With a rise in hate crimes targeting the LGBTQ community, victims in Oakland County now have additional resources on their behalf. It’s thanks to an innovative partnership between the prosecutor’s office and Fair Michigan.
Dave Garcia, executive director of Affirmations Detroit, which serves the LGBTQ community, says he's no stranger to hate mail.
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“I am not intimidated by this, I’m pretty used to this,” said Garcia. “I’ve been getting them for many, many years.”
Garcia showed us the threatening language meant to spread fear and intimidation that he and others recently received by mail.
"That letter was sent to many of us leaders in the community and we did go to the police and the FBI," said Garcia.
But beyond letters, he says he has experienced far worse, sharing about the time he was targeted in a bar.
“Being a gay guy in a small town bar in Michigan, I grew up in a small town, and a guy came over and hit me in the face, and we got kicked out for causing a disturbance,” he said.
He added, “these are the kinds of things we in the LGBTQ community face all the time.”
Cases like Garcia's are being tracked by the FBI here in Michigan, where in 2019 a total of 434 hate crimes took place, of those 46 were based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
But the Fair Michigan Justice Project, which launched in 2016, aims to make a difference, assisting law enforcement in solving serious crimes against the LGBTQ community.
Nonprofit Fair Michigan's latest partnership is with Oakland County.
“Fair Michigan helps us train our lawyers who deal with these cases and also provides advocates to work with victims of hate crimes,” said Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald.
The group has already secured 28 criminal convictions in metro Detroit and is currently assisting in the prosecution of Diabolique Paris Johnson, a 24-year-old from Indianapolis accused of robbing and killing two men last September in Dearborn and Detroit, whom he met on online dating apps and were part of the LGBTQ community.
“Hate crimes are up all over the country. They are up in Oakland County," she said.
When handling a hate crime, McDonald said the victim is going through something different than victims of other crimes.
"We have to train our prosecutors to deal with those appropriately,” she said.
Carolyn Normandin with Michigan's Anti-Defamation League said extremist groups are among those behind the rising threats of violence and attacks.
“In 2019, there were 150 calls to the office, in 2020, we saw more than 170. So it's an increase," she said.
Normandin said it's an epidemic that harms all of us and must be stopped.
“Zero tolerance. Absolute zero tolerance,” said McDonald.
Fair Michigan also has additional partnerships throughout the state, including in Wayne County. Dave Garcia says the work could not be more important.
"Some people are going to be scared and they have a right to be afraid and they have a right to be scared. That's why organizations like Affirmations exist so that they have a safe place to go where they can be their authentic self freely and safely. I hope that we can get to a point where we can hold hands anywhere throughout the state, region, country, world. But we're not there yet," said Garcia.