Two anti-racist activists from the Midwest visited Paris, Tennessee to report on a hate crime perpetrated against a small business owner, and to investigate the response from local police. This is their personal account:
We recently traveled to Western Tennessee to follow up on the investigation of a hate crime committed against small business owner Joe D. Williams on November 20, 2013. Paris, Tennessee, population 10,000, is on the Cumberland River at Kentucky Lake. The closest small city, Clarksville, is an hour and a half away. Paris is run by a handful of millionaires, churches (New Harmony and First Baptist) and realtors (Moody Realty). The notion that everyone knows everything about everyone in small towns, especially small towns that have such an obviously oppressive ruling class, seems to be an accurate anecdote in this case. So many people were happy to talk to us. We interviewed four small business owners, a church leader, three friends of the survivor, a student, two homemakers, six city employees, two witnesses of police behavior, and eighteen individuals with unknown backgrounds. We were stunned to find that so many people know so much about the oppression in Paris and have made so much progress toward organizing against the institutionalized hate in their town.
GayStarNews is where we originally heard about this hate crime http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/tennessee-business-owner-victim-savage-anti-gay-attack231113
Joe owned a small business in Paris until he was brutally assaulted, beaten, and nearly lit on fire. Joe had been the owner of Healthy Thyme, a health food and vitamin shop, for 3 years. Prior to Joe taking over the business, Healthy Thyme had been owned by his parents for 15 years and all total the store had been open in the same location for 23 years. Joe and his partner considered staying in even after someone tried to light the store on fire with him unconscious inside, but the lack of support from the City of Paris, Tennessee made this impossible.
The targeting of LGBTQ* people in Paris is an ongoing problem but Joe and his partner have faced the additional challenge of trying to sell health food in MonsantoLand. It seems that the only forms of oppression Joe and his partner have escaped are the rampant racism and sexism that seem to pervade nearly every interaction around town. Moody Realty owns most of the commercial property in Paris, so they get to decide who can do business in many locations around the town. For example, when Joe considered moving Healthy Thyme into a strip mall with a Kroger, Moody refused to rent a space out to Joe because Healthy Thyme was selling organic meats and that would compete with Kroger. Or was it because he is gay? Joe had not been out long when Moody refused to rent to them, but protecting Kroger’s big business interests could have legitimately been the motive. There is no way to know for sure, however, when Joe was attacked in his store, the assailants wrote “FAG” on his forehead so we are at least sure of the motives of the people who tried to kill our friend.
On November 20, 2013 at around 5:45pm, Joe was alone in the store getting ready to close for the day. Three men came in. One of them hit Joe from behind. They beat Joe until he was unconscious and wrote on his forehead. An assailant doused Joe with gasoline and the remains of the gas were sloshed around the health food store. The smell of gasoline caused Joe to regain consciousness. He dragged himself into the office, shut the door, pulled a bookshelf down to block the door and put his feet against the bookshelf to try to keep the men from forcing the door open. The men pushed, pulled, and hit the door, then, possibly suspecting Joe had a telephone in the office, the assailants gave up on the forced entry and fled the scene leaving Joe to try and determine whether or not it was safe to come out.
Joe was taken away in an ambulance and the fire was put out. He spent the night in a local hospital and was released after being checked for trauma and recovering from the panic attack that he was having upon his arrival. Later, Joe went to the Paris, Tennessee Police Department to give his report and found himself being pressured to answer questions about the assault and arson as if he were somehow responsible for the attack. There was no lawyer present when the nearly half dozen police authorities began interrogating Joe.
Rather than take the survivor’s report and set themselves about trying to capture the perpetrators, police chose to be verbally forceful and aggressive. Joe was even subjected to a lie detector test and an officer tried to get him to drink caffeinated beverages prior to the test while several other City Of Paris Police Officers listened in the hallway outside the interrogation room. Joe was accused of “adding” to his statement when he remembered additional details and added them to his statement. He was told that falsifying a report by adding to it was a felony. Someone claiming to be a representative of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation showed up but did not instill any sense of confidence. When he asked for a sketch artist, he was told, “We’re not like the CIA we don’t do sketch artists and fingerprints”. They broke him down mentally, yelled at him, called him names, and individual cops played good cop/bad cop with him (meaning that a single cop would alternate between being super-nice and then screaming at him). Police called his insurance agent and told them that they were investigating Joe even though Joe did not have an inordinate amount of insurance on the business and all his taxes were up to date. Police said things like “people will understand why you did this if you just admit it” and “we have proof that you did it if you admit it you won’t hardly do any time at all if you don’t admit it we will put you away for a long time”. They tried to get Joe to say that the perpetrators were ex-lovers and when that didn’t fly, they tried to get him to say they were three black men. The perpetrators were white. Joe was clear on this from the first minute, yet the cops managed to get local media to report that they were black.
The interrogation went on and on. It was terrifying. Joe described one of the assailants as being approximately 40 years old. Officers yelled at him saying that there was no way anyone in their 40s would attack someone in this manner. People who engage in these types of crimes are all in their 20s. He was told it was not a hate crime because he was not beaten badly enough. He was told that his story must be fabricated because the details had not changed in each subsequent retelling, implying that he had rehearsed it. After a couple of weeks, Joe stopped trying to talk to the police and got a lawyer. Cops would come rolling up on his house on a daily basis, sometimes 4 to 6 deep, just to tell Joe to go down to the station and talk to Officer Ricky Watson. Joe refused. Joe’s lawyer called Ricky several times. Ricky did not return the calls.
Despite the horrific level of trauma the City of Paris is delivering to its citizens, is important to acknowledge that many of the people we talked to were very supportive of the survivor and had very positive things to say about him. The community is organizing. They asked us to publicize what is happening there and let people around the country and around the world know where to call and write to demand justice for Joe and all the people who are systemically targeted in Paris, Tennessee. They have started a petition and there were rumors of a community funded reward for information, but there has been no progress in finding the perpetrators since the police are focusing on the survivor as their only suspect.
Here is the petition the community made. Please sign it. It is part of the public record in this case http://www.change.org/petitions/henry-county-community-police-department-stop-hate-in-henry-county
On Friday, December 20th, in an effort to escalate their intimidation tactics, the Paris Police Department decided to issue a warrant for Joe’s arrest for “filing a false report”. Having a warrant out on you means that if the police see you they are supposed to arrest you on the spot whether you committed any crime or not. This means you can either turn yourself in or you can wait for the police to come get you. It does not mean a person is guilty of anything. Joe was made aware of the warrant and went to the police station to pay the bond or do whatever he needed to do to assure that he would not be arrested. None of the cops there knew anything about any warrants. After an inordinate amount of waiting and making phone calls, the warrant was located in the pocket of Officer Ricky. Joe was processed and then bonded himself out. The warrant had been granted by Judge Vicki Snyder. The District Attorney in this case is Hansel McAdams.
As an aside, it is common knowledge around town that Snyder and McAdams are on friendly terms and enjoy using cocaine together. Illicit drug use may or may not give us a clue as to why local media took very little notice of the hate crime perpetrated against Joe but whatever the case, they apparently had worked it out by the end of December because on Christmas Eve the accusation that Joe had lied was on the front page of the paper and was blaring from every local outlet in town. Interestingly, the only national entity that picked up on the story about the Paris Police Department’s escalating harassment of Joe was Stormfront, an online NeoNazi forum. Even more interesting is this quote from Officer Ricky regarding the warrant taken out on Joe, “We’ve not been able to verify or dispel any of the statements made about the actual robbery or fire,” Watson said. “We’re looking into Mister Williams, and we’re looking into whether it did or did not happen.”
Here is the news article designed to turn local public opinion against Joe http://parispi.net/articles/2013/12/24/news/local_news/doc52b9bdf1026d0651515959.txt
What are the next steps then? As the community of supporters in Paris, Tennessee requested, we have written to let people know what is happening to Joe and other LGBTQ* citizens and we are providing contact information below so that people may call and write to the various officials who should be providing safety for the residents of Paris rather than terrorizing the victims of hate crimes. In addition, we do hope to be able to follow up on other incidents in Paris, Tennessee. Racial oppression exists there too of course and we can only imagine the misogyny going on behind closed doors, but we were unable to build relationships sturdy enough to hold those conversations during our short visit. We did find out that there have been other incidents of hate against LGBTQ* community members though. Another local business was found to be owned by a local gay person and churches started a petition to boycott the business. New Harmony and First Baptist sent people to the owner’s home. Other people we interviewed told us about LGBTQ* targets in town who have received threats in the mail and received threatening home visits from church members. Customers regularly tell business owners that they will not shop at gay-owned businesses. And there were, of course, many reports of hateful behavior from the local police.
Note: On November 18, two days before Joe was attacked, three young men were arrested in a separate incident. In October the three had travelled from Ashland City, Tennessee to Phoenix, Arizona and murdered a gay, black business owner. It is unknown at this time whether there is a connection between these incidents.
Please call and write to the following offices to express your displeasure or to ask questions:
Paris Police Department
100 North Caldwell Street
Paris, TN 38242
Ricky Watson is the Investigation Sergeant who took out a warrant on Joe without mentioning it to the rest of the police department email@example.com 731-641-1478
Elizondo, Charles is the Chief of police firstname.lastname@example.org 731-641-1454
Judge Vicki Snyder (General Sessions/Juvenile/Probate Judge) is the judge who granted the warrant on Joe – PO Box 633 Paris, TN 38242 – 731-642-5271
District Attorney Hansel McAdams 731-642-6307
Tennessee Bureau of Investigations Public Relations email@example.com 615-744-4087
Governor Bill Haslam 615-741-2001
Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey 615-741-4524 or 800-449-8366 x14524 firstname.lastname@example.org
This petition is part of the public record. Please sign and comment http://www.change.org/petitions/henry-county-community-police-department-stop-hate-in-henry-county
Here are some other politicians in Tennessee that probably also could care less about justice…