Attacks on Gays Explored : Crime: Forum draws about 50 homosexual activists, city officials and others. Victims are urged to report violent incidents.
Jacques Rosas remembers the violent attack as if it happened yesterday. He was walking down a well-lighted section of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood on a Sunday night when six thugs jumped from a pickup truck and beat him with baseball bats and a chain.
Although Rosas, who is gay, was struck on the head, he was able to subdue two of his assailants with the help of passersby. Now only one thing angers him more than the gay-bashing incident itself: the fact that so many others fail to report similar attacks to authorities.
“If we lay down, we’re going to be walked on,” said Rosas, a Los Angeles resident who was attacked in September. “Absolutely every incident must be reported without exception. Don’t let these people smash us down. Enough is enough.”
Rosas’ words reflected the prevailing attitude at a forum on gay-bashing in West Hollywood on Monday. About 50 residents, gay activists, city officials, academicians and authorities gathered to gain insight into such crimes.
City staff members will write up the ideas generated at the forum, organized by the city and by the Sheriff’s Department, to be presented to the City Council later.
The panelists implored victims to report attacks and agreed that the community must develop an organized response to the problem, which they say is growing worse.
In 1990, the number of gay-bashing incidents in Los Angeles rose 22%, from 163 to 199, according to the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. The figures underrepresent the scope of the problem, activists say, because the majority of victims do not report violent incidents. Peter Nardi, a sociology professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, said during the forum that gay-bashing cannot be blamed on homophobia alone, but that it must be understood in the context of contemporary social issues.
The increased visibility of the gay community, the failure of schools to teach students about diversity and the tough economic times have all contributed to misdirected anger toward gays and lesbians, he said.
Speakers offered dozens of suggestions to help stem the violence, including a cable television program about gay-bashing, community patrols with cameras to videotape incidents, markers to designate sites of attacks, and whistles for members of the gay and lesbian communities.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Ellen Aragon urged victims to write down pertinent facts immediately after an attack--noting license plate numbers and assailants’ unusual features or clothing--for use later in court. Aragon said that a new state law that takes effect Jan. 1 will increase the length of sentences by as much as three years for those convicted of a felony hate crime.
“Don’t let it go by the boards,” Aragon said. “Maybe you didn’t get hurt seriously and you don’t want to deal with the courts. But maybe next time it’ll be someone else who will be hurt much worse.”
City Councilman John Heilman, who is a lawyer, said that the same law will remove the existing cap on punitive damages that victims can collect in civil suits. Victims who sue and win are entitled to have their attorney’s fees paid by their assailants, Heilman said, adding that the state has a restitution fund in cases in which defendants can’t afford the penalties.
“When you force (a gay-basher) to pay even a minor amount, it makes it worthwhile,” said Heilman, who settled his own suit this week in a case stemming from an attack three years ago.
Several residents who addressed the panel, although thankful for the information, criticized city officials and authorities for not doing enough to crack down on gay-bashers. Some accused deputies at the West Hollywood sheriff’s station of insensitivity, adding that many gays are reluctant to report attacks for fear of discrimination.
“There is a fundamental lack of protection because there is a fundamental lack of respect for (gays) in West Hollywood,” said one man, who asked that his name not be used.
Detective Pamela Sivelle, who works out of the West Hollywood sheriff’s station, said her department recognizes the growing incidence of violence against gays and lesbians. But Sivelle sought to downplay the problem.
Of 201 felony assaults recorded at the sheriff’s station through Nov. 30, she said only 17 could be defined as gay-bashing incidents. But, she added, “I agree that there are a lot more (instances) that are not reported.”
The forum comes at a time of increasing vigilance over violent attacks on gays and lesbians, who make up an estimated one-third of West Hollywood’s 37,000 residents.
In August, the militant group Queer Nation began street patrols in the city on weekend nights. The patrols have yet to encounter any trouble, but their presence is helping to deter would-be bashers, members said on Monday.
Three of the five City Council members have proposed their own solutions in the last week. Mayor Paul Koretz has called for the creation of a $15,000 trust fund to reward residents who give tips to authorities on violent hate crimes. Under the proposal, individuals could be awarded a maximum of $5,000 for information that leads to a conviction. The mayor, who will bring the proposal to the council next week, said he believes it will be adopted by the end of January.
During the forum, council members Heilman and Abbe Land also recommended that the city sponsor community patrols that would work in conjunction with the Sheriff’s Department, and they called for a training program for gays and lesbians who want to serve as sheriff’s deputies or as reserves.
Members of the Queer Nation patrol said those efforts would help alleviate the demand for their services and allow them to branch out to other trouble spots in Los Angeles. They hope the forum will spur the community to action.
"(West Hollywood) needs to wise up and get more serious about hate crimes,” said Eddie, a member of the patrol, who asked that his last name not be used. “This sort of thing is way past due.”