Beyond the Rainbow: Baltimore, Ferguson, New York and the pursuit of justice

Posted on 22 May 2015 at 7:00am



JAMES RUSSELL  |  Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part look into relationships between police and the LGBT community in North Texas, and how we are working to avoid the unrest that has erupted in Ferguson, Baltimore and New York.

Between June 27 and June 28, 2009, Fort Worth police officers filed 577 reports, providing a glimpse into the often unexpected and complex situations facing law enforcement. Where one officer intervened in a suicide attempt and helped the individual into rehabilitation, others arrested sex offenders and sought runaway children.

But report 090071988, filed shortly after midnight on June 28, stands out.

That’s when a Fort Worth police officer grabbed Chad Gibson and slammed him headfirst to the floor inside the Rainbow Lounge, then dragged him outside the then-newly-opened gay bar. As a result of the officer’s aggressive force, Gibson suffered bleeding in his skull and was taken to the emergency room.

Gibson was cited for public intoxication. Five others were arrested and booked at the city jail.

In the police report filed afterward reporting officer K. Gober wrote that he, along with a sergeant, five other officers and an agent with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, visited the Rainbow Lounge and the nearby Rosedale Saloon and Cowboy Palace out of public safety concerns — a common practice.

“[They] are public places and are known to routinely over-serve alcohol to patrons who are already intoxicated to a degree they are a danger to themselves and others,” Gober wrote in the report summary.

Despite palpable rage at the time of the incident, Police Chief Jeff Halstead initially resisted calling the incident a hate crime or excessive use of force. Instead, he defended the officers.

It didn’t help the raid fell on the 40th anniversary of another police raid on a gay bar: the Stonewall Inn in New York City.

In the summer of 2009, the nation was in an uproar over the Rainbow Lounge raid, rage exacerbated followed by coverage of other bar raids in Atlanta and elsewhere.

Police-2To those who knew the story of the 1969 Stonewall raid and riots 40 years before, it was déjà vu, as if nothing had changed and no gains had been made for the LGBT community.

Six years later, the nation is once again embroiled in controversy over police bias and use of excessive force. In Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and New York, a toxic combination of segregated urban policy, economic injustice and police force has fueled the deadly results leading to riots and unrest.

But the Rainbow Lounge raid did not spark violent riots akin to Stonewall. Change did not come fast in Fort Worth, but through the work of determined activists and an embarrassed city government, the raid ultimately fueled reforms and LGBT relations within the department, the city and TABC.

Despite the strides made in Fort Worth following the raid, the question remains especially in light of recent shootings as close as Grapevine: was the Rainbow Lounge an anomaly, or could the next Ferguson happen here, in North Texas?
Just one incident

In the ongoing struggle for LGBT equality, it just takes one incident to break the community’s fragile trust in law enforcement.

Communities are the sum of their parts, consisting of individuals with a wide range of lived experiences and personal history. But in every community, some are more disadvantaged than others.

One report detailed the disparities when it comes to reporting violent crimes and reporting biases by, among others, the police.

The 2013 National Report on Hate Violence Against LGBT, Queer and HIV-Affected Communities, by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, reports nationwide fewer survivors of sexual assault or rape report their cases to the police out of fear of reprisal. The report, issued by a nationwide coalition of LGBT advocacy groups including the Montrose Center in Houston, reveals some of those disparities.

Only 45 percent of LGBT, queer and HIV-positive individuals reported cases of hate crimes or intimate partner violence, down from 56 percent in 2012. Just 32 percent reported experiencing hostile attitudes from the police in 2013, a slight increase from 27 percent during the previous year.

The report indicates the transgender community is the most likely to experience discrimination and violence at the hands of police, evidenced supported by the National Center for Transgender Equality and other groups.

“Transgender persons — and more specifically, transgender persons of color — are picked up for solicitation for the simple fact that they are carrying more than one condom. One could certainly make a case for profiling,” wrote Sally Huffer, the community projects specialist at Montrose who also contributed to the report. “Trust of law enforcement gets chipped away when it continually releases crime reports that re-victimize transgender persons when it uses phrases like, ‘a man dressed as a woman,’ [or the] wrong pronouns to refer to the victim.

“It isn’t that far of a reach when we see what’s happening in Ferguson and Baltimore to wonder how individual bias can supersede police department policies, especially in situations where the adrenaline is elevated,” she added.

But don’t isolate social unrest and rioting to just police negligence, noted Emily Farris, an assistant professor of political science at Texas Christian University who studies urban policy. “There seems to be a lot of interest in what city might be the ‘next Ferguson’ or ‘next Baltimore.’ I don’t believe the events in Ferguson or Baltimore were anomalous,” Farris wrote.

Socioeconomic and geographic factors historically have played a role in unrest.

She pointed to a report released in July 1968 by an 11-member commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, a year before the Stonewall Inn raid. The Kerner Report, named for commission’s chair, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, analyzed and detailed the causes of the ongoing nationwide race riots. It indicted the structural oppression wrought by white Americans toward black Americans.

The report concluded the country was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Like the Kerner report, Farris emphasized anger toward the police is a part of, but not the whole reason behind, urban riots. “People participate in upheavals for a reason that usually is not just the anger at the precipitating event but also frustration at a larger set of underlying issues in their community,” she wrote.

The Los Angeles riots of 1992 are another example. That summer, police officers were indicted for beating of a black taxi driver named Rodney King. Black residents had had enough.

“A combination of the conditions of poverty among blacks and ethnic diversity with racial tensions, and the effects of increased immigration and economic restructuring in addition to the beating of Rodney King” triggered the looting and violence that shut down the city, Farris noted.

Fort Worth however is not Ferguson or Baltimore or Los Angeles. Farris pointed to promising figures both nationwide and locally in the decennial U.S. Census report.

The Dallas/Fort Worth area was one of the least segregated in terms of large cities, Farris wrote. “Dallas-Fort Worth’s dissimilarity index, which measures how evenly two groups are distributed in a neighborhood, fell by 10 points between 1970 and 2010.”

After the 2009 Rainbow Lounge raid, Fort Worth appointed its own commission to address LGBT disparities and needs.

One of the action items included appointing a LGBT liaison within the police department, similar to positions in the Dallas Police Department and now, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office. In the aftermath of the Rainbow Lounge, Officer Sara Straten served as the first liaison; the position is currently held by Cpl. Tracey Knight.

Knight described the role as another approach to the city’s community policing policy. As LGBT liaison, she presents the LGBT perspective to the department. She also presents the police’s perspective to the LGBT community.

“I understand community fears and I can also (sometimes) do a better job of explaining ‘why’ things are done a certain way by a police officer,” Knight wrote.

Another part of her role includes maintaining relationships with the department’s LGBT officers as well as with community leaders and activists in the city. That includes attending weekly sessions at Celebration Community Church, where officers, the police chief and community members address concerns in a relaxed environment.

But are we the next Ferguson?

“There are most likely many different reasons and points of view on this but personally I believe that one of the reasons is because we [Fort Worth and FWPD] have a long history of community policing – this is not a new thing for us here,” Knight suggested. “We also have a highly trained and very professional police department.

That’s not to say that improvements can’t be made because there is always room for improvement. … We strive to maintain our community relationships and build upon the trust that we have in each other.”

But as Huffer sees it, oppression is still embedded in LGBT history. Addressing problems requires a comprehensive approach and sensitivity to repair the past.

“Like many communities, you cannot forget your history, and especially for our senior population, police raids at social clubs were a reality … along with the verbal and physical harassment,” she wrote. “One split second can be deadly and unravel the trust that has taken years to build.”

Next Week: More on the aftermath of the Rainbow Lounge Raid and how it sparked reform in other North Texas communities.     

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 22, 2015.

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