Rashawn & Beyond: Anti-Violence News for Queer People of Color

The Rashawn Brazell Memorial Fund aims to establish a sustainable tribute to Rashawn that promotes critical thought about the impact of violence and intolerance, particularly upon queer communities of African descent.

Through this blog, we provide action alerts, event postings and breaking news as a means of informing these communities in ways that enable them to combat racism and homophobia.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Evidence lacking for hate crime charge in Newark slayings

Activists fear authorities caved to pressure from families
Washington Blade

A New Jersey prosecutor last week said investigators have yet to find sufficient evidence to classify as a hate crime the execution-style slayings of three college students in a Newark schoolyard last August hours before they planned to attend a Gay Pride festival.

Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Thomas McTigue responded to reporters' questions about a possible hate crime angle in the slayings at a courthouse news conference April 24 following the arraignment of two 16-year-old youths charged in the case.

One of the youths, Shahid Baskerville, has been charged with 20 criminal offenses in the case, including three counts of murder and three counts of aggravated sexual assault against one of two female victims.

Baskerville and Gerardo Gomez, who were 15 at the time of the murders, were the last to be arraigned among six males charged with murder, robbery and weapon possession offenses in a case that has attracted international attention. The others charged in the case range in age from 18 to 28.

Baskerville and Gomez pleaded not guilty through their lawyers at the arraignment, and Essex County Superior Court Judge Donald Volkert continued their bail at $1 million each.

"We have not been able to establish a hate crime" under the definition of the New Jersey hate crimes statute, McTigue said at the news conference. "We don't have probable cause for a hate crime," he said.

At least one of the slaying victims, Dashon Harvey, 20, was openly gay.

Harvey, Terrance Aeriel, 18, and Iofemi Hightower, 20, were shot point blank in the head after being lined up along a fence shortly before midnight at Newark's Mt. Vernon Elementary School on Aug. 4, 2007, police have said.

Natasha Aeriel, the sister of Terrance Aeriel, was also shot in the head and left for dead but survived and has been cooperating with authorities.

All four were enrolled as students at Delaware State University. They met up at the school grounds to wait for a friend, who told the Blade he invited them to spend the night at his house near the school.

The friend, who spoke on condition that his name be withheld, said the five had planned to drive together to New York City the next morning to attend a black Gay Pride event at Riis Park Beach.

McTigue said prosecutors would follow all leads in the investigation. He said his office would not be deterred by political or community pressure to avoid pursuing a possible hate crimes motive.

Gay activists said representatives of the families of the victims have told them they did not support efforts to publicly identify the murders as an anti-gay hate crime.

"We were told that anything related to the victims' sexual orientation should remain a private matter," said James Credle, co-president of Newark Pride Alliance, a gay group. "They made it clear that they didn't want the case to go in that direction," he said.

Credle said speculation that the killings might be an anti-gay hate crime has been unsettling to many, including family members of the victims, in Newark's large black community, where homosexuality remains a sensitive issue.

All of the victims in the slayings were black. Credle, whose Newark Pride Alliance advocates on behalf of black gays, said the group has been struggling to persuade city officials and the black community that authorities should determine whether the murders were based on the perception that the victims were gay, even if some were not.

"My concern is whether the prosecutor would consider the preference of the families to be political pressure or not," Credle said after Thursday's arraignment. "Because the families clearly don't want this to be noted."

Credle and Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, a New Jersey gay rights group, attended the arraignment and the prosecutor's news conference.

Goldstein said he takes McTigue at his word that prosecutors won't be influenced by outside pressure, but he called McTigue's statement about lacking probable cause for a hate crime "vague" and unresponsive.

"The gay community of New Jersey is gravely concerned that this crime is not being investigated as a hate crime," Goldstein said. "It is true that we don't know if this was a hate crime based on one or more victims' sexual orientation," he said. "But we've got to find out."

"Is the prosecutor exploring the possibility that these were hate crimes based on the victims' sexual orientation? That's the answer that needs to be given to the public," Goldstein said.

In addition to Baskerville and Gomez, the others charged with murder and separate offenses in the case are Jose Carranza, 28, Rodolfo Godinez, 24, Melvin Jovel, 18, and Alexander Alfaro, 17. All were residents of Newark or surrounding towns.

McTigue said the charges against all six would go before a grand jury, with indictments expected in July or August.

Michael Robbins, an attorney for Gomez at the April 24 arraignment, said evidence he has seen so far indicates his client was present at the schoolyard but never wielded a weapon and never killed anyone.

Under New Jersey's criminal statutes, Gomez could be deemed responsible for the murders as an accomplice even if he never killed anyone himself.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Newark triple murder involved sexual assault, 'penetration'

Slain college students planned to attend Gay Pride event
Washington Blade

One of four college students shot execution style in a Newark, N.J., schoolyard in August 2007, the day before they planned to attend a Gay Pride festival in New York, was sexually assaulted during the incident, according to new charges filed today against a defendant in the case.

Three of the students, two men and one woman, died at the scene from gunshot wounds to the head. A fourth student, a woman, was also shot in the head and left for dead, but survived and is cooperating with authorities.
The Essex County, N.J., prosecutor’s office today charged Shahid Baskerville, 16, with three counts of murder, three counts of aggravated sexual assault, and one count of aggravated criminal sexual assault, among other charges, in a crime that shocked the Newark community and attracted international media attention.

Paul Loriquet, a spokesperson for the prosecutor's office, said the victim of the sexual assault was a female but declined to disclose whether she was the female student who died or the one who survived the attack. Loriquet said the sexual assault, allegedly committed by Baskerville, involved “sexual penetration during a robbery and sexual penetration while armed.” He was also charged with one count of unlawful possession of a weapon – a machete.

Statements last year by Newark police and the city's mayor, Corey Booker, that the sole motive behind the murders appeared to be robbery drew sharp criticism from gay activists, who demanded that authorities investigate the incident as a possible anti-gay hate crime.

Friends said at least one of the victims, Dashon Harvey, 20, was an openly gay student at Delaware State University. The other slaying victims, Terrance "TJ" Aeriel, 18, and Iofemi Hightower, 20, were also enrolled at Delaware State. All three were lined up against a wall and shot in the head at point blank range while kneeling, police said.

Natasha Aeriel, who was shot in the head and left for dead, survived the attack and has been cooperating with police and prosecutors.

Within a month of the incident, police filed murder and robbery charges against six males, three of whom were juveniles. In January of this year, at the request of prosecutors, an Essex County judge ruled that one of the juveniles, Alexander Alfaro, 16, could be charged and brought to trial as an adult.

After months of deliberations by the county's juvenile court system, a judge today ruled that Baskerville, who was 15 at the time of the murders, and Gerardo Gomez, now 15, could also be charged and tried as adults. The two are scheduled for arraignment on April 24, where more details of their alleged role in the murders is expected to be released by prosecutors.

The others charged in the case are Melvin Jovel, who was 18 at the time of his arrest; Jose Carranza, who was 28 at the time; and Rodolfo Godinez, who was 24.

Steven Goldstein, executive director of the statewide gay rights group Garden State Equality, joined Laquetta Nelson and James Credle, co-founders of the gay group Newark Pride Alliance, in criticizing Newark authorities for not responding to their repeated calls for investigating the Newark schoolyard murders as anti-gay hate crimes.
All three said they were outraged when they learned from the Blade today about the latest development in the case, that a sexual assault had allegedly been an element in the murders.

"We have been talking to the mayor's office and the police for months, asking them to keep us abreast of what is going on and whether any of this involves a hate crime," Nelson said. "Now we find out about this, and they didn't give us the respect and courtesy of calling us."

Nelson and Goldstein said the fact that one of the attackers allegedly sexually assaulted one of the female victims does not lessen the possibility of a hate crime because lesbians are sometimes sexually assaulted by male perpetrators in hate crimes.

"They say all we need is a good man to turn us around," Nelson said. "Many lesbians have been raped and beaten, and that's still a hate crime, even though it involves someone of the opposite sex."

Nelson and Credle said they were especially concerned that authorities were not investigating the possibility that a hate crime could be a part of the schoolyard murders because the victims' parents and the city's establishment don't want to grapple with the possibility that the victims were gay.

Police and the mayor's office have said the motive for the murders appears to be robbery because Natasha Aeriel reportedly told police that one or more of the six accused assailants stole some belongings from some of the victims.

But friends of the victims have said little of value appeared to have been taken and that all of the victims' wallets were left at the scene.

One of the victims' friends told the Blade that all four of the students, who were enrolled at Delaware State University, planned to join him in attending a black Gay Pride event in Queens, N.Y., the day following their deaths.

The friend, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said Dashon Harvey was openly gay and was out to his family. The friend said Iofemi Hightower did not identify herself as gay but "was pretty much like a tomboy."

The friend, who is also openly gay, said he and other friends find it hard to believe that the six assailants, some of whom had guns, would choose to kill the victims over a petty robbery. According to the friend, the mother of one of the victims said police told her that one or more of the assailants slashed the two male victims - Terrance Aeriel and Dashon Harvey - before shooting them to death.

"She thought it was more than just a robbery," the friend said.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Telling Sakia Gunn's Story

Source: Gay City News

Director and producer Charles Brack is in the final, frenzied stages of completing a feature-length documentary about the 2003 bias crime murder of 15-year-old Newark resident Sakia Gunn. Media coverage of Gunn's murder was paltry compared with that of Matthew Shepherd -- though Gay City News was a notable exception -- raising questions about the way race and gender play out in discussions about bias crimes against queer people.

Brack, 48, who is called Chas by his friends, grew up in Chicago and has youthful memories of the disorder during the 1968 Democratic National Convention there. The June day he left Ohio's Antioch College in 1983 with a degree in communications, he drove through the night to arrive in New York for the Gay Pride celebration.

Brack worked for the New York City Commission on Human Rights in its Lesbian and Gay Discrimination Unit and later the AIDS Discrimination Unit as a human rights investigator, eventually becoming an associate producer in the Education Department.

In 1992, he joined Gay Men's Health Crisis where he was the co-coordinator of the Media Unit and associate producer of the "Living with AIDS" cable news magazine program. In 1996, he returned to the Commission on Human Rights, in its Community Relations Bureau, where he worked closely with the police on bias cases.

Click here to read the full interview.