Last Monday, The Village Voice published an article detailing alleged acts of police brutality experienced by three gay men in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy on the morning of June 2. The article, immediately picked up by other major media outlets, including HuffPost Gay Voices, detailed the alleged violent actions of officers belonging to the NYPD's 79th Precinct when they allegedly mistakenly identified Josh Williams as having urinated outside the police station. The events that followed included Williams being handcuffed, thrown on the ground, pepper-sprayed, and his roommates, Ben Collins and Tony Maenza, reportedly being called "faggots" by one of the offending officers.
A video of the incident, which can be viewed here, garnered the attention of major LGBTQ media outlets and advocacy groups, culminating in a press conference that took place at 1 Police Plaza last Tuesday, June 11. Speakers at the press conference, sponsored by the Anti-Violence Project, included openly gay City Councilman Daniel Dromm, Councilman Jumaane Williams, and a number of organizers and representatives of LGBTQ advocacy groups, including FIERCE, the Audre Lorde Project, Streetwise and Safe, and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities.
While the three men did not take questions at this event and only provided a brief statement, Williams and Collins are now offering their first interview following the press conference:
James Nichols: What was your main intention in going public with what happened to the three of you on June 2? Ultimately, what do you hope will come from this event in the wake of the intensive coverage you've received by both the media and activist groups from all across spectrums of identity?
Josh Williams: I feel it is my responsibility to expose police misconduct, especially since it is an ongoing issue. I want to encourage people not to let fear keep them from pursuing a solution when something wrong has been done to them, especially if it is done to them by the very ones we thought were supposed to protect us. If officers are allowed minimum consequences, then why would we as a community feel safe calling on them in a time of need? Even the NYPD needs to be held accountable for their misconduct just like everyone else. They are not above the law. They are not the law. Their purpose is to be keepers of the law and of peace.
Ben Collins: Our goal is to make people more aware of the issues the LGBTQ community and people of color face on a daily basis. In the wake of this and other unfortunate incidents, we are pushing for the public to realize that police reform is necessary in order for all of us to feel safe on the streets.
Nichols: How do you respond to those who have criticized the language that you were using against the police? Do you regret it? Do you think that it should have any bearing on the response the officers had to you?
Collins: I was speaking in the heat of the moment during a very traumatic experience. I did not begin using harsh language until one of the officers pushed me and called me names. It is the job of the officers to be professional and do everything they can to defuse the situation; instead, these officers used violence and explicit language against my friends and me.
Nichols: There was an immense outpouring of support for the three of you at the press conference that took place on June 12. What speakers or moments of the press conference itself had a particular effect on you?
Williams: Robert Pinter especially made my eyes begin to water. Hearing his story really moved me, because I can definitely relate, and what was done to him was terrible. It made me realize I'm not alone in this fight, as I have organizations such as the AVP and the Audre Lorde Project, among others, that are battling for police reform and against violence in general.
Collins: I thought all the speakers held valid points and were all passionate in conveying their beliefs. One point during the press conference when I found myself choking back tears was when Robert Pinter was speaking about his experience with the NYPD arresting him under false charges and the conditions he endured during that time. That resonated with me very deeply.
Nichols: What do you feel like the press conference itself accomplished?
Williams: My expectation is that it raises awareness, and hopefully the press conference urges the city to become more involved in creating a remedy. The city's response seems to be to increase police presence, which leads me to infer that they believe it is the civilians who are the antagonists. There needs to be a balance.
Collins: For myself, personally, the press conference was very uplifting. Just hearing other people's' stories, and how our story has affected them, made me realize how much community support we have.
Nichols: For readers who may not be aware, can you explain Community Safety Act, how it relates to the events that took place on June 2, and the regulations it would put in place to protect LGBTQ individuals from police brutality? Where can individuals find more information about it?
Williams: The Community Safety Act calls for a number of important checks and balances, such as holding officers more accountable if they are being discriminatory. It also calls for a separate investigation department outside of the NYPD. It would require officers to identify themselves and give reason to why a citizen is being stopped or searched, as well as to do away with unlawful searches such as "stop and frisk." This bill is very crucial, as it is one step forward towards making New York a safer place. Please read more at changethenypd.org.
Nichols: It is currently Pride month, and the significance of the alleged police brutality and homophobic speech employed by the officers has struck a nerve for many queer-identifying individuals, particularly in the wake of LGBTQ violence in New York this past spring. Overall, what do you think we can take away from the events of June 2, and how can we learn from this as a community as we move forward in 2013?
Collins: I think what we can learn from this is that there needs to be more focus on bringing awareness to situations such as this in order to come to a more comprehensive understanding of how we can prevent future incidents.
Williams: I've learned it is important as a community to support each other and look out for one another. This goes beyond even the LGBTQ community and relates to people as a whole. I've also have gained the resolve to not just stand by and let this happen repeatedly to anyone.
NYPD Internal Affairs, as well as a civilian review board, are currently investigating the incident.