Originally published at Kenyon Farrow’s blog; republished with permission.
In Defense of Brontez—and the Rest of Us Too Proud or Too Trashy to Go Down Without a Fight
by Kenyon Farrow
Let me first state that there is no pretense of objectivity or an emotional distance here for several reasons.
One, Brontez Purnell is a very close friend of mine.
Two, this issue cuts at the core of some thoughts and problems I have with existing frameworks of victim, and the demands made on victims of violence to behave (past or present behaviors) in a fashion acceptable to others in order to claim one has been victimized; the role of police and questions of political alignments and authenticity; and the demands on victims to recall and script every fact in exactly the right chronology in order to be seen as credible.
Last week, I received a phone call from Brontez—again, close friend and musician/dancer/writer who lives in Oakland, California. It was the day after he and friend/bandmate Adal had left the Paradiso nightclub when two Black men with some Caribbean accent began harassing them as they left the club. Adal is not queer, but the two men, according to Brontez, assumed that they were a couple, and began calling them “batty boy” and other epithets. Finally, they made the statement, “if we were at home you’d be dead by now.”
Brontez, clearly enraged, went the fuck off. After more words were exchanged, and Brontez says he spit at the car the men were in, and then he was punched in the face. Brontez says he then hit the man’s car with his bicycle lock and they assaulted Brontez and Adal (who’s face was broken in five places). The police were called but no arrests have been made.
After talking to Brontez about the attack—I read an article in the Bay Citizen, followed by a pretty vigorous debate in the comments section. The debate mostly sparked by comments made by Kevin Bynes, who is known for his work in HIV prevention for Black gay men. Bynes, a bay area resident said he witnessed the incident nearby (and I know of Bynes through my own work in HIV prevention), and that Brontez was lying about the details of the incident noting:
I’m sorry I have to tell the truth because I live in this area and saw the entire incident. The so called victim rode around on his bike yelling at the two guys in the black SUV repeatedly and it wasn’t until the so-called victim spit on the driver and tried to break his window with his bike lock that the two accused “gay bashers” reacted by chasing the guy away. This man TOTALLY provoked this situation and initiated the violence. He took the first swing, spit in the man’s face and tried to damage his car. I’m a gay man who lives in this area and the club they were leaving used to be a gay club that was there for 20 + years and the area is VERY safe for gay people. That was NOT a gay bashing and I think it is dangerous for us to suggest that everytime a gay person gets into a fight its a gay bashing. The guy that is being called a victim really harrassed these guys and they did not attack him because he was gay they acted in self defense. In fact the only gay slurs that I heard came from the victim. I’m so sorry that I didn’t speak to the police this morning.
To which Brontez responded:
Yo, this is Brontez. You SADDEN me Mr. Bynes (whoever you are). We we’re unlocking our bikes and these guys stared harassing us. How did you see “everything”? It was only us four outside in the beginning! You act like we just saw these dudes and went in on them and thats a lie. Ive attended the Paradiso since it was Cabel’s Reef and have NEVER had anything like this happen. Me cursing, and yelling at them is true like after someone threatens you with VIOLENCE who wouldn’t? Sorry im NOT the type of girl whos gonna cross her legs and act fucking nice after some jock tells me im “at the wrong club” two blocks from my own fucking house! FUCK YEAH I YELLED BACK AT THEM. If your such a sensible homosexual why didnt you HELP US when these guys were fucking with us? And also my bandmate who was sitting on the sidelines got his face broken and we did NOTHING to warrant that. WE WERE THE VICTIMS OF VIOLENCE, verbal and otherwise. I threw my bike lock AFTER they punched me and Adal (who wouldn’t?) I used this tactic to pause them long enough to get their plate number. You call someone a “batty boy” threaten them with violence and then hit someone that didnt provoke you YES THAT IS A HATE CRIME. I was REACTING to being fucked with. How dare you?
My problem here is not that Bynes disagrees with Purnell’s timeline of the events or that he was “disgusted and ashamed” by Brontez’ behavior.
First, Brontez and Adal both say that the men had been saying shit to them from jump, for which Bynes (in my opinion) was likely out of earshot or just didn’t hear. Brontez is just not the type, drunk or not, to start a fight with two other men for no reason, having been out in San Fran, Oakland, and all over NYC with Mr. Purnell over the years of our relationship—even where it is clear that Adal was trying to convince Brontez to let it slide. But as Brontez himself said, and I very much believe, he wasn’t going to just let that shit slide. Brontez actually states in the article what Bynes re-asserts in his comment—he didn’t expect to be threatened with violence at a place he’d frequented for years (both men live in the neighborhood where this incident took place), so I am not sure why Bynes re-states this point in his comment—unless he flat out does not believe anything at all transpired to make Brontez angry in the first place (The Bay Citizen published a second story where Adal corroborates Brontez’s assertion that the men started harassing them first). Bynes’ assertion that the club used to be a queer space but is still frequented by queers seems to ignore the realities many of us know from experience. Many of us have been at “the club” in any city USA that used to be a queer bar, and the straights who then take it over act brand fucking new and further marginalize queers who continue to go there. And since when did neighborhoods or establishments with lots of LGBT people mean they were free from homo/transphobic violence? That doesn’t make any kind of sense.
So the question for me here, and where I vehemently disagree with Bynes, is how one defines “provocation” and who judges what then is the socially acceptable response. I tend to agree with Brontez. Too often people who are targeted for violence have to have their motivations and their recollection of all the “facts” or chronology of all the events hyper-scrutinized beyond recognition if they at all do anything other than lay down and take the abuse (or in the case of sexual assault, you’re accused of lying if you don’t have any physical evidence that you fought back, or you choose to try to still (and steel) yourself to try to avoid further violence, or are simply in a state of shock). And what is more true than not, most of us, in some way, respond verbally or physically fight back.
I think Brontez was enraged by the situation and responded accordingly. But rage, as bell hooks once stated, is an appropriate response to oppression. I actually have never seen Brontez angry to the point of fighting the way he clearly must have been that night. But any of us, caught at the right place at the wrong time, may have responded similarly. People get tired of this bullshit. I am tired of it. I have had people hurl similar epithets and make threats to me. One day I may walk away. Another day, I walk right into that fire. Once, similar to what happened to Brontez—two Black men started with me, but when I didn’t run or back down, they punched my non-black friend instead—who once they engaged, thought was going to be an easier target. So I know what it means to reach that point where you say to yourself, Fuck it. I don’t give a fuck what happens today. I am not going to be disrespected and let you walk away from here thinking that shit is OK to do. Not now.
That’s what happened to Chrishaun McDonald, a Black transwoman in Minneapolis currently on trial for murder. She was outside one evening this past spring when she and some friends were approached by a white man who hurled both racist and transphobic remarks. I don’t know who threw the first blow, but that man was stabbed (many say not by Chrishaun) and is dead. I don’t celebrate his death and yes those trans women could have done a million things to try to get away from him. But maybe they were tired of running, or were so bold as to think they didn’t have a reason to run.
I am reminded of Sakia Gunn, when she told a man to leave her friends alone—they were lesbians. I don’t know if she kicked his car, or flipped him the finger. I don’t know if she told him he had a dick smaller than hers, called him a faggot or some other name to push his buttons. But he did what patriarchal men do—he assumed it was his right and Christian civic duty to accost them, and “check” them for being “out of hand.” He got out of the car. She, or one of her friends, may have punched him first. She may have spit in his face. But he killed her. Was that justified? Was she “at fault” for provoking him? Should she have collected her friends and run back into Newark Penn Station? She could have done any of those things, but maybe, even at 15 years old, she decided she was tired of running, or it never occurred to her to run.
I think of the New Jersey 4—originally the group of seven—young Black lesbians also from Newark who one night in a “gay friendly” part of town, NYC’s West Village, were walking and a man made a disparaging comment about them being lesbians, and a fight ensued, with the man being stabbed, which he later described as “a hate crime against a straight man.” They could have went to the other side of the street. They could have decided to leave the Village and go home. They could have quoted Bible passages at him. But they didn’t. I don’t know if one of them struck him first. Nor do I care.
I respect these young women for, despite the enormous consequences that none of them could forsee, making a choice to not live in a world where they could be denigrated for being lesbians, bisexuals, aggressives (AGs), queers or however they think of their identities. And they, like Brontez, don’t present as “victims” in the way our society constructs, because they didn’t just let that shit go. They didn’t run. They saw the danger, decided to move towards it and do what it was trying to do to them, even if it meant they might not win. The “behavior,” like Brontez’s was not befitting of any victim—most people in the moment are resisting being a passive victim (and this is not to also say that people who choose not to fight back in certain moments are less than heroic, nor am I glorifying violent retribution). But it is to say that I think anyone who tries to condemn someone for not allowing themselves to be intimidated by people, especially in this case who are saying if they were a few thousand miles away they’d just as soon kill you for simply existing. I don’t know how I’d react.
And if we’re going to claim that we don’t want to see more Black men going to prison potentially, I totally agree, but if that’s your position then it means that we have to find ways to help and de-escalate situations, even if you think someone is in the wrong and not wait till after cops are called to raise judgement about whether someone exhibited exemplary model citizen behavior in the midst of being threatened. Also, I think that those of us who think critically about calling the police (because of the nature of policing and the prison industrial complex as an anti-Black project) have to be clear that we do not begin to use this as a reason to excuse violence, or question a person’s Blackness or other racial/political authenticity against a person who, for whatever reason, calls the police in a particular moment. It’s not as though Brontez is someone the police don’t also target, threaten and violate. And while the fact that these men were likely Caribbean immigrants invokes racist narratives about Black criminality and homophobia in the Caribbean, clearly these men were quite willing to try to intimidate Brontez and his friend using those very same narratives when they declared “if we were at home you’d be dead by now.”
I think Bynes is making an assumption that even if Brontez had never responded, he and his friend would have been safe (on their bikes!!!!) from those men once they turned the corner, even if they were supposedly trying to avoid an altercation right then and there—maybe they were initially shocked that a Black gay man would have the audacity to even respond back to them. Maybe they were trying to impress the women they were with, and they clearly got a response they weren’t prepared for. I don’t know their motives, but I don’t believe Brontez decided to just pick a random fight with two dudes leaving a club he frequents regularly (as a musician this fucks with your ability to make money), two blocks from his own house, in a community he has to continue to live in.
I do hope that rather than starting a war of words (and I have to admit I was mad as hell when I first heard there was some backlash calling one of my best friends a liar), this can actually give us pause to think about what standards we’re holding people to who have been threatened, when one day, it might be you, for whatever reason, who decides not to take the high road.
Kenyon Farrow has been working as an organizer, communications strategist, and writer on issues at the intersection of HIV/AIDS, prisons, and homophobia. Kenyon is the former Executive Director of Queers for Economic Justice—an organization dedicated to organizing, research, and advocacy for and with low-income and working-class lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. Prior to becoming ED, Kenyon served as the National Public Education Director, building the visibility of progressive racial and economic justice issues as they pertain to LGBTQ community through coalition-building, public education, and media advocacy. Currently he serves on the Executive Committee of Connect 2 Protect New York, and the Center for Gay & Lesbian Studies (CLAGS). Kenyon is working on a new report on the Tea Party and LGBT Politics with Political Research Associates, as well as working as a book editor with South End Press. Check out Kenyon’s blog here.