I’m fascinated by the evolution of frontier justice in the digital age. Whenever there’s a story of someone being turned on by the internet, I’m completely captivated. Regardless of whether or not it’s deserved, I just can’t turn away. It’s one thing to watch a story spread like Janet Jackson’s nipple across the internet, but it’s something altogether different to see individual people so caught-up in a story that they decide to invest themselves on a personal level, joining in an anonymous movement to bring a specific person down for his or her perceived crimes. And we’re seeing an incredible example of this play out today, where the internet, based on a 33-second video clip, has collectively decided to ruin the life of a University of Michigan student from New York.
While there’s considerable debate over what happened prior to the 33 seconds captured in the video, these are the facts as we know them. On Sunday, March 20, a U-M student by they name of Jake Croman, or one of his friends, requested an Uber pickup. And, when the driver, a man by the name of Artur Zawada, arrived, a verbal altercation ensued, during which Croman, surrounded by his shouting Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) frat brothers, began berating the driver, calling him, among other things, a “minimum wage faggot” and a “little piece of shit.” [That’s Croman on the right in the image at the top of this post.]
I can understand why this video went viral in Ann Arbor, where, for a long time now there’s been concern about the growing influx of wealthy New York students, and how their presence might be changing our beloved little midwestern college town, but I’m not quite so certain as to why this story has taken off nationally, when there are so many videos posted each day of people berating one another. My guess, and I’d be curious to know what others think, is that the weight of the internet is coming down on Croman, who happens to be the son of Steven Croman, one of New York City’s most reviled landlords, because of the class dynamic at the center of the conflict. [The elder Croman, by the way, is currently under investigation for possibly using illegal tactics to force out rent-stabilized tenants.] It’s a story, I think, that plays well in a nation where the middle class is disappearing and a species of arrogant, entitled super-rich are emerging.
When Croman sticks his face in Zawada’s car window and says, “You’re an Uber driver, go fucking drive, you little fuck… There are fifty of you, and there is one of me, who spends the most money, you little fuck,” it understandably pushes people’s buttons. And, it doesn’t help when, at the end of their confrontation, Croman yells at Zawada, as he’s walking away, that he’s just going to go back to his apartment and watch television, implying that he’s of a class that doesn’t have to struggle, like the man he’s yelling at, in a service industry job that’s beneath him.
The exchange between the two men is timely, just as it was timely back in 1963, when Bob Dylan read about the killing of a black, 51 year old barmaid by the wealthy young son of a Maryland tobacco farming family, and penned The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Some things just speak so perfectly to the time in which they happen that there’s really no way you can ignore them.
Here, if you haven’t seen it, is the video.
As for the true facts of the case, I have no idea what’s really going on here. Croman has said in a statement that the incident began when the driver made an offensive comment and “refused to pick me up on the basis of my religion.” And others on Youtube have since started leaving comments claiming that Zawada has made anti-Semitic comments in the past. Zawada, in response, has offered his Uber rating is 4.8 after 2600 rides. He’s also said that this was the fourth run-in he’s had with Croman and his friends. According to Zawada, who was apparently born in Poland, he told Croman after the third incident that he was contacting Uber to have him banned from using the service. Last Sunday, though, Zawada says that Croman used his friend’s phone to request a pick-up. “(The) rider knew from Uber application who is the driver,” Zawada said today on Youtube. “He had option to cancel to avoid any issues but he/they proceeded to abuse, harrase, belittle and provoke like kindergarten thugs.” For what it’s worth, Croman told BuzzFeed News that he too was verbally abused. “Shortly after the verbal altercation, I filed a complaint with the Ann Arbor Police Department and they are now dealing with the issue,” he told them. According to BuzzFeed, though, “An Ann Arbor police spokesperson subsequently told BuzzFeed News they could not locate Croman’s name in their reporting system. Croman said he was unable to immediately provide a case number for his report, saying he was away from school.”
One suspects, if there’s more to it than what we’ve seen in the video clip above, that we’ll know soon enough, seeing as how a few of Croman’s frat brothers also seemed to be recording the incident. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep an open mind, and consider the possibility that Zawada wasn’t completely without blame. That doesn’t, however, in any way mean that Croman was justified in his condescension and use of slurs. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume, based on this public display, that this was a one a one-time occurrence for Croman.
Back to the main point of this post, though… I’m just fascinated by how quickly the story took off, and how little time it took from the point when the video first showed up on Reddit and when someone launched the site JakeCroman.com, promising Mr. Croman, “Within hours or days, this website will be the #1 listing on every search engine for your name. Anyone who searches for you anywhere will come here first. You’re fucked.”
As Croman is wealthy works for his father, I doubt this will really impact his life too greatly, but it does make me wonder about the power of the internet to destroy people’s lives, and just how much damage a person can do in 30 seconds.