Inside the JVC Grocery & Deli, a large jar of pickled eggs sits on the front counter next to a window filled with lottery tickets. On a recent evening, a young woman puts in an order of hot wings. A piece of fried chicken — a wing — sits alone on the warming shelf behind the glass in the deli area of the store to the left of the entrance.
Three men in the back right corner of the store, wearing winter jackets, concentrate on gambling machines. Two-liter bottles of Fanta, Sprite and Coca-Cola line the floors along the racks holding typical grocery store stock — candy bars, potato chips, milk, eggs, laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid.
There is nothing that indicates this store, at 1029 McDaniel St. in Atlanta’s historic Pittsburgh neighborhood, is at the heart of a national story about anti-gay crime and gang violence, and has become ground zero for a new push for Georgia to pass a hate crimes bill.
Former state Rep. Douglas Dean, a member of the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association, calls the store a “haven” for crime, an “eyesore” in the community filled with boarded up houses and empty storefronts.
At a Feb. 11 rally at Iconium Baptist Church — across the street from the store where Brandon White, a 20-year old gay man was viciously attacked by gang members who repeatedly called him “faggot” — Dean recalled the days when the store was a pharmacy and doctors served their patients upstairs.
“We need to stop blaming the victim. The perpetrator is across the street,” Dean shouted from the church’s steps on a cold, windy day where more than 100 people gathered to stand in solidarity with Brandon White and the Pittsburgh community.
“We want to close the store, keep the schools open. Do you see how clean [the store] is now? It is because of Brandon White that we are getting the attention of the Atlanta Police Department, city services,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight — we want to make this a livable community again,” Dean added.
The beating of White garnered national attention after a video of the attack was uploaded to worldstarhiphop.com and went viral. As of press time on Tuesday, Feb. 14, the video had more than 1.1 million views.
In an interview with GA Voice, White said he remembers the beating vividly. It was in the middle of the afternoon on Saturday, Feb. 4, and he went to the store to buy a piece of chicken.
“They sell some good chicken,” he said, smiling.
“I wasn’t even in there for more than two minutes. I was calling my grandma and as the phone was ringing someone just hit me on the side of my head and from there came the kicks, the punches and the screams. I didn’t know they threw a tire until I saw the video,” he said. “And just like that they took off running. I walked home, packed up a few things and left.”
He is now staying with a family member and looking for a new place to live.
White said as he walked to his house and as he was packing, he was overcome with anger at the three gang members who blindsided him.
“I was pissed,” he said. “I was ready to fight. I wanted to go home, change clothes and go back. I wasn’t mad about the situation, but pissed because they didn’t want to give me a fair fight. If they gave me a one-on-one fight, it would have been different ― you have to give that person a chance to protect themselves and that’s something they didn’t give me.”
White said at first he wasn’t going to tell anyone what happened; he was going to “let it blow over.” But then Monday, Feb. 6, came and he got calls from his cousins telling him he was all over the TV and the internet.
“That’s when the embarrassment kicked in,” he said. “I cried that day. I don’t cry for nobody. I cried because there were so many emotions. I was pissed, there was anger, there was embarrassment, there was sadness.”
Watching the video of his beating was hard, White acknowledged. He didn’t even know the attackers threw a tire at him until he watched the video. But now he believes the gang members “set themselves up for disaster.”
“Once you decide to take [the video] viral, you set yourself up for whatever comes for you, the police … they set themselves up for everything,” he said.
Hate crimes bill to come as soon as next week
The Feb. 11 rally attracted civil rights icon and longtime LGBT advocate U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta), as well as other politicians including openly gay Fulton County Commissioner Joan Garner and Atlanta City Council member Cleta Wilson. Speaking to the shivering crowd, state Rep. Rashad Taylor (D-Atlanta) announced his plan to introduce a hate crimes bill in the Georgia General Assembly.
Taylor said Feb. 14 the bill is currently being reviewed by legislative counsel and plans are for him to introduce it into the legislature “next week or so.” He is also working with state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), a longtime supporter of hate crimes legislation, as well as Georgia Equality and the Anti-Defamation League to ensure the wording of his bill includes sexual orientation and gender identity as well as race, gender, ethnicity and religion.
Georgia is one of five states without a hate crimes bill, joining Arkansas, Indiana, Wyoming and South Carolina.
Georgia had a hate crimes law on the books for four years, after it was pushed through the legislature by Fort. The law was tossed by the state Supreme Court in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague” because it did not include specific categories such as race and sexual orientation. When the General Assembly passed the bill in 2001, specific categories were left out in order to avoid a battle over including sexual orientation.
Taylor said those categories have to stay in the bill this time for it to have teeth and to allow judges to exact stiffer penalties if they see fit as in crimes like the one committed against White.
“I think Brandon White exemplifies why we need it. What happened to him is nothing more than a form of domestic terrorism. Simple policing can’t do away with it,” Taylor said. “This crime was so obviously motivated by hate. And for crimes based in hate, which is a larger crime against society, there needs to be tougher penalties.”
Chances of a hate crimes bill being passed this year are small, Taylor acknowledged — the legislature is midway through its session and social issues are being put on the back burner.
“But I’d like to start the conversation,” he said, including talking with Republican colleagues who may not be eager to support the bill.
“The truth of the matter is a hate crime is nothing short of domestic terrorism,” Taylor reiterated.
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said while the state’s largest LGBT advocacy group has always supported the passage of a hate crimes bill in Georgia, it has taken a back seat in past years as time is made to talk to and educate the Republican leadership about what the bill would do.
And, Graham stressed, it is not just LGBT people that need protections from hate crimes.
“There are many, many communities in desperate need for hate crimes legislation,” he said.
A federal hate crimes law was signed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI are working with the Atlanta Police Department to investigate if the attack on White is indeed a federal hate crime.
“The FBI continues to work with the Atlanta Police Department and gather information that could make this a hate crime,” said Special Agent Stephen Emmett on Tuesday.
John Horn, First Assistant U.S. Attorney, said this week his office also continues to participate in the investigation. “Our review is still ongoing,” he said.
The APD has made one arrest in the attack, Christopher Cain, 18. The police also have identified two other suspects. On Feb. 14, Mayor Kasim Reed raised the reward leading to the capture of the two suspects to $25,000.
But more could be done, said at least one lesbian Pittsburgh resident who attended the rally.
“I feel as if a lot of the media and public representatives are not addressing the hate crime that this was,” said Nykieria Chaney.
“[T]hey were not screaming, ‘no blacks in Jack City, or, no women in Jack City’ they were specifically stating, ‘no faggots in Jack City.’ That means that they were specifically targeting GLBT individuals and attempting to invoke fear and intimidation because of their sexuality. That is a hate crime and the FBI, local officials, and everyone else needs to address it as such,” she said.
Solidarity with the other victim — the Pittsburgh community
Behind Iconium Baptist Church is a house surrounded by a wooden fence filled with holes and missing planks. Spray-painted in black are the words “RIP Curt.”
The community is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. African Americans settled in the Pittsburgh area as they faced segregation after the Civil War, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s aunt, Christine King Ferris, once taught elementary school there.
But there is no denying the historic neighborhood is in need of help. Black LGBT activists spoke at the rally and continue to speak of partnering with the community in the wake of the anti-gay beating.
Compassion must be shown to the attackers as well, said activists at the Feb. 8 rally.
“We are Brandon White,” said Holiday Simmons of Lambda Legal, an LGBT legal organization. “But we are also the attackers. We are a reflection of each other. What is another black man in jail going to do? What are we going to do with them?
“I know we’re angry, I know we’re hurt, I know we’re scared, I know we’re traumatized,” Simmons said at the Feb. 8 rally. “We want justice. But this is not how sustainable changes happens.”
White said he knows his attack drew attention because it was posted on the internet. But after living in the Pittsburgh neighborhood for eight months, he knew the community’s dangers well.
“There are a lot of issues in that community. Before my incident nobody cared,” White told the GA Voice.
“If what happened to me had not showed up on the news or the internet, who would care? Even if my incident did happen and there was no proof of it, who would have said all this attention would have happened? People have been killed on that corner, at that same store. No media covered it,” he said.
Josh Noblitt, who is white and a social justice minister at Saint Mark United Methodist Church, was attacked for being gay in 2010 at Piedmont Park.
“At the end of the day, I am Brandon White and all of you are Brandon White,” he said at the rally. “We are all deeply, deeply connected. As we move this process … together with Brandon…I call on you not to succumb to feelings of revenge, feelings of anger, feelings of violence ourselves.”
Devin Barrington Ward, one of the gay organizers of the rally who is continuing to work with the Pittsburgh community, hopes the negative incident can lead to positive results for the neighborhood, for the state and for disarming homophobia in the South.
The other victim in the brutal attack — the Pittsburgh community — must also not be forgotten and Ward asks the LGBT community to not disappear when the spotlight shuts off. That includes not demonizing the attackers, he said.
“We need to reach out to these folks so they can realize the harm they committed against this community and themselves,” Ward said. “That’s the only way we can make lasting change. I think just as Brandon is my brother, they are my brothers, too.”
After the men have served their time in prison, said Ward, it is up to the LGBT community to be there, with an “olive branch,” to welcome them and to educate as a way to eliminate stigma, discrimination and hate.
“Being a member of the African-American and LGBT communities, I feel a connection to the attackers as well,” he asked. “If we are not there when they get out, what does that say about our community?”