Columnist Karen Gardner: Justice for cyclists

  • A ghost bike memorial marks the intersection of Woodlawn Avenue and Elm Street in Northampton, where city resident and musician Charlie Braun, 69, was hit by a car and killed on Oct. 6 while cycling near Northampton High School. gazette file photo

Published: 12/7/2021 2:29:09 PM
Modified: 12/7/2021 2:28:41 PM

Have you noticed the ghost bike on the corner of Woodlawn Avenue and Elm Street? I pass that corner several times a week as I travel in and out of Northampton. And every time I pass that bike my heart begins to race, and I’m brought abruptly and painfully back to the time I first saw a white painted bike covered in flowers and notes of love and remembrance by the side of a road.

The ghost bike here on Elm Street was placed there to memorialize the spot where a cyclist had been hit by a car and killed on an October afternoon this year. The bicyclist was a 69-year-old man named Charles Braun and the driver of the car a 23-year-old woman. The driver reportedly was engaged in a FaceTime video phone call when she drove through the stop sign at the corner and hit Mr. Braun, ending his life.

My heart goes out to Mr. Braun’s family and friends, and from what I’ve read, he was a much-loved member of our community. Losing a loved one is never easy, never. But losing someone in this way, in such a senseless act of stupidity and irresponsibility sets me reeling.

The first time I encountered a ghost bike was on a sidewalk in downtown Austin, Texas, in October of 1998. The white bike was covered in flowers, photos and love letters, the display extending for yards around it. There was a photo attached to that ghost bike, a photo of my son Ben. While riding his bike through the intersection there, he was hit by a young woman driving through a red light. She reportedly was looking for a CD on the floor of her car.

And that’s how it happens — do something that you know, or should know, is dangerous, like look for a CD, or have a video call on your phone while driving your car, your 3,000- or 4,000-pound car, and someone could get killed. And they do.

In Ben’s case, the 21-year-old woman who killed him admitted to police that she’d had a drink earlier in the evening. Now you’d think that would prompt them to test her blood alcohol level since she’d just killed someone. But you would be wrong. No such tests were administered.

It has always seemed to me that they didn’t bother to test her because she was a young white girl, driving an Acura. And it’s unavoidably obvious after these last few years that some police treat people of color in ways they don’t treat white people. Ben was white as well, but very dark skinned from a recent trip to Costa Rica. Perhaps if their roles in this tragedy had been reversed, that Ben had run that red light and she was killed while crossing the intersection on a bike, things would have played out quite differently. He surely would have been arrested on the spot and of course, tested for drugs and alcohol.

In reality, he was tested for drugs and alcohol, but not until after his death. Why, I ask you, was that necessary? Were they attempting to pin his death on him rather than the woman who hit him with her car? I don’t have any answers to these questions and never will. Ben’s test results came back negative, but we’ll never know what was floating around in her blood that night.

She went on to plea bargain her charges down to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to perform 80 hours of community service and to visit the site of the killing once a month for a few years. And shockingly, she was never charged with running that red light. She was able to go on with her life. Ben was not. There was no justice for Ben.

I’ve often wondered if someone had been hit and killed as Ben was, but in Northampton, would things have been handled differently than they were in Austin. The police would have made sure that a blood alcohol test would be administered and would have treated her as the murder suspect that she was. There would have been a thorough investigation, an indictment, a trial, and perhaps a conviction. It wouldn’t have brought Ben back to me, but I would have felt that the right thing had been done.

In Mr. Braun’s case, the driver of the car who killed him has been arraigned and charged with negligent motor vehicle homicide, failing to stop for a stop sign, and use of an electronic device while driving. She has had her license to drive suspended and cannot leave the state without permission. Seems like a good start to me.

The woman who hit Ben was also charged with criminally negligent homicide, but she was allowed to continue driving and never received a ticket for running the red light. And of course, she walked away free with barely a slap on the wrist.

I want justice for Charles Braun, the justice that my son never received. I have hope that here in our community we will see that justice come.

Karen Gardner, of Haydenville, can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com


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