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Does It Matter That 'Hero' Charles Ramsey Has A Criminal Past?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, with us in Washington, D.C.

Also here in Washington, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar. With us from Boston, health care consultant and contributor to the National Review magazine, Neil Minkoff. Also with us, Michael Skolnik. He's editor-in-chief of with us from New York City. Take it, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, hey, fellas, welcome to the Shop. How are we doing?

MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Fellas, what's going on?

NEIL MINKOFF: Hey, we're doing good. How you doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Just popping some tags 'cause I only got $20 in my pocket.

MARTIN: That's what's up.


SKOLNIK: Hey, hey.

IZRAEL: Whoa. Does espresso(ph) win the award(ph) of the day? And I'm feeling it.


IZRAEL: All right. Let's get things started. You know, everyone's had their eyes on my hometown of Cleveland this week. If somehow you haven't heard, three missing women were found in the same house this week. They were allegedly kidnapped about 10 years ago. Right, Michel?

MARTIN: You know, I remember when this first happened, Jimi. You were just ecstatic. I remember - can you talk about that for a minute? I just...

IZRAEL: Yeah, yeah, I mean, there's - I've never - I mean, people that know me, for what it's worth, I mean, I love my hometown because my family is there, but I'm not a big fan of Cleveland. This is one of the very first times in a long time I feel like I can hold my head high. You know, I've never been so proud to be a Clevelander as now. You know, this...

MARTIN: Because why?

MINKOFF: Just put your Browns jersey on.

MARTIN: Right.


MARTIN: But why? What is it? Stop. But why? Is it because you just feel the way the community's rallied around these women? Or what is it that evokes such pride?

IZRAEL: This story had the right ending. And when I first heard - I heard about in the middle - in the early morning hours Monday, and I shed a tear. I mean, I have a daughter, I have children, and if they had been gone for 10 years and re-emerged, I don't know. I mean, it was amazing. It's amazing. Good time to be a Clevelander.

MARTIN: I hear you. Well, just to catch people up who may not be following all the facts of this case as closely as everyone else, as we know, one of the women, Amanda Berry, escaped. She alerted the police. Authorities found there were two other women in the home. She immediately called attention to them.

Unfortunately - well, I don't know if it's unfortunately. I don't know how to describe this, but it does appear that the 6-year-old girl who was also rescued with Amanda Berry, the preliminary DNA tests show that she is the daughter of the suspected kidnapper, Ariel Castro.

Well, you know, this has so many threads to it, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: Why don't you just, you know, pick up the thread where you started it and just say whatever your other thoughts about this?

IZRAEL: You know, people wonder how this could've occurred. I lived not far - I used to live not far from where this occurred. And, you know, it's the kind of place where the pizza man doesn't deliver, and the police, you had to call them three and four times, you know, to get any kind of response. So that's how this could've happened.

And it's the kind of place where the neighbors don't necessarily trust each other. This couldn't have happened in Shaker Heights or Cleveland Heights, where this man's boarded-up, kind of disheveled home would have attracted the attention of - he would've gotten fined for it. You know, this could've only happened in the poorest of neighborhoods of Cleveland.

MARTIN: Interesting.

IZRAEL: Michael Skolnik, you've been following this. Your reaction, brother.

SKOLNIK: Yeah, I think you had it right. I think it was incredible ending. I got to bring up my man, Charles Ramsey, you know...

IZRAEL: Yeah, man.

SKOLNIK: ...who found - you know, who heard the screams of Amanda Berry and ran to the door and kicked it down, and helped her get out and gave to me one of the greatest interviews that we've seen in a long time. My man really came to the rescue. And not only came to the rescue, he was proud of what he had done. Even in the 911 call, when they asked him to give his name or his number, if he wanted to, he said of course, I'll give my name, my number. He was so proud of what he had done. And I think that we need to applaud people like that, who stand up and are not afraid to go to a house - as you said - that had, you know, plastic bags over the windows and never seen anyone come out of it. Charles came to the rescue, and is a hero.

IZRAEL: You know, I took some issue with that early on because he - what he did was certainly - he's certainly a good samaritan, but I'm not sure if he did anything that any other black man wouldn't have done walking down the street, necessarily, you know. I mean, I'm not taking anything away from him, but I don't know if I'd say he's exceptional. He doesn't deserve a cape on his back.

I mean, I think his assessment that he was just a dude that did what he had to do at that time is the correct read. I think another dude walking down the street would've done the exact same thing. I believe that.


IZRAEL: Because I'm from Cleveland. I know my city.


MINKOFF: So can I jump in? I agree that a lot of people would've done the thing. I think that the reason we focused on him so much is he was so gregarious and so different, and it was a way of focusing on the case without focusing on the horror. That was my...


MINKOFF: ...take on it, is it was the ultimate feel-good distraction. So if we focus on, is he a hero or isn't he a hero, or is he a great interview or is the kind of out there, we don't need to pay attention to what happened in this horrific basement in conditions we can't possibly imagine that shouldn't be happening next door to anybody, we'll just focus on the sideshow.

MARTIN: Interesting. That's interesting.

IZRAEL: Dr. Neil, thank you for that. A-Train, you know, my take...

MARTIN: We'll just point out, remember, Neil is trained as a doctor, so you weren't being funny there.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: I didn't mention at the beginning, but he is trained as a doctor.

It's an interesting perspective. Arsalan, what about you?

IZRAEL: Yeah. I mean my take on that was that, you know, he kind of became this Internet star - not just because he was gregarious and stuff, but also because, this is a guy from the side of the tracks that most people watching him on the news would cross the street to avoid. And this was an opportunity to kind of look and marvel at this cultural attache from the dark side, and I resent that, frankly.


IFTIKHAR: No. I would resent that too. You know, for me the most poignant point of Charles Ramsey's interview was when he said, quote, when a little pretty white woman runs into the arms of a black man, you know something's wrong.

IZRAEL: And he was just signifying. He wasn't dropping no social science, he was saying something...

IFTIKHAR: No. But I think...

IZRAEL: ...people would say at any barbershop in America.

IFTIKHAR: Right. But I think there is some social science to this. You know, obviously, you look at the historic case of Emmett Till, who was a 14-year-old teenager in Mississippi who was murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. So you know, there is this microcosm of, you know, what men of color in this country have had to deal with in terms of social interactions with people from quote/unquote the other side of the tracks. And so, you know, for me I think that that really resonated, you know, in terms, you know, we know that there is no Good Samaritan laws in most states. You don't really have to do something if you know that a crime is being committed. He did something because, you know, he did it out of the goodness of his heart. But I thought that that, that one quote really, really resonated with me.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to the point where it's now been autotuned.



MARTIN: I mean he as a character and that quote itself has been autotuned. Do you want to hear it, just so...

IZRAEL: Yeah. Absolutely. Drop it.

MARTIN: OK. Here it is.


CHARLES RAMSEY: I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran to a black man's arms. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. My neighbor got big (bleep) 'cause we see this dude every day. We eat ribs with this dude, but we didn't have a clue that that girl was in that house.


IFTIKHAR: Oh, man.


SKOLNIK: I mean I got to give it up to the Doc though, in Boston because, you know, this was so damn tragic...


SKOLNIK: And the whole thing, as it unwinds, it gets even worse when you think about how unfathomable, how a man could do this to a woman and for years. And just to have a laugh at the end of all this, just to like take a breath and say, man, at least give me a good feeling that there is hope.

IZRAEL: But Mike...

MARTIN: Let me ask you about this. Let me ask you about this. Let me...


MARTIN: ...let me ask you about this though, because now, you know, Arsalan, Arsalan, I don't know, you were just, you put on your forecasting cap but, you know, you emailed earlier in the week to say, you know, no good deed is going to go unpunished, just wait. And then it emerges that one of the websites - the Smoking Gun - reports that he has a criminal past.


MARTIN: That Mr. Ramsey was convicted of domestic abuse, that he stands accused and, in fact, was held accountable for hitting his wife and there are other sort of issues there. So does that change anything for you? I just want to ask how you feel about that.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know, it was one of those things where I think what I actually emailed you was, that, you know, no good deed in America by a man of color goes unpunished and this was a perfect example of that. You know, this doesn't - this does not take away from the heroic acts that he did...

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

IFTIKHAR: know, but it is going to be used by detractors to, you know, perpetuate stereotypes and things like that.

IZRAEL: Yeah. The first thing I did when I saw his name is I ran it through the clerk of courts and I was like, aw man, he's in big trouble.

MARTIN: What did you do that?

SKOLNIK: Yeah. Come on, man.

IZRAEL: Because I'm a reporter, that's why did it.


IZRAEL: Yeah. I mean I did the diligence right off the bat. But, you know, to everybody's point about - Mike, I appreciate your point about the levity and the dead giveaway, but why is the misery of poor, disenfranchised, often people of color, why is that fodder for Auto-tune? You know, so Sweet Brown is running from her burning home...


IZRAEL: ...Antoine Dotson trying to protect his sister, who may or may not have been sexually assaulted, now this guy. You know, why is the misery of poor people, you know, entertainment fodder? He isn't a comedian, he's somebody in the midst of a very important emergency. And we're not laughing with him, we're laughing at him because we don't know him well enough to laugh with him. So I don't know. I...

MINKOFF: Well, what I was - one of the things I was responding to that he was saying wasn't - I was going a little different way. He was talking about the fact that he - he had eaten ribs with this guy, he knew this guy, he had no idea what was going on there. I was responding to the fact that he was putting it all out there and he was saying I can't understand how this is happening around me. Like I'm not a fan of the Auto-tune. I'm not putting him down that way. I was saying that it was easier to focus on his reaction than it was to focus on the crime because the crime is disgusting.

MARTIN: That's - well, but why - well, I'm puzzled by why you insist that people are laughing at him. And let me just for, for just the sake of...


IFTIKHAR: ...accuracy, point out that there's another man, Angel Cordero, says he is the first person to help Amanda Berry. He was initially discovered by the Spanish-language media, now a lot of other people have interviewed him. Subsequently it seems to me Amanda Berry can clear this all up at the appropriate time. I don't know just for what that's worth. But why are you so convinced that people are laughing at him and not...

IZRAEL: Because he is not a comedian. He's somebody recounting something really ugly and scary that happened, and of course, he signifying when he's doing it and he's talking about he used to eat ribs with this dude, he's telling you about the level of intimacy he had with his neighbor.

MARTIN: But maybe he's using humor in his own way to deal with the horror of the situation.

IZRAEL: He signifying about something very serious.


IZRAEL: You know, and I appreciate that, but he's not a comedian.

MARTIN: OK. I think we get it. You're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney, Arsalan Iftikhar, journalist Michael Skolnik, health care consultant Dr. Neil Minkoff.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

IZRAEL: OK. Well, let's keep it moving. And by keep it moving, apparently, I guess it has exercise and stuff involved with it, as it involves Chris Christie, because I'm pulling for (unintelligible) because the New Jersey acknowledged this week that he underwent weight loss surgery in February. Go get 'em, Christie. What do you say, Michel?

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. What you all say about this? One of the things I'm interested in, Arsalan, maybe I'll go to you first on this, and Neil, I certainly want to know what you have to say, trained as a physician, is that, you know, with women, you know, we've kind of gotten to a point where - particularly people in politics - there's been a lot of discussion about whether you should even be talking about people's appearance and weight. And somehow with him, it's like open season on him. People are allowed to talk about this, you know, all the time. I mean he's continually making appearance on late night talk show comedian's roster of almost like required jokes. You'd think it was in the Constitution that people were required to joke about him. But on the other hand, this is a serious issue. So I don't know, when you think about it?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think don't hate the player, hate the game.

IZRAEL: Right.

IFTIKHAR: You know, I totally, totally support Chris Christie in this, you know, if it's going to help his overall health prospects. I mean at the end of the day, it's about him, you know, it's about his health and what he feels is necessary for himself as a person and for his family. You know, like you said, Michel, he has become fodder. I mean he famously went on David Letterman, you know, eating a donut, you know, and had been the butt of jokes for a long time, and I'm sure now people are going to look at him a little more seriously.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: But, you know, he also has been rather defensive when other people have raised it. For example, do they remember this?


MARTIN: When a former White House physician said that his weight...


MARTIN: ...was a problem and that she was hoping that he would address it before he ran for - her name is Dr. Connie Mariano, and she was on this program, actually, earlier too. Here's what he said about that.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: She must be a genius. She should probably be the Surgeon General of the United States, I suspect, because she must be a genius. I think this is just another hack that wants five minutes on TV.

MARTIN: Ouch. So he obviously was not pleased.

IFTIKHAR: It's true though.

MARTIN: So Neil, what do you think?

MINKOFF: So I had the opportunity - I was actually standing right next to Chris Christie up here in November at an event, and I was shocked at how much bigger he seemed without a suit coat on, not on TV, right directly in front of me. As a medical professional, I think it's a great thing, as highlighting the problems with obesity and showing - especially as like kind of a tough guy - that it's OK as a tough guy to do something to take care of your weight and to take care of your family, I think that's a great message. I wonder if it's going to hurt his brand. I wonder if it's going to hurt his brand as the rambunctious, you know, heavy guy from New Jersey, kind of Soprano-esque that way, whether it's going to, you know, 'cause everybody kind of hints around that this is part of running for president - and it probably is - but I wonder if it's counterproductive.

IFTIKHAR: You know...

SKOLNIK: But if I could sort of jump in.

MARTIN: Yeah, Michael.

SKOLNIK: If I could just jump in for - I got an issue with Christie, man. I got a real big issue with him, because here he is on David Letterman the next day yelling at this doctor saying, you know, get out of here, and you know, making fun of being fat, and then a week later he gets his tummy tucked. And this, you know, he acts like a tough guy. He wants to be the tough guy. He's not a tough guy. And when Michel Obama, our first lady, has an incredible program, Let's Move, the Republicans just, you know, diss her and say what she's doing, she shouldn't be doing that, and she's actually trying to promote healthy living and childhood obesity. If he wants to do something good for this country and good for himself, then promote not being fat, then promote being in shape, then promote not eating doughnuts on David Letterman. It's not a joke. Like there are a lot of young heavyset kids who are watching him who are saying, oh, I could eat donuts to 'cause the governor is eating doughnuts.

IFTIKHAR: Mike? Mike? Did you just call Chris Christie a studio gangster?

RAMSEY: I'm saying...

SKOLNIK: A little bit.


IZRAEL: It's like Mike came down from the Boogie Down Bronx...


IZRAEL: ...with the intellectual brass knuckles on.

IFTIKHAR: He just pulled a Udonis Haslem on him.

IZRAEL: Gave him a whopping.

MARTIN: OK. Well, I have one more thing that I wanted to run by you. And this, it's sort of bums me out, but Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant is getting attention for moves on another court. His mom is trying to sell some of his memorabilia from earlier in his career - in his high school career, and she's been paid an advance about half $1 million from an auction off. Kobe says he did not give his mother permission for this and she's just retaliating against him because he would not buy her not just any house...

IFTIKHAR: A bigger house.

MARTIN: ...but a bigger house than the one he's already bought her. And then she says she's - and he says she's mad because he claims that - she claims that he's bought his in-laws a nicer house. And I just - ehh. But I do wonder about this. Arsalan, you're the attorney here. Is that, does he have a case?

IFTIKHAR: Well, first of all, this definitely gets the ridonkulous award of the week.


MARTIN: But on whose part? For who?

SKOLNIK: The Mamba.

IFTIKHAR: On both of them. On the mama's part, mainly. It's like come on, get a...

IZRAEL: Double.

IFTIKHAR: Kobe's mom. You know, we all have parents that have done things that we have not liked. You know, when I was in - graduating from law school, I handed my mom my diploma and she looked at me and she said, are you going to surprise me now and go to medical school?



IFTIKHAR: I was like, you know, but she's still my mom and I love her. And in this case, Kobe...

MARTIN: I think this is a little different. Just saying. Sorry.

IFTIKHAR: Kobe offered to buy his parents a $250,000 house. They wanted like a $450,000 house. You know, the question remains, who, under whose ownership is the memorabilia currently? If it's sitting in a basement in the house of the parents, you know, a judge will have to decide, you know, if it's still considered quote/unquote Kobe's property or not. But it's definitely the ridonkulous award of the week.

MARTIN: I'm sad about it. What about you, Jimi? I'm going to give you the final thought here.

IZRAEL: I'm sad about it too. I don't like to see, you know, families fight like this. Me and my mother had a very similar thing. She's trying the cell my typewriter, you know, to finance her next home. So far...


IFTIKHAR: I already bought it.

IZRAEL: Oh. Well...

MINKOFF: Can you get it back?

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: And what are you going to buy with it? A smart car?

IZRAEL: Or lunch.


SKOLNIK: I think Kobe's mad he's not in the playoffs. Knicks play tomorrow night. Let's focus on a real team.


MARTIN: Oh. Ouch. With that being said, Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He is also adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He was with us in D.C. Also in D.C., Arsalan Iftikhar, civil rights attorney and founder of Michael Skolnik is editor-in-chief of; that's a news and entertainment site founded by Russell Simmons, with us from our NPR bureau in New York. Neil Minkoff is a former doctor. He's now a health care consultant. He's a contributor to the National Review, with us from NPR member station WGBH in Boston.

Thank you all so much.


SKOLNIK: Happy Mother's Day to the mamas.

MINKOFF: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Hey. Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our new Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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