It's about four-and-a-half hours into the day's proceedings in Fulton County's courtroom 5D, and a visibly anxious Josh Noblitt squirms in his seat. The wooden benches that form neat rows aren't the most forgiving resting place, especially when forced to spend several hours sitting on one, but substandard seating isn't the source of Noblitt's discomfort. An investigator and mitigation specialist with the Federal Public Defender's Office, Noblitt is used to sitting on the other side of the bar. He's used to advocating on behalf of defendants. And he's used to knowing what the hell's going on.
Being the victim of a violent crime has been frustrating at best for Noblitt. This particular day — a Thursday in mid-August — is the court's third attempt at holding a bond hearing for his alleged perpetrators. Each time, Noblitt has taken the day off of work to be present in the courtroom, and each time, one administrative issue or another has prevented the hearing from taking place. So far, today hasn't been much better. Even though the hearing was scheduled for 9:30 a.m., only one of the six defendants was on the bus that transports the first batch of inmates from the Fulton County Jail (a fire marshal regulation says that no more than 125 inmates can be inside the courthouse at any one time), so they've had to wait to proceed until the second bus arrived at around 1:30. A prosecutor in the case was kind enough to make his way into the gallery to explain this to Noblitt.
When the bailiffs finally prepare to bring the defendants into the courtroom, it's past 2 p.m. "Here we go," Noblitt whispers as his alleged attackers — ages 13 though 19 — are escorted in through a side door and arranged around the suddenly too-small defense table beside their respective attorneys. The oldest of the six, Jarvis Johnson, looks sufficiently aloof as he swaggers into the courtroom, sucking his bottom lip. The youngest, Jamal Bryant (who's being tried as an adult), looks like a baby, blank-faced and dazed. If Noblitt remembers correctly, Bryant was the one who wielded the stick the night he was attacked.
It was 9:45 p.m. on July 2 when Noblitt and his friend Trent Williams, enjoying the waning summer daylight and playing a game of Spades in Piedmont Park, were approached by three teenage boys. "Y'all gay?" Noblitt says the boys asked. "Two men laying on a blanket, we should beat you up for that."
Initially, the boys went away, but 15 minutes later they were back. This time, one of them had a stick and they were ready to fight. The five of them had it out. Williams had taken karate as a kid and was able to fend them off for the most part. Noblitt was punched in the head and kicked in the ribs, but eventually maneuvered the stick away from one of his attackers, grabbed his phone and called 911. While Noblitt was making his call, one the attackers made a call of his own, and just minutes later, more teenagers stormed the park toward them. One of the latecomers, an older kid in a black tank top, put a gun to Noblitt's head, and demanded his wallet and phone. In that moment, an insipid act of ignorance became a potentially deadly armed robbery.
With the court's permission, a cameraman from a local news station is set up by the chamber doors, but the hearing — still barely in progress after the several-hour delay — is brought to a hasty end when members of the defense counsel object to their clients being filmed, arguing it might compromise their constitutional right to a fair trial. But as Judge Alford J. Dempsey points out, the media's presence in the courtroom shouldn't have come as a surprise. The July 2 attack made headlines almost immediately, in part because of Noblitt's standing in the community — besides his work at the Federal Defender's Office, Noblitt is ordained and serves as Minister of Social Justice at Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Midtown — but also because of the nature of the crime: Noblitt and Williams, smack in the middle of Midtown, were attacked for being gay.
According to records provided by the Atlanta Police Department, the attack in Piedmont Park is one of 17 incidents to have taken place so far this year that's been categorized as bias-related specifically against members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered, or LGBT, community. Because Georgia has the dubious distinction of being one of just five states without hate crime legislation on the books, when a victim of crime is targeted based on their race, color, creed, or sexual orientation or identification, the Atlanta Police Department can classify the act only as a "bias crime." The phrase doesn't carry quite the same gravitas as "hate crime," nor is it accompanied by the same threat of additional penalty in the state's court system. Classifying crimes as bias-related basically allows the APD to keep stats on the phenomenon and gives police the option of forwarding the case to the Justice Department for prosecution under federal hate crimes legislation, should it meet certain requirements.
Whether it's out of genuine concern or textbook political opportunism, the APD has been particularly attentive to safety concerns within the LGBT community over the past few months. In September 2009, members of the APD's Red Dog Unit — an elite team that usually deals with drug-related crimes — stormed the Atlanta Eagle and reportedly forced bar patrons to lay facedown on the floor for an hour while verbally taunting them and using homosexual epithets. The incident has, on more than one occasion, been referred to as Atlanta's very own Stonewall Inn raid, and since that time the department has been desperate for some good PR with the gay community, seeking ways to demonstrate some contrition while stopping short of offering the apology the victims have requested. Noblitt's attack, along with a few other recent incidents that were perceived to be bias-related (though no others have been officially classified as such), offered the perfect opportunity for outreach. Whether the community is ready to accept it is another matter.
APD Public Affairs Manager Carlos Campos waxes metaphorical about the progress that's been made thus far, saying, "The door is open now. We've cracked open the door, and we want to swing it right open frankly. Are we perfect?" The implied answer is, "No."
Campos continues, "Now you recognize where you falter and you quickly move to fix it."
On July 22, Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan, in conjunction with then-newly appointed Chief George Turner, hosted a GLBT Public Safety Town Hall Meeting (even though the community typically refers to itself as LGBT or LGBTQ, the police department seems to prefer GLBT) at Inman Middle School in Midtown. During his introduction, Wan, who is openly gay, referred to a "rash" of recent bias crimes against the gay community. "I was particularly concerned that if we did not have a coordinated and very deliberate effort to stop these crimes, it would signal to the community and to potential perpetrators that it would be OK to continue committing such a crimes," Wan said. "But beyond just talking about the bias crimes, I really want tonight to be the start of opening up another line of communication. As we all know there have been incidents, particularly over the past 12 months, that have strained our community's relationship with and confidence in the APD."
Despite Wan's characterization of crime in recent months, APD records don't indicate that there's necessarily been a "rash" of LGBT-related bias crimes. With 17 on record in the first eight months of the year, the occurrence of such crimes is slightly higher than it was in 2009, when there were 20 on record, but about on par with 2008, when 24 crimes were classified as such. Some recent crimes might have appeared to be bias-related at first — for instance, the Aug. 25 shooting death of Durand Robinson, co-owner of Decatur gay bar Traxx — but turn out to be of opportunity involving people who happen to be (or might have been perceived to be) gay. The investigation into Robinson's murder and whether it was bias-related is ongoing, but several sources in the gay community say they doubt hate, or bias, as it were, came into play. "I hope people take time to focus on the loss and the senselessness of the crime, rather than whether it was a hate crime," says Raymond Duke, president of In the Life Atlanta, the official organizer of Black Gay Pride. "This could have happened to anyone."
Responding to the perception of increased violence against gays, the APD's top brass turned out in full force to the July meeting, as did representatives from City Hall, including Mayor Kasim Reed himself, who stood up several times to speak from the audience. The event was also Chief Turner's first opportunity to differentiate himself from the department's previous leadership, namely Chief Richard Pennington, under whom the Eagle raid took place. Turner spoke competently, except when it came to the issue of a police checkpoint that's been set up regularly at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and 10th Street, near the popular gay bar Blake's. The perception, according to one attendee, was that the roadblock unfairly targeted the gay community.
Turner responded that if the roadblocks were discriminatory, the department was "discriminating against every citizen in Atlanta," as around 800 similar roadblocks have been set up this year.
An attendee of the meeting, who preferred not to be identified, said he didn't think Turner came off as anti-gay by any stretch, but perhaps a bit "uneducated" on LGBT issues. That's where Special Patrol Officer Patricia Powell comes in. Appointed the department's GLBT liaison in May, the responsibility of effectively communicating with the gay community has fallen squarely on her shoulders. A "proud Atlanta police officer" who is also "proud to be openly gay," Powell admits that rebuilding the bridges that were burned when the department raided the Eagle last year — which has essentially become the task at hand — has been tough.
"When I first came on in May, it was a challenge," Powell says. "But, what the department's been doing is continuing to get me out there in the community and build that relationship, build that trust back. The only way you're gonna do it is for me to get out there and do the legwork. Are we there yet? No. But since May I think we've come a short distance, but a positive difference."
When it appears as though a crime victim has been targeted based on their sexual orientation or identification, the APD's standard operating procedure dictates that the GLBT liaison be made aware of the incident immediately. Unfortunately, that still doesn't always happen. In fact, it was several days before Powell was notified about the attack on Noblitt and Williams. Noblitt says that since Powell found out, however, she's been "awesome."
"I mean, she sat with me in court," he says. "I know about everything that happened with the Atlanta Eagle and some other things over the years where gay folks have not been treated with respect by the APD. In this case, I think they've really tried to do the right thing."
The community as a whole is kind of starting from scratch with Powell as GLBT liaison. For five years prior to Powell's appointment, Officer Dani Lee Harris served in that role. The APD has continually said that Harris is out on medical leave, but Harris herself says that isn't true. During her tenure, Harris was put in the unenviable position of representing both the LGBT community and the police department following the Eagle raid, an initiative Harris wasn't consulted about in advance. Harris says she "agitated" people within the department when she spoke to the press about the raid — saying something to the effect of, "If 62 people are saying same thing, there has to be some validity to it." She says she's been persona non grata ever since. "I loved my job," she says, "and because I stood up for the right thing, I've been blackballed."
Harris, who is still not able to operate a city vehicle because of seizures she experienced several months ago, says she's since been cleared by her doctor to return to work as GLBT liaison in some capacity. It's unclear whether she'll be welcomed back. "[The APD's] got dirt in their own closet, and they can't correct things with the community if they can't correct internally," Harris says, her frustration apparent. "You're still lying to the media and saying I'm out on medical leave. You're lying about this issue, but all of a sudden you're supposed to be trusted?"
Earlier this summer, current GLBT liaison Powell was called upon to meet with a group of very-out-of-the-closet college students at their East Lake apartment. For months, Eric La Prince, Brian Alston, Michael Leonard and Diamond Poulin were harassed to the point of near violence, allegedly because of their sexuality. Their cars have been egged and stolen, their front door kicked in. They've been called "fags" more times than they can count by a group of neighbors, ranging in age from roughly 12 to late teens. And then there was the "neighborhood standoff," as they call it: the night the gang of teens (and some of their parents) allegedly came looking for them with dogs and baseball bats in tow. "It was like the Salem Witch Trials!" says La Prince, sitting on the couch next to Leonard, who cradles the house puppy, Badgley Mischka. "Like they were going drag us out of our house!"
Powell met with the four roommates — all students at Morehouse, except for La Prince, who attends AIU — a couple of days after that incident to counsel them and discuss things they could do to keep themselves safe. "She was really nice," says La Prince. "I mean, it was pleasant. I liked her."
Ultimately, though, the police made no arrests, and when calls to the apartment complex security and threats of reciprocal violence proved ineffective, the students did some outreach of their own. "We want to stay here. We like the area. It's close to school, it's close to Little Five — it's not all perfect, but we said, 'Let's change it.' We just kind of adopted the little kids," La Prince says.
Midinterview, there's a knock at the door and, sure enough, it's one of the "bad shits," as they call them, a 13-year-old who actually kicked one of their cars, sparking the "neighborhood standoff." When asked if he used to pick on the guys he now visits like friends, he lets out a high-pitched, embarrassed laugh. "We don't have no difficulties now," he explains, fiddling with a half-peeled orange. "We straight. We cool. We never had no beef. We just play a lot. I just play a lot."
For as long as the case against his attackers lazily lurches its way through the clogged channels of the justice system, Noblitt won't likely have the opportunity to do the same kind of outreach with his perpetrators. "I would love for an opportunity to be able to sit down with each of these kids, maybe even their families, and just hear their story and introduce myself to them and kind of do that exchange. In this criminal justice system, there are some artificial walls that are up that make it hard to navigate without them compromising their rights in the process." He will, however, have another chance for outreach: Noblitt was one of nine people appointed to the APD's newly formed GLBT Advisory Board, a body Officer Powell says will act as her "eyes and ears in the community." Meanwhile, the four minors who were arrested in Noblitt's attack will be tried as adults. All six of the alleged attackers face a minimum of 10 years in prison for armed robbery committed with a firearm.
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