by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Seattle is a city of neighborhoods. People tend to live, shop, play, and work all in the same neighborhood. So when a crime happens in White Center, it's not too surprising that its effects aren't always felt in the Gay community, whose focus is typically Capitol Hill (and more recently, West Seattle). But all that is beginning to change. Guns are increasingly becoming a problem, violent crime is on the rise, and Capitol Hill is in danger of becoming a lawless outpost.
So what happens when you add being LGBT and obvious to the picture? Well, I don't think it takes a genius to answer that question. The bottom line is, as it stands right now, if you are LGBT - obvious or not - you are unsafe in Seattle when the sun goes down.
The next time you are on Capitol Hill I want you to do an experiment. Barring the East Precinct, stand outside and time how long it takes for you to see another SPD patrol, from car to car. You'll be shocked at the time lapse, I assure you. In a meeting with an assistant Seattle police chief, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, I was told that the department simply does not have enough officers to deal with the spike in violent crime. I was also told that, due to budget cuts, it doesn't look like things are going to improve anytime soon.
CHRISTMAS CRIME WAVE
And the latest police reports show this to be a sad reality for Seattle, and Capitol Hill in particular. Capitol Hill Seattle Blog (www.capitolhillseattle.com) publishes reports of violent crime on the Hill almost on a daily basis. Here is a snapshot of some recent reports:
o December 26, 7:45 p.m., victim says robbed by man with 'a gold badge' posing as police officer in Volunteer Park. Suspect still at large.
o December 25, 11 p.m., Belmont Ave. E., man reported he was robbed at gunpoint. Suspect still at large.
o December 25, 10 p.m., 15th Ave. E., two men beat and mug a man for an iPhone. Suspects still at large.
o December 25, Sound Transit art program reports that one of the art pieces hanging on the red construction wall has been stolen. Police have no leads.
o December 25, Gay City reports library computer stolen, Kaladi Cafe cash stolen, and some damage to POS system sustained. SPD has no suspects or leads in the case.
Sadly, the list goes on, and on, and on. Guns, knives, and assault accompany many of the police reports. Race, age, and even gender do not seem to play a role in how suspects are choosing their victims.
TWO UNSOLVED MURDERS
As I write this, Capitol Hill has two unsolved murders on the SPD roster:
o March 6, 2011, 500 block, 11th Ave. E. and E. Republican St., Zachary Lewis was found dead, having been beaten to death in the lot that will someday be Broadway Hill Park. Lewis was a resident of an Eastlake 'supportive housing' facility, and was savagely beaten as both arms were reportedly broken. A reward was offered for more information in the case but a suspect has never been publicly identified.
o January 17, 2012, 1700 block of Harvard Ave., 11:20 p.m., Darek Darewski was shot to death on the sidewalk behind Seattle Central, several blocks from his Capitol Hill apartment. The gunman fled the scene. A suspect has never been publicly identified.
There is, however, one particular case that points to the problem of unsolved violence in Seattle. Although it did not happen on Capitol Hill, the victim was an out and proud member of the LGBT community. His name was Danny Vega and he was, most certainly, Gay.
STILL NO JUSTICE FOR VEGA
Over one year has passed since Danny Vega was killed. No one has been arrested. And no one has publicly come forward with information in regard to his death.
On November 15, 2011, around 7:30-8 p.m., Rainier Valley resident Danny Vega was walking in the 4200 block of South Othello Street in Seattle. The 58-year-old man was assaulted and robbed by three Black teenagers. Twelve days later, Vega died at Harborview Medical Center.
Seattle Police Chief John Diaz promised an aggressive investigation and asked anyone with leads to call homicide detectives at (206) 233-5000. Crime Stoppers of Puget Sound is offering up to $1,000 cash for any information leading to an arrest in the case (1-800-222-TIPS).
Video and still photos from a surveillance camera near the crime scene were released on November 30, 2011, but generated no arrests.
'WE GRIEVE WITH YOU'
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn appeared with top police officials at the Filipino Community of Seattle Center for a public meeting in late November 2011, at the request of Vega's family and the SPD Filipino Advisory Council. Members of the LGBT community as well as the City of Seattle LGBT Commission were in the crowd. Attendance swelled to more than 300.
'We grieve with you,' McGinn said. 'This is a horrifying and tragic loss, and it is the highest priority of our police department to solve this crime with your help.'
Vega's housemate and friend of over 20 years, James Saarenas, said to me that night, 'Danny was targeted because he was Gay.' Saarenas and Vega had been friends since they immigrated to the U.S. in 1982. He said the police don't 'seem to get it - what happened to Danny was motivated by hate.' Vega had mentioned to Saarenas before that he had been harassed by local teens in the neighborhood.
'You had to know Danny to understand just how openly Gay he was,' his friend told me. 'He was flamboyant and very feminine and even more feminine than any female I know.'
From Vega's laugh to the way he walked, he said, there was 'no question to anyone that he was visibly Gay.'
THREATENED BY GANG
According to Saarenas, anti-Gay sentiment has crept into the neighborhoods of Rainier Valley due to gang violence.
Just two weeks before Vega was attacked, Saarenas told me he was in the front yard of the house they shared, watering the lawn when an African-American teen came up to the fence with his fists clenched and said to him, 'Fuck you, bitch. You faggot. I'm gonna kick your ass.'
Saarenas told me he was frightened by the incident and was glad that there was a fence between them. 'Because I really thought he was going to come after me,' he said.
That's when Saarenas said he noticed something peculiar. Vega had recently installed a sign on their fence advertising his hair salon. 'The young man yelling at me thought I was Danny,' he said.
Weeks later, Danny Vega was beaten so badly he slipped into a coma and ultimately died.
TIME TO FIGHT BACK
Danny Vega's murder must be solved. The streets must be cleansed of this violence. Justice must be served.
I, for one, am not about to allow the streets on Capitol Hill - or anywhere else for that matter - to become open season on victimizing members of the LGBT community. And neither should you. The nonprofit organization that I founded and currently run, Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea) (www.socialoutreachseattle.com) has tasked our program Straight Allies for Equality (SAFE) with helping to make the streets safe and to educate people on personal safety when walking around at night. In addition, I am scheduled to meet with the East Precinct commander, Capt. Ron Wilson, on January 7 to address the actions that SOSea is prepared to take should things not improve. And I can tell you right now that one of them will be five nights of visibility at midnight, on the Hill. Each night we will march through the streets of Capitol Hill making noise, chanting, watching, and patrolling - by the hundreds - to show this street scum that our neighborhoods belong to us, not to them.
DRAG QUEEN ATTACKED
Jessica Paradisco doesn't want anyone to get hurt. In fact, the local drag entertainer and celebrity among the 18-30 bar crowd says she doesn't even wish her attacker any harm, although she is quick to caution that, had it not been for her being able to keep her wits about her, she might not be around to tell her story of survival.
'I was on my way back to Seattle from visiting family from a small Christmas dinner in Federal Way,' Roy Jesse Scott, the man behind the makeup and costuming that is Jessica Paradisco, said. 'Since it was too late for the bus I had to take the light rail home.'
'A guy came onto the light rail near Othello station, and sat right next to me,' he recalled. 'He said 'Hi,' so I took off my headphones and responded, 'Hi,' as I usually do.'
Scott admits that he had a bad feeling about the guy because, 'he sat right next to me even though there were plenty of empty seats.'
'I had my phone in my lap because I was talking to some friends,' he continued. 'The man asked if he could use my phone, and I said he couldn't. I had a feeling that he was going to run out the door with it, leaving me more defenseless and vulnerable.
'As I was looking out the window he grabbed my arm and was trying to force me to give him my phone,' recalls Scott.
The young man pushed the man away a few times, 'but each time I kept trying to push him off of me he kept coming back and would use more force, and it was making me sink lower into the corner.
NO ONE HELPED
'All of the people around us ignored that this was happening,' Scott went on. 'Nobody did anything. I kept yelling and trying to free myself and still nobody came.'
Finally, the train came to a stop and the driver came over, which caused his attacker to run away.
'Although I wasn't seriously injured, I was still in shock,' said Scott. 'It was a reminder that you can never be too careful anymore.'
After this experience Scott says he won't be riding the light rail anymore, adding, 'especially at night unless I have a friend or two with me.'
'I truly believe that if the driver didn't come out when he did, I would've been more injured, and blood would've been spilled,' said Scott. 'I'm just so thankful that I sat right next to the driver's pit, because if I hadn't things would've been much worse.'
Sadly, this incident is not an isolated or even rare.
'TRUST YOUR GUT'
'Nobody wants to be attacked,' said local drag entertainer Fraya Love. 'It's scary and it sucks.'
'When I was 17 I was walking home after midnight and at just one block away from my house I got mugged at gun point,' she said. 'I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.'
That incident happened in Oxnard, California, but the experience serves Fraya Love well in Seattle. 'I stay safe by keeping my wits about me,' she said. 'Trust your gut, if you feel unsafe for any reason, ask a friend to walk you home or take a cab. Make sure you are aware of your surroundings. And if you are alone call a friend - if they are a real friend they won't mind.'
'Lastly, and most people knock me for this,' she adds, 'wear shoes you can easily run in, like riding boots.'
Mac McGreggor, a Transgender activist and commissioner with the City of Seattle LGBTQ Council, has 43 years of martial arts training and is a world champion fighter. McGreggor is a member of SOSea and, through our SAFE program in 2013, will offer an annual street-smart self-defense seminar open to anyone who wants to attend.
'Most Transgender people feel fear every time they go to a public restroom,' he explained. 'It only takes one jackass who thinks you don't belong in [there] to seriously hurt you, and sometime they will attack in groups.'
RISE IN HARASSMENT SEEN
Six years ago, BenDeLaCreme moved to Seattle from Chicago. Realizing that Seattle seemed accepting of Gays, DeLa says, 'I quickly got a lot gayer-looking.'
One night, DeLa, dressed as a boy, was standing outside Pony with a friend.
'An SUV full of college-age guys pulled up and starting yelling at us about whether we were interested in sucking their dicks. We weren't,' said DeLa. 'Then they threw a beer bottle just past our heads against the wall behind us and sped off.'
'This was my first Seattle bottle,' she said. 'But it is the logical next step as the number of times I hear derogatory 'faggots' slung my way on the Hill increasing every year, from never when I first moved to Seattle, to once or twice (a year or so ago) to semi-monthly now - that bothers me.'
'Semi-monthly is still pretty damn good compared to most of the country,' DeLa admits. 'But it's terrible compared to here six years ago. And the increase in straight weekend partygoers who are unaware that they are even visiting a Gay neighborhood for their good time seems directly proportionate to this.
CABS NOT ALWAYS SAFE
'I stay safe by never traveling alone unless in a car with a car service I know and trust,' she continued. 'I have had some very bad experiences with cab drivers, specifically a yellow cab driver who told me and a queen I was riding with that we were amoral and dumped us in a bad neighborhood in full drag in the middle of the night.'
DeLa says that when she called Yellow Cab to complain, they told her that their drivers are all independent contractors and there was nothing they could do.
Because of the recent spike in crime and aggression on the Hill, DeLa says she is thinking about starting to carry mace, 'which scares the bejeezus out of me, but apparently they have developed mace discharges that function like a gun, decreasing the chance of a misfire.'
'I always just think of the number of times I have accidentally shot hairspray in my eyes,' she said.
Aleksa Manila, one of Seattle's most recognizable drag entertainers, says that while she has never been physically attacked, she has been verbally abused. The experience can be just as frightening.
'I certainly have had my share of insults, from looks to whispers to being outed in public from social events indoors and outdoors to commuting via public transportation,' she said, sympathizing with what happened to Jessica Paradisco.
Aleksa lives in downtown Seattle and said she stays safe by realizing that 'I can't control my surroundings, but I can choose where I want and need to be in any given moment.'
In addition, she said, 'It's also comforting to know that I've retained valuable self-defense training from Northwest Network.'
ALWAYS REPORT AN ATTACK
The most important thing to do, if you are attacked for any reason, or if you witnessed someone being attacked, is to call the police and file a report.
'As a survivor myself, the law is definitely on your side to file a police report,' said Aleksa Manila. 'It may feel like the results are not imminent, but it is the right thing to do.'
When everyone files a report, the police are then able to evaluate a pattern of events, and it gives them the important information they need to pursue assailants.
'Talk to friends who will support you throughout the process,' she said. 'This can be an emotionally and psychologically draining ordeal, but remember you are not alone. Our community has services that provide support and fellowship.'
Here are some more tips that everyone can apply: Be aware of your personal space anywhere you are - at home or play; create a buddy system; have a designated driver for your group of friends or have someone who you can call or who will call and check on you to make sure you are where you need to be, safe and sound; and tell at least one person where you are going and who you are going to see.
If you find yourself in a situation that you cannot avoid, become defensive or aggressive as your instinct leads you. Weigh the benefits and consequences of your actions, but always yell out, 'Help!' or 'Call 9-1-1! Call the police!'
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