Community support has poured in over the past few days at a Berkeley LGBTQ center where a man burned a rainbow flag and punched a volunteer Friday, according to police and organization staff.
Leslie Ewing, executive director of the Pacific Center for Human Growth on Telegraph Avenue, said the incident happened Friday morning while she was away.
“Someone came on our property and set our rainbow flag on fire,” Ewing said. A volunteer receptionist who tried to stop the arson was then assaulted, but was not seriously injured, Ewing said. Berkeley police said the receptionist was punched in the face during the attack, which happened at about 11 a.m.
Ewing said a staff member who “heard the ruckus outside” got a photograph of the assailant. Police were called immediately, while the attack was happening. Officers arrived within minutes and were shown the photograph. Within 20 minutes, they had the right man in custody, Ewing said.
Berkeley police ultimately identified that man as 32-year-old transient Richard Woods. He was arrested on suspicion of arson, committing a hate crime and battery with bodily injury. Woods is not listed as in-custody in Alameda County jail Monday, according to records online, so the status of the arrest and case were not available. Berkeleyside has asked BPD for additional detail.
Ewing said there had been a “tremendous outpouring of support and affection” since Friday. Neighbors came out with chalk and wrote messages on the walkway in front of the center. They also brought doughnuts.
“Lovely things, just little tokens of affection,” she said. “Our volunteer is physically well, and says they are fine emotionally around this. All things considered, it turned out as well as it could.”
The Pacific Center opened in Berkeley more than 44 years ago. It was the third LGBT center to open in the nation.
Ewing said the center, which provides a range of social and mental health services, and runs an after-school support program, has not seen much trouble despite its long history.
“We are on Telegraph, and there’s a lot of street action, but nothing like this,” she said.
A decade or so ago, an individual charged into the building and acted violent toward a therapist. The Pacific Center then installed a security system and a locked front door. No other notable safety issues have happened since — until Friday.
Still, the current political climate does raise concerns, Ewing said. She was recently at a national conference for LGBT centers, and someone noted there have been more than 275 incidents of hate crimes against LBGT individuals — including murders — since the November election.
“We have to pay attention to these things,” Ewing said, though she added that the motivation behind Friday’s incident is still unknown.
A volunteer at the center, Pete Mancilla, wrote a blog post about the arson and attack, and said, “It’s extremely disappointing to know that even our safe places where services are provided for the good of our community are vulnerable to hate. I want this to be a reminder to everyone that we should always stand up for what we believe in and support one another. There is no room for hate here.”
As for the community support that has come in, Ewing said, “I wish it didn’t have to happen like this. I’m not happy about that. But, frankly, it’s nice.”
The organization has been around so long, she added, that it’s easy for it to be taken for granted: part of the community fabric that’s always been there and will continue to be. She said, since Friday, she had heard from current participants at the center, as well as those who were part of it 20-30 years ago and still recall what an important place it had been for them during the challenges of their younger days.
“It’s really sad, in a way, that it takes an incident like this to be able to connect with your family,” Ewing said. “But that’s what’s happened. We’ll be grateful for that coming out of this at least.”
And the rainbow flag is hanging again outside the Pacific Center, at 2712 Telegraph.
“That’s a trip to the hardware store,” Ewing said. “That’s fine.”