Seattle march challenges bigotry

By Sam Bernstein

SEATTLE--Hundreds of LGBT people and their allies held a February 28 candlelight vigil and marched through the Capitol Hill neighborhood to stand up against a recent increase in anti-LGBT hate crimes.

The FBI just reported a 6 percent increase nationally in LGBT-centered hate crimes (at least those that are reported), while the overall number of hate crimes declined. As part of this alarming trend, there have been at least five attacks on the LGBT community here in just the last two months.

What you can do

QAC meets every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Cafe Vivace on Broadway and Republican in Capitol Hill.

On January 6, 11 gay bars in Seattle received letters that threatened to kill patrons using the deadly poison ricin. No one has been arrested for this threat. On January 15, a Tacoma man chased and threatened a lesbian on a work break in the heart of Capitol Hill, shouting, "I'll stab you in the eyes with a knife!"

On January 20, a bisexual man was attacked by another man outside a Blockbuster Video after the man asked him, "Are you a fag?" And on February 2, a gay man was assaulted and robbed outside a restaurant by three men. He was knocked unconscious and lay on the sidewalk for 45 minutes and later awoke in a nearby hospital with a fractured cheekbone.

Most recently, on February 22, Jerry Knight was attacked while walking home from a gay bingo event dressed in a sailor costume. Two men punched and kicked him, repeatedly yelling "faggot."

None of the established LGBT organizations in the area even issued a press release to sound an alarm about the spate of hate crimes, but a new grassroots group, Queer Ally Coalition (QAC), decided that a collective showing of opposition and solidarity needed to be organized. As Lonnie Lopez, a co-founder of QAC, said:

We want to make the connection with people that we need to organize to protect ourselves and demand full equality now instead of simply waiting for the next bad thing to happen. The passage of [California’s] Prop 8 gave tacit approval to bigots to go out and attack LGBT people, so the loss of Prop 8 not only means the loss at the ballot box or the loss of civil rights, it also means that some of us are losing blood and even our lives.

African Americans organized, protested, debated and shaped a civil rights movement decades ago, and because of their work, there are many many fewer lynchings in the South...When we organize for full equality, whether it be marriage rights, employment and worker rights, or the simple right to be free from physical violence, the bigots back down and fewer queers die.

The vigil was anything but somber--it was angry, confident and militant. The tone was set by Jerry Knight himself, who despite being attacked just a week earlier, courageously stood up to speak out against the oppression of all people, doing media interviews to publicize the vigil and speaking at the vigil itself.

"Violence against anyone--gay, whatever it may be--we need to come together and stand up and say we're not going to tolerate this,” Knight told reporters. "Ten years ago [during the WTO protests], labor unionists, students, grandmothers and environmentalists came together to shut this city down against corporate greed."

Speaking at the vigil, Knight returned to the same theme: "In the wake of Prop 8 in November, tens of thousand people came together to stand up for civil rights and equality. Standing together is the only way to achieve justice for everyone."

"It's so important that we are uniting to take back our community,” one vigil participant said. “These attacks just make me sick. I was gay-bashed back in 2001, and no one did anything. I didn't even know we could do anything. But together we can send a message to the haters that we just won't take it anymore. We're human beings just like everyone else."

Fired up, the protesters took to the streets, chanting "Whose streets? Our streets! Whose community? Our community! Whose night? Our night!" and "Queers unite, take back the night! In the streets is where we fight!"

Crowds gathered outside bars and restaurants in this center of nightlife, waving and cheering on the march. Chanting "Out of the bars, into the streets!" the march swelled as it progressed.

Coincidentally, the march approached a local theater showing the Oscar-winning film Milk, just as people were getting out of the movie. Having just watched the last scene of the movie--a militant candlelight march--smiles and cheers erupted from the movie-goers and many joined the real-life march.

Afterward, QAC member Eli Steffen made a pitch for people to get involved in activism and organizing: "This is only the first step. We have to work together to make the second and third steps--to work toward ending injustice everywhere. It's up to us to fight for a better world."