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Three Years Later, A Documentary On the Controversial Raid Of A Fort Worth Gay Bar

One night in late June three years ago, police and TABC officers entered the Rainbow Lounge, a new gay bar in Fort Worth. By the time they left 40 minutes later, six people had been arrested. A seventh, 26-year-old Chad Gibson, was taken to the hospital with multiple skull fractures and bleeding on the brain.

The police and TABC agents would later claim that they had come into the bar to conduct a routine inspection, only to be sexually harassed by intoxicated patrons. But witnesses told a very different story: that police had behaved aggressively from the moment they walked in the door, and hadn't attempted to do even the most basic things a normal bar-check would entail, like examining liquor bottles or asking for a certificate of occupancy. Many people pointed out that the incident bore no small resemblance to the infamous raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York City -- which had happened exactly 40 years before to the day.

Now, a new documentary by Robert L. Camina, Raid at the Rainbow Lounge, examines the events of the night and their aftermath. Late last week, a screening of the film at the Magnolia Theater was followed by a panel discussion, moderated by Dallas Voice senior editor John Wright and featuring Fort Worth's chief of police Jeff Halstead, two TABC supervisors, queer activist Blake Wilkinson, and lawyer Jon Nelson, who works with gay rights organizations Fairness Fort Worth.

Most of the discussion had to do with the positive changes Fort Worth police and the TABC have implemented since the raid. But Chief Halstead admitted there was still some ground left to cover: "We're trying to change an entire law enforcement culture that's been in existence 120 years," he told the audience.

Immediately following the raid, Halstead had defended his officers' actions, even praising one officer publicly for his "restraint," a remark he said at the screening was quoted out of context. But as Camina points out in a recent editorial in The Advocate, Halstead soon overhauled the bar-check policy, appointed an LGBT liaison to the police force (as did the TABC), and joined the Mayor's Diversity Task Force, which subsequently recommended domestic partner benefits and diversity training for city employees. (The city of Fort Worth also ultimately settled with injured patron Chad Gibson for $400,000.)

Halstead said that he tries to work with other police chiefs, telling them it's only a matter of time before "their June 28th" occurs, and that "'When your incident happens, you're going to make some significant mistakes. Let me help you.'" In his own city, he says, "I still have ignorant officers. But we continue to work and try to make progress."

"What you saw up here, that was not us," added TABC Major Charlie Cloud, seated beside Halstead. He said later that he was "absolutely horrified at what had taken place," and noted that two senior TABC officials were reprimanded for allowing the raid to occur, while the three officers directly involved were fired. Police officers involved in the raid received suspensions of one to three days and verbal reprimands.

Blake Wilkinson, a member of now-defunct protest group Queer LiberAction, said the protests by Fort Worth's gay community were key in making change in the city. "Real and lasting change originates from the streets," he said. Change wouldn't have happened without "calling out Jeff over here on the stupid shit he said and did," he added, gesturing to Chief Halstead, who grinned and looked at the floor.

Wilkinson also called the film "bittersweet to watch."

"The [police] officers were getting, from my point of view, a slap on the wrist. I don't think officers who behave like that in a gay bar, or any bar really, should be allowed to be on the force."

More information about the film and future screenings can be found here.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan