In his 1972 account of the Ik, a mountain people in northeastern Uganda, American ethologist John B. Calhoun wrote of the fate of an old blind woman named Lo'ono, one of hundreds of Ik forcibly relocated by the Ugandan government from their ancestral homeland to a desolate area of the Kidepo Valley. Cut off from their cultural roots and, more significantly, food, the Ik responded to their plight by developing a horrifying insensitivity to human suffering. So it was that when Lo'ono one day had the misfortune of falling into a ravine and gravely injuring herself, the entire village crowded around the edge of the chasm to laugh and jeer at her. Broken, she writhed on the ravine floor and pleaded for help. And still her people laughed, tossing sticks and pebbles at her as she lay near death.
Calhoun told the story as a warning. The Ik weren't an inherently evil tribe, he wrote. Prior to their relocation, they were renowned for their warmth, kindness and hospitality. But fed a steady diet of misery and despair and little else, this is what they became: a heartless mob howling at the misfortune of those even less fortunate.
What happened to Lo'ono and her people, Calhoun warned, can happen to any of us.
Though he's never been to Africa, San Diego resident Rufus Hannah is, in a sense, Lo'ono's spiritual kinsman. Like the old blind woman, he, too, is intimately familiar with what it's like to suffer for the amusement of others. Though he doesn't do it intentionally, Hannah has become something of a master at understatement.
On Jan. 7, Hannah will walk into the main ballroom of the Embassy Suites in downtown Sacramento and be honored by a crowd of hundreds for his extraordinary achievements. In the audience will be his friends, family, associates and a host of dignitaries from across the state, including Fiona Ma, majority whip for the state Assembly.
At about noon, Robin Toma, president of the California Association of Human Relations Organizations, will introduce Hannah and the nine other recipients of the group's Civil Rights Award. Presented every year or two when the association gathers for its statewide conference, the award is bestowed on those Californians who—in Toma's words—“have demonstrated a commitment to civil rights and human relations, who have exemplified that commitment in their life and in their work.”
What makes Hannah's service to others so praiseworthy is that if anyone ever had a reason to turn his back on society, it's him. Society had, after all, discarded him as beyond redemption, left him to suffer the schemes of the very worst of men. But somehow he survived, rising from the dust with more hope and compassion in his heart than most of us will achieve in a lifetime.
To watch the video knowing that it's supposed to make us laugh is to despair for humanity. Shot sometime in 2001, it shows Rufus Hannah being beaten senseless by his best friend, Donald Brennan.
Brennan's fists land on Hannah's face with sickening wet smacks, the sound a steak makes when you beat it with a tenderizer. Hannah gives as good as he takes. Both men are Army veterans; they know how to fight. Their eyes bulge with pain and blood frenzy. The cords on their necks strain until you fear they'll break through the skin.
But it's the sounds that really get you. The grunts of the two homeless men as they beat and claw at each other. The sound of soft tissue smashing and splitting against rough pavement. The cracking of bone—Brennan's left ankle is clearly broken by the end of the fight. And in the background, like a soundtrack, high-pitched hooting and laughter. Behind the video camera is Ryan McPherson, at the time a 17-year-old student of Grossmont High School in El Cajon. McPherson knew Brennan from the neighborhood—Brennan's mother lived on the same block as McPherson's parents. It was McPherson's idea for the two friends to fight; he got the two longtime alcoholics drunk and then offered them a few bucks to go at each other on camera. The fight was, in a sense, gladiatorial combat, except that in ancient Rome, the combatants would have been better rewarded; and creatures like McPherson would have been condemned as public threats and tossed headfirst from the Tarpeian Rock.
It's McPherson's laughter that can be heard in the background.
“I was a sloppy drunk at times, and I guess the word got around,” says Hannah, who earned the dubious nickname Rufus the Stunt Bum. “At the time, I was sleeping behind a liquor store in El Cajon. One evening, I was back there and Ryan pulled up in his car. He said, ‘Are you Rufus? I hear you get drunk and fall down a lot.
“He asked if I wanted to make five bucks. I said, ‘Sure.' So he pointed to some crates nearby, and asked me to run into it headfirst and knock it down.”
For McPherson, the plight of the homeless in his community was a golden opportunity. An aspiring guerilla filmmaker, McPherson was constantly on the prowl for fresh material—the more shocking, the better. With the homeless, he had a readymade pool of talent just begging for exploitation. No one cared what happened to them. Even better, McPherson quickly found that the addicts and alcoholics in his neighborhood would do anything he asked of them. Just get them loaded and slip them some cash—a couple of dollars, a fast-food burger—and they'd jump off buildings for him. He could do anything he wanted to them.
And he did. Over the next couple of years, McPherson and his young partners—Zachary Bubeck, Daniel Tanner and Michael Slyman—went after the homeless population with relentless cruelty. They pitted them against one another in gruesome bare-knuckle fights, made them jump off buildings and run headfirst into walls, sent them tumbling down steep slopes. All to the sounds of mocking laughter, all with the video cameras running.
McPherson and his partners formed a production company called Indecline and, in 2002, slapped some of the violent footage together and released Bumfights: Cause For Concern, a direct-sale video that they marketed through their fledgling website for $19.95 apiece. An estimated 300,000 copies were sold in the first year.
Bumfights is essentially a species of pornography—worse than pornography, actually, when you consider that actual soft porn is interspersed throughout the tape's 57-minute running time to make it more palatable. The video and the sequels it spawned are still being sold on websites, popping up side-by-side with foreign scat films and the infamous Faces of Death brand.
Indecline eventually sold the rights to Bumfights to a couple of Las Vegas entrepreneurs for an estimated $19.5 million. McPherson and Co. were sitting on top of the world.
But forces were already at work that would soon change everything.
One day back in the summer of 2000, Hannah and Brennan had a chance encounter with Barry Soper, a San Diego property owner and civic volunteer. The meeting could hardly be described as pleasant.
Soper was visiting the 62-unit town-home complex he owned and managed when he spotted a man—filthy, bearded and in ragged clothes—rummaging through a trash bin in front of the property.
“I yelled, ‘Hey you! Get the hell out of here!'” recalls Soper, who lives in Point Loma. “He said that he was a veteran and took out his vet card to show me. I said, ‘I don't care if you're a veterinarian! Get out of here!' All of a sudden, a second guy came out of the Dumpster like a jack-in-the-box. It was scary. He said, ‘Hey, man, you're ruining our canning drive.'”
The jack-in-the-box, Soper learned later, was Rufus Hannah. The veterinarian was Donald Brennan.
Soper chased the men away and was headed to his office in the complex when a neighbor across the street, an elderly man whom Soper recalls only as “Mr. Hawkins,” called him over.
“Mr. Hawkins, a very religious Southern Baptist, started telling me off,” Soper says. “He said, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.' Just then, I saw the two were walking back toward us. I pointed to them, and Mr. Hawkins said, ‘You have to hire them. Now.'”
So Soper hired the pair on the spot, or at least pretended to.
“I told them to show up at 10 a.m. the next day, figuring they wouldn't,” he says. “When I showed up the next day at 10, there they were. I thought, ‘Oh, God, what do I do now?'”
Over the next month and a half, Soper supervised as Hannah and Brennan built a fence around the complex. Soper was pleased with their performance. They finished the job and said their goodbyes. Soper wouldn't see the pair again until about five months later, when he ran into them at a gas station near the complex. When he saw Brennan's face, his jaw dropped.
“Tattooed across Donnie's forehead was the word ‘BUMFIGHT.' I didn't think it was real at first,” he recalls. “I asked him, ‘What is that?' He said that these filmmakers had got him drunk and paid him $200 to do it. Then he told me about the fights.”
Soper, who at the time was volunteering at Oak Grove Institute, a drug-treatment center for teens in Murrieta (today he's director of the facility's board), listened to Brennan's story, then replied: “That's horrible. I'm going to get you a lawyer.”
Soper contacted Browne Green, the lead partner of the high-powered Santa Monica law firm of Greene, Broillet & Wheeler. Green agreed to represent Hannah and Brennan, with one condition.
“He said I had to make sure they showed for their deposition,” Soper says. “Rufus and Donnie were all excited when I told them. They agreed to meet me at my office, and I'd take them down for the deposition. But they never showed.”
Soper says the Indecline producers had learned they were under criminal investigation by the San Diego County District Attorney's office and had whisked Hannah and Brennan away to Las Vegas to hide them—and to shoot more footage. The DA's investigation began when a nurse treating Hannah's broken ankle reported the incident to police.Brennan says the pair's treatment at the hands of the Bumfights producers worsened in Las Vegas to the point of outright torture. At one point, Hannah was exhorted to pull one of his teeth out with a pair of pliers. He and Brennan were watched constantly. Finally, when the producers started pushing the men to perform sexual acts on camera, Hannah telephoned Soper.
“Barry,” he said when Soper picked up the phone, “can you get us out of here?”
Soper drove to Vegas and brought Hannah and Brennan back to San Diego, putting them up in a Motel 6. A day later, the DA's office filed felony and misdemeanor charges against McPherson, Bubeck, Tanner and Slyman. The charges ranged from battery to staging illegal fights. The four pleaded guilty to the misdemeanors and were sentenced to community service at homeless shelters, though McPherson and Bubeck would later spend 180 days in jail for failing to do even that.
On Oct. 3, 2002, Hannah and Brennan sued the four producers and the Las Vegas men who purchased the Bumfights brand for—among other things—assault and battery and violating their civil rights. They also sued Inkers Tattoo & Body Piercing, the San Diego business that tattooed Brennan's forehead and all 10 of Hannah's fingers with the Bumfights brand. The case was settled in 2006 for an undisclosed amount of money.
McPherson, who now lives in Las Vegas, could not be reached by phone. Indecline, which also relocated to Vegas, did not respond to CityBeat's e-mails requesting comment.
Soon after returning to San Diego, Hannah suffered a seizure—the first real indication that though he had been rescued from the Indecline crew, he was far from saved. He was still an alcoholic; both he and Brennan continued to drink heavily. Soper drove Hannah to a V.A. hospital, where a doctor told him he suffered permanent neurological damage from the trauma to his head.
“The doctor said, ‘Rufus, you've got some severe injuries, but most of all, you're going to be dead in six months if you continue drinking,'” Soper recalls. “I said, ‘Rufus, do you hear what he's telling you?' But his only response was to use some swear words.”
Soper decided it was time to try some tough love.
“I took him to a mortuary,” he says. “He said, ‘What the hell are we doing here?' I said, ‘I'm going to buy you a casket. If you don't get into a program, I'm going to buy you this casket, and then I won't want anything more to do with you.'”
Hannah says he can't remember what he said to that, only that “it got me mad and it got me thinking.
“Barry had put me and Donnie in that motel room, and we just kept drinking and drinking,” he says. “The only time we left was to go get liquor. It got to the point that I couldn't get to that feeling—that feeling of not caring. I thought about my kids—I have five kids, three of which I haven't been able to find out the addresses for. I was never in touch with them. That's the way I wanted it because I didn't want to tell them I was on the street, didn't want them to remember me as a drunk who died on the street. There was so many reasons to quit, and then I had the support of Barry.”
In October 2002, Hannah checked himself in to a VA treatment program in La Jolla. He's been sober ever since. About a year later, he told Barry that he wanted to learn to be a better speaker. Soper responded by buying him an enormous dictionary, which Hannah studied until the pages started falling out.
At Soper's urging, Hannah starting speaking at colleges, talking to students about issues facing the homeless and the need to show compassion toward America's most vulnerable minority population. He toured the country, addressing larger and larger audiences, including one where the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, listened with rapt attention to his story.
Hannah's work brought him to the attention of Barry Levin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. Levin asked for Hannah's help in an effort to make attacks against homeless people a hate-crime category. The two men appeared together in a January 2006 60 Minutes segment spotlighting the Bumfights videos and the damage they've caused.
Since the first Bumfights video was released, crimes against the homeless in America have skyrocketed. In 2006 alone, 122 people were attacked and 20 murdered, according to statistics compiled by the National Coalition for the Homeless. That year, the number of people murdered for being homeless was double the number of all hate-related homicides in the U.S.
“We've seen examples of kids videotaping these assaults and referencing the Bumfights films in their attacks,” Levin says. “We had a case out of Calgary where people actually yelled out, ‘Bumfights! Bumfights!' I don't think any reasonable person can look at the facts and doubt these videos have had an impact with regard to victimization.”Levin nominated Hannah for the Civil Rights Award he is about to receive. The two men got to know each other well while meeting with state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, who introduced a bill to make attacks on the homeless a hate crime in California. Thus far, the bill has failed to get out of committee, largely due to reluctance by legislators to pass any law that would put more young men in prison.
“How could I not nominate him?” Levin asks. “This is a guy who had nothing, who turned his life around and decided, just through sheer will and righteousness, that he's going to help out those who are still homeless. And if someone like that can make this kind of change, what a lesson it is for us schmoes who have so much more and have done so much less.”
Brennan, 58, recently married and today lives in an El Cajon trailer park. He still drinks, though he insists he's cut back a lot.
“I have a stainless-steel rod holding my ankle and leg together, and when it gets cold, I have pain,” he says. “But it beats sleeping behind the stairs at Staples when it's raining and you don't have a sleeping bag. I have a wife, food in the refrigerator, money in my pocket. I'm living life the way it's supposed to be lived. And I'll never leave my friend Rufus. We'll always stay in contact.”
Hannah is still single and says that after living in a treatment facility with 17 other men, he plans to stay that way. He's become deeply religious. He also still feels the effects of his ordeal: The head injuries he received left him with epilepsy and an equilibrium disorder—he'll probably never be able to drive a car again. But, like Brennan, he says he's never been happier.
“I'm working for Barry [Soper] now, as an apartment manager,” he says. “I'm working with the National Coalition for the Homeless and still talking at colleges. One of the things I like most about what I do is that a lot of young people will come up to me afterward and ask questions. A lot of them will go on to work with the homeless themselves. That's just amazing.”
He pauses for a moment, then adds: “My life is good, you know? My life is just good.”