If you don’t know by now, you’re not paying attention: I screwed up. I posted a photo of monkeys on social media and likened it to the Baltimore riots. And for that, I am completely, unequivocally and absolutely sorry. No ifs. No ands. No buts. Just: I apologize because I was wrong.
It’s been a terrible 72 hours and let me tell you something I learned: It’s never so dark as when you turn out the lights on yourself. But I wanted to post my perspective without a media filter or a social media character limit. I’ve learned something, and I think it’s valuable to share it.
Those of you who don’t know me, I’m a Buffalo area comedian and event organizer. Many people call me "Airborne Eddy," and I spend a lot of my time organizing our annual Dyngus Day celebration. I’m very proud of my Polish heritage, and I’ve been proud to be a part of celebrating Buffalo’s Polish culture for many years.
So here’s a little back story: I’m so proud to be Polish that when CNN’s Anderson Cooper laughed about the unique cultural aspects our Dyngus Day event, I got upset. So upset that I organized local backlash against his live television giggle fit. He called us “So stupid,” and that hit me hard.
I called the media and organized the local Polish population to demand an apology. You see, Dungus Day is fun, but it’s not funny to us. And being called “so stupid” - that’s something Poles have suffered for generations. I remember when I was young and the bestselling Official Polish Joke Book made the rounds. People laughed about "those stupid Poles" – a lot like Anderson Cooper did.
A lot of people, most of them non-Poles, asked me then why I got so upset. "He’s just laughing at Dyngus Day, he didn’t call Poles stupid. He called the celebration and the quirky traditions of squirt guns and pussy willows stupid." I tried to tell them that the word "stupid" hurts older Poles who remember enduring so many Polish jokes.
Today, you don’t hear those hurtful jokes anymore, so many people don’t get it. But I get it. And hundreds of older Buffalo Poles get it. And, soon, Anderson Cooper got it, too: he issued an apology. And we moved on.
So, back to the events at hand: On Tuesday at noon, as Baltimore heated up for more riots, I heard a Baltimore area comedian – a 61 year-old friend of a friend of mine, Richard Fletcher - had been beaten nearly to death by a gang of 30-plus African America teenagers. He was just trying to break up a fight between two girls in front of his house, but things got out of hand fast. Within minutes, he went down.
Richard was in a coma for days. He had to get a blood transfusion, had blood on his brain, dozens of stitches on his face and nose, and broken ribs. It all happened around the time of Freddie Gray’s death, but my friend didn’t tell me about it until later.
Richard is home now, but he’s afraid to come out of his house. His neighbors have gotten death threats – particularly the businessman who caught the beating on his security cameras. News reports say the kids from a nearby high school have been running wild for some time.
After I heard about Richard’s beating, I got in my car and drove to my office. I listened to the radio news accounts of rioting and violence in Baltimore, and when I arrived I surfed up more information on the computer. There, I saw video and photographs of teenage boys climbing on police cars, smashing the windows and lighting them on fire.
Then I did something stupid.
I clicked over to Twitter and posted a photo of dozens of monkeys crawling all over a car at a zoo park and typed: "Enuf already!!! U want to be treated like people stop acting like animals." I included the hashtag #Baltimorons, then posted it on my account. The backlash started immediately.
Now, remember, I’m a comic. I’ve learned to deal with backlash differently - we call it heckling. When you tell a bad joke - and sometimes even a good joke - somebody in the audience might yell back at you. Insult you. Tell you you’re being inappropriate, or stupid. And most comedians will tell you that you push back, and you never apologize.
So when local Twitter users heckled me for the photograph I posted, I pushed back. I didn’t apologize. Soon, I realized that what I had done was being interpreted as a racist post. I didn’t intend it to be racist, but when I look back on it, I know: monkeys are not an appropriate way to represent African Americans. It’s flat-out racist.
A few hours later, I changed the photograph. Even later, I deleted the Tweet entirely. But I continued to push back on my Twitter detractors, treating them like hecklers. I tried to make light of it, tossed a few insults out at them – I was acting like just another comic on defense - and I made things worse.
My life changed that day. Later, I talked to the Buffalo News and tried to apologize, but I was still being defensive. My apology sounded more like excuse-making, and there’s no excuse for what I did.
Today, I read a local blog about my mistake. There, the writer posted clips of several Buffalo riots long ago where Poles destroyed private property and acted violently. It's hard for me to understand why they felt the need to act that way, but it sure gave me new perspective on what's happening in America today. I also can't pretend to understand the African American experience, but apparently my Polish forebears found plenty of reason to riot.
Then today, somebody reminded me of my indignant response to Anderson Cooper. It sounded like he called Poles stupid, but he didn't meant it that way. And he stood up and apologized. That’s something I have to do, too: apologize for being accidently hurtful. Even more, I’m sorry for doing something inherently racist.
I've learned something, and maybe others can too. I know that I need to be far more careful with my words and my use of social media imagery. I know what I did, I know why it's wrong and I regret the mistake.
Today, I know Anderson Cooper didn’t mean to call Polish people stupid. He didn’t mean to conjure up old memories of a time when the bestselling book in America was a collection of insulting jokes about my family and me. And I hope that someday my African American neighbors and friends will forgive me, too, for doing something I didn't mean to do.