As thousands of festivalgoers made their way home from last weekend’s 31st-annual Pride festival, Rizzo Mertz’s day of celebration took a turn for the worst.
On the 300 block of Chestnut Street, not far from where Pennsylvania politicians and residents had gathered at Penn’s Landing hours before to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, a group of teenagers physically attacked Mertz on his way to his South Philadelphia home and attempted to steal his backpack.
The assault left Mertz, 32, with a broken jaw, fractures throughout his nose and face and a gash above his left eye that called for stitches. The robbery was unsuccessful, and Mertz said he clung to his bag throughout the attack because he didn’t want to give up his Pride flag — the same one he proudly touted during last year’s festival.
“That flag meant more to me in that moment,” said Mertz, a gay man who serves as a committee member on Philadelphia’s LGBT Police Liaison Committee. “To have someone as amazing as Dante [Austin] leading this community, then on Pride to have this kind of event happen, I wasn’t about to have my Pride flag stolen from me.”
Dante Austin, out deputy sheriff and fellow LGBT police liaison, died by suicide last Friday, rattling Philadelphia’s queer community in the days leading up to Pride.
Police did not immediately return PGN’s request for comment Wednesday on whether the assault is being investigated as a hate crime. Mertz said he doesn’t believe homophobia motivated the attack.
“I don’t want them to feel that they can’t celebrate a day like Pride or the community itself,” he said. “I don’t want people to fear that Philadelphia’s a dangerous place. We just need to understand the causes of these issues and why these random acts of violence do occur, especially when they're perpetrated by young individuals.”
Another LGBT Police Liaison committee member, Patrick Hagerty, initially contacted the police about the assault, Mertz said.
The committee serves as a resource for members of the LGBTQ community hesitant about contacting police. Deja Lynn Alvarez, a trans activist, and BJ Jones, Philadelphia native, serve as co-chairs and aim to use their own experiences with police as people of color to inform the committee’s support and outreach services.
“We need to make sure the community understands that we understand them, because we come from that same place of the horrible relationship between the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia LGBTQ community, particularly the LGBTQ communities of color,” Alvarez said. “We recognize that firsthand, which is why we want to do this work.”
LGBTQ people who are victims of crimes and are fearful to call the police can call members of the LGBT Police Liaison committee instead, she added. Committee members will help them decide whether to contact the police, walk them through the process, arrange for statements to be taken at another location besides a police station or take a statement and provide it to police themselves.
“If they come to us and decide they don't want to go any further, that's fine, they don’t have to go any further. … If it’s a situation where they don't want to meet with the police at all, we can still report the crime and at least let the police know what happened,” Alvarez said. “We’ll never push anyone into a situation where they have to make themselves even more vulnerable than they already are because many of our community members are vulnerable just for existing. We want to make sure that our priority is the community, not the Philadelphia Police Department.”
More than 57 percent of transpeople feel unsafe calling the police, according to a 2015 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality. In 2013, LGBTQ crime victims represented the highest percentage of total hate violence reports, a National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report published the same year states.
The liaisons work closely with Deputy Commissioner Joseph Sullivan, Inspector Altovise Love-Craighead and Sergeant Nicholas Tees. While the committee has existed for years, it is now buckling down on community outreach and education, Jones said. The group had an information table at Pride and plans to bring on board new independent members of the city’s LGBTQ community soon.
Jones grew up in North and West Philadelphia, where he and his family were part of communities that were fearful and critical of police, he said.
“I have that first-hand experience, that first-hand knowledge of how things happen in reality here in Philly,” Jones added.”So...I can actually help bridge the gap between my community and the Philly police.”
Jones noted the committee acts as a “comfort place” to kickstart the process of reporting a crime. It also helps those who have committed crimes, are wanted by the police or have been mistreated by officers when arrested because of their LGBTQ identity.
Moving forward, committee members want the LGBTQ community to know it’s committed to helping people report crimes from all over the city, not just in the Gayborhood, Alvarez said, and the committee’s leadership understands the “fractured relationship between the community and the police department.”
The committee holds monthly public meetings. The next takes place 6 p.m. June 16 at William Way LGBT Center.
“Just keep loving each other and supporting each other and being there for each other and being vigilant,” Mertz said. “Living in a city, we are going to see violent crimes like this take place. The best thing we can do as a community is being there for each other and stand arm-and-arm in solidarity and make sure we let those who do these type of actions know that you don't have to do this.”
Members of the LGBTQ community hesitant to report a crime to the police can contact LGBT Police Liaison Co-Chairs Deja Lynn Alvarez (770-685-5581) and BJ Jones (215-278-1854). The two gave PGN permission to publish their phone numbers.
Photo credit: Laura Smythe
Posted: 6/12/19 6:21 p.m.