Michael Floyd thought it would never happen to him.
But soon after the 28-year-old gay man moved into a Van Nuys apartment complex in 1993, his life became a nightmare. It started when his building manager called him "fag" in front of other tenants. Someone scratched a huge "F" into his car. He found excrement smeared on his front door. One neighbor shoved him, and another threatened to kill him.
"Why are you doing this?" a shaken Floyd asked.
The answer came back loud and clear: Because he was gay.
Floyd called the police seven times during 1993 but declined to file charges after the assault, mistakenly believing that the torment would stop. After other incidents, police told him it was tough to solve anonymous acts of vandalism and that they could not act on threats unless accompanied by an illegal act.
"I felt so helpless," recalled Floyd, who moved to West Hollywood in January because he feared for his life. "I thought: 'Do I have to get killed before the police will do something?' I'd heard about homophobia and harassment, but I never thought it would happen to me. I thought people would treat me as an individual."
Floyd's case is not unique. Last week, Los Angeles County released its annual hate crimes report, which recorded 783 such crimes in 1993, a 6.4% jump over the previous year. For the first time since 1980, when the county began tracking, gay men supplanted African Americans as the primary target.
Hate crimes are increasing across the board--and they are getting more violent. Although the stereotypical act of hatred may be a spray-painted swastika or scrawled racial epithet, almost one-third of hate crimes in 1993 were assaults, 105 with deadly weapons, according to the study.
The vast majority will go unprosecuted. According to the county Commission on Human Relations, only 12 hate crimes came to trial last year. Trials in two more cases, in which people were killed, are pending.
Floyd's case illustrates the difficulty that victims and law enforcement agencies face in recognizing and prosecuting such crimes. Los Angeles Police Department officials will not comment on how many hate crimes lead to arrests, and the district attorney's office cannot break out hate crimes on its computers.
"We struggle with overwhelming odds at every level," said Kay Shafer, the hate crimes coordinator for the district attorney's office.
Many victims--including Floyd--say they did not know there was a law against hate crimes. Others are not sure what qualifies as a hate crime. The Human Relations Commission says leaning out of a car window and calling someone a racially charged name would not qualify. Spray-painting a swastika on a synagogue would. Obscene or threatening phone calls that contain racial, ethnic, religious, homophobic or sexist slurs are hate crimes. But a fight between a white man and a black man would not be logged as a hate crime unless racial epithets were exchanged.
Community groups monitor the figures closely. A spokesman for the American Jewish Committee noted that Jews are victims in disproportionate numbers--they constitute only 5% of the Los Angeles County population but account for 89.5% of all religious hate crimes. Frank Berry, a spokesman for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said gays may have a higher profile this year but that the number of hate crimes against African Americans is still alarming.
Consider Robert Lee Johnson, who is African American. Johnson said he and his family were the target of a Latino street gang.
It started with racial taunts. His daughters were assaulted on the way to the market. In February, Johnson was shot as he watched TV in his living room. Two weeks later, someone threw a pipe bomb into his rented Norwalk home, which burned down. The family, which included children and grandchildren, lost everything they had. Now living in Compton, Johnson is trying to put the trauma behind him.
However, he said, "We deal with it every day. It's always there. It will probably always be there."
Johnson is frustrated by the limits of the system. Initially, he said, the Sheriff's Department "did a lot of hesitating. When we called, it was like 'No one's hurt.' They got offended when my son told them it was a Latino gang. They said, 'How did you know it was a Mexican? What was the motive?' Suspicion's being turned on me. We haven't committed any crime."
Shanon Hodges, a gay African American, recalls the difficulty he had persuading police that he was the victim of a hate crime in 1989. Hodges had gone to see about renting a Silver Lake apartment and was walking down the street about 9:30 p.m.
Three white skinheads between the ages of 17 and 19 approached, and Hodges, who sensed trouble, began to run. One youth yelled, "Nigger faggot, I'm going to kill you," Hodges said, and stabbed him in the back with a jagged six-inch knife.