Gay students warned to 'act straight' in wake of teen attacked by mob | Crime
ROCK HILL - The brutal attack of a gay teenager by a group of men at a Rock Hill gas station has a Winthrop University professor warning gay students to "act straight."
The warning comes after 19-year-old Joshua Esskew was beaten by a group of at least eight men at the Spot Convenience Store on 990 South Cherry Road on April 9th. Esskew believes the attack happened because he is gay.
The attack has sparked an investigation by the FBI and the York County Sheriff's Office, who are hoping to identify the men who attacked Esskew. Images of the attack, which was caught on surveillance video, have been released to the public, in hopes of identifying the men.
Esskew says when he was walking to the gas station when someone yelled a derogatory homosexual comment at him. Words were exchanged and when he turned back around, someone hit him in the head with a 40-ounce malt liquor bottle.
He was then beaten by at least eight men for nearly 15-seconds, being kicked and punched by the group.
The attack has angered many in the community, including professors and student advisors at Winthrop University.
“I’ve got to let my students know [about the attack], so when they’re out and about in Rock Hill they act straight,” said Kelly James who teaches sociology and criminology at Winthrop University. (See editor's note below)
James is also the advisor for GLoBAL, Winthrop University's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender ally league. She says the attack has her worried about students' safety in Rock Hill and she welcomes the federal involvement in the investigation.
She feels South Carolina laws don’t go far enough in protecting those who are the victims of targeted violence like this.
“The legislators aren’t interested in it," James told WBTV's Steve Crump. "There’s been grassroots activism, but there’s been no change in the system.”
Special agent Earl Burns with the FBI told WBTV on Tuesday morning that the agency is coordinating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice to determine if the case can be moved up to the federal level with a hate crime charge.
Previous article: FBI to investigate after gay teen was beaten by group at gas station
The assault is not being investigated as a 'hate crime' by the York County Sheriff’s Office because the state of South Carolina does not have an enhancement of penalties for what might be deemed a 'hate crime.' Lieutenant Mike Baker with the Sheriff’s Office says they are seeking charges of Assault and Battery by a Mob 2nd degree against the attackers.
That charge is a felony charge. If convicted, the suspect can spend up to 25 years in prison.
The lack of a 'hate crime' charge is one thing the Gay American Heroes Foundation, a group that advocates for gay rights, hopes to change in the wake of this attack.
Previous article: Gay rights group plans to honor teen with "The Heart of a Hero Award"
"It's been 18 months since the Matthew Shepard Law was passed and there have been hundreds of gay beatings and murders, but not once has been prosecuted under the new law," group founder and president Scott Hall told WBTV. "It's time to make our voices heard and make this a landmark case. These are horrendous crimes and while driven by hate, [they] are not always prosecuted as such."
That's why the group is calling for a full investigation into the attack, and fully supports federal agencies getting involved.
Hall says there is a similar attack taking place every six hours and every nine days there is a murder of a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, & Questioning person, "just because of their sexual self-identification."
"I looked at that video [and] I said 'I don't know how I'm still living, I should not be here today.' That's what I think. I should be dead," Esskew said. “I whole heartedly believe it [was a hate crime] because of the sexual derogatory comment that was made.”
What happened to Esskew is making students who are gay or lesbian think twice before going out. Some are even considering hiding their identity.
“It’s just scary. It blows your mind that it’s happening here,” one student told WBTV.
Drive into Rock Hill along Dave Lyle Boulevard and there’s a sign that says the city has no room for racism. Perhaps that explains why the lunch crowd at the Old Town Bistro is calling the violence 'appalling.'
“It seems like we’ve become so desensitized that we stand and watch," said Rock Hill resident Alonda Simmons. "Even if it’s in awe, [we] watch but we won’t go forward to try to help someone.”
Agent Burns with the FBI told WBTV that it could take some time to determine if federal charges will be filed in the case, if the attacker are ever identified and arrested. The agency needs to determine if the attack meets the federal hate crime statutes.
So far, no suspects have been identified.
The Sheriff’s Office is asking for any information that could help identify the subjects involved in this attack, persons with information can call the Sheriff’s Office at 803-628-3059 or, if they wish to remain anonymous, they can call the Crime Stoppers tip-line at 1-877-409-4321, or send anonymous email tips from www.yorkcrimestoppers.com.
Emotions are running high following the brutal attack of a gay teenager in Rock Hill, SC last week, and following a story WBTV produced Tuesday, the story has attracted a great deal of reader attention and also provoked a good deal of vitriol directed at one of our interviewees.
A Winthrop professor who advocates for more protections for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people, has become a target based on the airing of part of her interview with Steve Crump, in which we quoted her as warning students to “act straight” when they are out in Rock Hill.
Kelly James, professor of Sociology and Criminology says her comments for our story have prompted a great deal of hate mail aimed at her. She feels her comments were taken out of full context. We wanted to make sure that readers fully understand the context in which she made that statement.
In an email to us today, Ms. James says, “ I am receiving hate mail at work and on Facebook because of the way you presented a part of a sentence in my comments to you. I thought you understood that I meant it was ridiculous that I would have to tell my students to act straight, that I meant it ironically. “
She goes on to say, “I posted online on WBTV last night that my intent in commenting was to point out how ludicrous it was that gay kids had to fear strangers. I even mentioned to you (Reporter Steve Crump, WBTV) in our interview that homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973 and that our society should have moved on with tolerance and acceptance by now. It was blatantly obvious that I was not suggesting gays should be closeted.”
This is the whole paragraph that the soundbite was clipped from for the broadcast story:
Kelly James says, “But, my first thought was that, “I’ve got to let my students know’ so that when they are out and about in Rock hill that they, you know, act straight, And that’s a sad lesson in 2011 to be teaching young people. I mean, it’s been off the books as a mental illness since 1973.”
Steve Crump used a few soundbites from Ms. James in his broadcast story and felt that he had portrayed, in the story as a whole, her sentiments on the story correctly. However, time restraints, a daily part of newsgathering, resulted in using a portion of the comment. In the interest of being fair to Ms. James and to our readers, I have decided to not only include the full paragraph from which the bite was excerpted, but to include the entire interview so that readers can understand all of her statements.
The entire interview with Ms. James is included here.
Yvonne Simons, Assistant News Director, WBTV