Dave Chappelle was finishing his set for “Netflix Is a Joke” at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl when a man from the audience, Isaiah Lee, jumped on stage and attacked him. In his possession was a switchblade, a lethal weapon.
I don’t know about you, but this looks to me like a premeditated, felonious act. That’s how the Los Angeles Police saw it, too, and charged the perpetrator.
How did LA District Attorney George Gascón treat the incident? As we have come to expect, not well. Gascón judged that Lee’s attack — a premeditated, albeit thwarted, assault with a weapon — was a misdemeanor.
The maximum punishment Lee can get with these charges is 18 months in jail and a $4,000 fine. He is being held on $30,000 bond. With such a low get-out-of-jail threshold, Chappelle’s lawyer Gabriel Crowell asked the judge for a restraining order. It was granted—100 feet.
Lee pleaded not guilty to these lesser charges. His court-appointed lawyer is asking for restorative rehabilitation and no jail time. If this weren’t a high-profile case, he might have gotten the requested get-out-of-jail-free card.
The reasoning Gascón’s office provided is tortured and reflects the habit of mind currently torturing Los Angelenos: Chappelle was not hurt; while Lee stormed the stage and tackled Chappelle, he didn’t brandish the weapon. Under such circumstances — caught on tape — Gascón’s office could not “ethically” charge Lee with a felony, though Lee consciously evaded security and brought a lethal weapon to a public event. And while he did not pull the weapon on Chappelle, he did go for it in the ensuing melee with security, which might explain the assailant’s broken arm.
Another reason for Gascon’s lenience? His office said there was no evidence Lee had prior animus toward Chappelle. Really?
Lee has a rap video showing him standing on the hood of a police car — reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter riots — in a track titled “Chapell.” Yet Gascón says a review of the lyrics found nothing threatening. I’m surprised he also didn’t deny any connection because Lee didn’t spell Chappelle’s name correctly.
Rolling Stone unearthed the most plausible motive: Lee’s brother Aaron says Isaiah has mental-health issues, was homeless and within LA’s homeless shelters developed many friendships and a concern for the trans community — a community desperately trying to cancel Chappelle. “Yeah, it could have definitely been a factor,” Aaron said.
Comedy and free speech die on legal calls like these. Gascón’s decision is a dog whistle for present-day John Hinckleys to commit violence and fans our species’ natural thirst for vigilante justice. “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” is losing its meaning.
Indeed, Gascon is providing legal incentive to commit crimes. Incentives matter a lot. It’s common sense 101: If you want less of something, you tax it. If you don’t tax it, expect more of it. As comedian Howie Mandel said: “You saw what happened at the Academy Awards, and I thought that just triggers — violence triggers violence. And I think this is the beginning of the end for comedy.”
And not only comedy. Unchecked violence erodes the preconditions for civilized life. The application of the law ought to be blind to status, race, gender, et al. To be fair to Gascon, his negligence is equal opportunity: All LA citizens feel unprotected — because they are. Whether white, black, Asian or comedic, they’re all under sustained, legally incentivized assault.
In the 1980s, Tom Wolfe’s novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities” captured the logic of bad public choices that destroy the conditions of civilized life. Now that Bonfire logic is back and not just in Los Angeles. New York City—Wolfe’s stage for his masterwork—San Francisco, Portland and Chicago are all burning.
What should you expect if felonies are treated like misdemeanors? More felonies.
What should you expect if you announce you won’t prosecute thefts under $900? A “petty crime” epidemic that shutters stores and undermines security for civilized life.
There are limits to good intentions. The law can’t give the benefits of virtue to vice, industry to indolence, knowledge to ignorance and liberty to the lawless. These fruits need to be earned and protected by laws and incentives.
A generation ago, New York’s bonfire was put out by a return to common sense and policies that reflected it. Seeing the positive results, other cities followed suit. The good news is that we know how to put out the fire. We have rejected doing so, at least up to now, so that we can “reimagine” society — but that daydream has become a living nightmare. Now we need to wake up.
A good first step? Los Angeles, don’t under-criminalize this psycho. Charge Isaiah Lee as the felon he is — and throw the book at him.
Guy Shepherd is publisher of Planned Man.