PORTLAND, Maine (Tribune News Service) — Jamie Roux was just 15 the day his father and 64 other passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.
For generations of Americans, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were a gut punch, a “where were you?” moment.
But for Roux, the event was also personal. Even today, he struggles to distinguish between the worst terrorist attack in this nation’s history and the loss of his father.
“It affected everything I did after that,” he said. “It was a complete realignment of my whole understanding of the world.”
Perhaps more than most, Roux has plenty of reasons to want revenge against the terrorists who killed his father and nearly 3,000 others. Similarly, no one would have begrudged him if he began to fear those who looked like terrorists or shared their religion.
But Roux never did.
Even before 9/11, he didn’t see violence as a solution to anything. He didn’t believe in action for action’s sake. He didn’t want more blood spilled.
And as he’s gotten older, Roux has become increasingly frustrated to see Sept. 11 each year morph into a day to celebrate veterans or American military strength, rather than a day of reflection.
That frustration was at the center of Roux’s recent well-publicized dust-up with the three women known as the Freeport Flag Ladies: Carmen Footer, Elaine Greene and JoAnn Miller. The disagreement ultimately came down to whether Roux had harassed or intimidated the women, as they claimed, or whether he was simply exercising his own right to free speech – the same thing the flag ladies have been doing for years.
During a daylong court hearing last Monday, Roux was frequently portrayed as a crazy-eyed, long-haired, unstable person. Someone to be feared.
In his own testimony, though, Roux was calm and eloquent, explaining that he simply opposed the flag ladies’ message, which has evolved over the years, and which he believes exploits the deaths of victims, including his father.
“It upsets me when people make a false correlation between 9/11 and military action,” he said in court. “I don’t want my father’s death to be used to promote a political cause.”
A judge sided with Roux and dismissed the flag ladies’ protection-order request, but Roux’s reputation has been affected during the ordeal.
In a lengthy interview with the Maine Sunday Telegram two days after his court hearing, he sought to explain himself in a way he hasn’t been able to since he entered the public sphere.
Roux, now 29, doesn’t care if people comment unfavorably on his looks, which were highlighted often during testimony last week.
“I look like Dr. Kevorkian was my pediatrician,” he said, referring to the infamous supporter of voluntary euthanasia, before rattling off several other “I look like” jokes – none of them flattering.
But he wants people to know he’s not crazy, he’s not dangerous. He’s just a complicated young man trying, like everyone, to move forward.
Father's devastating death
James Roux Jr. was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1986. His father, who named his first-born son after himself, was stationed at Fort Bragg as an Army paratrooper.
The elder Roux, originally from Lewiston, moved his family back to Maine after he left the Army, and became a lawyer. Roux’s parents divorced and each remarried. He settled with his mother and stepfather in Freeport, one town south of Brunswick, where Roux’s parents had met while attending Bowdoin College.
Roux’s parents had been divorced for a decade in 2001 and his father was living and practicing law in Portland. Some people referred to him as the “rock and roll lawyer.”
Roux’s stepfather, Arnold Macdonald, remembers picking Roux up at school early that September day and taking him home to have an “awful conversation.”
Roux, who was much like his dad in a lot of ways, was devastated but didn’t talk much about his father’s death.
“Freeport, like many Maine towns I think, was a bubble,” he said. “Everybody knew about my dad, but they didn’t ask about it and I didn’t talk about it.”
Even as he got older, Roux said his father’s death became sort of an awkward talking point. There was always a point in the evolution of a relationship where he would have to ponder when to bring it up.
“That was always an insecurity of mine,” he said.
Asked if he thought people treated him differently once they knew his story, Roux said, “How would I know?”
His mother, Liza Moore, who had an auxiliary role in her son’s battle with the flag ladies, said Roux probably buried his feelings. Macdonald said Roux didn’t want to be defined as a 9/11 victim and still doesn’t want that.
After graduating from Freeport High School, Roux enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He had a romanticized vision of Reed for its role in the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
He majored in art at the famously liberal school, which he said was dominated by “people with an intense focus on intellectual thought.”
He moved back to Portland, Maine, for one year after graduating from college in 2009, at the height of the recession. He washed dishes and worked as an art handler. After a year, he moved to New York to seek more opportunities. He found work as an assistant for a painter.
Roux said he spent three years in New York honing his art skills but became somewhat disillusioned with the business side of the art world. He took a break from painting during his final year and spent nearly every night at open mic comedy events in New York City. Although he was interested in performing, he only watched.
After those three years, Roux applied to graduate school – the Cranbrook Institute of Art outside Detroit – and was accepted. He returned home to Freeport the summer before he was to begin, in 2013.
It was a fun summer, Roux said, a freeing summer. He rediscovered his love of Maine and reconnected with a world he had left behind.
Emotions boiled over
Roux, who spoke last week from his apartment in Westbrook, doesn’t mind saying that he started seeing a psychiatrist after he returned home, or that he still sees one. He’s not ashamed.
But he also doesn’t want to share with the world what he shares with his psychiatrist.
“I will say that after several months being back in Maine, I sort of started to take my mental health more seriously,” he said.
His mother and stepfather said they think Roux was finally coming to terms with the way his father’s death affected him. He ended up not going to graduate school. He still paints, just not as a career.
During the summer and fall of 2013, Roux was twice arrested and charged in Freeport with criminal mischief. He threw pumpkins at the outlet store of Abercrombie & Fitch, a clothing chain that caters to young people, because he didn’t like the way the company exploits young models and makes consumers feel bad about their bodies.
It may not have been the smartest way to get his message across, but the vegetable-throwing incidents also offered a window into Roux’s crystallizing views of the world.
He took that one step further the next year when he engaged one of the Freeport Flag Ladies, Carmen Footer, in a conversation about the women’s mission. That conversation was revisited in court last week. Footer said Roux was angry and confrontational and she was afraid of him. Roux said he simply wanted to explain why he was offended by what they were doing.
In September 2015, as the 14th anniversary of 9/11 approached, Roux wanted to attend the event in Freeport, sponsored in part by the flag ladies. His plan was to arrive at the end of the event and perhaps engage them in another conversation.
But when he got there, the speaker, Marine Corps Maj. Adam Sacchetti, touched a nerve with what Roux considered jingoistic remarks, and Roux’s emotions boiled over. He disrupted the end of the ceremony by walking down the aisle and shouting that his father had been killed on 9/11 and the event was not honoring him.
At the time, the flag ladies said Roux’s disruption was short-lived and quickly addressed. Three months later, in court, the women testified that they feared Roux.
Roux was charged with disorderly conduct, but those charges were later dropped. He’s glad about that, but he’s still not happy with how police treated him. He says they assaulted him.
After he was escorted from the event, he was taken to the Cumberland County Jail, where he spent the night. His view in the holding cell, on the anniversary of his father’s death, was a mural of the twin towers site, ethereal lights pointing skyward.
A challenge to expectations
After the 9/11 remembrance ceremony, the relationship between Roux and the flag ladies only got worse. Roux and his mother decided in November, after the Paris terrorist attacks, that they wanted to offer a positive message about refugees and Muslims in the wake of widespread fear. They decided to demonstrate on Main Street in Freeport on the same day and same location as the flag ladies, who have been waving their flags on the sidewalk every Tuesday since Sept. 11, 2001. It didn’t go well.
After one Tuesday morning in December, Roux and the flag ladies exchanged words in a local coffee shop. In court last week, each side offered a different account of that conversation, but it was enough for the flag ladies to file for a protection from harassment order against him.
For Roux, who had been working hard to keep his emotions in check but still be true to himself, it was a setback.
Now, though, he understands where the flag ladies were coming from.
“They thought I was out to get them or make them look foolish,” he said. “It was never about them, but that threat to their meaning was urgent. This is their whole life. I understand what it’s like when your identity is challenged.”
Macdonald, Roux’s stepfather, said the rush to paint Roux as anti-veteran or anti-military was strong but incorrect.
Roger Goodoak, who runs the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance, has known Roux since 2013, when Roux began volunteering for him. Goodoak agreed that Roux may be a pacifist, but he’s hardly anti-veteran.
“I was a little surprised when I saw his outburst with the flag ladies because that’s just not who he is,” Goodoak said. “But I told him, he didn’t do himself any favors.”
Throughout his ordeal with the flag ladies, one of the hardest things for Roux to handle was the media coverage and the public’s comments about him. People wanted to put him into a box that wasn’t him.
Roux said the criticism bothered him, but he used comedy to help him deal with it. It’s become a big part of his life; he’s a regular at open mic comedy nights in Greater Portland.
Roux never intended for his act to become political. It just happened.
“I have the utmost respect for Jamie,” said Krister Rollins, a local TV producer who runs in the same amateur comedy circles as Roux. “I think he’s facing a struggle, because of how his dad died, that probably no one else in Maine understands, but his opinions about the post-9/11 world sort of challenge what people probably expect. And it’s hard to go up against three women who are pretty beloved in Maine.”
Rollins said Roux’s comedy style is distinct and edgy.
Aharon Hebert, another local comic who runs an open mic at Blue in Portland, said Roux isn’t afraid to embarrass himself or be vulnerable on stage.
“He doesn’t pander to anyone and he uses the form to talk about whatever he’s thinking or feeling, which I admire,” Hebert said, adding that he didn’t know about Roux’s father until his name showed up in the news last September.
Roux describes his comedy as “clean, but dark.”
One of his go-to jokes, at least early in his amateur stand-up career, was about 9/11. It goes something like this:
“Have you ever heard of the Comfort Inn in South Portland? Well, my friend is coming into town on business and has an early flight. So I say, ‘You oughta stay at the Comfort Inn, it’s right near the airport.’ Which is the same thing Osama bin Laden said to Mohamed Atta, only he said it like this, ‘You, Atta, stay at the Comfort Inn, it’s right near the airport and you cannot miss that flight.'”
When Roux tells that joke, those in the audience likely don’t know his history.
“That’s sort of my ace in the hole if anyone gets upset,” he said.
©2016 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)
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