Justice for Don Belton

remembering a writer and friend

About this site : Created after the 2009 murder of writer/IU professor Don Belton. Biased media coverage convinced us we had a different story to tell. To this day The Herald Times and others have not corrected their inaccuracies or omissions. And so this site remains live to document a tense as well as hopeful moment in Bloomington history…(Read more)

It was, at times, a racist and homophobic climate that threatened to tear apart a small city. Many of us knew both Don and Michael or socialized in their overlapping circles. Because of Michael Griffin’s charge that Don raped him, many otherwise-gay-friendly allies remained silent instead of speaking out on behalf on Don. Amazing things happened as well: Don’s somewhat estranged family rallied around his memory. On perhaps the coldest day of the year in 2009, hundreds of Bloomington strangers showed up for an outdoor candlelight vigil, one of the largest crowds in recent years to spontaneously assemble. In the years and the legal trial that followed, it was ultimately a testament to Bloomington that people came together to condemn the violence and honor Don’s life.

Below is the original text from the website as it was written for reporters and visitors. Original comments have also been preserved.

* * * * *

This site is a living document, built quickly and always developing. It is not affiliated with any organization or educational institution, and its writers are private citizens who do not speak for anyone else on this site or [unless noted] on behalf of any group or university.

The residents of Bloomington, Indiana are deeply saddened by the loss of Don Belton, a gifted writer and a warm, generous man who was loved by everyone who met him. Belton, 53, was stabbed to death by a friend and was discovered in his own kitchen on the morning of December 28, 2009.


photo courtesy of IU

We remember Don as a kind person and a caring person. He was hilariously funny and often the life of the party. He was excited to be in a new tenure-track position as a professor of creative writing at Indiana University, a job that finally gave him some security for the work he had been doing for years. Yet Don was someone who did not limit his relationships to campus: He preferred to be a real part of the entire community in which he lived, was a friend to many people of all backgrounds and ages, and in his short time in Bloomington had already planted some substantial roots.

Police have arrested 25-year-old Michael James Griffin in Belton’s death. This Web site hopes to honor Don Belton’s memory, but it’s also a place to monitor the progress of the criminal case and the media coverage of this horrific act of violence against a member of our community.

In the earliest days after Belton’s death, we were concerned by the way the story was taking shape. Hateful, racist, and homophobic remarks have circulated on messaging boards under articles about Don’s murder. Don was African American and openly gay, and much of his creative work dealt with the intersections of those identities.

Griffin, who pleaded not guilty on Wednesday, December 30, has alleged that Don Belton sexually assaulted him—twice—on Christmas day in Griffin’s home. Two days later, Griffin reportedly went to Don’s house—with his knife and a change of clothes–to demand an apology. The Herald Times is reporting that When Belton would not accept Griffin’s accusations, Griffin stabbed him several times, “until he quit moving.”

While we do not wish to polarize the community, we do want law enforcement to understand that there is a long, established history of suspects invoking a claim of sexual assault and/or a “gay panic” defense to get charges reduced or to win over a jury when the victim was a gay person. This is tactic that has had some success over the years but is increasingly being recognized for what it is: a defense that plays to societal bias and prejudice and is not a justifiable excuse for murder.

We are urging Bloomington officials and law enforcement to reject any notion that Griffin’s claim of sexual assault weakens their case for murder. Prosecutor Robert Miller is at rtmiller@co.monroe.in.us, and anyone with relevant information should contact him.

Our intent is to help educate Bloomington law enforcement so that they are in the best possible position to protect their citizens. If such scenarios become acceptable defenses for murder, then nobody in the Bloomington is safe.

We also hope to fill in the gaps about the real Don Belton. Because this crime occurred over the holidays when many people were out of town–and because Don had just moved to a new neighborhood a few blocks from where he used to live—early news articles seemed to suggest that he was not as well-known and well-loved as he was. Contributors to this site have recalled and posted their memories of Don on the site’s initial post.

26 comments on “About this site : Created after the 2009 murder of writer/IU professor Don Belton. Biased media coverage convinced us we had a different story to tell. To this day The Herald Times and others have not corrected their inaccuracies or omissions. And so this site remains live to document a tense as well as hopeful moment in Bloomington history…(Read more)

  1. an indianapolis resident....
    December 31, 2009

    my condolences and prayers go out to the people in bloomington…not only who knew this gentleman, but residents in bloomington who have to be faced with such a tragedy. i dont know why things happen like this…maybe to teach someone something…only God knows. however, i must say that i believe that under no circumstances should a human being take another’s life. i have woke up yet another day with a sad heart for this man. i only hope that the authorities do not use the ‘gay’ situation for any reason for anything. i am straight…none of us are the same as the other and i wish people would be open-minded enough to understand that you love people for who they are..no matter what that may be.

    bloomington, friends and family of this professor…my profound apoligies to you for having to bear this kind of pain. especially at a season that is filled with love, hope and happiness.

    kathy

  2. Rae
    December 31, 2009

    As someone who knew Don and considered him a friend, I want to ask those of us who collectively read this blog and other new articles and posts to do whatever we can to dispel hateful racist and homophobic speculation as it emerges in the ensuing days, weeks, and months. Some have assumed that because Don was African-American and openly gay, he was A) big and strong, B) the obvious aggressor, and C) a sexual predator, or that Michael Griffin, the murderer, was one of Don’s students and thus was victimized and taken advantage of by an older man with a power advantage (Don was 53, Michael is 25). In fact, Don was young at heart, middle-sized and not especially tall, whereas Michael is a tall, muscular, and vigorous-looking ex-Marine with advanced combat training who served in Iraq. And of course, although it goes without saying that being a gay man does not automatically make one a lurid predator or sexual aggressor–period–we need, I think, to keep saying it. To draw conclusions based on racist, ageist, and homophobic assumptions is to do Don and many others a grave and unconscionable injustice.

  3. Kristina T
    January 1, 2010

    I had Don Belton as my W401 professor fall semester of 2008, his first semester at IU. The memory of Don that keeps coming to mind is of the morning he was late.

    It was a morning class (9, 10 a.m. maybe?) and Don was hardly ever late; he’d be sitting at the head of the table with his journals and materials spread out, greeting and talking with us as we came in. So this morning, we were all sitting in our usual places, looking around at each other, J. Alex probably said something sarcastic (but not in a mean way) about it.

    Don walked in, a little out of breath, apologizing as he took off his coat. “But look at this flower!” he said. He held a flower that he’d picked on his walk to class, maybe he’d even found a small water glass to put it in? I’d love to launch into a description of the flower right here that would be poetic and beautiful and somehow a metaphor for Don Belton, but I don’t remember much about the flower itself.

    I think what makes this stand out in my mind is that I thought, Wow, here’s someone who is in love with life. I think he even had us pass the flower around the table so we could each get a closer look at it. That was Don to me. Smiling, laughing, and loving life, drawing us out of our groggy morning shells to appreciate a flower he found on his walk to class.

  4. Gay Lyn Spencer
    January 2, 2010

    Kristina,

    Thanks so much for sharing your memory of Don bringing a flower to class. Many, many times (more often than not) he would bring flowers (sometimes purchased, sometimes from the yard) when he was invited to a neighbor’s table. A few years ago, he asked if I would go with him to pick some particular flowers on the anniversary of his mother’s death. I drove. He told stories about his beloved mother. He spent much of the day grieving her loss and honoring her in a beautiful way.

    I’m glad to know that others also saw his wonderful love and humanity.

  5. Pat Urevick
    January 2, 2010

    Don’s death has unleashed a flood of memories from his years as a friend and neighbor in Philadelphia.

    Don decided that he wanted to move on to our block in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia after visiting friends who were renting an apartment. The block is a mix of two- and three-story twins, some with third-floor apartments. The neighbors are diverse— African American, white, immigrants from Sicily, Haiti and Jamaica—old, young, new and long-time residents. The apartment was on the third floor of the home of an elderly Sicilian woman, Fortunata, and her adult disabled son. Fortunata’s first experience with “colored people” was as a young woman when a segregated battalion of African-American soldiers liberated her town. (Don’s father was in one of those same battalions.) Later, she lived through the rapid and tumultuous years of white flight from Germantown which changed the familiar landscape of her adopted country. She was pretty set in her ways, but I had a sense that Don would be a perfect tenant for her, so I set out to do some advance work before Don came over. She was very clear to me that while she thought “some colored people are better than us,” that there was no way she could think about having him on her third floor. Don went over to meet her—within minutes it was a done deal. Apartment rented.

    Don moved in and quickly immersed himself in the life of the street. We had a bartering arrangement. He would do his laundry at my house in exchange for helping my youngest son with writing. My oldest son, who was living in New York at the time, came home for a visit. He had never met Don and didn’t know about the laundry deal. He heard noises after we had gone to work and went down to the kitchen to find Don emerging from the basement. Don shouted “Who are YOU?” Alex said,” I live here, who are YOU?” First glance and Alex knew. No panic, no fear at finding an African-American stranger in your mother’s kitchen. You knew in a heartbeat who Don was—his tone of voice, warm brown eyes, the way he carried himself, all revealed this gentle , curious, funny, slightly melancholy man.

    Philadelphia is a small-town-kind of city. Over the years, I would hear stories from friends and acquaintances who had met Don at a bookstore, supermarket line, subway station, where they had struck up a conversation that would give birth to a friendship, even if it was a fleeting one. Don was right out there and happy to reveal—who he was, where he came from, his hopes, disappointments and sorrows. He cut through the identities that confine and constrict us—sex, age, race, and so on. He was inquisitive and funny. Strangers found themselves in a quick and genuine intimacy with him.

    Don and Fortunata became close very quickly. He called her Mama Fortunata and brought her flowers, sat at her kitchen table while being plied with pasta and meatballs. But like all mother/son relationships – especially those of a Sicilian variety—boundaries were an issue. If he went away for a few days and didn’t tell her, didn’t answer phone calls promptly, went too many days without a visit, he would get infuriated. He called me, in tears, to say she was screaming his name and banging on the ceiling with a broom to get him to come down for dinner. He had to cut the apron strings and move on.

    In our household in Philadelphia, my three sons, my husband and I are mourning the violent death of such an exceptional and gentle human being. Our condolences to all of his family, his friends and all the hearts he was able to touch during his short life on this earth.

  6. Barbara McDowell Dowdall
    January 2, 2010

    Don, my Germantown neighbor and almost colleague (I teach in high school, not college). Could there be anyone gentler or kinder? To find such a one would be a formidable task. He attended a Quaker school here in Philadelphia where my children followed years after. So we could talk of literature, recalcitrant students, private school peculiarities and neighborhood gossip. For a couple of years running we would meet by chance at the Celebration of Black Writing and note that we could have carpooled. Except that Don took public transportation — a sign both of his limited professorial salary and commitment to the environment. Faced with this poignant loss, we must now take on the responsibility of promoting the warmth and light that he shared with us.

  7. George Hutchinson
    January 3, 2010

    When Don first visited Bloomington, I was chairing the English department, and I still remember the very moment he walked into my office, remarkably at ease and winning and gracious. Although he was not in an easy position–the interview with the chair?–he had a warm confident presence coming from deep within, and a casual, slightly bohemian elegance, a soft charisma. That sense, always uplifting, was replenished every time I saw or spoke with him, over a beer (he stopped at one) at the Upland Brewery, over lunch at the Story Inn in Brown County, or in the office, the hallway, a party, whatever. “Hi, Geoorge,” he would say, drawing out the vowel a bit with a slightly mischievous grin, a glint in his eye. It was impossible not to feel blessed by his presence. Don was a writer and intellectual of unusual sensitivity to everything around him, amazing range in interests and taste, great insight into people and care for them—all kinds of them. His teaching, too, was of the essence of his care for people. He spoke of how important it was to his sense of leaving a legacy. I could only hope Bloomington was a good environment for his body, soul, and talent; he told me this was so, but how could I really know? And now, well, I’m at a total loss.

    I pray Don is hearing and feeling the love we feel, the love he still inspires.

    George

  8. Chris
    January 6, 2010

    Don was a friend of mine. My fondest memories of him are the time he happened by my house and decided to knock on the door. Last 4th of July was one of those days. Don came by to visit my girlfriend and I. It was raining hard and the windows were opened so we all commenced to drinking wine and telling stories. I loved listening to Don talk about Jazz or food. I remember one story that illustrated his lifelong love and appreciation of food. Don said that his grandmother lived around the corner from where he grew up in Philly. And nights when his mother cooked a supper he didn’t care too much for, he’d say ‘I’m not eating this. I’m going over to my nanna’s house to eat.” So it was an honor to cook and share our table with Don. On another occasion, I was with a group of friends and we were walking a meal off when we run into Don near Rose Hill. So he invited us up onto his porch and we drank beer out of tiny glasses and talked about how important Michael Jackson was and is. During that talk we heard the train whistle blowing and Don, distracted, digressed into stories about his time in Tuscaloosa. He had us in, and if you’ve ever been in Don’s house you know he was a pack rat and that all of his things had a story, and he told us lots of the stories. Those stories are too many to go into here. Don Belton was my friend. Don. Dante. Dr Don.

  9. Michelle
    January 7, 2010

    I did not have the honor of knowing Don but am an acquaintance of his brother. If he was anything like his brother I know that this man was a good man.

    I’m so sorry to hear of this horrible loss to the world. I sincerely hope that justice is served.

  10. Byron Craig
    January 8, 2010

    Last night as I spoke of Don briefly over the airwaves I remembered something about how he touched me from the moment we met at a coffee house in Bloomington where I was writing my dissertation.

    This man wanted to know you and to share life with you. He wanted to know your life and become involved in it in a way you don’t find many folks doing. We sat and had coffee as if we had been friends forever…because he cared enough to share and know and live loving.

    My friend Don, now you return to forever and that for me makes forever seem even more beautiful.

  11. Darryl Dickson-Carr
    January 11, 2010

    I did not know Don well. I met him when I was interviewing for a position at one of the places where he’d been employed. He swept aside all the usual ephemera of a job interview to give me his honest, forthright assessment of the place. He was being a good colleague–a good person–although I didn’t see it at the time. I’m grateful for his contributions to the world as a writer and a scholar. May his family, friends, and colleagues find solace and purpose in his example.

  12. wajeeha sharif
    January 13, 2010

    i just to say that my cousin was a very good person. he will be missed by a lot of people. his family loves him and will miss him very much,back in pennsylvania

  13. Kyle
    January 25, 2010

    I lived across the street from Don in Saint Paul, MN, for several years while he was teaching at Macalester College. He was a great neighbor–involved and fun. He always had a great story and I loved our conversations. This is a great tragedy and the world is a sadder place without Don in it. May he rest in peace.

  14. Mary
    February 3, 2010

    My condolences go out to Don’s family and friends. I just found out today of his death, and I am in such disbelief that such a wonderful, brilliant man should meet such a horrific end.

    I am fortunate enough to have had Don as a professor. He truly was a beautiful human being. I will always remember his laugh. If you heard that laugh, you just knew that Don was around! We had coffee together several times (he couldn’t function with out coffee!) and he talked about some of his published work, regrets that he had, and the book he was working on. I am saddened when I think of his work that will never be finished.

    May you rest in peace, Don. I am a better person to have known you.

  15. Patrice
    March 30, 2010

    I can’t believe I just recently learned of Don’s death. I have been crying ever since–sometimes out loud, sometimes softly, sometimes only inside. He helped me through the death of my father when I was on fellowship at the University of Michigan. We danced, laughed, cooked, ate, read, and talked and talked. Everyone who has left a comment is so right. The Don we knew could not have assaulted anyone. He was way too kind, too gentle, too respectful of all life. I hope the administrator of this site keeps us all abreast of the updates on the trial. I am trying to get more media coverage. I want people to pause and consider this loss and also ponder the type of world we are creating. Don would not want us to be hateful or bitter. I have heard that homophobic and racist comments have been made because of this case. Don would avoid the meanness–and so we must also. We have to find something courageous and wonderful to do with our pain.

    Miss you, Don.

  16. amy eller
    June 8, 2010

    I am shocked and saddened to read the news of my friend Don’s passing. Back in the days of Bennington College i was always amazed by how Don could always make me laugh. His kindness, his ability to love and be loved by me, his polar opposite. His chic, his style his swagger. Beyond and racial barrier or judgement of any kind. I will miss my friend and am grateful for having known him.

  17. amy eller
    June 8, 2010

    I am shocked and saddened to read the news of my friend Don’s passing. Back in the days of Bennington College i was always amazed by how Don could always make me laugh. His kindness, his ability to love and be loved by me, his polar opposite. His chic, his style his swagger. Beyond any racial barrier or judgement of any kind. I will miss my friend and am grateful for having known him.

  18. Marta Hill Gray
    June 17, 2010

    What a tragic end for a gentle soul. I remember Don from Bennington where he was a quiet gentle soul whose river ran very deep. What a lovely man. I am sorry to hear of his passing, I remember him with the greatest of affection.

  19. Diana T. Chingos
    June 21, 2010

    I am so sorry for this news. Don and I shared a house at Bennington in our later years of college. He was a wonderful storyteller, very quietly intense and a truly original person.
    Please post an update in this case. That Don would “assault” anyone is very hard to fathom.

  20. Amenan
    September 16, 2010

    I was shocked and saddened to read of the news of Don Belton’s death just today. I was a student of his at Temple University; I took his African American Lit class in the spring of 2004. He was an excellent professor whom I often visited during office hours to discuss assignments. Our conversations often lead to other topics, especially music, and it was always a joy to visit with him.

    We lost touch after my senior year but I’ve held onto my copy of “Speak My Name,” which I purchased when I started his class. Having never finished it, I decided just last week to pick it up. It was during a Google image search for the book cover, which I planned to post to my blog, that I learned of this tragic story. My condolences go out to his friends, colleagues and family.

    Don was an extremely intelligent, gentle and funny man. His memory will live on in the countless works he contributed. May he rest in peace.

  21. English GradStudent
    October 23, 2010

    Been thinking a lot about Don Belton this past week. If only he were here with us right now. I have been watching as the “It Gets Better” campaign has grown, and it just makes me realize that bullying is a symptom of larger problems, the kinds of problems that led to Don Belton’s tragic murder.

    It’s bittersweet, seeing all these people taking a stand against bullying, against hate. I keep thinking that Don Belton would have a lot to say about all of this, but he’s gone.

  22. Andrew
    December 15, 2010

    Hi, I agree, it is a troubling time, especially around holidays, but I think Don would agree that it does get better. I have been thinking about him as well.

  23. Karen Schneiderman
    February 17, 2011

    I had the joy of knowing Don when we were both teaching at the University of Massachusetts. He was my closest friend there. We talked all the time. We laughed and talked about literature and writing and personal things that kept us both happy. It was a while ago and about a week ago I was unpacking books after a move and pulled out Don’s “speak my name” which I hadn’t seen in a while. The inscription was: “For Karen: In solidarity & in celebration, Love, Don”. I was happily re-reading the book and decided to google him and there was the horrible news. it is unspeakable. I do speak his name and proudly. As a straight white woman in a wheelchair, he got me and I got him. It wasn’t about oppression. It was about understanding each others’ worth as well as our own. I will never forget his funny open and caring spirit.
    Karen

  24. cjc
    April 9, 2011

    Don was my professor, friend and inspiration. When I started teaching higher education this year I made an attempt to look him up. I was deeply sadden by the news… However, I was delighted to see a website titled “justicefordonbelton” Thank you Professor Belton for your good energy and compassion.

    p.s. I loved when he challenged us to “think deeper” as he dramatically placed both of his index fingers on the sides of his head. (hahahaha) You were truly the best!!!May you rest in peace…

  25. Leigh Wise-Harold
    May 1, 2011

    The tears are just flowing from knowing that justice was served for my cousin. God is good and just. I knew that he would not let his murderer receive less than what he deserved. Now Don can truly rest in peace. Blessings to all that loved and supported Don. His spirit lives on and it is proven by all that you’ve done since his passing.

  26. Mara Miller
    May 15, 2011

    A number of us are going to the sentencing hearing this Tuesday, May 17, at 10:30. We’ll be reading statements–and others have sent the Prosecutors statements that will be read then as well.

    Don would not have wanted us to be vindictive–but it is pretty scary to think that someone like Michael Griffin, who could murder without provocation, could be out on the streets again.

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