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June 16th, 2010 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Taking Back The Night

The gay community says enough after a violent series of reported hate crimes.

     
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VICTIM: DJ Robb Nelson outside CC Slaughters.
IMAGE: James Pitkin

DJ Robb Nelson was walking home in the early morning hours May 30 after spinning house music at a packed CC Slaughters in Old Town.

Nelson had left the gay club about 2:20 am and was a few blocks from his apartment above Berbati’s Pan on Southwest Ankeny Street when three men approached him. Two of them bumped Nelson’s shoulders, he says, and Nelson spun around.

That’s the last he remembers. Next thing he knew, he was standing outside his apartment. His wallet was untouched, but the left side of his face was a bloody mess.

“I’ve lived in this neighborhood for years,” Nelson says. “I’ve never had any sort of problems.”

The incident came on the same night attackers yelling “Faggots!” beat three men leaving the Red Cap Garage, a gay bar on Southwest Stark Street. Nelson and local queer-rights activists can’t be sure his attack was a hate crime, but they believe it is, because of a string of other brutal gay-bashings in recent weeks.

And they’re no longer taking chances. Instead, they’re fighting back.

The Q Center, a North Portland community center for gays and lesbians, is organizing self-defense classes and a “Q Patrol” to comb the streets outside gay clubs. Activists say the goal isn’t to be vigilantes, but to observe and report incidents after two hours of training from the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement.

“We could easily go out and gather the hounds and light the torches,” says Kendall Clawson, director of the Q Center. “[But] those of us who have been leading the response feel very strongly that we need to remain productive.”

The response to the recent attacks also reached beyond the gay community into City Hall and police command.

On June 15, Mayor Sam Adams and Police Chief Mike Reese promised more training for cops on dealing with hate crimes and extra patrols at the upcoming Portland Pride weekend June 19-20.

“When I took over the Police Bureau [last month], I talked about that there is not adequate trust between the Police Bureau and the citizens,” says Adams, who is gay. “[Gays are] a community that has long felt ambivalence or mistrust towards the police.”

The good news is that reports of hate crimes against gays in Portland have dropped in recent years, from 32 in 2004 to 16 last year. There have been nine so far this year.

The bad news is Adams and police say such crimes are vastly underreported. Now they’re planning increased outreach to build trust in the gay community, including recruiting volunteer victim’s advocates to work with the police on hate-crimes cases.

Nelson says he didn’t call police because with no memory of the incident, he had little to tell officers. But he’s also heard talk about other attacks Memorial Day weekend that were not reported.

Don’t be surprised this is happening in a town like Portland. Longtime members of the city’s gay community say fear of violence is nothing new.

“You hear slurs all the time downtown,” says Stephen Cassell, a PR consultant who’s volunteering as a liaison between the queer community and city officials. “Whether they mean it [or not], it’s hard to say what they’re going to do.”

The three incidents police have investigated in recent weeks show how ugly the situation can become.

After the attack on Red Cap patrons Memorial Day weekend, a group of men were reportedly harassing women on the sidewalk June 10 outside the Silverado gay club downtown. When a customer told the men to stop, the men reportedly called him gay epithets and struck him in the face. No arrests have been made.

That same day, a gay man ran into a group of acquaintances at the Skidmore Fountain. He told police the group, ranging in age from late teens to early 30s, invited him to an apartment on Southwest 11th Avenue.

One of the group, Timothy Hill, accused the victim of owing him $35. Then authorities say they held him down, shaved his head and punched him in the chest while calling him a “faggot.” The victim didn’t escape until several hours later.

Hill and four others (see mug shots below) were arrested and face charges of first-degree kidnapping—a Measure 11 offense that carries a minimum of seven and a half years in prison. If prosecutors can prove this was a hate crime, state law lets them seek a longer sentence.


From Left to Right: Missy Lee Dempsey, Timothy Hill, Ashley Maro, Marcos Antonio Torres and Michael Anthony Valero

Leading up to this weekend’s Pride parade, the attacks are still the talk along Southwest Stark Street’s three-block gay district.

“It’s definitely been a topic of conversation,” says Andy Miller, a bartender at Scandals. “There’s always been concern that people feel safe.”


FACT: Nationwide, reports of hate crimes against gays were flat for the five-year period from 2004 to 2008, the most recent statistics available. According to the FBI, there were about 1,200 such crimes reported each year.

 
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