Cofounder Jon Nelson says Fairness Fort Worth’s first focus is helping witnesses to the raid give their testimony to investigators, but the group’s long-term goal is to prevent future problems
A new group has formed in Fort Worth in the wake of the June 28 Fort Worth Police/Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission raid on the Rainbow Lounge.
Attorney Jon Nelson announced the formation of Fairness Fort Worth in a press conference Wednesday afternoon, July 8, at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens.
The raid, which reportedly started as a routine TABC investigation of the newly-opened bar on South Jennings Street, ended with five people arrested for public intoxication, including a 26-year-old man who was hospitalized with intracranial bleeding. Two other people had been arrested on charges of assaulting a police officer, but those charges were later dropped, according to Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead.
In his first statements, Halstead said the arrests started after some patrons in the bar made sexually suggestive movements toward the officers and after one man, later identified as Gibson, groped an officer’s groin.
In part because the raid happened on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York, the incident sparked outrage among the LGBT community in Fort Worth and around the country, leading to a string of protests that started that same day. Community leaders, including openly gay Fort Worth City Councilmember Joel Burns, began calling for an investigation into why the raid happened and how Gibson was hurt.
Within a week, TABC officials had acknowledged that Gibson was injured while in the custody of its agents, and had announced that an investigation into the incident was underway. Halstead, meanwhile, announced that he had suspended all joint actions between his department and TABC, and that the department’s Internal Affairs unit was also conducting an investigation into what happened.
Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief has asked that the U.S. Attorney General’s Office review the findings of the investigations, and a third investigation, this was under the auspices of the police department’s major cases squad, has begun.
Nelson said Wednesday that the initial impetus for the formation of Fairness Fort Worth was to help facilitate the process for witnesses to the Rainbow Lounge raid to come forward and give testimony in the three investigations.
To that end, the new organization helped arrange for representatives from all three investigations to meet with witnesses at a neutral site on two different days this week. Fairness Fort Worth also arranged to have lawyers available to assist and advise the witnesses on a pro bono basis.
Nelson said Fairness Fort Worth would continue to assist witnesses in giving their testimony throughout the investigations.
He also called for the U.S. Attorney General or some other outside agency to conduct an independent investigation of the incident at the Rainbow Lounge instead of just reviewing the findings of the three investigations already under way.
"What we want is an independent, objective investigation, not because we doubt the police department and the TABC, but because if it all just stops with their investigations, there will always be questions," Nelson said.
The group’s long-term goal, however, is to bring together a broad-based coalition of community, civic and government leaders to facilitate communication and cooperation between the different segments of the city to keep such incidents from happening again in the future, Nelson said.
In 2000, Nelson said, Fort Worth became the fourth city in Texas to pass an ordinance banning anti-gay discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations within the city limits.
In passing that ordinance, he said, "The leaders of this city were focused on one fact, … that discrimination is wrong, and would not be tolerated here."
But he added, the incident at the Rainbow Lounge proves, while "our city strives to be open, equal and caring, we have much more work to do."
Nelson said that despite the ordinance, gays and lesbians are still likely to hear anti-gay jokes in the workplace and are still likely to be denied equal benefits by their employers.
And LGBT children and teens still face harassment and bullying in the schools, he said, while school officials say they have to focus their attention of school funding, finding quality teachers and keeping up test scores.
"But those issues pale in comparison to what that child has to go through, to the harassment they face and the fear they deal with every day of their lives," Nelson said. "That’s the reality in Fort Worth and in every city in this country."
Fairness Fort Worth’s goal, he said, is to confront those problems and help the people of the city find a way to work together to solve them.
Nelson said that "every right people have today" came about because of angry protests, "but protests alone won’t solve the problem. … We have few cross burnings today. But we do have smiling bigots who feel safe enough in their homes and in their jobs to say things that belittle other people. These people can vote, and by voting they put their religious beliefs into law. That’s where bigotry happens today."
Lisa Thomas, Joel Burns’ openly-gay appointee to the Fort Worth Human Relations Commission, said she hopes Fairness Fort Worth can help people connect with the LGBT organizations and services already existing in Fort Worth.
"I don’t know if we need anything else. It’s all here already," except for a specific geographic "gayborhood" like Oak Lawn in Dallas, Thomas said.
"It’s not that we need anything new. What we do need is a clearinghouse, a place to go that can point you in the direction to find what you need."
Burns, who has been out of town on a previously scheduled trip, released a statement Wednesday afternoon praising the efforts of Fairness Fort Worth so far.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 10, 2009.