Mourner for slain man shuts out homophobic protest

Memorial demands justice in death of gay

July 13, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FAIRMONT, W.Va. - At the edge of the crowd of mourners, a group of Bible-quoting protesters began sounding off behind a police cordon, proclaiming that the victim of a fatal beating last week, a young gay black man, had been dispatched to hell.

"Homosexuality is an enormous sin - Read Leviticus 21:8," proclaimed one of the less vulgar signs at the fringe of the scene.

David Stricker, a husky, 48-year-old local resident who is gay, strapped on an oversized pair of theater-prop wings and used them to block the protesters' view of an otherwise peaceful memorial Tuesday in this town about 20 miles south of Morgantown.

"They say they're coming in the name of God, but they're coming in the name of hatred," he said.

Stricker played the protective angel, an anti-heckler role being seen increasingly at gay rights gatherings. He helped reduce the small band of homophobic visitors to a minor nuisance as hundreds of gays and lesbians, blacks and whitesdemanded justice on behalf of Arthur Warren Jr., whose brutally beaten body was found last week on a back road near Paw Paw Creek.

Warren, 26, was openly gay, and his mourners , while conceding the difficulty of plumbing the precise nature of human hatred and homicide, demanded a full investigation and disputed official insistence that neither racism nor homophobia was a motive in the killing.

At first, Warren was taken for a hit-and-run victim. But a conscience-stricken 16-year-old boy, who has not been charged in the crime, went to authorities. Two unidentified 17-year-old white teen-agers were arrested and charged in the killing. Warren was beaten and kicked to death and then a car was repeatedly driven over his body in an attempt to mask the crime.

The battered corpse in an open coffin drew sobs and shrieks Saturday as local mourners demanded more information. Many were incredulous when police investigators insisted that hatred of gays and blacks was not a motive in the killing. Friends said Warren was a gentle person and a church volunteer who had a summer park job and other occasional employment. The friends said he occasionally told of harassment stemming from racial and sexual bias.

"There is no indication of a hate crime," Sheriff Ron Watkins of Marion County said in a radio interview when asked about the reported confessions of the defendants. "There was no indication anyone hated a particular group, especially gays."

Watkins did not elaborate, saying the two teen-agers were subject to closed juvenile proceedings until the court decides whether they should be tried as adults.

As human rights activists congregated from around the country, members of the memorial crowd Tuesday insisted that hatred had to be at the heart of the killing, whether it was racism, homophobia or a combination. Speakers complained about shortcomings in hate-crime laws.

West Virginia's hate-crime statute, like federal law, covers race but not sexual orientation. A bill to add this category passed the state Senate but died in the House of Delegates this year. In Washington, a proposal pending in the Senate would include sexual orientation under hate-crime law and enable federal prosecutors to step in when local authorities did not act.

"We're dying from the inside out in this country because of hatred," said Stricker, a social worker. "We want this to be treated as a hate crime." He argued that a clear law against bias crimes would be an object lesson against hate-motivated practices that can turn deadly.

Speaker David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian watchdog group, drew cheers as he told the crowd, "There is no doubt in our minds that hate was a factor in this crime - hate based on sexual orientation and hate based on race."

"The main reason he was killed was because he was black," said Lydia Robinson, a black woman who was born here and visits every summer from Dearborn Heights, Mich. "Being gay didn't help him either, but if he had been white, I don't think it would have gone this far. Over the last 20 years, I've seen a supremacy attitude develop toward local blacks around here."

If convicted as juveniles, the two accused teen-agers could be freed by age 21. If convicted as adults, they could be sentenced to life in prison.

In Grant Town, an old coal-mine hamlet near where Warren lived, the Rev. Nelson Staples, his pastor at Mount Beulah Baptist Church, said "J. R. was a gentle soul," who confided in him some casual instances of harassment that he was able to weather.

In the past decade, the church has been firebombed, smeared with racist epithets and shot at by night-riders, Staples said, describing the incidents as "this spirit of evil that occasionally arises." He described this as a condition of life for blacks. "There's this constant reminder that you are being studied or watched for the opportunity to do something very, very wicked and evil," the pastor said.

But the killing of Warren is the worst possible reminder of the longstanding need for reconciliation, he said.

"J. R. had a great sense of humor, but he must have lived a very anguished life trying to find a place to fit in," Staples said. "One thing about J. R., he was always forgiving," the pastor added. "He was always forgiving."

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