ROCK HILL — South Carolina's largest gay rights political advocacy organization Wednesday joined the national push for a vigorous federal investigation and strong South Carolina hate crime laws after the April 9 beating of a gay man in Rock Hill by at least eight men.
The groups' pressure on law enforcement and politicians comes as many in the community, especially area gay and lesbian groups, continued to express outrage over the videotaped beating of Joshua Esskew outside the Spot convenience store. Esskew, who said he was called a gay slur before he was hit with a beer bottle and beaten after he defended himself, said he was attacked because he is gay.
Esskew said Wednesday he appreciates the support he has been getting from the community and from gay rights groups, including the latest support from the group South Carolina Equality, a non-profit established nine years ago as an advocacy group in education and politics for gays, lesbian, bisexuals and transgender people.
The group's executive director, Christine Johnson, spoke out Wednesday on the attack as gay groups across the country under the umbrella of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation continue to demand justice for Esskew from both the U.S. Attorney's Office and FBI.
"Under no circumstance will violence against South Carolina's LGBT community be tolerated or ignored," Johnson said in a statement. "We are in communication with law enforcement and the Department of Justice to ensure that this case receives a proper and thorough investigation and to ensure the LGBT community is well-informed."
South Carolina is one of just a few states without a hate crime law, and the equality group voiced support Wednesday for the reintroduction of a hate crimes bill in the S.C. General Assembly by state Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill. King filed the bill last year that would make hate crimes of intimidation or assault based on race, religion or sexual preference a felony that carries two to 15 years prison time.
King told The Herald he would re-file the bill Tuesday and ask for immediate debate by legislators. The bill is not being supported by area Republicans and Gov. Nikki Haley, who say current laws against assault, coupled with federal hate crime laws, are strong enough.
Victoria Middleton, executive director for the S.C. branch of the ACLU, said any evidence that Esskew was targeted for attack based on his sexual orientation should be treated very seriously by investigators.
Esskew said Wednesday that he met with FBI agents who are investigating whether his civil rights were violated or that a federal hate crime law was broken, but is unsure what will happen next in the investigation.
No arrests have been made in the case by the York County Sheriff's Office, which is investigating the case as an assault by a mob. Lt. Mike Baker said that detectives are continuing to "actively pursue leads in this violent crime."
At two area meetings of gay students and young professionals Wednesday evening, many expressed dismay and outrage over the beating of Esskew.
Participants of Wednesday Night Out, a gay professional happy hour, met at Amici's Oven, and Cindy Lucas, 49, just wondered "Why?"
"Why does it take something like this to happen for people to stand up?" she said. "We just want to safe."
Lucas' girlfriend of more than two years, Ellen Caldwell, 37, said the incident is "very sad."
"We're contributing members of society, too," she said. "Our money spent is just as good as anybody else's. We're active and involved in the community. It's very sad and discouraging to be made to feel inferior, especially when you don't have a choice."
Both agreed that the state should move toward some kind of hate crime legislation.
Some student members of Winthrop's GLoBAL chapter said they had heard about Esskew through Facebook and general conversation.
"The good thing is you're not hearing about as many cases like this, but it's sad things like this still happen," said Aaron Stewart, 24, a student working toward his master's in English education.
A.J. Sims, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in sociology, said he has a mixed reaction to the Esskew incident. Sims is from Cincinnati.
"I'm surprised that it can happen so close to where I am," he said "It didn't matter where I'm from. People may mutter words under their breath, but it was tolerated, and it was never so much an altercation."
Sims hopes this will be a "wake-up call for the government," referring to potential hate crime legislation in the state.
"It's still an issue that needs to be addressed," he said. "There is a push for equal rights, for everyone to be protected."
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