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February 21, 2007

JAMAICA: GAY LEADER ESCAPES ST. VALENTINE'S DAY LYNCH MOB

The following was written for Gay City News -- New York's largest gay weekly -- which will publish it tomorrow:

Jamaica_map_1 A St. Valentine’s Day homophobic lynch mob of more than 200 in the Kingston, Jamaica suburb of St. Andrew’s Parish chased and assaulted three men presumed to be gay and threatened to kill them -- and the leader of the gay rights organization J-FLAG (Jamaican Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays) was repeatedly and viciously assaulted by police when he went to the aid of the three alleged homosexuals targeted by the angry mob.

The February 14 anti-gay mob violence was sparked when a homophobic women began screaming curses and anti-gay epithets at the three men, calling them “battymen” (Jamaican slang for “faggot”) and hollering that they should be killed. The trio, who were described in various reports in the homophobic Jamaican press as “effeminate” and with “bleached-out faces, and dressed in tight jeans pants and skimpy shirts,” took refuge in a pharmacy in the Tropical Plaza shopping center, into which they were followed by their screaming accuser. The store management escorted the woman, who was still hollering threats and anti-gay insults, from the store, and telephoned local police.

Jamaica_antigay_mob This woman rapidly attracted the attention of passersby and other shoppers in the shopping center, and in a matter of minutes the crowd grew to number some 200 people of all ages, and both men and women as well as teenagers and children joined in chanting threats and anti-gay epithets, shouting “kill them, kill the battymen,” and demanding the three targeted men “come out to face our justice.” (Photo left: one of the gay men, in red T-shirt, is hit by a stone in the St. Valentine's Day mob attack.)

Gareth Williams, the 29-year-old leader of J-FLAG, said in a statement that, “I was already in the pharmacy purchasing items. I recognized the three men and went over and spoke to them, asking them to calm down.”

“Because I had intervened to calm the situation, I was pointed at and referred to as a friend of the three guys,” Gareth related, adding: “People said that I must be gay too The crowd demanded that I come outside, so they could beat me. After hearing these threats, I decided to wait until the police arrived to escort the three guys out. I thought it would be safer for me to leave with them at the same time.”

While waiting for police to arrive on the scene Gareth managed to get a phone call through to the New York offices of Human Rights Watch (HRW) as the hostile crowd continued to menace the men in the pharmacy. According to Scott Long, HRW’s director of LGBT Rights, “Rebecca Schleifer of HRW’s HIV/AIDS division, Jessica Stern, and I spent about two hours on the phone yesterday evening during this horrific incident, talking to the victims while the mob threatened them, to Jamaican activists, and to several different offices of the Jamaican police….What followed was a very tense episode of international action, with people mobilizing in New York, Geneva, and Kingston, and phoning both the Jamaican Commissioner of Police and the local police station to press the authorities to intervene immediately and provide protection.”

When police finally arrived inside the pharmacy, “The three men were supported by the store staff but verbally abused by the police and by the store’s private security personnel,” said J-FLAG’s Gareth. “I was violently abused by four members of the police team. They slapped me in the face, hit me on the head, and the handle of an M-16 rifle was used to strike me in the lower abdomen.”

Gareth said that, “This assault happened because one of the police officers was being very aggressive and homophobic. I told him that he should not abuse us in that manner. The officers forcibly dragged me towards the door. When I told them not to treat me like that, they became even more hostile.”

“I was the only one injured inside the pharmacy,” Gareth noted, “but one of the three guys was hit on the head with an object when he went outside to get into the police car. The police refused to tell us how we were going to get safely outside amid the angry mob of approximately 200 people. This made us very anxious.”

Once the men were finally put into a police car and whisked away, the abuse continued. “While in the vehicle all the ways to the police station, the men were taunted by the police with anti-gay epithets,” J-FLAG reported in a separate statement. “The insults continued even when the men arrived at the Half-Way Tree police station, where other police joined in the name-calling The policemen at the station told them that they should be grateful and warned them never to return to Half-Way Tree.”

J-FLAG’s Gareth was later examined by a physician, and “my injuries are deemed serious by the doctor who examined me,” he said. Those injuries, he explained, included: “soft tissue injuries to the right of the face (peri-orbital), right panetal scalp with minor soft hematoma, and blunt abdominal trauma and muscular spasm.”

The St. Valentine’s Day lynch mob incident is hardly the first time the Jamaican gay leader has been singled out by Jamaican police for abuse. When this reporter interviewed Gareth at length for Gay City News last October, he related how “I’ve had police officers turning up at my house, calling me ‘battyman’ and saying that I’ll be murdered like Brian. In February, after a gay man was killed, there was a gang of police outside my house saying the same thing would happen to me.”

Gareth’s last name, Williams, is a pseudonym he must use for his safety. HisBrian_williamson_2  predecessor at J-Flag’s helm, Brian Williamson, 59 (right) -- whom Gareth told me “was the only out gay person in Jamaica who had the courage to put his face on television” -- was brutally murdered in his home in 2004 by anti-gay thugs, who mutilated his body with multiple stab wounds. An HRW researcher witnessed a joyous crowd that gathered outside Williamson‘s house to celebrate the murder. A smiling man called out, “Batty man,” using the Jamaican patois for faggot, “he get killed!” Others joined the celebration; laughing and calling out, “let’s get them one at a time,” “that’s what you get for sin,” “let’s kill all of them.” Some sang “Boom bye bye,” a line from a Jamaican song about killing and burning gay men that was made a hit by reggae singer Buju Banton. (For my full-length interview with Gareth, see “Jamaica: Island of Hate,” Gay City News, October 5, 2006)

Metropolitan Community Church, a gay denomination which recently opened a branch in Jamaica, reported: “Since the Valentines Day attack, the tragedy and violence have continued to grow. Over the last few days, other gay people reportedly have been attacked in Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, and at least one gay person in Montego Bay has been murdered. And on Sunday, there was an unconfirmed report that one of the three men attacked on Valentines Day had attempted suicide in the aftermath of the attack.”

J-FLAG has issued a statement saying, “We applaud the actions of the staff at the store who showed a fundamental humanity and respect for their fellow Jamaicans, and who called for the assistance of the police. The response of the police, however, shows that citizens perceived to be gay remain vulnerable to attacks both from violent members of the public as well as from the security forces themselves sworn to defend against the violation of their rights. We call upon the Commissioner of Police, the Office of Professional Responsibility and the Public Defender to ensure that the policemen involved in this assault are brought to justice.”

Jflag_logo J-FLAG (logo at left) has asked that protests about the St. Valentine’s Day incident and the abusive police behavior associated with it be addressed to Jamaican embassies world-wide. In the U.S., the Embassy of Jamaica is at 20 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20036; Telephone: (202) 452-0660; Fax: (202) 452-0081; E-mail: emjam@sysnet.net In New York City, the Consulate General of Jamaica is at 767 Third Avenue, Second Floor, New York N.Y. 10017; Telephone: (212) 935-9000; Fax: (212) 935-7507

Gareth said that J-FLAG “is in desperate need of funds. As it is, most of what we want to do to benefit the community we can’t do because we don’t have the money. Our needs are great.” Another urgent need is for expert help in modernizing and expanding the group’s website at http://www.jflag.org/ , “and gay-friendly computer experts are pretty scarce in Jamaica,” he added. If you want to help J-FLAG, e-mail the organization at admin@jflag.org

Financial contributions may be mailed to: J-FLAG, P.O. Box 1152, Kingston 8, Jamaica, West Indies.

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