by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Some of us gathered at the Church of Hope on Sunday afternoon in the Columbia City neighborhood of South Seattle because we were angry.
Angry that the killers of Danny Vega - an icon in the Filipino community and an out Gay business owner in the Rainier Valley - have yet to be brought to justice.
Angry that a crime as brutal and senseless as this could happen to such a caring and wonderful man as Vega.
Angry because, well, we just didn't know how else to feel.
Others gathered at the community gathering and potluck hosted by The Northwest Network (in partnership with the Asian Pacific Islander Women and Family Safety Center, Chaya, and the Capacity Project) because they were scared that this could happen again - after all, there have been no arrests made in the case. Scared that the neighborhood where Vega was beaten and robbed has become lawless.
And yet another group of community members gathered to cry. One attendee began to weep, saying, 'I just feel so sad that this happened. And, I guess, I just wanted to be in around others who feel this way, too.' Another community gathering participant said, through tears, 'I'm sad for everyone involved. I'm sad for Danny. And I'm sad for the kids that did this.'
But there was work to be done. The folks at The Northwest Network - along with other violence and abuse survivor advocate organizations - decided that it was time for the public to demand real change. The pattern of violence that has crept into our city must go.
In all, more than 200 people showed up to the community gathering and potluck to discuss ways that we, as a city or a community of people - regardless of race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation - could help to shape the world around us into a more peaceful and less violent place.
A PROFOUND LOSS
By now, you've no doubt heard about Danny Vega. The 58-year-old man, who, on November 15, while on one of his twice-daily walks in the 4200 block of South Othello Street, was assaulted and robbed. Hours later, Vega slipped into a coma. Days later, he died.
As word spread throughout the city of Vega's passing, so, too, did Vega's vague description of his attackers. 'When I was walking, three African-American high school kids jumped me from behind,' a bloodied and beaten Vega told his housemate, James Saarenas, after he returned home after the attack.
Then, on November 30, hours before a gathering of government officials, top police brass, and members of the LGBT and allied communities at the Filipino Community Center for a public meeting, SPD released a video and photo images which showed three African-American teens, who the SPD call 'persons of interest,' disposing of a jacket that is believed to have belonged to Vega.
A few days ago, again, SPD released another video and photo images of a man they are calling a 'possible witness' to the crime. In the video, a man picks up and walks away with the jacket discarded by the young men.
In the media - as well as in police reports - we use descriptor words. Vega was, in fact, Filipino, a hairdresser, and Gay. The young men in question are, it would seem, teens, African-American, and not in custody. However, there were some at the Northwest Network gathering on Sunday afternoon who believe that all of these descriptions might drive the neighborhood into secular divisions. A divide, they say, should not happen as a result of this crime. So now we can add worry and concern to the list of emotions some Rainier Valley residents are already feeling.
But dealing with these concerns was the goal of the gathering organizers.
'The gathering will be an opportunity to acknowledge the profound loss and the ongoing toll of this violence in all our communities,' Connie Burk, executive director for The Northwest Network, said in an invite letter sent to members of different communities. 'Folks will have the chance to share skills and strategies for safety, to take action in support of racial and economic justice for Seattle's South End, to express solidarity for youth empowerment projects, and to give and receive support.'
'We are sad, but resolute,' she continued. 'And we are so grateful for our beloved community here locally and across the country that joins our determination to strengthen our community and end violence.'
Attendees were asked to break out into round-table groups to discuss topics ranging from bystander awareness to community response. No one was turned away and no subject or concern was frowned upon. This was, without a doubt, to be a real community response, coming directly from the very communities that have been left to deal with this tragedy.
The group I chose to participate with dubbed themselves 'Bystander Response.' Bincy Jacob, executive director for the Asian Pacific Islander Safety Center, was the mediator and explained that the term 'bystander' could mean any number of things to different people; it would be up to the group's participants to define what we all thought a bystander was, and what, if anything, a bystander could do when witnessing a crime or the beginnings of a crime.
One by one, participants began to speak out and tell stories about bus or light rail rides where they witnessed criminal activity, fear of walking home alone late at night - or during the day - and what, if anything, a person could do to remain safe if they were witness to a crime. The group spoke for well over an hour as conversation turned from the topic to, generally, how everyone was feeling.
An interesting topic began to emerge: reporting crime. Many in the group felt as though the Seattle Police Department was not a friend to the neighborhood and that, based on social justice issues, they would feel uncomfortable speaking with an SPD officer.
I would be remiss if I didn't make clear that the meeting was not an anti-SPD session. It was not; instead, participants were made aware of alternate resources available to them by many of the advocacy groups on hand when reporting a crime.
'Meetings like this one here today will not be the last,' Jacob told the group. 'We really hope you continue to be involved with future community gatherings surrounding these issues.'
SPD Captain Ron Wilson, of the department's Community Outreach Section, was in attendance. I spoke with Wilson briefly about the neighborhood and asked him about possible witnesses to the crime. Wilson explained to me that, due to the ongoing investigation, he was unable to 'give specifics' about the information the police already have.
'We are actively working with some members in the neighborhood who have come forward with information that is aiding in the investigation,' he said.
I met a lot of people Sunday afternoon. But one individual, Nhan Thai, had a story he needed to tell. You see, two months prior to the day that Danny Vega was attacked, Thai had suffered the same crime.
He was one of 10 people assaulted and robbed in the neighborhood over the course of the past two months.
'I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S
IN THEIR HEARTS'
On September 15 at roughly 8:30 p.m., Thai, 37, an immigrant from Vietnam and disease investigation specialist with the Seattle - King County Department of Public Health, was attacked just 10 steps from his home in the New Holly neighborhood of Seattle.
The similarities between his attack and Vega's, as well as others in the area, are striking. Like Vega, Thai is Gay, Asian, and was walking alone at night. As was the case with the Vega attack, Thai was attacked from behind by African-American teens.
Seattle Gay News has learned that out of the 10 similar attacks in the area over the past few weeks, at least a third of those targeted were LGBT people.
'The first blow was meant to knock me out,' Thai told me. 'It missed and hit me closer to my mouth on the right side. I was hit a few more times and fell forward.'
The victim says he looked up and saw two African-American males running away. He told me that people continually ask him if they were black American males or East African. Thai said he cannot say for sure. 'I just know they were dark-skinned,' he said.
The attack, which left Thai battered and swollen, lasted for a few minutes. Thai says his body ached for weeks. His attackers made off with his gym bag, jacket, keys, wallet, iPod, and cell phone.
Vega's family believes that he was targeted for this violence because he was an out, Gay, Filipino man. Thai says there might be a number of different reasons why he and Vega were attacked. 'I don't know what's in their [the attackers'] hearts,' he said. 'I'm a smaller build, and maybe they saw me as an easy target.'
Thai also maintains that his attackers did not say anything during the attack. According to him, they were silent the whole time.
The police response, according to Thai, was not up to speed. 'It took the police 15 minutes to respond,' he said. 'It felt like forever.'
Thai lives near the SPD's South Precinct and says he could have physically walked there in five minutes.
'So why did it take SPD officers 15 minutes to respond?' he thought.
Thai set about to find the answer to that question. He got a phone call that some of the items stolen from him were recovered by the police. When he went to the precinct to pick up his phone and iPod (Thai registered all of his electronics) he requested a police ride. On that ride, he said he realized that, as far as police presence is concerned, the neighborhood is in trouble.
'They are very low on manpower,' Thai said somberly. 'Half of the parking lot was full of police vehicles with no available officers to fill the cars.'
What Thai found most interesting was how the police found his iPod and cell phone.
'The police told me that they had been doing an investigation into a local store on Martin Luther King Way that was known for selling stolen items,' he recalled. 'Among the items for sale were my phone and iPod.'
Worried that someone else in his neighborhood might be attacked, Thai says he wanted to put together a Neighborhood Watch program, but realized he needed help. He made contact with Mark Solomon, crime prevention coordinator for the South Precinct.
'It took Solomon nearly two months to contact me back,' Thai said. 'One week later, I heard the news about Danny [Vega].'
'I only met Danny once,' he recalled. 'When I first learned about Danny's attack and death, I was mad as hell.'
'We need for a couple of things to change,' said Thai. 'We must have better communication within the neighborhood. We also need to see South Precinct police be more responsive to crime in the South End.'
'How many more robberies and attacks have happened where people were too scared to report it to the police?' he asked. 'We now know that there is a string of crimes that are very similar. The police need to look at that instead of treating each case individually.'
Five years ago, when Thai and many of his New Holly neighbors moved into the new neighborhood surrounding the Rainier Valley Light Rail project, he felt safe.
'The neighborhood was different then. Most of us all knew each other and people were happy,' he told SGN. 'Now, everyone is scared to death. People are reluctant to answer their door at night if someone knocks.'
Vega's killers are still on the loose. If you have any information regarding the murder of Danny Vega, Seattle Gay News urges you to call (206) 233-5000 or 1-800-222-TIPS immediately.
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