Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Pride Beatings


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On Saturday, July 30, shortly before the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Festival closed for the night at 11 p.m., at least five people leaving the festival were attacked with baseball bats. One of them was also stabbed. But this isn’t an article about the beatings themselves, but about how the city government, the police department and the Queer community itself responded to them.

On the surface, the response was just fine. Mayor Jerry Sanders, formerly San Diego’s most Queer-friendly chief of police ever, sounded like he was still a police chief when he gave a press conference the next day and said, “I have a few choice words for the criminals who committed this vicious attack — and for any others who are contemplating perpetrating such a crime: You’re cowards! Make no mistake about it: if you commit such a crime, we will do everything within our power to catch you.” Within three days of the attack, three suspects were in custody — a far better performance than the city gave the last time the Pride events were attacked, when a tear gas canister was thrown into the reviewing stand at the parade in 2000 and, despite two years of assurances by then-police chief “Cowboy” Dave Bejarano that they were on the point of solving the crime, no one was ever arrested or charged.

But Zenger’s associate editor Leo Laurence heard a different story from one of the victims, 34-year-old Paul Mullins from Cincinnati, when he interviewed Mullins for an article in the August 13 San Diego Metro Weekly. Mullins told Laurence there were at least five assailants, and that when he used his cell phone to call 911 and inform the police that he and others had been attacked with baseball bats near the festival grounds, the 911 operator “didn’t know where I was.” The operator didn’t know the geography of Balboa Park or the exact location of the Pride Festival, and Mullins was on hold when he heard the sounds of more people being attacked.

“I heard someone yelling for help,” Mullins told Laurence. “I ran into another person. I don’t know who he was. ‘What are they doing? Are they beating up Gay people?’ the man asked.” Mullins said they were and told the man to get some of the Pride Festival’s own security people and the police officers assigned to the event — without success. The police officers were sent home at 10:30, just before the attacks occurred, and the uniformed guard who identified himself as the head of security for the festival told Mullins, “First of all, we don’t get paid enough to get involved like that and chase people.”

Judging from the pathetic response of the 911 operator — who kept Mullins on hold even as he was witnessing more victims being attacked and pleading with the operator to send some officers to the scene — and the lackadaisical attitudes of both the police and private security people on the scene, it’s clear that the attitude of the top city leaders that this is an event to be protected and nurtured hasn’t filtered down to the rank-and-file. Relations between the Queer community and the police have never quite recovered from the days in which sex between same-sex partners was illegal and the police regularly raided Gay bars, arrested patrons, released their names to the media and frequently provoked them to suicide.

As police chief, Jerry Sanders was a leader in doing outreach and education programs for his officers and training them to be sensitive to the Queer community. But programs like this can only go so far in erasing long-standing homophobic prejudices among many police officers. There are still too many stories of Queer crime victims reporting assaults, robberies and the like to the police and being patronized, disrespected and sometimes even threatened with arrest themselves.

What’s more, as noble as the statements by city leaders and the speed with which at least some of the assailants were arrested may appear on the surface, there are also elements of damage control. Mayor Sanders may be a decent man and as Queer-friendly as we could hope for in a man of his position and background, but he was also motivated by the fact that — as he stressed in his public statements of support for the Pride events before they occurred — the events bring in $21 million annually to San Diego, most of it from out-of-towners like Paul Mullins. Especially in a city as economically dependent on tourism as San Diego, Sanders and the city government don’t want to jeopardize that windfall by letting the word get out that it’s unsafe to attend San Diego Pride. Also, Laurence told Zenger’s he did the interview with Mullins just an hour before all the victims received calls from city officials telling them not to talk to the media — a pretty persuasive hint that the city has something to hide.

The Queer community is also in damage-control mode. At least two weeks before Pride, “Papa” Tony Lindsey of the San Diego League of Gentlemen was sending e-mails alerting the people on his address list to a wave of hate crimes in Hillcrest. The local Queer media (including this one, I’m ashamed to say) ignored his warnings. That in and of itself should have made people aware that there was a good chance for a Queer-bashing attack on Pride and that this was not a year for “business as usual” with disinterested security people and clock-watching police. Since Pride other attacks have been reported on Queer individuals and businesses in North Park and even Linda Vista — and they’ve been reported, if at all, as individual events despite the fact that the suspects arrested in the Pride attacks were all members of a gang called the “Lowlifes.” To me that suggests a strong possibility that the attacks are part of a coordinated criminal assault on our community and its people — but no one’s talking about that because it would be bad for business.

In 1991, when John Robert Wear was killed on the streets of Hillcrest near the Obelisk Bookstore, the community organized. It held meetings at Rich’s and formed a Citizens’ Patrol of community volunteers to drive through the streets of Hillcrest and North Park and alert the police immediately at any sign of potential danger. Fifteen years later, the community leadership is staging meaningless feel-good rallies in front of the Center instead of actively organizing for self-defense. Is it going to have to take another murder to goad us into acting to protect ourselves?