Skateboarder Rene Betancourt owes the community an apology.
After he was found dazed, bloody and bruised with life-threatening head injuries, the 22-year-old told police that he had been jumped by four or five black men in a robbery attempt in downtown Miami.
His story played out for days on television and newspapers: Doctors removed a clot from his brain that could have killed him and inserted a titanium plate in his cracked skull. Jackson Memorial Hospital set up a special fund to take donations to help pay his hospital bills. The skating community rallied in support. Detectives spent countless hours investigating, trying to figure out where the presumed attack took place.
But Betancourt’s story was an ugly lie.
Turns out Betancourt slammed his head into the concrete wall of a Miami parking garage near Northwest 12th Avenue and 14th Street as he was skateboarding without a helmet. Video from the garage’s cameras shows how the young man was injured when he lost control at a turn and slammed into a pillar.
People under duress lie for all sorts of reasons, some more justifiable than others, but a racially charged lie is one of the most hideous. It does a tremendous amount of damage to a community with wounds too fresh from long-standing ethnic and racial divisions and issues with police handling of black suspects.
Betancourt’s lie took people back to hurtful history when black men were falsely accused of crimes by whites, deep wounds that date centuries and open wide when something like this happens.
“Twisted,” historian Marvin Dunn laments. “When I heard this I said, ‘Here we go again.’ The racial boogie man is still with us.”
Betancourt is not old enough to remember, but this was a community torn apart in the 1980s by the killing of black men at the hands of Hispanic and white police officers, and by higher ups who covered it up. The 1960s and ’70s weren’t any better.
A lot of people like Dunn, a professor of psychology at Florida International University, and other civic leaders from the African-American, Cuban-American, and non-Hispanic white communities spent countless hours working to foster racial and ethnic harmony, to heal wounds, to make amends.
“There has been so much progress, and then something like this happens and it reinforces in the minds of black people, here we go again, blaming us,” Dunn says. “It recycles the old feelings.”
Lies affect other people’s lives.
Black men in the vicinity of where Betancourt claimed he was attacked could have become suspects. It didn’t happen, but only because police began to doubt his story. The place where Betancourt said the attack occurred, Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast Third Street, is not skater territory. Parking garages are, and so, they focused their investigation on finding a likely parking garage where he could have been hurt.
Now that the truth emerged, the least Betancourt can do when he recovers is to apologize to the community. I called his home and left messages with his mother Rosie, as did The Miami Herald reporter who has covered this story, Daniela Guzman, but our calls were not returned.
I can understand the parents’ desire to protect their son, who is still in recovery from grave injuries, but the same way that they appealed to the community for help in finding his attackers and when the fund was established, they should now address the unfair blaming of an accident on fictional black men.
Dunn doesn’t think the young man should be arrested for misleading police, and neither do I.
“I don’t see the point in that,” says Dunn, now retired and putting the finishing touches on an upcoming book, a historical account of anti-black violence in Florida. “That would keep the wound open. He did it, he got caught, and the family has been sufficiently embarrassed and he’s badly hurt. Let’s move forward.”
Police told me the case remains open, but they’re taking into consideration the extent of his brain injury and other factors such as the difficulty of prosecuting, and are probably not going to charge him.
But an apology is necessary — if not from the young man, then from his family. It would go a long way in restoring good will, and help heal resurrected wounds.