago, dur­ing Martin O’Mal­ley’s first year as mayor of Bal­ti­more, the man he had just named hous­ing com­mis­sioner, Paul Graziano, got drunk, loud and ho­mo­pho­bic in a Fells Point restau­rant. He used a slur and made sex­u­ally graphic com­ments to men he ap­par­ently thought were gay. Po­lice hand­cuffed Graziano and charged him with dis­or­derly con­duct and fail­ure to obey their law­ful or­der.

Hours later, the charges were dropped, in keep­ing with the prac­tice of the day; po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors con­sid­ered the prob­lem abated by Graziano’s ar­rest.

That af­ter­noon, at a press con­fer­ence, Graziano apol­o­gized pro­fusely for his be­hav­ior. With the now-sober hous­ing com­mis­sioner slouched be­side him in a chair, O’Mal­ley stood up for him, say­ing he was a good man who had made a bad mis­take. Graziano went on to serve the city for 16 years, un­til Mayor Cather­ine Pugh ac­cepted his res­ig­na­tion at the start of her term, two years ago.

Given what hap­pened at the Hip­po­drome Theatre on Wed­nes­day night, it’s worth not­ing what O’Mal­ley said dur­ing that De­cem­ber 2000 press con­fer­ence: He said he would have fired the hous­ing com­mis­sioner had he made the re­marks while sober.

And there it is — al­co­hol as mit­i­ga­tion, the thing that, for the most part, makes us hes­i­tate when judg­ing men and women who run afoul of the law or the stan­dards of de­cency. Drunk­en­ness is of­fered, and more of­ten than not ac­cepted, as an ex­cuse for all kinds of be­hav­ior be­cause it im­pairs judg­ment, di­min­ishes im­pulse con­trol and stokes emo­tions.

But af­ter Bal­ti­more po­lice re­leased their re­port on An­thony M. Der­lu­nas’ drunken be­hav­ior at the Hip­po­drome, the judg­ment in the so­cial me­dia I mon­i­tored Thurs­day and Fri­day was di­rect and harsh: Al­most no one be­lieved the story given to of­fi­cers who re­sponded to the the­ater.

And that story went like this: When Der­lu­nas raised his hand in the Nazi salute and said, “Heil Hitler, heil Trump,” dur­ing in­ter­mis­sion of a per­for­mance of “Fid­dler On The Roof,” he meant it as a crit­i­cism of — not a sign of sol­i­dar­ity with — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Der­lu­nas had just watched the clos­ing scene of Act 1, which por­trays Rus­sians, led by the lo­cal con­sta­ble, rid­ing into the shtetl of Anat­evka and ru­in­ing Tevye’s daugh­ter’s wed­ding, an anti-Jewish de­mon­stra­tion, part of the pogroms that led to the mass mi­gra­tions of Jewish fam­i­lies in the early 20th cen­tury. This scene sup­pos­edly “re­minded [Der­lu­nas] of his ha­tred of Don­ald Trump,” the po­lice re­port says. The of­fi­cer who in­ter­viewed Der­lu­nas con­cluded that “his in­ten­tion was to ex­press his dis­like of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.”

In an in­ter­view with Sun re­porter Sarah Mee­han on Fri­day, Der­lu­nas stuck by his story, and he apol­o­gized for his drunken and dis­turb­ing out­burst. Early on, al­most no one seemed to buy this. And that’s ow­ing to an­other as­pect of drunk­en­ness that peo­ple com­monly ac­cept: That, be­cause booze washes away in­hi­bi­tions, the things peo­ple ut­ter while in­tox­i­cated re­veal some­thing — a prej­u­dice, for in­stance — that they would oth­er­wise keep to them­selves.

There’s truth to that. But most peo­ple want to see some kind of pat­tern be­fore reach­ing con­clu­sions; we tend to be for­giv­ing of first-time of­fend­ers. "I've never used this kind of lan­guage be­fore,” Paul Graziano said in his mo­ment of con­tri­tion. “I re­gret be­yond be­lief this in­ci­dent."

Der­lu­nas’ words were more fraught. They would have been of­fen­sive at any time. But, com­ing less than a month af­ter the an­tiSemitic mas­sacre at a syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh, they ap­proached yelling fire in a the­ater. Some peo­ple ex­pected to next hear gun­fire. “It gave me a sense of vul­ner­a­bil­ity that our chil­dren in school have now,” says Sherry Brown, who was in the Hip­po­drome and says she heard and saw Der­lu­nas. “It also brought to me that you need to look for ex­its any time you’re in any place and play in your mind how would I get out, how would I pro­tect my­self . ... It’s a sad, sad thing.”

In­deed, that is a sad fact of life in this gun-in­fested coun­try: Amer­i­cans are ad­vised to con­stantly be aware of their sur­round­ings in pub­lic spa­ces, and to know where the ex­its are.

Here’s an­other fact of Amer­i­can life: Hate crimes, based in race or eth­nic­ity, have been on the rise across the coun­try for three years run­ning, ac­cord­ing to the FBI. There were 7,175 re­ported last year.

And here’s one more fact of life to­day: Many Amer­i­cans fear, and be­lieve, that their pres­i­dent comforts big­ots, and even in­cites vi­o­lence. That’s why, when Der­lu­nas ut­tered Trump’s name, peo­ple as­sumed he was a fol­lower. In an As­so­ci­ated Press poll in March, nearly 60 per­cent of adults said they be­lieve Trump is a racist. More than half said his poli­cies had made life worse for Mus­lims and His­pan­ics; al­most as many agreed that Trump had wors­ened the lives of African-Amer­i­cans.

So it’s not for noth­ing that peo­ple re­acted as they did. It’s where we are to­day.

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