ROCK HILL — All Joshua Esskew wanted that Saturday at 2:30 in the morning was a cold drink.
For that, the 19-year-old, who proudly says to anybody he meets that he is not ashamed of being gay, believes he took a violent beating from a bunch of men that landed him in the hospital.
Black eye, cuts on head and face, bleeding on his brain.
Esskew does not back away from being gay, whether anybody else likes it or not.
"Homosexuals - we are people, too," Esskew said Saturday, a week after he was beaten at the Spot Convenience Store at the corner of South Cherry Road and Heckle Boulevard just outside the city limits of Rock Hill.
"We do not have mental disorders. This is who we are. This could be done to anybody 'different.' I am sure this happened to me because I am gay."
That April 9 morning, Esskew and his longtime best friend, Da-Neshia Reid, 23, stopped at the store on the way home from a friend's house.
They parked on the Cherry Road side of the store, and Esskew said he jumped out to get the soda. Both men said they saw several young men hanging around outside the store.
After he turned the corner toward the front of the store, out of the view of Reid, Esskew said, one of the men there called him a gay slur, along with a couple of choice curse words.
Esskew was asked Saturday - a day after police released surveillance video of the attack - how anybody, a stranger, might know he is gay.
Esskew said he "walks gay - it is the way I carry myself."
He does not hide who he is from anyone.
A week after the beating, he is still angry at being attacked - as he was that night when a slur was yelled at him for, apparently, walking as a gay man might walk in what is supposedly the most free, most tolerant country in the history of the world.
"I asked who the hell was he talking to," Esskew said. "Then I walked by and that's when I felt something hit me in the back of my head."
The surveillance video from the store shows Esskew being hit with a bottle that breaks and splashes. Esskew believes it was a 40-ounce beer.
Anybody who has ever hefted a 40-ounce beer bottle knows it is heavy. You don't have to get one smashed over your head to know it would hurt.
After he was hit, the video shows Esskew go after whomever attacked him, throwing punches.
It is then that Esskew is attacked by as many as eight young men. Esskew was stomped and punched and kicked as men entered the fray to get in kicks and smacks on this one man. He was left in a heap.
The video is brutal. Esskew said he was beaten into unconsciousness.
The actual crime, listed on the police report, is "assault and battery by mob, serious injury."
The police report from the York County Sheriff's Office is straight to the point and hurts anybody who reads it - but reading it does not hurt as badly as Esskew was hurt.
"The video showed Joshua get hit over the head with a bottle from behind," the report states. "The video showed Joshua attempting to defend himself, at which time he was attacked by at least eight black males. Joshua was severely beaten by the mob of males."
Esskew is white. Reid is black. The issue of race is brought up here because it was used by police to identify the men who committed the crime.
Race sure means nothing in life to these two best friends, Esskew and Reid. The race of who hit Esskew a week ago does not matter, either, both said.
"They just happened to all be black guys," said Reid. "I'm black. The problem wasn't race. The problem was sexuality.
"It's not color - it is their actions. People should be treated equally."
Reid told police after the incident, and said again Saturday, that he saw people running away and driving off, so he went to investigate.
"Joshua was curled up in a ball, with blood running out of his mouth," Reid said.
Reid tried to get a license plate number from the vehicles the attackers fled in, but could not. He called Esskew's parents while someone at the store called police.
Police have released the video to the public in hopes someone will recognize the attackers, but so far no arrests have been made.
Esskew was bruised and hospitalized, but he is now home - speaking up and speaking out.
A few times when he was younger, after people bullied him for being gay, Esskew said he had to fight.
But he had never been jumped by a mob.
He remains angry and wants his attackers to be caught. He wants "accountability."
Esskew deserves it.
Being gay is not a crime, but what happened to him sure is.
South Carolina has no "hate crime" laws, but the federal government does. Whether federal authorities determine later that Esskew's beating for being gay is a hate crime remains unclear.
Yet this is clear: Joshua Esskew - the man and his battered face - sure look like victims of hate.
"I have the right to be treated with dignity," Esskew said. "I'm standing up for anyone beaten up for being different.
"This needs to be known for what it is - a hate crime."
See video of the attack below.
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