Sometimes a crime is just a crime.
On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen opened fire on patrons of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 and wounding 53 others. The rampage ended when Mateen was shot dead by police. It was an atrocious act for which there is no justification.
Although straight people patronize the Pulse, it is known as a gay nightclub. That said, six years later, there is still no evidence that Mateen targeted the Pulse for that reason.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, told prosecutors that before the massacre, her husband had asked her: “What would make people more upset, an attack on Downtown Disney or a club?” He didn’t say “a gay club,” nor did he “mention gay people in phone calls during the attack,” the report said.
Salman also told prosecutors that Mateen had been considering three venues: “Pulse, Disney Springs or City Place, an entertainment and shopping district in West Palm Beach.”
At any rate, the city of Delray Beach, Florida, marked Pride month last year by unveiling “Pride Intersection,” which featured an enormous street mural of the familiar gay pride rainbow flag. The dedication ceremony took place on June 12, which was the fifth anniversary of the Pulse shooting.
Several days later, Florida resident Alexander Jerich, 19, used his truck to burn two 15-foot-long tire marks into the mural.
The Washington Post reported Jerich had been part of a 30-car “President Trump Birthday Rally” parade that had been organized by the county Republican Party.
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A witness recorded the incident on his cell phone and told police he’d heard someone yelling to Jerich to “tear up that gay intersection.”
Jerich was quickly arrested and charged with criminal mischief and reckless driving. Last month, Jerich pleaded guilty and paid $2,000 to have the mural restored. According to the Post, the Palm Beach County state attorney “did not add a hate-crime charge because Florida’s statute states there must be a specific victim targeted.”
Jerich appeared before Palm Beach County Judge Scott Suskauer last week for his sentencing hearing. The Palm Beach Post reported the assistant state attorney had recommended a 30-day sentence, while Rand Hoch, the founder and president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, who believed Jerich should have been charged with a hate crime, considered a one year sentence to be more appropriate.
Hoch went even further and asked for Jerich to be “banned for life” from “Pride Intersection.”
Even though Jerich has paid for the restoration of the mural, Hoch told Suskauer that the scars are long-lasting.
“Our community has been demeaned and intimidated by the defendant’s actions,” he said.
But the judge was clearly moved by Jerich who, according to the Post, had “hung his head and cried after hearing his father recount his son’s struggles in school, his inability to make friends and his disappointment in his son’s behavior.”
Jerich’s attorney had likened him to Lennie, the mentally-disabled character in John Steinbeck’s iconic novel, “Of Mice and Men.”
After apologizing for his actions, Jerich said, “I’ve had problems in the past with fitting in. I was just trying to fit in and be accepted.”
“I was expecting someone who displays complete disrespect for their fellow citizens. A person some might call a thug or a redneck,” the judge said. “This is not the person I was expecting.”
He delayed Jerich’s sentencing for six weeks and told him to write a 25-page essay on the Pulse massacre.
“I want your own brief summary of why people are so hateful and why people lash out against the gay community,” he said.
Suskauer said he was reluctant “to turn Jerich into a convicted felon for making an impetuous decision.”
He said, “I don’t want to do that to a young man who has his whole life ahead of him.”
Additionally, Jerich is required to perform community service for an LGBTQ-related organization.
The merciless Hoch told Suskauer, “They don’t want the defendant anywhere near our organization or our missions.”
The judge asked Jerich’s attorney and the assistant state attorney to find an organization “that would be willing to work with Jerich.”
“It would be a great opportunity for him to learn,” he said. “I don’t think he would do any harm.”
While we have to commend the judge for his compassionate treatment of Jerich, and that Jerich did a very stupid thing, neither the Pulse massacre nor Jerich’s burnouts on “Pride Intersection” were the result of people lashing out at the gay community.
Mateen’s choice of the Pulse nightclub was random. It was a proclaimed anti-West, pro-ISIS attack.
And Jerich’s crime, foolish as it was, was just garden variety vandalism. A 19-year-old who’s been on the outside all of his life made a spur-of-the-moment decision, albeit a reckless one, to gain the approval of those calling for him to “tear up that gay intersection.”
He didn’t set out that evening to deface a symbol of gay pride. He was part of a parade that had been arranged by the local Republican Party.
Although the judge showed empathy toward Jerich and tried to render a “creative” punishment he believed fit the crime, he missed the boat on the core issue. Somehow, the truth was twisted to link a pro-ISIS atrocity to a 19-year-old misfit doing a burnout on a painted crosswalk to impress his peers.
- Jerich’s vandalism had nothing to do with hatred toward the gay community.
- There is no connection between Jerich’s “criminal mischief” and the Pulse nightclub mass shooting.
- Not every bad thing that happens to a lesbian, a gay man, a bisexual, a transgender, a queer or even a person of color, for that matter, happens because they fall into one of those categories.
- LGBTQ individuals do not deserve special treatment. They are no more special than the rest of us.