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Police raid at gay club in Texas stirs ugly memories

The incident, on the heels of the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, prompts fear among the Fort Worth gay community that times haven't changed.

July 06, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter

FORT WORTH — Todd Camp and some friends had just marked the 40th anniversary of the police raid on New York's Stonewall Inn by screening a documentary on the historic gay riots and then heading for drinks at the Rainbow Lounge.

Camp remembered looking across the bar, packed with gay and some straight couples, and marveling how much times had changed since Stonewall -- the spark that ignited the gay rights movement.

And then the police came.

"No one knew what was happening," said Camp, founder of the Q Cinema gay film festival in Fort Worth. "All I could think was, 'It's Stonewall all over again, and we can't do anything about it.' "

Seven officers from the Fort Worth Police Department and two agents from the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission clashed with about 300 bar patrons in the early hours of June 28, reviving an ancient dread that even this conservative Texas city had thought long past.

Seven people were arrested, and witnesses said one man had his head slammed into a door by law enforcement officials. Chad Gibson, 26, was hospitalized with a brain injury and released Saturday.

"It was strange that all this happened on that night of all nights," said Mark Potok, a director at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. "If it was a simple mistake, then it was a very, very foolish one."

Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead defended his officers, saying they entered a hostile environment and were taunted by patrons with "sexually explicit movements."

Both the police department and the Alcoholic Beverage Commission are conducting internal investigations. City and state lawmakers are calling on Gov. Rick Perry to order an independent inquiry.

In the meantime, both gays and straights wonder whether the incident was an ugly replay of Stonewall or simply a weird convergence of events and bad tempers.

"We have a gay councilman. We've had an ordinance prohibiting discrimination over sexual orientation for years," said Mayor Pro Tem Kathleen Hicks, who lives near the bar. "People are angry and confused, and so am I."

The incident began about 12:30 a.m., when police officers and ABC agents arrived for a routine check to ensure the bar wasn't serving underage patrons and to stop potential drunk drivers.

The Rainbow Lounge had opened the week before. Police had stopped by earlier to alert the owner to the inspection.

By the time they returned to the Rainbow, officers had already checked two nearby bars and arrested nine people. Neither of the other bars had a gay clientele.

At the Rainbow Lounge, witnesses said, officers forced their way through the crowd and grew physically and verbally aggressive. They claim the officers arrested people at random, never asked for identification and didn't check blood-alcohol levels on site.

"I've never been so terrified in my life," said Thomas Anable, the bar's accountant. "People were crying. . . . No one knew what to do."

Police say they were faced with an extremely intoxicated crowd that taunted the officers.

They say Gibson, the injured man, was arrested after he grabbed the crotch of an ABC agent. Gibson has denied the charge, his family said.

"You're touched and advanced in certain ways by people inside the bar; that's offensive," Halstead, the police chief, told Dallas-Fort Worth TV station WFAA. "I'm happy with the restraint used when they were contacted like that."

After at least an hour at the bar, officers had handcuffed about 20 people and put them facedown on the sidewalk beneath a "grand opening" banner, witnesses said.

Both law enforcement agencies have faced intense criticism. In a statement last week, state ABC Administrator Alan Steen said: "We are saddened that this incident occurred and extend our sincere hope that Mr. Gibson recovers quickly."

And within days, Halstead's earlier stance seemed to waver. He halted joint investigations with the ABC and said he would review officers' multicultural training to ensure that it covered concerns of the gay community.

But the turmoil caused by the incident is still reverberating in Fort Worth, a city of more than 700,000 people that has long embraced its "Cowtown" nickname, a nod to its working stockyards and ranching heritage.

Despite its old-time roots, its modern history is a blend of conservatism and tolerance -- a paradox well known to Councilman Joel Burns.

Burns' homosexuality, and his 16-year relationship with his partner, became a focal point of his 2007 campaign. At one point, a former councilman urged voters at a Republican Women's Club to vote for a heterosexual candidate, noting that "he's married to a female and the other's married to a male."

"I thought people were going to hate me," said Burns, a real estate agent. Instead, his donations increased, and he won the seat with 54% of the vote.

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