LGBT community forum debates next steps after anti-gay Atlanta beating

White wants to “take up the mantle” and speak out against anti-gay crimes, Greg Smith, founder and executive director of the HIV Intervention Project, or HIP, told a crowd of about 100 people attending a community forum Tuesday at the Rush Center. Smith said he had been speaking with White all day. Concerns about White’s safety were raised and police protection will be provided as necessary at the press conference and rally, said organizers.

A press conference is scheduled for Wednesday at noon at 250 Georgia Ave. SE, Suite 316. White was not at Tuesday’s forum.

Several in attendance at the forum, however, questioned if White was mentally prepared to speak to numerous media outlets and face questioning after being brutally beaten on Saturday, Feb. 4. The attack occurred as White left a small store in the Pittsburgh community, one of Atlanta’s oldest neighborhoods, which was founded by African Americans after the Civil War.

But Smith said media outlets have already found White and are knocking on his door seeking interviews. The best way to handle the attention, Smith said, was to deal with the media all at the same time. Smith also angrily questioned those who he said would deny White his right to tell his side of the story.

“He kept saying, ‘I’m not no punk.’ He is saying, ‘I want to do something. Don’t treat me like a victim,’” Smith said in an impassioned argument.

“He is doing what a lot of us would never do. He is not a weak child. The little queen boy, with the little boots on and the tight pants. He knows struggle. He wants help. He understands he has to do something,” Smith said. “If you never lived in the hood, you don’t understand. We let shit roll off our back and we keep it moving.”

Activists who gathered at the Rush Center forum organized by the Atlanta Black LGBT Coalition also discussed holding a Saturday rally in the Pittsburgh community, at the site of the beating — but they were not clear of a central message after two hours of meeting. The rally is the idea of gay activists by Adolph St. Arromand and Devin Barrington-Ward.

All agreed the rally should not be a one-time visit by LGBT advocates and that it should also be an opportunity to raise awareness of other plights facing the neighborhood, including high crime, high rates of foreclosures, poverty and isolated elderly people.

Jasper Barnes, 35, who works for Emory University and is openly gay, bought his home in the Pittsburgh neighborhood in 2009. He said he lives about 40 yards from the store where the beating took place. Watching the video of the beating of White “enraged” Barnes, he said. But at the same time he’s not shocked. Acts of violence and shootings are commonplace in the community.

“That store is a haven for crime,” Barnes said. “It’s a hangout spot. There’s always something going on at that spot. This [violence] something not a new phenomenon, but it’s the first time caught on film.”

Barnes plans to attend Saturday’s rally and hopes it does not focus only on anti-gay crime.

“As long as the rally is encompassing of the entire community and what the community stands for, it will be embraced. If we come in and only address plight of LGBT community we risk alienating the entire community,” he said.

Forum attendees also discussed advocating for a state hate crime law. Georgia at one time had a hate crimes law, but it was deemed unconstitutional in 2004. Georgia is now one of only five states in the nation without a state hate crimes law. The Atlanta Police Department tracks “bias crimes” and the U.S. Attorney says her office is working with the APD and investigating the videotaped beating to determine if it violates the federal hate crime statute.

Fox 5 Atlanta is reporting that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to arrests of the attackers. “What we’re going to do is work with the FBI until we find every single person that was involved in this horrible incident and bring them to justice,” said Reed.

Dr. David Malebranche, assistant professor of medicine at Emory University’s School of Medicine, voiced outrage that Georgia does not have a hate crimes law.

“We need to focus on him first … and then work on legislation so motherfuckers like this know if they pull this shit again it’s not going to be pushed to the wayside,” he said.

State Rep. Simone Bell (D-Atlanta) also attended the meeting. Bell said she supports a state hate crime bill, but the legislative process moves slowly.

“The reality is we have a few representatives in Atlanta who will support this, but convincing state lawmakers throughout Georgia is a different story,” she said.

“I’m not saying we can’t do that, but we need to do some really, really hard work to get it done,” she said.

Photo: Approximately 100 people packed into the Rush Center Tuesday to discuss ways to move forward as a community after an Atlanta anti-gay beating video went viral. (by Dyana Bagby)