The Syn is Dead/Long Live the Syn

As a spectator of the burgeoning activism scene on campus, I’ve been struggling to keep track of the major players. Groups and causes at Yale have high turnover rates, and I’ve learned the hard way that it’s best not to get too attached. After all, it’s tough to have one’s heart set on Occupying Morgan Stanley when everyone else has long since begun Pushing for Divestment.

But this year, I forgot about my pledge of disengagement. I chose to champion the Yale Syndicate, an underdog group with what I hoped was just enough audacity to successfully patch the university’s various wounds.

I cheered when its tiny rabblerousing army orchestrated a walkout of Rick Santorum’s debate with the Yale Political Union on “traditional marriage.” I felt I could trust my damaged heart with the artistes who had manufactured a zine the Yale Herald deemed “Best Rival Publication” earlier this winter. They vowed to save me — and fellow campus sinners —from the temptations of “unjust power, despondent apathy and paralyzing complacency.”

But, as I learned in the last several weeks, the Y Syndicate is dead. Or at least in a deep coma, lacking nearly all vital signs of life. Don’t worry: the process was slow, but not painful. In fact, they barely realized it was happening. Or maybe the Syn hasn’t died so much as dissolved. The solvent was time, and maybe a dash of apathy—along with over-commitment.

Perhaps it’s best if, like most of the campus, you were only marginally aware of its presence. Fewer to mourn its inopportune passing.

In mid-March I spoke with the student collective’s leaders-by-default Carl Chen ’13 and Marc DeWitt ’15, along with a few others, in order to perform its last rites—a verbal autopsy of sorts.

We began with its birth. The group started in the spring of 2012 as a circle of four or five students frustrated by a perceived neoliberal status quo and seeking a space for radical leftist intellectual discussion. They individually “brewed on that for most of the summer” and returned in the fall ready to christen their shared anger, Chen told me.

The term “syndicate” comes out of the anarchist branch of anarcho-syndicalism, which rallies an underclass to band together to control its own fate. Y Syn wanted an organizational structure that was similarly “kind of collective, kind of union, but a little more autonomist and horizontal,” Chen said.

Like their namesake tradition, they aimed to avoid power’s corruptive tendencies.

“We didn’t want a place at the table,” DeWitt clarified. Unlike fellow activist group Students Unite Now (SUN), Y Syn wanted to deconstruct powerful institutions like Yale without forming new ones. It was the perfect set-up: a near-impossible challenge, a greedy corporate archenemy, and a healthy rivalry.

In the beginning, things worked. They held assemblies that netted as many as fifty members in front of Beinecke Plaza’s war memorial. They invited professors to speak with them, including political scientist Jim Sleeper, known for his scathing criticisms of many Yale administrative decisions. They even kept up a website until late September.

Nick Leingang ’13 was most involved with the process of creating the zine—a homemade, collage-style publication common in activist circles. He solicited submissions from friends with similar political leanings to “revitalize public discourse,” the Syn’s stated goal.

Distributed erratically across campus in hard copy and eventually posted online, the zine featured illustrations, lists, articles and manifestos. Leingang wrote a personal essay called “Straddlers” about the struggles of being a Yale student from a working class background. Kendra Dawsey ’14 curated a “Basic Bitch List,” which includes Christopher Columbus, “legitimate rape” believer Todd Akin, and Yale’s slaveholding residential college namesake John C. Calhoun.

But their attempts to move from discourse to public action hit a roadblock: how could they turn their idealized alternatives into concrete solutions?

“Can you live out…theory?” Chen asked. The simple answer is: probably not. Especially not while at Yale. But I can see the appeal of setting vague goals and taking a meandering path to meet them.

Thinking about that path, I get a flashback. A grassless lawn, a sea of tents, huddled bodies. Occupying. A 2011 New York Times article described Occupy Wall Street as a protest movement with “faulty aim,” a “lack of cohesion,” and a “wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably.” And that was a relatively tame critique, before the protesters slunk out of their encampments and out of the major press.

Both leaders were familiar with Occupy’s well-documented pitfalls, but Chen says they wondered if they could be the ones to get a little closer to closing the gap between theory and reality, as students “in a safe space with a lot of time.”

And when President Richard Levin announced his departure, the presidential search proved to be good for a test drive.

Both Y Syn and its friendly competitor SUN petitioned for transparency in the process. While Y Syn tried to “create its ideal world,” SUN’s approach to activism was more “direct,” Alejandro Gutierrez ’13 said. The group rallied students to speak with the search committee at an open forum.

But a forum was a little too formal for Y Syn’s style. No wheedling for change—they wanted action. And they wanted it to be “playful,” DeWitt said. SUN was angry with the university administrators for excluding student voices, but Y Syn never expected anything better from them in the first place.

In late September, SUN and Y Syn started a petition on that received almost four hundred signatures from across the community—albeit of a community that includes eleven thousand current students. At the open forum on September 28, students expressed their grievances to the search committee for over two hours. Earlier that day, Y Syn members chalked classrooms in Harkness Hall and Linsly-Chittenden Hall with “playful, but critical” slogans, to encourage the student body to attend the meeting, DeWitt said.

In early October, they placed empty wooden chairs on Cross Campus, Old Campus, and Beinecke Plaza, with signs taped to them that read “The Empty Seat of Student Representation in the Presidential Search Committee.” A photo of one of the chairs made it into the Yale Daily News’ Cross Campus section. Presumably, students passed by the grouping on their way to section that Wednesday night.

This initiative, like other Y-Syn public actions, DeWitt clarified, was not “endorsed democratically by the Y Syndicate assembly.” The organization was founded not to strictly organize students in the traditional sense, but rather to encourage participation in proactive and reactive critiques of the university.

A month after the chairs were placed, the Yale Corporation chose Peter Salovey as Yale’s new president.

Famed Yale anarchist James Scott theorizes in his 1985 work “Weapons of the Weak” that powerless people use small rebellious acts to protect their interests against institutions trying to extract their labor, goods, money, or interest.

If we zoom in so uncomfortably close that Yale is the world and the Corporation is the state, maybe we can see Y Syn’s strategies as analogous to those Scott describes, which include “foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering [and] feigned ignorance.” In the right circumstances, resistance of marginalized peoples can drastically change the course of the state’s decisions and severely undermine oppressive projects.

Without student input, the Corporation may have forgone the safe option and “chosen someone more imperial,” DeWitt said.

Plus the Syndicate’s existence gave SUN a public relations boost, Chen said, preventing either from seeming like “some fringe, marginal sort of organization.”

But Leingang thinks the group’s focus on the presidential search was misdirected, especially since many were seniors, unlikely to be affected by the university’s future president. “Yale faculty, Yale workers, New Haven people should be involved. Our opinions don’t really matter,” he said.

Ultimately, Y Syndicate may have been the wrong vehicle for grassroots activism altogether.

“Hierarchical institutions are more efficient. We just weren’t about efficiency,” DeWitt said.

Realistically, perhaps Y-Syn is just a ragtag band of pranksters. I’m sure others could successfully argue they’re neither, both, or somewhere in between. Either way, they’ve done something, mainly whatever they felt like doing, whenever they felt like doing it. Numbers, structure, organizational longevity? Not that important.

Over this year, Chen and DeWitt said they’ve seen individual acts likely inspired by the Y Syndicate. For example, neither was sure exactly who sent out an e-mail from President-elect Peter Salovey’s e-mail referring to himself as the “President-select,” with the explanation, “It seems that my ‘s’ key was malfunctioning.”

And neither knew who had painted event fliers blue and pasted them on the bulletin boards on Cross Campus. DeWitt suspects it may have been a statement about Yale’s controversial plans for a liberal arts college in Singapore.

Gutierrez confirmed that SUN was not responsible for either action.

For those seeking to continue the trend of sporadic semi-subversive hijinks, Y Syn leaves behind a heaping dose of institutional skepticism, a devil-may-care attitude, and vague plans for more zines. No one I spoke to knows definitively when or whether the group will continue its coordinated efforts. Perhaps when the weather is nicer, they said.

In early August, Cord Jefferson was hired as the West Coast Editor for online publication Gawker, after a job as a senior editor for GOOD magazine. In between editorial positions, Jefferson has built a rich repertoire of articles freelanced for outlets including The Nation, National Geographic, NPR and The Root. He often writes on topics related to race and class. He sat down with The New Journal to discuss diversity in media today.

Aliyya Swaby: You’re the second black editor Gawker has ever had. Why is this significant?
CJ: I think that there are things that you simply can’t do as a publication and viewpoints that are hard to come by without having a lot of diversity on staff. In an increasingly multiracial nation with an African-American in the White House; if you don’t have a significant number of people of color on staff, you’re approaching irrelevance.

Juliana Hanle: You wrote an article for BET News this summer about racial disparity in marijuana use prosecution in the US. How and when do you decide to approach articles using a racial angle?
CJ: I have no interest in being the guy that’s cramming racial stuff down people’s throats. Having said that, I think there’s no way to get around the fact that race has influence over pretty much everything that happens in society — from politics and criminal justice to music and fashion and real estate.

I do often feel pulled to discuss the racial element because it fascinates me. Privilege is invisible. If you’re middle class or a wealthy white person in America, you don’t see how your race affects everything that you do.

The thing that’s a blessing and a curse for brown, black, females, and other minorities, is that you’re able to see how often race influences your life. In most cases, “playing the race card” is just a person of color acknowledging that race is a real thing that exists, and that there’s a power dynamic that goes along with it.

AS: In The Root last April you described being a “formerly angry black man” before going to anger management. Could you have written an article like that one in a publication that wasn’t specifically from an African-American perspective?
CJ: Absolutely. Gawker has been open to me writing about racial stuff. They have never said no to pitches that deal with race. The smarter outlets and publications see that these are important issues. You can’t just publish something anymore that caters exclusively to straight white men.

AS: What do you think mainstream media outlets should do to improve the diversity of their newsrooms?
CJ: People should be very earnest and direct about fact that they want to hire people of color, women, and gay people. The fact that you’re looking for a diverse newsroom is not something about which to be ashamed.
Not having a diversity of opinion will start to make people look foolish, like it made Tina Brown and Newsweek look foolish for propagating nonsense about all Muslims being violent.

JH: Can you point to one key lesson you took from your experience studying sociology in college?
CJ: Sociology helped me understand that the idea that certain groups of people are civilized and others are uncivilized is kind of meaningless. The barriers we put in place to restrict ourselves from one another are all manmade. I went to William and Mary—I would imagine Yale is kind of similar. Those kinds of environments are really tough places in which to get a real sense of what’s going on outside of campus. People struggle with things that many William and Mary or Yale students don’t struggle with. Sociology taught me that those people’s lives were not worth any less than the life I was leading. They were just as valuable, interesting, and important as mine.

JH: At The New Journal, our writers, some of whom come from privileged backgrounds, find themselves writing about a city where a lot of social issues deal with race and socioeconomic status. Do you have advice for a college student handling these issues?
CJ: I’m the same way. I’m a person of color but at the same time, my mom’s white. I also come from a middle class background–my dad’s a lawyer. The best advice I can give is not to be embarrassed not to know things, not to be embarrassed to feel uncomfortable in a place. Some of the greatest pieces I read, whether they’re creative fiction or creative nonfiction or journalism, are about people who find themselves in uncomfortable positions: places where they don’t know a lot, where they have to work really hard to understand why they’re feeling the way they are about what they’re encountering.

The best piece of advice you can give anybody is, don’t go to a place with an agenda.

AS: You have an active Tumblr you update regularly. How does the site interact with your journalistic writing?
CJ: I can’t tell you how many times things I put on Tumblr and Twitter have become the kernel of some other bigger story that I was working on. Being able to put your ideas into a quick safe space like that and to see what people say about them is beautiful.

AS: You recently came under fire for a Gawker article you wrote arguing that pedophilia should be considered a sexual orientation, and in subsequent blog posts, you apologized for some of the article’s shortcomings. How should a writer deal with the possibility of backlash when reporting on sensitive topics?
CJ: You have to have thick skin, especially when you’re going to write about topics that are really sensitive, like gender issues and race issues. You have to go in knowing people will be angry. The pedophile piece is a perfect example. I talked to my editors about it and we knew that it would make some people hate me right away. You have to be willing to admit that you may be wrong and be willing to discuss things.

There were a lot of rational critiques of that piece, but there were also a lot of irrational ones. There’s a great Ricky Gervais quote, “Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re in the right.” Right now we have to realize that the Internet is like the Wild West. You have to be willing to take heat, be yelled at. After that pedophile piece came out, this feminist writer and editor in New York who I really respect e-mailed me said, “Hey, if you want to talk about the responses people are having, then let’s talk.” We chatted for two hours. For me, that conversation was worth a million people yelling at me online.

Hotel Duncan is tucked discreetly next to Yale University’s campus, on Chapel Street, across the street from an art school building. It is marked by a tall vertical sign with golden letters that no one seems to take the time to look up at. The hotel’s own Web site calls it “eccentric.” Online reviews of the hotel either excoriate its noisy heating system and stained amenities, or forgive the hotel’s drawbacks in view of its prices (around sixty dollars per night). The hotel claims to have the oldest hand-cranked elevator in the state of Connecticut.

And according to the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection’s sex offender registry, the Duncan also currently serves as a permanent residence for seven convicted sex offenders. (I later learned that one of them had moved, but the registry had yet to be updated.)

Phillip Palmieri lives there. On July 14, 2006, he was convicted of second-degree sexual assault for having sex with a minor. The girl was 14 and he was 32. I met with Palmieri in the hotel’s lobby, because he felt uncomfortable speaking about the topic in a coffee shop or in any other public place. I knew his basic measurements from the state registry—the 40-year-old Caucasian male stands at a modest five-foot-seven and weighed, when the information was last updated, 180 pounds. He was released from prison on June 17, 2008.

In person, Palmieri looks leaner, younger, and better groomed than in his photo on the registry. His hair is dyed jet-black and he wears skinny jeans. As we spoke, his ice-blue eyes were animated and his tone was energetic.

I had never met a sex offender before this encounter. I knew the story of Megan Kanka: on July 29, 1994, in a town in New Jersey, Jesse Timmendequas lured the seven-year-old girl into his house across the street from hers, raped her and then strangled her with a belt. Timmendequas had had two previous sex convictions, but the Kanka family was never informed of this about their neighbor. In response, national and state governments made major changes in the way they legislate where sex offenders can live and how specific information about these crimes is relayed to the public.

But there are still problems with the system. Because the state registry does not provide detailed information about offenders’ crimes, I assumed Palmieri had forcibly raped his victim. The idea of seven convicted rapists living only a tenth of a mile away from my dorm room sounded to me, a 20-year-old woman studying at Yale, like the premise of an improbable horror film. The scariest aspect of the situation wasn’t their crimes, but the fact that I didn’t know enough about them to be able to judge the level of potential danger for myself.

Palmieri says he “fucked up.” He had just come out of a divorce after a five-year marriage with a woman seven years older than he was. When he met the 14-year-old on a “Gothic” social networking site, he was in bad shape, he says, “at the bottom of the barrel.”

The legal age of consent in Connecticut—and in most other states—is 16. Palmieri says he thought the age of consent was 15 years old, a “misguided conception” based on the fact that a few of his friends at the time were dating 15-year-olds without any trouble. But the girl was not even going to be 15 for two more weeks.

The relationship was consensual, Palmieri says.

“I hate to break anyone’s heart, but no, I didn’t hold her down and put a knife to her throat. That’s what people think. It’s a hard stigma to break free from,” he says. Palmieri, as the registry indicates, was convicted of sexual assault in the second degree, which does not involve force in Connecticut law.

The state is in the process of complying with a federal mandate to include more information on the state registry, which will help clarify individuals’ crimes and separate higher-risk sex offenders from those less likely to harm their communities after incarceration. As I listened to Palmieri’s stories as well as those of two other sex offenders, however, I realized that the proposed legislation will not resolve major problems in the way our system treats sex offenders. The failure to distinguish between low- and high-risk offenders is not limited to the registry, but affects the entire system. It’s a system, I became convinced, that is counterproductive, preventing many low-risk offenders from reintegrating into society, increasing the likelihood that they will commit crimes and putting the rest of us in greater danger.

There is no law in Connecticut regulating where sex offenders are allowed to live. Instead, the Court Support Services Division in the state judicial system oversees probation officers who create customized plans for individual offenders once they are released from prison, explained the division’s director, William Carbone.

“Finding a place for a sex offender to live is always difficult, he said. The state employs what Carbone calls a “containment model,” in which a probation officer, treatment clinician, and an advocate for the victim collaborate with each other and the offender to determine the optimal post-incarceration plan. This includes determining where the sex offender is allowed to live. The ultimate decision on where offenders are allowed to live rests with the probation officer.

Usually an important part of each plan is preventing the offender from living in close proximity to those under the age of 16, in order to prevent the offenders from committing another crime, Carbone said. Because of this requirement, many sex offenders end up living in shelters until the state can find housing for them. This effect may be mitigated to some extent when Connecticut’s first residential treatment facility opens in Montville, Connecticut, in a few months, after a long battle between legislators and angry community members. The facility will help sex offenders readjust to life outside prison. But the facility only has twenty-four beds, not nearly enough space for all the offenders who might need it. And when they leave the facility, those offenders will still have to find homes, which can be difficult for anyone with a sexual assault charge on their record.

Hotel Duncan is not an anomaly in its housing seven sex offenders, Carbone said, though he did not know of the hotel specifically. There are many reasons why probation officers might direct offenders to the hotel, he said, including that it is not in the immediate vicinity of minors. Officer David Hartman of the New Haven Police Department said the department does not pay close attention to specific residences on the registry unless there is reason to do so. There been no cause for concern at Hotel Duncan, he said.

Palmieri has lived at the Duncan since he was released, because it was the cheapest place he was allowed to live. He is unemployed, collecting odd jobs here and there from employers willing to overlook his felony charge. He had his own place before the conviction but couldn’t afford it after prison. He also considered moving back in with his parents, but there were minors living in the apartment complex, so he wasn’t allowed.

“It was either this or the homeless shelter,” he explains. Palmieri has seven more years on probation.

Although finding a new place that probation will approve seems like a matter of sheer luck, getting out of the hotel is not impossible. In the past year, there has been some turnover as three offenders moved out and one moved in, according to my perusals of the registry since last winter. Edward Boppert used to live in the Duncan but moved six months ago to West Haven, to an apartment his brother helped him find. Compared to Palmieri, Boppert seems deflated when I meet him, like something’s been beaten out of him. He’s 68, a retired multi-machine operator now settled with a pension and Social Security. He seems determined to hold on tight to what he has, simply by being unassuming, and he takes pride in his success so far.

Boppert urges me to talk to the manager of the Hotel Duncan, his former landlord, as a “reference.” His reasons for speaking to me are clear: he has been convicted of a crime and wishes to change society’s negative perception of him.

“He’ll stick up for me. He’ll say that I always minded my own business,” Boppert says earnestly about his landlord.
In the letter I originally sent to Boppert requesting an interview, I made no promises. I explained I was looking for an account of his experiences reintegrating into society since he was released from prison. In order to make my request seem more palatable, I asked for the parts of his story he was willing to share—the details he was not willing to share, he could omit. I don’t want to believe that the details of his or the other two sex offenders’ stories were false, but at the same time, I don’t know what they chose not to tell.

When I ask him to explain how he got into trouble in the first place, Boppert gets quiet. “It was—” He looks around the Starbucks to make sure no one is watching and then cups a hand beside his mouth and leans toward me. “It was just computing,” he whispers. I press him for details.

“Computing,” he whispers again, then feels obliged to elaborate. “Porn.”

“Like…children?” I say. Of course, I already know most of Boppert’s story from the registry. He was convicted of five counts of illegal possession of child pornography on August 31, 2007, and he was released on January 28, 2010.

“Yes,” he responds, and looks disappointed with himself. He tells me he was caught while in the process of moving residences—the pornographic pictures he’d found online blew out onto the driveway. The movers found them and turned him in. It’s good that it happened, he says, because it made him stop looking at child pornography earlier than he would have otherwise. He has nine years of probation left to go. According to the registry, he’s the same height as Palmieri. I can’t see it under his red-and-white flannel shirt, but I know he has a three-inch scar on his right shoulder.

Using the addresses on the registry, I attempted to contact the five other offenders, besides Palmieri and Boppert, currently living in the Hotel Duncan. The hotel’s receptionist told me that one had moved out about a year ago, though the change had not been updated online. Another, the only one living at the hotel with a federal conviction, had been recently changed on the registry to “non-compliant”, meaning he had not checked in with probation for more than three months. He did not respond to my letter or calls. Three declined to be interviewed.

The last sex offender, James Szelest, 38, said at first that he would only talk to me on the record if I omitted the hotel’s name and address. If people read my article and found out there were sex offenders living there, customers might stop staying at the Duncan. If enough people were turned away, he explained, the hotel might go out of business.

This put me in a difficult position. On the one hand, Szelest’s address was public information, easily accessible with a few quick online searches, and I could not omit it from the article. But on the other hand, he had a good point—my article could deter potential clients, put the hotel out of business and send him, along with the others, to a homeless shelter.

The state’s probation system essentially forced the offenders to aggregate in one place. And not just any place, but a hotel on a busy street right next to an affluent university, sure to garner attention. In publicizing this information, the state registry, a tool meant to ensure community safety, could actually be responsible for putting them all on the street. The overall system seemed inherently faulty, dangerous and unfair, for the sex offenders and for the communities where they live.

Two years after Timmendequas raped and killed seven-year-old Megan Kanka, President Bill Clinton signed Megan’s Law, requiring each state to register sex offenders and to publish personal information about them. As long as these two basic national requirements are met, each state has authority over its own version of the registry. It is more recent legislation, passed in 2006, that requires registries to categorize offenders by the level of risk they pose, but Connecticut has postponed updating its registry for budgetary reasons.

It is a problem that Connecticut’s current registry does not provide much information that could help viewers understand the level of risk that individual offenders pose, said Mike Lawlor, a former state representative and now the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice and planning. On December 5, there were 564 sex offenders in 449 locations within five miles of my zip code, 435 offenders in New Haven, and seven in the Hotel Duncan, according to the registry. It gives physical information, conviction and release dates, addresses, and the degree of sexual assault for each individual, but not, for example, whether the individual has assaulted males or females, adults or kids, strangers or acquaintances.

The state has a system to determine whether sex offenders pose high, medium, or low risks of recidivism and harm to the community, but the information is used exclusively by probation and parole officers and is not even publicized on the registry, Lawlor said. He also, controversially, argues that some low-risk offenders should not be on the registry at all, including some who were convicted for statutory rape.

“For example, a high school senior who takes a high school freshman to prom. The classic case where the parents call the police. O.K., that’s what the law says, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the guy who had sexual relations with this girl is a high-risk pedophile,” he said. Ideally, the state would establish a board responsible for determining risk specifically for publication on the registry.

Most people perusing the registry in its current form will assume, as I did, that all of the sex offenders living in the Duncan pose a high risk to the community. Most people would probably be afraid of what might happen at the Duncan. Lawlor said if the state added risk categories notifying the public whether or not there are high-risk sex offenders living in the hotel, this clarification would help assuage these fears. But I’m not sure that solution alone would solve some of the major problems with the system.

A few weeks after our first phone conversation, Szelest called me back and left a message apologizing for his earlier resistance to being interviewed.

“It’s hard enough being published already,” he said, referring to the registry. Unlike Palmieri, who will only be on the registry for a total of ten years, a standard amount of time for sex offenders, Szelest said he will be on it for life, because of the court ruling on his case.

He was worried about losing his home at the Duncan if I published the story, he said, but decided he wanted to “get his side out.” He was arrested for the possession of child pornography, according to the registry and corresponding court records. He said he turned himself in to the police after his wife found the photos on his computer.

Szelest said he “disgraced” his country by his actions. He is an Army veteran and has been threatened by his neighbors in the Duncan and by other veterans. Although an expanded registry would help the public determine the risk offenders pose to those around them, Szelest added in a later interview, he is put at risk by the fact that his legal status is public. More information is not necessarily better for his safety.

Meanwhile, recent research questions whether the registries really increase community safety across the nation, said Randall Wallace, program director of the Center for Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior at nonprofit The Connection. The organization oversees treatment for all offenders in the state of Connecticut and will oversee the treatment facility in Montville once it opens. Although Wallace said the most effective registry would categorize offenders by risk level, he added that research shows no significant correlation with registries and reduction of risk of recidivism for the offender. In fact, some experts say, registries can decrease community safety by causing members of the public to focus on offenders who are strangers to them. Most victims of sexual assault, however, know their assailants. In relying on the registries for information, the public may be ignoring threats from people who are closer to them.

Why did this ineffective system develop? Possibly because early research on sex offenders made conclusions based primarily on studies on high-risk sex offenders, instead of distinguishing them from offenders who did not pose a high risk of harm to the community, according to David D’Amora, an academic expert on sex offense at the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The way academics view sex offense today is very different from the way they thought about sex offenders a few decades ago. Early studies focused only on the highest-risk offenders, suggesting that sex offenders were drastically different from other criminals, D’Amora said. Sex offense was treated like an incurable behavioral problem that could only be managed, such as substance abuse, instead of like a curable disease.

“The person is responsible for their behavior and needs to be held accountable, but that got turned into, ‘Oh my goodness, they can’t ever change,’” D’Amora said. “We went too far in trying to think about it.” Academics reached conclusions about basic characterizations of sex offenders that were inconsistent with the reality of the situation.

But Wallace said he “adamantly” disagreed with the idea that some offenders can be cured, adding that the reality was more nuanced. Many sex offenders have specific incurable problems closely related to their sexual crimes, such as anger management and alcoholism. During the treatment process after incarceration, Wallace said, the state system determines which problems are linked with the offenders’ crimes and then creates a therapeutic plan to manage them long-term. But both agreed that there was a population of offenders at low risk for recidivism who should be cycled out of the system as soon as possible.

Research shows that only a small minority of sex offenders recidivate and that the majority who do actually commit non-sexual crimes correlated with factors such as lack of employment and housing, D’Amora explained. So Szelest’s worst nightmare, being kicked out of his home at the Duncan, could mean trouble for the rest of the community as well, since many of the offenders in the Duncan aggregation would become homeless.

Indeed, there is a group of sex offenders more dangerous than the rest, whose crimes are symptoms of incurable mental problems. The issue is that many laws in states across the country have been developed based on this small subsection, instead of based on empirical studies of the larger population, D’Amora said.

“In fact, when we over-respond to low-risk offenders, we actually increase their failure rate, which does not increase community safety,” he said. This over-response could deprive low-risk offenders of stable housing and jobs, making it more likely that they will fail to integrate completely into society. Sex offenders living in unstable situations are more likely to commit crimes that may have nothing to do with their original offenses, endangering the community.

There is a new trend at the federal and state levels toward developing policies that are based more on what the evidence says works, instead of on a “knee-jerk response,” D’Amora said. It’s important for low-risk offenders to be able to develop appropriate skills, behaviors, and relationships in order to properly reintegrate into society and avoid recidivism.

Boppert and Szelest both lost their marriages to their mistakes, and both live alone with only minimal contact with their families and former friends. Palmieri is convinced that the system is attempting to ruin his relationship with his boyfriend, Sucre Romero, 21, whom he met after being released from prison and coming out as bisexual.

Romero is a drag queen performer at York Street Café and Palmieri often went to his shows to help out backstage. But last spring, Palmieri was assigned a new probation officer who banned him from attending, saying it was sexually stimulating and therefore inadvisable. When Palmieri complained to the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, he claimed his probation officer changed her reasoning for the restriction, instead saying it was justified by the presence of alcohol at Romero’s performances. She put a GPS tracking device on his ankle to prevent him from going, and then several days later she wrote up a warrant that said he had violated his probation. Palmieri, who spent twenty-two days in prison because of the warrant, said there was no basis for it. He said the probation officer had falsely accused him of possessing pornographic videos of his boyfriend performing in the shows. Palmieri added he was fired from his job as a bellhop at Hotel Duncan because he had to miss work while in prison.

“The twenty-two days I spent in prison when she violated me, twenty-two days away from [Romero]—I was a basket case,” he said. “And they say they want us to have healthy, consenting relationships.” He is now involved in a court case related to the incident and was the subject of a June 30 article in the New Haven Register. In that article, he was quoted as saying, “You can’t keep me from getting sexually aroused…Be happy, I’m getting sexually aroused by adults.”

In early November, Romero tagged along during one of my interviews with Palmieri at the top level of the store Gourmet Heaven. There were a few other tables occupied, but Palmieri seemed less worried this time about being overheard.
It was easy to see the tension in their relationship. Romero lives in New York, and Palmieri isn’t allowed to leave the state without checking in with his probation officer in advance. Sometimes Romero makes plans for long-distance trips with his friends, and both in the couple are disappointed when Palmieri cannot get permission to go in time. The relationship confused me—I’m less than a year younger than Romero and getting past a potential partner’s sexual assault charge would be difficult for me. I asked Romero what his reaction was when Palmieri first told him about his legal status.

“It was unexpected,” he said, when Palmieri revealed the information to him after a few weeks of dating. But by that time, he had already gotten to know his boyfriend and realized that he was a good person. That made it easier to forgive his mistakes, Romero said.

Not everyone in Palmieri’s life has been as understanding. One of his probation officers once told him that his relationship with Romero was unhealthy, because he said Romero looked like a 14-year-old. One of Romero’s friends told Romero he would rather date a murderer than a sex offender. Comments like this upset Palmieri—people make assumptions about him because of his charge, before they know anything else about what he did or who he is.

He once read an article in a local paper interviewing a man released from prison after serving more than twenty years for killing his wife “in a crime of passion.” Palmieri says the article praises the man for starting his own business and turning his life around after being released.

“Never in anybody’s lifetime will we see an article like that about someone with a sex offense…I can’t be around minors, but does this guy have any restrictions about getting married again? It’s ridiculous,” he says.

The stigma also harms the people who were victims of the original sexual assault crimes, said Tina Greaves, director of victim advocacy at Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services. Victim advocates are involved in the probation process after a sex offender is released from jail. Their job is to make sure the victim’s perspective is represented in the decisions made about where the offenders can live and work. A large percentage of sex offenders know their victims, so if an offender were to commit another sexual crime, it would probably involve someone they already know. Offenders that are better integrated into society after incarceration are less likely to commit another crime, so it is safer for the victim if the offender has a more stable life.

Last winter, before I had even met Palmieri or the other offenders, I visited the Duncan to talk with the hotel’s manager, Richard Longo. I told him what the interview would be about before I got there, but he seemed shocked and defensive when I brought up the topic in person.

Longo said he hadn’t been aware that there were, at the time, nine sex offenders living in the hotel, adding that he didn’t “keep tabs on it.” This seemed unlikely to me, especially since at the time Palmieri was also employed there as a bellhop. Longo said he had no idea whether the hotel’s other patrons were aware of the fact, unless “they are savvy with a computer” and he refused to comment on whether patrons should be told about their offending neighbors when moving in. I tried to get him to elaborate, but he effectively sent me packing.

I called Longo again this fall, equipped with notes from my research and interviews. But he again refused to comment, even when I informed him I would publish the article either way. I understand why he was defensive. He probably felt as though I was threatening the hotel’s future, although he is doing the community a service by taking in the sex offenders, whether or not that is his intention.

One of the offenders living at the Duncan is Joseph Dabrow, who is non-compliant. The registry indicates that Dabrow is guilty of three counts of sexual assault in the fourth degree, or nonconsensual sexual contact including rape. There were no more details about the crime. Though he was listed as a federal offender, his charge in federal court was not identified. But after a quick Internet search, I found an article in The New York Times from January 27, 1999, which revealed more detail: As a Boy Scout troop leader, Dabrow was accused of sexually abusing some of his scouts between the ages of 12 and 15, groping several and exposing himself to others. The federal charge was for illegal possession of pornography. He pled guilty to the federal charge and asked the judge to give him a maximum sentence in order to qualify for a sex offender treatment program at a federal prison in North Carolina, according to the article.

The law aims to target offenders who commit crimes such as Dabrow, but offenders who have committed nonviolent crimes seem to be getting caught in the legal net. I lack the information and expertise necessary to try to predict whether Palmieri, Boppert, and Szelest will commit crimes in the future. The state’s new regulations promise to make the determination of risk easier for people like me, but the next step is for the state to legislate differently based on those categories.

Hotel Duncan is striking, not necessarily as an example of an aggregation, but as an example of a place willing to house people who have been highly stigmatized in the public eye. Driving sex offenders into homelessness and into the desperate situations that often lead to crime seems dangerous, for them and for us. Low-risk offenders with homes, jobs, and healthy relationships, those who are successfully integrated into society, are less likely to resort to actions that make our communities unsafe. It is a question of pragmatism, not forgiveness. The important goal is to improve our society by lifting its most marginalized members.

Szelest, Boppert and Palmieri agreed to talk to me because they are each forced to remain at the lowest points in their lives. They are constantly looking for something else to help them pursue normal lives again, to persuade those around them that they deserve more.

Szelest—nicknamed Turtle because of his weak chin and broad shoulders—hardly leaves the Duncan. He was abused by his adoptive father as a child and developed post-traumatic stress disorder, only exacerbated by his time in the army and the harassment he has faced since prison. He’s on full disability pay and sees a clinician on a regular basis, often visiting the Veterans Affairs hospital in West Haven. Ironically, Szelest graduated from paralegal school before he was charged and said he gave out a lot of legal advice in prison, while also researching law on his own time. He wants to move on, but he doesn’t know how. He’s left with remnants of a family, remnants of a life.

“I had plenty before but I don’t have any of it now, because I’m not sure what to do,” he says.

Boppert, retired, seems like he has the easiest lifestyle compared to the other two offenders. He doesn’t have to worry about money or employment. He is working on finishing his treatment program, and although he is near its end, he says it could take two or more years to finish, depending on his probation officer.

Besides his program, he goes to church and does his “Bible stuff” in addition to reading and watching a lot of television shows. He takes things day by day, he says, though sometimes he doesn’t feel like a “normal person.”

“Sometimes I cry at night,” he says. “That’s how bad it is.”

Palmieri is being evicted from the hotel—after losing his job as a bellhop there, he won an unemployment hearing in October, allowing him to collect further compensation from the hotel. He said the eviction is probably due to that situation. I wanted to hear the hotel’s point of view on the dispute, but Longo was unwilling to speak with me.

Palmieri is not sure when he has to move out or where he will end up living, but he seems resigned to the unpredictability of his life. He is still searching for jobs, and he has only found two temporary landscaping jobs in the last few months.

Surprisingly, when I last speak with Palmieri, he seems less anxious than he’s been in past conversations. He says he tries to get out of the Duncan as much as possible by spending time with his boyfriend and with his family. He’s angry at a public that deems him perpetually guilty and a system that seems to enforce this judgment. At the same time, he desperately wants to rejoin society.

“How much more of nothing can I have?” he asks.

The state probation system aggregated him with other sex offenders in a hotel in a busy street in the city of New Haven. This factor, combined with his lack of employment, lack of stable income and the tension on his most meaningful relationship, prevents him from living a normal life. And no one seems to be helping him. National laws and public opinion treat him the same as they would a dangerous rapist—a different kind of aggregation—making it more likely that he’ll end up on the street. The main threat to the community of Yale University and downtown New Haven is not people like Palmieri, but a system that makes them more likely to commit crime.

Meanwhile, across the country, families are sleeping a little more soundly.

Eating Garbage another man's treasure. Aliyya Swaby

As I hoisted myself into the dumpster, I could tell by the bulging garbage bags inside that we were in luck.  My guides for the night, two Yalies who live off-campus, were already tearing the bags apart in search of food to restock their refrigerator.

At first, everything looked inedible, but when I began sorting through the bags, I quickly learned how to pick out the gems. Unbroken packaged items are usually safe. Meat is only good “in winter, when it’s frozen,” according to one of my guides. There is no such thing as too many eggs—just throw out the broken ones. Apples, tomatoes, and other produce items with skins are okay, depending on the level of damage. Sushi is debatable.

When we finished with one bag, we tossed it to the side and plunged into another. We packed our finds into milk crates brought for this purpose. The excursion ended after half an hour, when there was no room left in the car for both us and the food.

The night’s yield included two whole red peppers, five bagged salads—Cobb and Greek—two almond pies, a bag of avocados, two loaves of wheat bread, a sack of potatoes, a handful of tomatoes, nine containers of unexpired tofu, and more than four dozen eggs.

Dumpster diving—sometimes referred to by diving devotees as “dumpstering”—is generally associated with those who don’t have enough money to buy the items they take from the trash. But for some people, dumpster diving is an ideological and political lifestyle choice. The practice is associated with freeganism, a term combining “free” and “veganism” that was born in the ’90s from the environmental and anti-globalization movements.

Freegans scavenge waste of consumers to avoid participating in the capitalist system. More simply put, they eat other people’s garbage. But as any freegan can tell you, garbage is a relative term.

I discovered a community of Yale students who dumpster dive, scattered across five or six different off-campus houses at Yale. Some go once in a while seeking a novel adventure, but several go once or twice a week as an alternative to grocery shopping for their households. Lacking meal plans, these students use the food as a primary or significant portion of their overall food supply.

In this group, dumpster diving is a social activity—it’s “more fun than shopping” and can turn into “a little bit of an obsession,” said ‘Frank,’ a Yale senior who requested anonymity. The best spots to dumpster dive are out of walking distance, and unlike grocery shopping, there is no guarantee that there will be any food. This fosters an atmosphere of sharing—students from different houses will carpool to get to a site or share their food with one another after a successful run.

Cris Shirley, ’10, said the relationships he built around dumpster diving at Yale were more important to him than the food itself. As a Yale student, he noticed that in many off-campus houses, traditional grocery shopping was often a source of tension.

Though the dumpstering reduces these students’ financial burden, it is not generally a necessity. “If I wasn’t dumpster diving, I wouldn’t starve. That’s for sure,” Frank acknowledged.

Rather, these students share an interest in frugality and keeping consumerism to a minimum. Some would call their politics extreme—dumpster diving is only one activity that reflects their collectivist ideologies. Frank said he and friends are planning a clothing swap on campus, where students will trade clothing they don’t want for someone else’s discarded items. He added that he personally hasn’t bought a brand-new item in years.

Shirley and fellow dumpster-diver Hans Schoenburg ’10 helped to found the website, which Shirley described as an “online community of gifting.” Members exchange goods and services to promote an “alternative economy” based on trust and a non-monetary value system. The pair are now hosting a “couch surfer” from Germany in return for his service doing repair work on their house. is a worldwide network that connects travelers with free accommodation.

Though state or local laws may differ, rummaging through public dumpsters, at least in New Haven, is legal. Trash, when deposited on the curb or in a public disposal area, is public property, as the US Supreme Court ruled in California v. Greenwood in 1988.

“Once it’s thrown away, it’s considered public, even if it’s in a dumpster,” said Nancy DeJesus, communications supervisor for the New Haven Police Department. “Anyone can take it.”

Divers run into problems, only when they dive in private dumpsters, on private property that belongs to food retailers or distribution centers. In these cases, dumpster diving’s illegality is a matter of trespassing, not stealing.

Shirley has been stopped by police three times in the past few years. In two of these encounters, the police took down the names of the people in his group and let them off with a warning. The third time, the officers made Shirley put back the food he had taken from the dumpster and leave the premises. The officials’ relatively lax approach follows from dumpster diving’s muddy legal status. On the one hand, the discarded food would not have been eaten otherwise. On the other, regardless of the trespasser’s intentions, his activities are still against the law.

“If it were advantageous for [the police] to do something about me, they would,” Shirley explained. “They’re trying to keep both parties happy.”

Why does food end up in the trash?

Grocery stores have standards for items they can sell in stores. Retailers must discard food from their shelves when it reaches the sell by date, or if it has been damaged.A few bruised apples? Throw the entire bag away. A broken egg? Dump the carton. “The funny thing is, when you’re dumpster diving, everything comes in packs of eleven,” Frank noted. His most impressive find was a box containing eleven jugs of quality maple syrup — one jug of the dozen had broken during shipping.

For their part, consumers bring food home and forget about it in their refrigerators, and restaurants throw out uneaten portions of meals. Unsurprisingly, the majority of food wasted is produce and dairy, which spoil quickly. One 1987 University of Oregon study showed that most household food is thrown out because of the misconceptions about perishable foods. Many people do not realize that milk and other dairy products, unless obviously sour, can still be consumed after their expiration dates.

Because of this, good food often goes to waste. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 1995 almost 96 billion pounds of food—27 percent of the year’s edible food supply—were lost at the farm, retail and consumer levels. Although some was diseased or spoiled, a significant percentage of food lost at the retail level was fit for distribution.

Dumpster divers have no trouble finding food from all levels of the food pyramid, including meat, fresh produce and dairy products. The food is often minimally damaged and needs only to be washed before being eaten. Shirley said he has never gotten sick from salvaged food.

If only five percent of the 96 billion pounds of food wasted in 1995 were recovered, the amount would adequately feed four million people for one day. Food recovery programs across the country seek to rectify this problem by redistributing leftover food, while businesses and restaurants have been implementing programs to reduce food waste, for economic reasons. There are other stores like Atticus in New Haven, that leave out their edible waste for the public to take.

Many Yale students eagerly participate in events such as Spring Salvage or Eli Exchange in which students trade clothing and other used items, but would never climb into a dumpster for the same items. Potential legal and health risks combined with personal standards for food intake may give many pause, but for those without those qualms, the choice is logical. As Frank explained: “I eat food. I know a place where I can get food that is free. It’s going to be wasted otherwise. As long as [grocery stores] are being wasteful, I feel totally justified in taking advantage of their waste.”