The Hate Debate
Why is "Mr. Happy" so angry, and what should we do about it?
John Long, a.k.a. "Mr. Happy"
It's 11 p.m. on Monday -- time for the new episode of "How Do You Like Me Now?" on cable channel 15, also known as Vermont Community Access Media (VCAM). After the requisite warning about adult content and graphic imagery, a written message appears: "Dedicated to all the Feminazi pigs who run Burlington."
The show begins with a videotape of a large hog lying on the floor of a warehouse. Moments later, a man enters the room with a chainsaw and slowly cuts the pig's head off. The animal squeals and writhes in agony. When the grisly task is complete, the man approaches the camera, blood-splattered chainsaw still in hand, and flashes a menacing, self-satisfied grin. The picture fades to black.
What follows is an assortment of cartoons, most of which appear to have been lifted from the Internet. There's a Santa Claus urinating on a Chanukah menorah -- "Santa hates Jewish kids," it reads -- and another displaying the Koran being used as toilet paper. Still another shows the infamous, hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner, only this time he's covered with holiday ornaments. The caption reads, "It's not torture, it's Christmas!" Next, a short video celebrates the assassination of John Lennon. The credits say, "Thank you, Mark David Chapman."
Welcome to the cheery world of "Mr. Happy," a.k.a. John Long. Since October 1995, Long, a 44-year-old Burlington homeless man, has been treating Adelphia cable subscribers to his homespun blend of racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, pro-war tirades, gay-bashing diatribes and verbal assaults on the Left. Occasionally, he tosses in some hardcore pornography or a video of rabbits being decapitated and skinned. Each show airs three times each week in the 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. timeslot.
"Some people might not consider it art," Long says about his hour-long program. "But it's a form of art, however vile they consider it."
The jury may be out on whether Mr. Happy's work constitutes "art," but what's clear is that it is protected speech. The courts have ruled that the First Amendment allows community-access producers to broadcast graphic and obscene material, use hate speech and, yes, even advocate violence in a general sense.
But when does free speech cross the line into something else? And, how should a community that celebrates racial, ethnic, religious and sexual diversity respond to someone like Long? Should it respond at all? What is the proper role of the press? Does reporting on hate speech give its purveyors a legitimacy they don't deserve?
For Seven Days, these questions aren't just abstract. During the January 22 episode of "How Do You Like Me Now?" Long made threatening remarks about Seven Days Associate Editor Ruth Horowitz. During the program, he read from the December 7, 2005, issue of the paper, which included a holiday "wish list" written by staffers. In it, Horowitz asked for a professional massage.
"She wants a massage? All right. Mr. Happy wants to offer her the Mr. Happy smash massage," Long told viewers, holding a hammer up to the camera. "She can bring her head over here and I'll massage it into a new shape. We can meet up at her home or wherever."
Long dismisses his remarks as harmless. "That was done as parody," he explains. "That may have been a little strong, but it got people's attention."
That it did, including in the Burlington Police Department. Responding to a caller's complaint, police visited the VCAM studios in early February and watched the tape of Long's broadcast. Upon review, the officer determined that Long hadn't broken any laws.
VCAM, with 30,000 potential viewers in the Burlington area, is one of the few media outlets in Vermont that airs such extreme and inflammatory content. Like most community-access stations nationwide, VCAM's mission is to be as inclusive as the law allows and "provide all citizens with content-neutral access to the electronic media, on a first-come-first-served basis, and thereby ensure the continuation of unfettered free speech." Its policies ensure that "no censorship over program content exists" except to comply with FCC rules.
But some contend that Long pushes the envelope of "unfettered free speech" too far. In March 2005, he generated controversy by airing a videotape of terrorist beheadings from Iraq. Long argued that it shows Vermonters "the enemy we're up against." But four viewers complained to VCAM's board of directors and presented them with a petition, signed by 250 people, asking the board to adopt a more stringent policy on graphically violent material.
VCAM Executive Director Rob Chapman immediately bumped future airings of the disputed show into the 2-to-5 a.m. timeslot, but the board of directors later rescinded that directive. As Chapman puts it, "The board believes in as few limitations as possible. Between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., almost anything goes."
Nevertheless, such violent messages trouble some Burlington activists, who warn that when hate speech is allowed to go unchecked, it festers and grows. Slurs escalate to harassment, and then to threats, and then, sometimes, to violence.
On one episode of "How Do You Like Me Now?" Long displayed a photo of a handgun and said, "This is how to hate gays." Peggy Luhrs, an activist with the R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center in Burlington, contends that such remarks fall outside the bounds of free speech.
"I think he's crossed a line," says Luhrs. "When you get on TV and say, 'Here's how to hate gays,' and you show a gun, you're advocating murder. Even if [Long] wouldn't do it, who knows what confused teenager out there would?"
Long's threatening rhetoric isn't confined to the television studio. He is a frequent counter-demonstrator at Vermont peace rallies, where he waves an American flag and shouts angrily at demonstrators. In 2003, Long burned a rainbow Pride flag during a Transgen- der Day of Remembrance. One February several years ago, he reportedly showed up at a Black History Month event with a sign that read, "More blacks, more crime." Another time, he disrupted a University of Vermont forum on gay marriage and had to be removed by campus police.
For years, Long targeted Luhrs both on and off the air. He's shouted her down at public meetings, yelled at her on the street and, in 1998, Luhrs contends, he left a racist drawing tacked to her front porch.
"I felt creeped out finding such a nasty piece of work, and having him know where I live," she says. "But the police didn't want to do anything about it."
Long is well known to Burlington cops, mental-health outreach workers and homeless-shelter staffs. In September 2004, he was arrested at the Salvation Army for disorderly conduct and unlawful trespass. According to court records, he got into a scuffle, during which he called a man "a faggot" and threatened to "break his neck" and "fuck him up outside." The police affidavit noted that his intended victim "is, in fact, a homosexual."
Long has targeted other gays and lesbians in town, too. SafeSpace, the Burlington-based anti-violence group that works with the queer community and tracks local hate-speech incidents, calls him "the most active person on our radar screen." However, the Civil Rights Unit in the Vermont Attorney General's Office, which investigates suspected hate crimes, reports that it's never received a complaint about him.
Several years ago, unsigned fliers began appearing around Burlington that accused Seven Days columnist Peter Kurth of being a pedophile. For about two years, Kurth was receiving regular emails from Long making the same accusation.
"For a while, I was answering him because I thought it was funny," Kurth recalls. "But then I realized it was just egging him on. So I stopped replying, and that really pissed him off."
Long's messages grew increasingly vulgar and hostile, and were often signed with the words, "DEATH TO QUEERS! DEATH TO THE LEFT!" One email, dated March 11, 2004, included the following: "I hope I C-ya at the fag parade this June, then lets see you run your mouth about heads getting broken, you can tell it to me to my face, then we'll see who gets 'broken.' . . . Gimme half a reason and you might wind up in ICU yourself, along with any other faggot who wants to step up. Ignore that, you stupid queer!"
Kurth consulted an attorney, who advised him that the fliers and emails were grounds for legal action. In addition to defamation of character, Vermont law also makes it a crime to use a telephone or other electronic communications to "terrify, threaten, harass or annoy" and/or "threaten to inflict injury or physical harm to the person or property." Kurth opted not to pursue the matter.
"I decided I didn't want to give him more attention than he already gets," he explains. But he admits there were times when he felt personally threatened. "If anyone is going to go off his rocker, it's someone like him," Kurth adds. "I think this is a dangerous guy."
After Long's recent remarks about Horowitz, the Seven Days editorial staff debated how to report the incident. The first option was to ignore it entirely and not give Long more publicity. But according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a national nonprofit group that tracks hate groups, such an approach contradicts the first rule of dealing with hate speech: "Do something," it advises in its community-response guide. "In the face of hate, silence is deadly. Apathy will be interpreted as acceptance -- by the perpetrators, the public and, worse, the victims."
Our second option was to write about hate speech in Vermont without specifically focusing on one perpetrator. Kara DeLeonardis is SafeSpace's executive director. When asked how the community should respond to hate speech generally, she admits there aren't easy answers. "It really depends," she says. "Perpetrators of hate speech and hate crimes are not all the same. Every situation is different."
Vermont's hate-crime law doesn't punish hate speech, DeLeonardis notes. It only enhances the penalties for crimes that have already been committed. And, unless there's a specific, credible and documented threat, often there's not a lot the police can do.
By all estimates, Vermont's hate-crime law is underused. According to the Vermont Crime Information Center, only 62 hate-crime reports were filed statewide in 2003 and 56 in 2004. Of them, only 17 in 2003 and 14 in 2004 were listed as "anti-homosexual." Until this year, Vermont didn't even track how many hate crimes were eventually charged in court and/or prosecuted.
"Unfortunately," DeLeonardis adds, "it often seems like something really, really terrible has to happen before justice is done."
There had to be another option. There was no point in writing about Long unless it helped readers understand who he is, what he represents and the threat he potentially poses. We wanted to know: Who is John Long? And why is he so angry?
Finding out wasn't easy, since Long hates Seven Days. As a transient, he's hard to find. He doesn't have a permanent residence or a phone number. Aside from a Burlington post-office box, the only way to contact him is through email.
Initially, Long refused to be interviewed. "I know it's just gonna wind up being a hit piece. You don't need my help for that," he wrote. "The cops and the homosexual mob have everything you'll need about my background, bias and all."
After repeated messages back and forth, Long warmed to the idea and agreed to answer some written questions. Later, he accepted an invitation to meet in person, provided he could videotape the interview and use it on his show. I accepted the offer.
John Long and I met last week at the VCAM offices in Burlington's South End. He is about 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds. His mop of wavy, brown hair poked out from under a worn, brown Philly's cap. He was wearing a gray, hooded sweatshirt, baggy jeans and a black tank top sporting a large "X" made of duct tape. A faded American-flag patch was sewn into his worn, green knapsack.
After we shook hands Long said, "I thought you'd be much bigger."
"I thought you'd be, too," I answered.
Long initially avoided looking me in the eye and stammered nervously as we made small talk while waiting for the studio to become available. But soon he relaxed, especially once he was in front of the cameras.
I noticed Long is missing a lot of teeth. He claimed he lost them during some hunger strikes while he was incarcerated in the Chittenden County Correctional Center in the mid-1990s. He also claimed the hunger strikes were to get access to a mental-health worker. As if to demonstrate, he rolled up his sleeves and showed me his scars. "Repeated suicide attempts," he said.
I knew of Long's criminal record, which dates back at least to 1979, according to FBI records. He's been arrested and/or convicted of crimes in Vermont, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida. Most were minor offenses -- marijuana possession, trespassing, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief -- though they also included burglary, assault, robbery and resisting arrest.
When asked why he's so mad, Long spoke openly about his past. "Well, my life hasn't been the easiest," he admitted. "And, I have an inexhaustible supply of anger that's constantly refilled by what I see in Burlington every day."
Apparently, Long has been angry for a very long time. He was born in Philadelphia on September 6, 1961, and grew up in Camden, New Jersey. His biological parents abandoned him at an early age, he said, and he was adopted by his foster parents at 9. They abandoned him when he was 15.
"My step-dad was from Baltimore," Long recalled. "He despised blacks. My step-mom wasn't kindly disposed to them either, but she wasn't as virulent about it. To be fair, they hated hippies, too."
In the late 1960s, whites were a minority in Camden, according to Long. He claimed he was often "set upon by gangs of blacks," and saw his stepbrother hit by a car after being chased home once from school.
At 13, Long watched as state authorities forcibly removed his 9-year-old stepsister from his stepmother's arms. The girl had lived with them since she was an infant but was taken in a custody battle with her birth parents. Long says his stepmother was never the same -- and neither was he. "It may have affected me in a subconscious way," he said, "as far as me getting into fights with other people, or my whole attitude toward society in general."
In the 1970s, Long moved to Salem County, New Jersey, where, he said, "I had the usual teenage problems of alienation and not fitting in." He was suspended six times in his freshman year for fighting, but managed to graduate. After dropping out of college, he ended up on the streets, where he's lived for more than 25 years.
In 1981 Long tried joining the Army, but was rejected for medical reasons. Since then, he's worked in restaurants, factories, landscaping -- "all the usual backbreaking, low-paying, no-security jobs that are the only option for misfits like me," he said.
In July 1992, while living in Massachusetts, Long bought a one-way bus ticket from Boston to Montreal. He was turned away at the border and put on the next bus south, which stopped in Burlington. He's lived here off and on ever since.
Long said his interest in community-access television was sparked by the 1992 L.A. riots and, later, the O.J. Simpson verdict. "When O.J. got off in October 1995, I saw the black reaction, like they'd won some racial Super Bowl," he says. "That was the catalyst that got this whole Mr. Happy thing going."
In 2000, Long joined the National Alliance, a West Virginia-based neo-Nazi group. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group's founder, William Pierce, wrote a book that Timothy McVeigh used as a "blueprint" for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
But Long says he quit the National Alliance in 2003, shortly after the Iraq War began. "I felt that the NA was aligning itself too closely with Muslim terrorists," he said. "I could not honestly be associated with any group that would sympathize with and express support for those who want to destroy this nation."
Today, Long claims he's no longer affiliated with any hate groups, though for years he's been a frequent visitor to hate-speech websites. He often posted messages on Stormfront.org, a white-supremacist site created by former Ku Klux Klan member Don Black, until Long was banned from the site.
He posted this message in 2002: "I got an idea for a story, the tales of an assassin that goes around crossing out Leftist targets. One day your average pro-white guy decides he wants to make a positive change in the world, but his attempts to voice his views have been totally squashed and censored by the Jewsmedia, and his First Amendment right to free expression have virtually ended by Leftist PC 'Hate Crime' laws. So, with no family to worry about, no job to lose, and no other alternative, he opts for a 'final solution' -- termination of enemies and race-traitors by various means . . . and after each 'job' is completed, he leaves a calling card, a note entitled . . . DEATH TO THE LEFT!"
Long doesn't deny posting that message but has "never actually gone out and done that," he said. "It's not like I get up on TV and say, 'Let's all go out and kill the queers,' or 'Let's go out and kill the blacks,' or nothing like that."
In fact, Long doesn't see any connection between hate speech and violence. However, he does say that "violence is sometimes a necessary, if unfortunate, measure to effect change." So, is he advocating violence when he holds up a gun and suggests that's the way to deal with gays?
"It's a challenge," he answered. "They can take it however they want.
"I say the Left should be confronted in the courts," he continued. "I say they should be confronted in the media, and if they're up for it, I say they should be confronted in the streets."
Will those confrontations be violent? Not necessarily, he said. Long claims he can engage in a civil discussion without it devolving into a fistfight. But he contends that whenever he's asked the Left for a dialogue, he's either been ignored or threatened by the authorities. Apparently, the biggest threats he sees are efforts to silence him.
Long also described his show as a form of therapy. "It's a catharsis," he said. "I'm very glad and appreciative that VCAM gives me the opportunity to express myself, because I don't have any other outlet to do it.
"As long as I am allowed to present my views . . . in a way I see fit, nobody has to worry about violence taking place," he added. "But if they shut me out, if laws come down the road and are enacted to where people like me don't have a chance to speak, then what other option do I have?"
Though Long seems to get a thrill out of antagonizing his adversaries, he remained calm and polite throughout our 45-minute interview and never raised his voice once. He answered all my questions thoroughly and refrained from straying too far from the subject or steering the conversation. As several people who know Long remarked during my research, there appear to be two sides to John Long. In this encounter, at least, I never saw the angry side.
When the interview was over, we shook hands and he said, "I thought that went really well." I agreed. Several days later, Long stopped by the Seven Days office and dropped off a copy of the videotape.
If Long doesn't connect the dots between hate speech and hate crimes, local civil-rights activists do. "First of all, we do consider this a form of violence," says Hannah Hauser, program coordinator at SafeSpace, about Long's actions. "By him putting this stuff forth, that's a trigger for the entire community, to being screamed at, to having the Pride flag burned, to saying, 'Death to queers, and you're next!'"
In the future, Long may also need to tread lightly when it comes to threats against specific individuals on his show. Sandi Everitt, director of the Civil Rights Unit, says that Vermont's statute regarding electronic harassment could be construed as covering broadcast media as well. "The statute is not well-known," she says, "but it's the way we've been successful at getting some of those folks who think they're covered by free speech but are really going out and harassing individuals."
Most of the people who routinely deal with Burlington's homeless population and know Long declined to be interviewed for this story. They said they didn't want to compromise their relationship with him or violate his privacy.
Interestingly, one person who sees Long regularly but has never had a problem with him is Wanda Hines, executive director of the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf. Hines, an African-American, says that although she's heard his racist talk before, she and Long have "agreed to disagree."
It's easy to assume that racism and other forms of bigotry aren't problems in progressive-minded Vermont. Hines says that Long, in his own perverse way, performs a public service -- he exposes attitudes that many Vermonters harbor, but don't express. "John reminds us about how far we have to go," says Hines. "We're not out of the woods yet."