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A February 28 meeting and press conference, organized by grassroots LGBT youth organization Change Atlanta, was miles away from the scene that has come to symbolize Pittsburgh's plight. Oddly, it also seemed to have little connection to Brandon White's ongoing concerns. Held at the Phillip Rush Center, an LGBT community center on DeKalb Avenue, the meeting was intended to foster healing within the gay community by allowing them to hear from the mother and attorney of Dorian Moragne, one of the men alleged to have participated in the attack against White.
White's attorney, Christine Koehler, who was asked by members of the gay community to serve as a sort of victim liaison as his case works its way through the system, says she and her client weren't invited to the table. "It was Phillip Rush's birthday," she says, referring to the deceased LGBT activist for whom the meeting's venue was named. "He would roll in his grave if he knew about the sensationalist thing that took place."
A couple of days prior to the meeting, CBS Atlanta ran a story in which they interviewed several people — who'd heard from someone or other — that White wasn't honest when he said his attack was random and his attackers strangers. These sources claim White had been taunting the attackers, even blackmailing them with information that one or more are gay "on the down low." Suddenly, White found himself on trial in the court of public opinion rather than the three men who videotaped themselves beating him. The news station even posted a poll on its website asking its readers and viewers, "Do You Think Atlanta Gay Beating Victim Brandon White Is Telling The Truth About His Relationship With The Suspects?" Moragne's defense attorney, Jay Abt, himself couldn't have better orchestrated the irrelevant attack on the victim's credibility.
Moragne's mother's comments were extremely limited: "I just want to say that I love my son and he's part of a loving and caring family. This is a nightmare that I wouldn't wish on any parent or child. That's all I have to say." Abt was somewhat more vocal. Insinuating that there's more to the incident than what the video depicts, Abt compared it to peeling back the layers of an onion. He repeated several times that he does not believe the crime should or would be prosecuted as a Federal hate crime. Abt said, "Dorian did not utter any epithets or slurs or say anything to indicate that this would be a Federal hate crime." Remembering himself, he added, "If, in fact, he's in the video."
Not noted during the Rush Center meeting is that all of the relatively young men who were arrested for beating White have arrest records. Dareal Demare Williams was arrested in April 2011 for participating in another street fight in Pittsburgh. A female neighbor accused him of closed-fist punching her in the face. Once she was down, she says she was hit in the back of the head with a stick, but wasn't sure by whom. In May 2011, Williams and fellow beating suspect Christopher Cain — both 17 at the time — were arrested along with another man in connection with the burglary of two televisions from a home on McDaniel Street, just a stone's throw from Williams' own home. Proximity is probably why police found one of the televisions stashed at Williams' residence. In July of last year, Williams was arrested for shoplifting from Macy's, and in October, for prowling behind a Chosewood Park apartment complex. A little more than a month later, he was arrested again, this time for running from the police (despite reports of an armed person, Williams was found to have only a cell phone and a screwdriver on his person — he explained he was scared). In addition to the May 2011 burglary in Pittsburgh, Christopher Cain was arrested in September 2010 for carrying a 9mm Smith & Wesson, which police say he'd attempted to ditch in some bushes, without a license.
Dorian Moragne was arrested in June and October of 2010, both times in connection with vehicle thefts. In December 2011, when the vehicle he was traveling in was pulled over, police say Moragne produced a stolen ID belonging to a white woman when asked for his own. First he attempted to say it was a friend's ID, then that it was an ID that he'd found at "the club," and held onto it intending to return it to its owner. In the van, police found a variety of stolen property — wallets, an iPad, computer accessories — all of which belonged to white females who'd been robbed in Midtown (all three at Starbucks) and in Virginia-Highland. Moragne was wanted at the time for a probation violation. His most recent arrest, which took place less than a month before Brandon White's attack, was in association with a home break-in in Adair Park.
Devin Barrington-Ward of Change Atlanta has said on several occasions that his organization is in favor of "restorative justice" for the three suspects in White's beating. "There's been a perpetual cycle of locking up young black men," Barrington-Ward said during the Rush Center meeting, "We cannot turn our backs on our young black brothers." He says they're seeking "justice and accountability" versus "revenge and vengeance."
But what about what the community these men would return to? What are they seeking?
"I'm not quite convinced today that I'm sold on restorative justice in this instance," Hoffman says. "For me, I think they should be prosecuted. I don't think there should be any leniency. Some people have said, 'Well, LaShawn, there may be more to the story that Brandon hasn't shared.' I said to them, 'Brandon could have lied completely — that doesn't negate the fact that they had no reason to jump and beat him.' You can't tell me how you justify that."
He continues: "My fight [is that] these individuals, as loosely organized as this Jack City gang may be, are declared members, and that entity itself has been a nuisance to our neighborhood. And that store [at 1029 McDaniel] has been a contributing factor to that nuisance. For us, it's about how we eradicate the nuisance. I may be wrong, but if sending them to jail sends a message that this type of behavior at no level is tolerated, then I'm OK with it. I have to focus on that there's a bigger cost here and there's a greater good. For the greater good, these individuals have to serve something."
After the safety committee meeting has wrapped up, the last few people left in the building — Hoffman, Pierre Gaither, and Douglas Dean — decide they're going to leave together for safety's sake. A group of boys have congregated outside and have been peeking in the windows. The convenience store next door to the PCIA's headquarters has become another popular hangout of late. As Sgt. Hoos said, even if 1029 McDaniel St. was no longer open, neighborhood troublemakers will find another place to gather. But the PCIA remains dedicated to seeing the Pink Store gone.
At the moment, their strategy consists mostly of a boycott — not patronizing the store, encouraging neighbors not to patronize the store, and, if necessary, arranging for church vans to transport residents, those who might not have a way to get around, to other stores to shop for necessities. They've also contacted MARTA to have the stop outside the store taken off the bus route. "There's a stop on every corner in this neighborhood — that's not going to hurt anyone." The next step, Gaither says, is figuring out what they'd like to see occupy the building instead. Residents have suggested a library, maybe a police mini-precinct.
Dean, a former state representative, remembers when 1029 McDaniel used to house Yates and Milton Drug Store, a prominent African-American business that started on Auburn Avenue and expanded to a chain with five locations in Atlanta. He says a doctor by the name of Yancy saw patients in an office upstairs. He remembers, he says, when Pittsburgh was a place where people loved to live. "Why should I just sit there," he asks, "and allow the [criminal element] to ruin an opportunity to revitalize this neighborhood? These kids don't know no better. They feel like there's some ownership [over 1029]. So, we have to cut it off at the root. We have to shut it down."
Even if Hoos is right, and closing 1029 McDaniel will just shift the crime to another unfortunate location, the PCIA hopes it will send a message — a message to business owners that they have some responsibility to the community, a message to proclaimed gang members that the "turf" they claim isn't theirs at all, and a message to the public that Pittsburgh doesn't condone criminal behavior and that it isn't the norm.
"This is not a bad community," Dean says. "We've just got some bad elements. We gon' get rid of it, too."
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