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Beyond the beating 

The problems in Pittsburgh go beyond the assault of Brandon White

CLEAN-UP DETAIL: LaShawn Hoffman, in front of a property the PCIA plans to renovate, is leading the fight to make the neighborhood safer.

Joeff Davis

CLEAN-UP DETAIL: LaShawn Hoffman, in front of a property the PCIA plans to renovate, is leading the fight to make the neighborhood safer.

The February meeting of Pittsburgh's safety committee begins with a prayer. The group's 10-or-so, mostly retirement-age members bow their heads as former state legislator Douglas Dean mutters the requisite thanks and hallelujahs in spite of — or, perhaps, in light of — a challenging month in their neighborhood.

After the invocation, Zone 3 community prosecutor Claire Farley encourages everyone to attend the upcoming hearing of a well-known local burglar who's trying to withdraw a guilty plea he submitted before he was arrested yet again last November, that time during a five-hour SWAT standoff. Atlanta Police Sgt. J. Hoos reads to the group a monthly breakdown of arrests in their zone and beat. Everything remained "pretty level" in January he assures them. The meeting's leader, Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association Operations Manager Pierre Gaither, then reminds everyone about an upcoming cleanup of old tires that litter the neighborhood. It's the tire cleanup that allows Gaither a segue to the public safety-related incident that's drawn such attention to their small pocket of Southwest Atlanta: the February 4 beating of 20-year-old Brandon White.

"Speaking of tires," Gaither begins, "If you remember the case ... well, I know you remember the case because Pittsburgh's been in the news a lot ... ." One of the committee's elderly members interrupts him, "It's bad to be on the news and in the newspapers. I'm gon' move."

Gaither recovers. "No, Miss Gill. We don't want you to move. But in the beating of the young man, they used one of those tires to attack him. That's one reason we need to clean them up. Now, we've got people using illegally dumped tires as weapons."

Gaither isn't being glib by using White's attack to illustrate why abandoned tires need to be cleaned up. Much of the Pittsburgh community has rallied in support of White in the aftermath of his brutal beating outside the convenience store at 1029 McDaniel St., during which he was punched, stomped, and repeatedly called a "faggot." Gaither is simply looking at the attack from the perspective of an advocate in a neighborhood where violence at the scene of that attack is far from rare — but where overwhelming attention to such violence is.

Between January 2011 and February 2012, the Atlanta Police Department responded to 1029 McDaniel St. 384 times, a combination of 911 calls and what they call "directed patrols," or self-initiated check-ins on a particular problem location. There were 20 fights, seven reports of shots fired, two shootings, one of which resulted in a person's death. It's safe to assume other incidents took place, but — like the crime against White — simply weren't called in to police. The location is a well-known gang hangout, and local leaders say the business's owners have been reluctant to take action.

Because of the nature of the crime against White — it's being viewed as a hate crime by many — conversations about the attack have largely taken place in a vacuum. Yes, there have been other crimes at the location, but this one was a brutal and seemingly unprovoked attack against a gay man — one caught on tape. Very recently, the media became preoccupied with accusations that the attack wasn't unprovoked, that White knew and had been "taunting" his attackers (as though taunting would somehow justify the beating). White denies this.

In any case, what has been overshadowed is that White's crime represents a persistent problem in an already beleaguered neighborhood. For Pittsburgh, the rhetoric must move beyond the "was it, was it not" discussion regarding the hate crime, but instead it must be, "What can we do to make the fear and violence subside?"

"Our position," Gaither says, speaking on behalf of the Pittsburgh safety committee, "is beyond the whole piece that the media has made out around homosexuality. For us, it's more about the crime and the statistics we have to prove the issues around that particular location. We've had issues with drugs, robbery, murder, and now this young man being beat. What we want to do is position it as a community issue: It's our problem, so how do we solve it?"

In the short term, they intend to get rid of 1029 McDaniel St.

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