This past Monday night felt like any other at the Rainbow Lounge. The bar was packed. Club patrons called out drink orders to the bar tender over the blaring bass of a Lady Gaga song while they laughed, chatted and puffed on cigarettes in the glow of the neon lights.
But this night was also the one year anniversary of the Rainbow Lounge raid, which revealed how bad relationships had gotten between the Ft. Worth police and the city’s gay community.
The raid, which sparked international outrage, occurred when a routine inspection of the gay bar by Fort Worth police officers and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agents went awry. In the end six were arrested, and one, Chad Gibson, suffered a concussion, a hairline fracture to his scull and internal bleeding. To make matters worse, the incident took place on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City.
“A lot of people were being treated pretty roughly,” Todd Camp, a witness of the incident and a member of Fairness Fort Worth said. “Everybody was just kind of shocked…[Police officers] were just kind of arbitrarily grabbing people, and if anybody had the audacity to question what they were doing or talk back, they were handcuffed and taken out.”
The incident, as horrible as it was, did spark some changes. And that was blissfully evident Monday night, when the bar hosted a BBQ for members of the police force and the gay community. George Rusnak and Joe Delane, while weaving their way through the crowd, spotted one another. Their faces lit up in recognition, and the two men hugged. Rusnak is a Fort Worth police officer. Delane is a patron of the Rainbow Lounge.
“We were in choir together in school,” Delane said. They graduated from Western Hills High School in 1985. The two proceeded to talk about their families and jobs. They gestured animatedly throughout the conversation, smiled frequently, laughed occasionally.
The raid last year spurred a movement into motion. Within days, Fairness Fort Worth, a GLBT civil rights group, was formed. The group’s first actions included encouraging witnesses to come forward, signing an open letter to Mayor Michael Moncrief asking for an outside, independent investigation of the event and making a presentation to the Fort Worth City Council.
At the time of the Rainbow Lounge raid, the statutes for public intoxication arrest procedures were relatively vague. Fairness Fort Worth worked with Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead to ensure that policy changes were made to clarify them. “It said that public intoxication occurs when you’re intoxicated in a public place…and may pose a danger to yourself or others,” Thomas Anable, the president of Fairness Fort Worth said. “So the officer could use his judgment to say, ‘Oh, I think you’re going to do something, so I’m going to arrest you before you do it.’”
Anable said that, in many cases before changes were made, arrest reports simply specified that arrestees had red eyes, smelled of alcohol and staggered while walking. Anable did not think that this was adequate.
“The new policy says that there must be a clear and present danger to themselves or others,” Anable said. “The officer must detail in his report the specifics that led him to believe that there was a clear and present danger.”
Stricter guidelines were implemented for bar inspection procedures as well. “There are three levels,” Officer Sara Straten, the formally appointed liaison to the GLBT community, said in regard to new bar inspection policies. “There’s a bar check, a bar inspection and a bar investigation. Each one has its own set of standards that have to be met in order for it to be considered at that level. So it’s pretty detailed, and it doesn’t leave much room for variance from it.”
Each level requires multiple supervisor approvals, according to Anable.
Other steps taken by the Fort Worth Police Department to mend its relationship with the GLBT community included suspending three officers involved with the raid without pay, appointing Sara Straten as liaison to the GLBT community and attending various gay pride events in the city. “We’ve moved forward from last year and we’ve improved our relationship and we’re going to continue to work together to make things better,” Straten said. “We’re going to continue to work together to make things better and move forward in our relationship.”
TABC reportedly fired three agents involved in the Rainbow Lounge raid and will continue putting its staff through diversity training.
In its attempt to better the situation, the Fort Worth City Council voted to expand the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance to include transgender people in November of last year. The ordinance already prevented discrimination based on sex, race, sexual orientation and religion. This addition made Fort Worth’s ordinance the strongest in the country, according to Anable. The city also appointed a Diversity Task Force to advise officials on issues affecting GLBT citizens.
Though members of Fairness Fort Worth praise the city for changes it has made, some problems still exist. In a hearing during the last week of March, trails were requested for two Rainbow Lounge raid arrestees, George Armstrong and Gibson. Armstrong is being charged with public intoxication and Gibson, who reportedly groped a police officer during the incident, is being charged with public intoxication and simple assault.
As the arrests of these two men were based on currently outdated public intoxication policies, Anable is not pleased that the city attorney’s office insists on proceeding with the prosecutions.
“You want trials? Go ahead.” Anable said. “We’ll bring out 2,000 protestors for each trial, we’ll get cameras in the courtrooms. We’d love for the city to have a public trial. That would be fine with us. The only thing you could do to re-energize the LGBT community is to have those trials. So come on, let’s have them. We’re not afraid of them.”
Other future plans for Fairness Fort Worth include ensuring that the Fort Worth Police Department complies with policy changes, communicating with Dallas GLBT organizations to form a stronger Metroplex community and working to coordinate resources for the Fort Worth GLBT community.
All in all, members of the Fort Worth GLBT community feel that things have vastly improved since the Rainbow Lounge raid. Evidence of that: Police officers hanging out at the Rainbow, eating BBQ and digging Lady Gaga.
“When Monday night ended, we all just stood around and said, ‘How did this happen?’” Anable said. “Never could you have written this in a script – nobody would have believed it. They would have thought it was fiction. Well it’s not. It’s been a sincere effort, and this city is way better and stronger because of it.”