Shaken by a year-long spike in LGBT-bashing crimes in their predominantly gay neighborhood, community leaders from Seattle’s Capitol Hill area organized a public forum this week that drew several hundred participants, as well as the city’s mayor.
Ranging from an attempt to kill hundreds of people packed into a bar on New Year’s Eve to a steady stream of assaults and robberies motivated by anti-LGBT animus, the spike in hate crimes on Capitol Hill appears to be a violent backlash against recent gains in LGBT rights in Washington state, including the approval given to same-sex marriage by the state’s voters in 2012.
“I used to live on Capitol Hill, but I don’t anymore,” said Debbie Carlsen of LGBTQ Allyship, a local rights organization, to the crowd on Tuesday, echoing a number of other speakers. “And when I go to the Hill, I don’t feel culturally safe. It’s not a place that I feel safe anymore.”
A number of residents described to the crowd the kinds of assaults that they have endured in the past year, including verbal harassment escalating to physical assaults as they walked through the neighborhood, as well as one alleged assault by a police officer. One man stood up and removed his hat, revealing a large healing wound on his forehead, saying he had been attacked only a week before and had been unable to identify his assailants, “but they were all calling me names.”
Most of those who testified agreed that the worst, most violent attacks seemed to be directed at transsexual people of color.
The meeting, organized by Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant, featured a number of speakers offering a range of solutions. Some proposed more citizen patrols, while others opposed that step as potentially dangerous. Some argued for greater police involvement, while others blamed the police as part of the problem. Sawant spoke at length about how economic disparities often fuel the conditions that make the crimes possible.
Seattle’s openly gay Mayor Ed Murray, who attended the gathering with his husband, said he will help take the lead on this issue. “I think if people don’t feel safe, if they perceive they’re not safe, then we have a problem,” he said. “And we as a city and we as a community have to respond.”
Murray told KING 5 News that he believes the problem is real and substantial. “I think there is an increase,” he said. “I mean, we’ve been here before, we’ve seen this right on this very street before, back in the late ’80s and early ‘90s, when I was a young person. And we’re seeing it again.”
Shaun Knittel, the founder of Social Outreach Seattle, and one of the people who helped douse the attempted arson at Neighbours Bar on New Year’s Eve 2014, an act that eventually brought a heavy 10-year sentence for the perpetrator, told the crowd that it needed to resolve some of its internal differences if the community is going to form an effective response to the challenge.
“We have a perfect storm here on the Hill,” said Knittel, noting the split between people who support the police and those who blame the police. “What kind of message does that send to people who want to do harm to us?”
“We also have a nightlife culture here where everyone that’s opening a business here seems to think they need to be either a bar or a nightclub. How many do you need in one neighborhood?”
Knittel urged victims of bias crimes to resist the temptation to not report the matter to police at all, noting that doing so just encourages repeat offenses and escalation.
“We need to understand better about reporting, and we need to talk about what that looks like,” he said. “If you fear going to the police to report, we understand that. But please, reach out and find and advocate and let people help you report what’s happened. Because I can guarantee you that you’re not their first victim.”
Most of all, he noted, the community needs to make it clear that “bashing queers” is not a free sport for haters anymore.
“We need to lean into this notion that you can come up here and mess with us and we won’t do anything back,” he said. “Those days are over.”