October 12, 2011 in City

Hate crimes or not, recent attacks are all disgusting

By The Spokesman-Review

Are we in the midst of a wave of anti-gay violence in Spokane? A pattern with ongoing momentum?

Some people think so.

But there is unquestionably a pattern emerging from several recent events, and it has to do more with the response of the gay community and Spokane at large: an outpouring of concern, outrage, indignation and passion. If there is discouraging news in recent incidents in which gay men were beaten – and there is plenty – there is also a silver lining in the insistence that such crimes not be taken lightly.

“People are standing up and speaking about this,” said Matthew Cannon, board member of the Inland Northwest LGBT Center. “I don’t think this is something that’s going to go away.”

Cannon and a lot of other folks say the police and the media aren’t treating these cases seriously. The most recent incident, and the flashpoint for rising concern, was a fight outside Dempsey’s early last Saturday morning. Police insist it was not a hate crime but a drunken fight; the man who wound up bloodied and stitched-up, as well as several of his friends, insist it was, saying that the man who struck him only did so after asking if he was gay and calling him a faggot.

They see it as a pattern of dismissive attitudes toward gay victims of violence.

“Nothing is ever a hate crime,” Cannon said, describing what he sees as the Spokane Police Department’s attitude. “By all appearances, it’s a hate crime, but let’s find a way to bring it down to something lesser.”

The department’s spokeswoman, Officer Jennifer DeRuwe, noted that officers have to file charges that stand up to the reasonable-doubt standard in court. As a result of the outcry over the most recent incident, a major crimes unit is looking into the case, she said. There is also a meeting scheduled Thursday between city and police officials and members of the gay community.

“We’re very aggressive about investigating these (hate crime allegations) and we really don’t have very many, honestly,” DeRuwe said. “If it rises to the level of the hate crime, we’re not going to look the other way.”

Focusing only on whether these events were – in legal, burden-of-proof terms – hate crimes runs the risk of losing sight of what they undoubtedly were: abhorrent.

It’s abhorrent when someone employs the word faggot as a weapon. It’s extra-abhorrent when they apply it while applying a fist or a real weapon. And it is exactly no less abhorrent if it comes after too many drinks or after some provocation – if it’s just an insult at hand in a hotheaded dispute.

The problem with declaring a pattern or a trend is the suggestion that the events were coordinated and represent some ongoing danger. In the three main recent cases, there is ample reason to consider them separate, deplorable incidents:

• Early last Saturday morning, Danny Hawkins was injured in a fight outside Dempsey’s. Photos of a bloodied and stitched-up Hawkins appeared online; news stories soon followed. Police say they had conflicting witness reports, information that Hawkins had provoked the incident by striking the other guy’s car. Hawkins’ supporters say that even if that were true, the fight took on bias-crime elements as it escalated, with the use of homophobic slurs.

Michael Jepson, who drove Hawkins to the hospital though he did not see the incident, put it like this: “ ‘Are you gay?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Faggot.’ Punch.”

• On Sept. 28, Jepson himself was beaten and assaulted with the same slur outside Irv’s, another Spokane bar. Jepson, 45, was going into the bar around 9 p.m. when a group of street kids tossed something at him, he said. When he responded, one of them hit him and pushed him down. The group then surrounded him, leaving only after he went to take their photo with a camera phone, he said. He said he was initially pleased with the police response, but his interactions with an officer whom he said was dismissive at last weekend’s incident – plus the fact that his attackers weren’t found – makes him wonder if it was taken seriously.

• On Sept. 21, Steve Pfefferle was attacked in another man’s home after they left Dempsey’s together. Pfefferle, a 38-year-old man who’s lived in Spokane for 10 years, says he was choked with a rope and struck repeatedly with a piece of metal until he fled. The man was arrested and charged with assault, but it’s a misdemeanor, and Pfefferle is furious about it. DeRuwe said the evidence did not support a hate-crime charge.

Sorting out claims and counter-claims is difficult in any case. Throw in drinking, incomplete information, competing accounts and unprovable contradictions, it’s often impossible for police to produce what people want: a tidy, pleasing box of justice. In the recent cases, there is enough mud in the water to at least suggest there is more going on than lackadaisical work by the police.

I ran my muddy-water metaphor past Cannon.

“These are not simple assaults,” he said. “Indeed, there is mud in the water, but is the puddle entirely muddy? No. There are rocks sticking up above the water line in each one of them.”

What are the metaphorical rocks?

“Hateful language,” he said.

“Acts guided by hate.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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