On a day when US President Barack Obama approved assassinated gay rights activist Harvey Milk for a Medal of Freedom, the highest US honour for a civilian, I was concerned to hear of the recent arrest of Pepin Tuma, a lawyer and LGBT activist.
I was introduced to Pepin Tuma at the Manassas rally on the eve of the presidential elections. Before we bumped into each other I had heard – and been impressed by – the work he had been doing with Obama Pride, the LGBT wing of the Campaign for Change.
So it seems, particularly on this day when Harvey Milk is to be honoured posthumously, a sad reflection on the position of LGBT people in the US that Pepin Tuma was recently arrested by police in Washington DC.
Tuma was out with friends at around midnight and the case of the black professor Henry Louis Gates who was recently arrested, and the conduct of the police, had dominated the conversation. A police officer overheard Tuma chanting in a ‘sing song’ voice “I hate the police”. Not a crime, particularly in a modern democracy, and in a country that sets such store by free speech.
As a politician who deals with policing issues every day, it’s not something I would ever say, let alone sing. I don’t think it. The police here in London tread on eggshells every day in relation to all manner of equalities issues. Mostly they get things right. Sometimes they get things wrong. It’s part of my job to help them get things more and more right and less and less wrong.
But it’s not an offence to express disapproval of the police, here or in America. And it’s Tuma’s right to be free to say it without being arrested. But that is not all the story.
District of Columbia police chief Cathy Lanier has ordered an internal inquiry into the arrest. In an email to Lanier, Tuma has said: “I said nothing at this time, except asking why I was being detained, whether I was being arrested, and my belief that it was not a crime to offer an opinion to my friends about the police.”
Tuma alleges that the officer, Second District Officer J. Culp, pushed him against a transformer box and handcuffed him without explaining any charge.
Tuma adds: “As Officer Culp moved me toward a police cruiser, he told me to ‘just shut up, faggot,’” Ah, a raised voice and a raised prejudice.
Tuma was then taken to the Second District police station where he was given a choice of either paying a ‘post and forfeit’ fine or a night in the cells and an appearance before the DC magistrate in the morning. He opted to pay the ‘post and forfeit’ because he had church and a church committee meeting in the morning, despite the implied admission of guilt it brings, but he has since said he intends to pursue the matter in court.
Meanwhile, I understand, two friends who had been with Tuma at the time of the arrest were being approached by another police officer, named Geer, who asked them if they agreed that Tuma had been disorderly and attempting to “resist” arrest and whether they would back that up.
“No, we did not see that at all,” they said. One of them, fellow lawyer Luke Platzer has said since: “We thought he was trying to trick us into saying that there was physical resistance by Pepin to the arrest. That is not true.”
Acting Lieutenant Brett Parson, who deals in LGBT liaison in the DC police has said the LGBT community should “withhold judgment until the chief [Lanier] has had an opportunity to review the investigation and take any action she deems appropriate.”
It turns out that Officer Culp has had five complaints made against him in the past. I don’t know the details of those previous five complaints, but none of them have been upheld.
In the context of Proposition 8 in California, the Pepin Tuma incident compounds my sense of a hastening backward drift on LGBT equality in the US, despite the symbolic honour for Milk. Have attitudes in America really moved forward in the past 30 years? I have my doubts.