You probably barely knew Gary from Chicago before you heard he was once a criminal.
And you probably barely knew that before Gary, full name Gary Coe, became the center of a debate around how we talk about criminal justice, black men, and sexual assault in the US.
All this came from a brush with internet fame spawned from one of the wildest Oscar nights in history.
It’s barely been three days, but already the selfie-loving tourist who wandered into the middle of the Academy Awards and charmed the nation on Sunday night has experienced a sudden rise into internet fame and a brutal plummet into the throes of a media backlash.
Coe’s story — or at least the media narrative about it — is both an Internet Drama and a reflection of how society views black men. And even if you don’t know much about Gary Coe, you should know that his story is really part of a much larger story of mythmaking, scandal, and fear.
Act 1: the meteoric launch
Much as it did with the doomed Ken Bone, the internet fell instantly in love with Coe, who was part of the group of unsuspecting tourists invited into the Dolby Theatre during the Oscars ceremony by host Jimmy Kimmel. Gary from Chicago kissed the hands of the ladies in the front row, took selfies with every celebrity he could find, and generally seemed ecstatic to be there.
Coe’s few minutes in the Dolby Theatre gained him instant celebrity. Freebies and offers from Chicago businesses, including tickets from the Bulls and the Bears, poured in for Coe and his fiancée, Vickie Vines. The media hailed him as a “national treasure.” His picture flooded the internet, and the jokes followed swiftly thereafter.
It’s not quite accurate to call Gary an Oscar meme along the same lines as the now-infamous Best Picture envelope screenshot. But Gary was suddenly everywhere, and America loved him.
“Since Ken Bone is so 2016,” observed the New York Times, “America needed a new everyman to rally behind.”
But the Ken Bone comparison was more apt than most of us knew — though at least one Twitter user forecast what was to come:
NOBODY WRITE A THINKPIECE ABOUT GARY, WE DONT NEED TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT HIS PAST OR REDDIT HISTORY— Party Gras (@ManVsParty) February 27, 2017
The media, of course, did not listen.
Act 2: the twist
While most people were still wondering if Gary from Chicago had a last name, reporters were digging into his past. And while it wasn’t as immediately outrage-inducing as the spurious Reddit comments Ken Bone made about having looked at Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos and believing Trayvon Martin’s shooting was “justified,” what the media found was potentially much more damaging: Coe had just been released from prison two days before the Oscars.
The story: In 1997, Coe, now 59, was sentenced to life in prison for stealing perfume from a department store. Coe’s crime was petty theft, but because he had several prior convictions, he was eligible for, and received, the sentence under California’s draconian three-strikes rule, which mandated a sentence of 25 years to life for any convicted felon with at least three prior convictions. Under the 2012 passing of Proposition 36, Coe’s case became eligible for review, and a judge released him on February 23 — the Thursday before the Oscars.
So when Coe and Vines were approached by a tour guide as they strolled together down Hollywood Boulevard, they weren’t just a lucky, newly engaged couple about to get the trip of a lifetime. They were a newly engaged couple who had just been reunited after one of them spent 20 years in jail over three $279 perfume sets.
There are many different ways to read this story. You might read it as an incredible story of compassion and good fortune triumphing in the life of a well-meaning guy who made a bad judgment call. You might read it as the story of a repeat offender getting a second chance to commit more crimes. You might read it as the story of a reformed criminal getting a surprise welcome back to civilization (which is more or less BuzzFeed’s take).
For the record, here’s how Coe reads his own story. In an interview with ABC, he stated:
Change is possible. It's a sad day to be in prison for 20 years and not be able to be a dad, granddad to your children. You know what my son told me today, man, and I almost come to tears. He said he's proud of me. So to hear your children say that they're proud of me means the world to me.
Parts of the media, however, chose to read Gary’s tale somewhat differently — as the story of the American public getting duped once again by another fly-by-night internet celebrity who let us down by being imperfect.
Perhaps the clearest example of this take was an A.V. Club article that has since been partially retracted with an apology. “Well, that was fast,” the story originally read, going on to state that “America has been let down” by the news.
The A.V. Club later apologized and updated the article.
Now, here’s where things get really hairy: One of Coe’s prior convictions was for attempted rape, committed when he was 18, in 1975.
Act 3: the vilification
When Coe was released, the California judicial system reviewed his criminal history and determined that he had been fully reformed and was not at risk to reoffend. But certain outlets reacted to the news as though Coe were a predator among us.
“‘Gary from Chicago’ is attempted RAPIST,” blared the Daily Mail. Multiple outlets reported, incorrectly, that Coe’s long prison sentence was for an attempted rape he committed as a middle-aged man in 1997 — not true. Some of these stories are still standing without correction.
Even the stories that weren’t technically incorrect were still deliberately misleading, with headlines implying the false narrative.
It’s arguable that these inaccuracies were fueled by the 24-hour news cycle’s drive to perpetuate a compelling narrative; to some outlets, the story of “Oh, no, America got another Ken Bone” was apparently more immediately compelling than the story of a man who spent 20 years in jail, slowly reformed himself, and then got to hold Mahershala Ali’s Oscar.
But it’s hard to ignore another major element in the story of Gary Coe’s sudden demise: the way society views and treats black men.
Act IV: the tragedy, revealed
Compare the narrative of “Surprise! Gary from Chicago is a sexual predator!” to the narrative that occurred onstage on Oscar night — when Casey Affleck, a celebrity who was sued in 2001 for multiple alleged instances of sexual harassment, won the Oscar for Best Actor despite the protests surrounding his nomination. (Affleck has repeatedly denied these allegations.)
Affleck’s win follows the massive controversy surrounding black director Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation. That film went overnight from being a frontrunner for Best Picture to being one of the year’s most complicated issues after it was revealed that Parker had been accused (and acquitted) of rape while in college.
White men such as Affleck, Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Roman Polanski, and Woody Allen have a long history of being forgiven by Hollywood after hurting (or being accused of hurting) women. For evidence of this double standard, look no further than Jimmy Kimmel. After the allegations about Coe came to light, Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel backed away from having Coe and Vines as guests on his show. But just days after the New York Times reported extensively on Casey Affleck’s harassment allegations, Affleck was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and he later returned to the show in January after winning a Golden Globe.
Both Coe and Parker were young when their offenses — alleged in Parker’s case — occurred. The media narratives around both of them involved a large degree of shock and horror that someone so beloved could have committed such a dark crime. Questions of rehabilitation, remorse, and reform rarely received equal treatment.
But Coe — who mentored other inmates in prison and has stayed sober for more than a decade after successfully completing drug rehab — spent nearly 40 years paying the price for a crime he committed while still a teenager.
If he continues to pay for it now that he’s an internet celebrity, it will not be his fault. The internet and the media have played too much of a role in shaping his story at this point — with an emphasis on shock and scandal that ultimately had little to do with Coe himself.