An Acworth man is in Atlanta Police Department custody this week following an attack on openly gay Atlanta School Board candidate Charlie Stadtlander.

Wilford Hardnett was charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault on July 29 after stealing Stadtlander’s phone and kicking him while Stadtlander participated in a rally to support transgender equality.

“I was really caught up in the moment. I wanted to stream [the march] live on Facebook,” Stadtlander told Georgia Voice. “I lifted my phone up and before I could press play, a guy on a bicycle stopped right in front of me. He called me a gay slur; he snatched my phone and he tried to flee.”

He tried to stopped the suspect, who kicked him in the shin. Hardnett’s attempt to flee was hampered by the rest of the marchers, who were coming from the opposite direction. Stadtlander said he began to call for help and say he’d been robbed, and several marchers, including Caleb Spivak, came to his aid.

“We literally just left the starting point for the rally outside of 10th Street,” Spivak said. “We got a quarter of a mile down the road when all of a sudden, I saw Charlie screaming that his phone had been taken.”

Spivak said his instinct was to retrieve the stolen phone, which he did, and then proceeded to confront the suspect.

“When something like that happens, you never really know how you’re going to react,” he said. “Subconsciously I was thinking about who I was with and the reason that we were out there marching. I wasn’t going to let someone like that step in on the positive thing that we had going for us.”

Stadtlander said the suspect yelled a number of gay slurs, claimed he had a Glock and threatened to shoot those participating in the march. It was then the crowd backed away and he fled.

Hardnett was apprehended about an hour later after he rode past the 10th Street MARTA station, where Stadtlander was standing with police officers. He was able to identify the suspect as the one who took his phone and assaulted him. At the time of his arrest, Hardnett did not have a weapon.

Stadtlander said Hardnett confessed and apologized to him. In a Facebook post following the incident, Stadtlander said “one of the most heartening moments” was seeing Officer Justin Fong stop the suspect from making more anti-LGBT slurs by telling him “that all people should be treated with equality, respect and dignity.”

“It is my understanding the Atlanta Police attempted to charge the suspect with a hate crime, or a bias crime, and they were instructed to remove that charge by the district attorney’s office,” Stadtlander told Georgia Voice. “The robbery, though armed, was not solely motivated because I was gay. … The officer said it was a crime of opportunity, it just happened to be a transgender equality march. However, when the suspect threatened to shoot all of us and used a gay slur and criticized the march and said he had a Glock, I don’t know exactly what much more you need at that point to have been a hate crime.”

Georgia is one of five states without a hate crime law, but Atlanta Police typically label such incidents “bias crimes” in their system to keep track and monitor any trends. An incident report was not available as of press time but Georgia Voice will update the story once the report is received. [UPDATE 3:55 p.m.: Atlanta Police sent Georgia Voice an incident report corroborating details of the account. It also stated that once Hardnett was transported to the Zone 5 Precinct, he made several statements about wanting to commit suicide, so he was transported to Grady Detention Center. The report also states that the city camera at the intersection of 10th and Peachtree was not working.]

Stadtlander said though he is not OK with anything that the suspect said or did while committing these offenses, the incident raised a number of questions about how young men like Hardnett end up in the criminal justice system.

“He was a kid. He confessed to these crimes. He indicated he was homeless and he indicated he needed to be on medication, and he hadn’t been on medication for six months,” Stadtlander said. “We’re not responsible for what he did, but we as a society and as taxpayers created the environment that has allowed this result to occur.”

Stadtlander told Georgia Voice he intends to request leniency on the suspect’s behalf.

Spivak said the incident is a reminder of the strength of the LGBT community.

“We have to stick out for each other and we have to have each other’s backs,” he said. “The truth is, the more we love on each other, the more it’s going to show the people that hate that we love on each other how strong our ties are, and that we’re going to do whatever it takes to look out for each other.”

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