Two Fires, Two Potential LGBTQ Hate Crimes: Oklahoma & Michigan

After news emerged from Oklahoma earlier this week that a gay couple is suing over an alleged case of arson and their community’s participation in a set of hate crimes surrounding that fire at their home, a couple in Jaskson, Michigan are facing similar circumstances after their house burned to the ground this week in what’s being investigated as arson.

Both fires are related to persons in and supportive to the LGBTQ community and in one case, the victims allege the community went so far as to foreshadow the fire claiming no one would help them if their house burned to the ground.

Oklahoma

After purchasing a home in Oklahoma to retire in, Randy Gamel-Medler and his husband moved from Texas with their adopted son. Soon after arriving, the couple endured homophobia and racism (as their son is African-American).

“When our family moved to the town of Hitchcock in rural Oklahoma we thought we were buying our last house, we wanted to know our neighbors by their first names and grow old together, but we were soon met with hatred, suspicion, and discrimination,” Gamel-Medler explained. “We were terrorized, murder threats were made against our seven year-old African-American son. Town officials conspired to run us out of office, all while local law enforcement ignored our pleas for help. We are now left with the last 27 years of our life literally erased. What do we do now?”

The threats began a year ago in September 2016. Describing the harassment, Troy Stevenson, Executive Director of Freedom Oklahoma, said:

Gamel-Medler, a white gay man with a seven year-old African-American son, was first threatened in September 2016 at a town council meeting only one month after moving to Hitchcock, Oklahoma. Upon learning that Gamel-Medler had an African-American son, defendant Meradith Norris, a town of Hitchcock Trustee, asked, “What’s going to happen when your house burns down and we don’t send out the fire trucks?” In response, Gamel-Medler filed a police report, but no criminal action was taken.

This would become a pattern for the couple and their son as each time they encountered harassment, targeted hate speech, or other attacks on their family, the city refused to take action.

“We must not forget that after years of progress, crimes of bias still exist,” Stevenson commented on the couple’s case. “The allegations in Hitchcock are horrific, and show the intersection of hate aimed at the both the African-American and LGBTQ Communities. Freedom Oklahoma stands with all victims of bias, and will work vigilantly to ensure the state of Oklahoma passes Bias-Crime Protections for all Oklahomans.”

He added:

In early May 2017, Gamel-Medler was performing his duties as town clerk by clearing an obstruction from the road when he was assaulted by defendant Jonita Pauls Jacks, who tried to enter Gamel-Medler’s truck and then after realizing it was locked began shaking the truck, called him a “f***ing queer,” and stated, “I’m going to grab your little boy, rip his n***er head off, and sh** down his throat.” When Gamel-Medler attempted to file a police report after this incident, he was informed that the mayor had already described this incident to the police. The Deputy Sheriff refused to take a report, said that this is just how these folks are, and characterized the incident as free speech.

Over the next several weeks, the complaint states that one or more of the defendants threw gravel several times at Gamel-Medler’s home, posted a sign outside of the post office stating that “the town clerk is a “f***ing queer,” and attempted to run a friend of Gamel-Medler’s off of the road.

“No family should live in fear or have to endure harassment and threats based on racism and homophobia,” said Shannon Price Minter, legal director at LGBTQ national legal organization NCLR. “We must hold those government officials, members of law enforcement, and others accountable.”

On May 28, the complaint notes that Gamel-Medler heard the sound of glass breaking in his garage and called the Sheriff’s office to report a burglary. He then saw a fire in his garage and called the fire department. Despite the fire department being located one block away from Gamel-Medler’s home, the fire department failed to arrive until the house had burned to the ground. While the house was burning, a number of the named defendants watched it burn, including Mayor of Hitchcock Rick Edsall, who sat and watched with his family in lawn chairs.

[Emphasis Mine]

The family’s lawsuit names several parties including Mayor of Hitchcock Rick Edsall, Sheriff of Blaine County Tony Almaguer, and Undersheriff of Blaine County David Robertson. The lawsuit also includes “state law claims for assault, battery, destruction of real and personal property, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

You can read the lawsuit here.

Were this the only arson-based attack on the LGBTQ community in the news, it would be bad enough on its own; the fact that another case exists in Michigan demonstrates a clear pattern of targeted hate and harassment against the LGBTQ community.

Michigan

Mere days after that area’s first LGBTQ pride celebration, the Director of LGBT Center in Jackson, Michigan had his home burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. The fire is being investigated as arson.

Nikki Joly – who is both the director at the Jackson Pride Center as well as the chair of the aforementioned celebration – lost several pets in the fire.

Michigan Live initially reported on the fire:

The fire, which is believed to have started on the first floor, quickly worked its way up through the home and erupted through the roof, Wooden said.

The dogs, both German Shepherds, died in the fire along with three cats, Assistant Fire Chief Chris Ermatinger said.

Large plumes of thick smoke poured out of the home, dispersing many of the onlookers at the scene.

Two firefighters were taken to Henry Ford Allegiance Health when they were injured battling the blaze. A Jackson firefighter is being treated for heat exhaustion and a Blackman-Leoni Township Public Safety Officer is being treated for an ankle injury, Wooden said.

Local news affiliate WLNS 6 later added to the story noting:

The fire that gutted a Jackson house is now being investigated as an arson.

The Jackson Police and Michigan State Police Fire Investigators are working together at the scene.

Fire fighters were called to the 1800 block of Pringle Avenue just after 1 p.m. Thursday.

Investigators found accelerant at the scene leading them to believe the fire was intentionally set.

The fire comes at a time when anti-LGBTQ forces in Jackson recently failed to thwart the passage of an update to the city’s non-discrimination policy that added sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. That paired with the city’s first LGBTQ pride celebration and new pride center may have produced conditions ripe for retaliation as Joly is one of the most visible figures in the Jackson LGBTQ community.

As the arson investigation continues, the Jackson Pride Center is holding a fundraiser to help its director out. You can learn more about the fundraiser here.

Hate Escalation

The LGBTQ community isn’t the only group affected by the sharp increase in identity-based hate following last November’s election. Just this past weekend an assailant set off a bomb at the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Nearly a week after the attack the Trump administration still refuses to acknowledge the attack (let alone make an official statement condemning those who carried out the bombing). In fact, White House adviser and former Breitbart writer Sebastian Gorka went so far as to call the attack a left-wing false flag operation meant to tarnish the image of conservatives.

“We’ve had a series of crimes committed, alleged hate crimes, by right-wing individuals in the last six months that turned out to actually have been propagated by the left,” he said.

In their coverage of Gorka’s remarks, The Guardian noted:

This is insanity.

Never mind that the number of false reports of hate crimes in the wave of violence following the election of Donald Trump was just over a measly 1% (13 out of 1,094). There is another, larger problem with Gorka’s logic.

Why should it even matter if the perpetrator was from the “left”, the “right”, or even from Mars? When a president weighs in on such matters, he is not adjudicating guilt or innocence. He is speaking for a country concerned about the welfare and security of everyone in the nation. He is reiterating our common destiny as Americans.

Not so with Trump. While Gorka suggested that the president may issue such a statement in the future, I’m certainly not holding my breath. Why? Because Gorka’s comments reflect something deeper and much more insidious about this administration.

Mind you, this bombing is being investigated by the FBI as a potential case of domestic terrorism. But because the victims of the attack would not be considered Trump’s core base, he’s ignoring an attack on innocent Americans.

This is why terrorists and those who commit arson and other hate crimes are so emboldened right now. They see an ally in the White House who will overlook their crimes because of the color of their skin, the text of their holy book, or the sex of the person they marry. They see a president who will immediately condemn any perceived attack on so-called red-blooded “real” Americans but will go a week without so much as a whisper even when an attack may be actual terrorism because of the beliefs and skin color of the victims of that crime.

And lest anyone argue the bombing may not be terrorism, consider these related events reported by The Guardian:

The chance that this was an act of terrorism in a Minneapolis suburb remains high. A week earlier, swastikas and other hate-filled graffiti (“leave you R Dead”) had been found scrawled at a Muslim cemetery in a nearby township.

This is important because, according to law enforcement officials in Minnesota, there were already a record 14 anti-Muslim bias incidents in the state last year. This rise follows a national disturbing national trend.

Last month, the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a report that found that, nationally, “the number of hate crimes in the first half of 2017 spiked 91% compared to the same period in 2016,” which had previously been a record-breaking year.

An administration that remains silent in the face of domestic terrorism and hate crimes committed against at-risk minorities is an administration complicit in those acts of terror and violence.

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he's worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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