EUGENE, Ore. — Sean Curran and a friend walked into Riva’s Taco Shop in the early morning hours of June 13, expecting to grab a bite to eat and be on their way. Their plans changed once they sat down at one of the tables lining the restaurant’s full window.
“I’m singing some Madonna song or something like that to myself quietly and — before I know it — I’m hearing, ‘Shut up, you (expletive)! Quiet down, you (expletive)!’ Just all this horrible stuff,” recalled Curran. “I don’t want to hear those words. I turned around and said, ‘Is there a problem here?’ He says, ‘Yeah, there’s a problem here, you (expletive). You’re here. Shut up.'”
Curran said he tried to ignore the gay slurs being hurled at him, but finally piped up.
“He said, ‘You shouldn’t be allowed in public,'” Curran said. “I was just defending myself. [I said,] ‘Well, I’m a person and I’m not going to back down. I’m sorry you have an issue with me being gay, but I’m going to leave public because you’re uncomfortable with it.'”
That made the man even angrier, Curran said, and the situation escalated beyond what he expected.
“He was in my face. He has a chair above my head and he says, ‘I’m going to bash your (expletive) head in, you (expletive),'” said Curran. “[I thought,] ‘Here we go. He wants to hit me with this unless I shut up.’ So I did. Unfortunately.”
During the heated exchange, Curran’s friend dialed 911. By the time Eugene Police officers got there, the situation had mellowed.
“I was in the parking lot with the guy,” said Curran. “I’d kind of calmed him down.”
After talking to Curran and the other man involved in the incident, one of the officers asked Curran whether he wants to press charges.
“The guy’s still looking at me. He still has a look of total anger. He’s just staring at me like, ‘What’s he going to say?'” said Curran.
The decision came as a surprise to him, but Eugene Police lieutenant Sam Kamkar described the practice of asking an alleged victim whether he or she will file charges is common.
“Just like in any other case, it’s imperative that we know if a person is willing to prosecute so that we can convey that message to the district attorney’s office or the city prosecutor,” said Kamkar.
Curran weighed his options, ultimately deciding not to file charges. He said he worried the man would get arrested, be booked and released from the Lane County Jail, then be back out on the streets within the hour.
“I was scared,” Curran said. “It wasn’t the decision I wanted to make, but it felt like the safest decision to make.”
That, according to Lt. Kamkar, is the most disappointing thing about this case: “It’s incredibly unfortunate when we have persons in our community who are not confident enough in the jail system to a point where they’re not willing to press charges because they fear retailation.”
But local civil rights advocates said most other hate and bias crime victims make the same decision Curran did.
“A large portion of the crimes that are committed in the community are not reported, said Silver Mogart, the program organizer for Back to Back.
“This happens all the time,” said Kori Rodley, the executive director of Community Alliance of Lane County (CALC). “What doesn’t happen all the time is that it gets reported or it gets escalated or the story gets told.”
Once the situation at Riva’s was resolved and the officers were getting ready to leave, Curran said the younger officer pulled him aside.
“He said, ‘Can I suggest something?’ I said, ‘What?’ He says, ‘Well, in America we have freedom of speech and the next time this happens to you, you should probably just not argue back or say anything back to perpetuate a situation,” Curran said. “I just felt like, through the process of the night, it was just this big message of ‘Quiet. Quiet down.’ That frustrates me.”
Lt. Kamkar hadn’t been able to talk to the responding officers to get their take on the comment Curran remembered. But he said that is not the attitude of the Eugene Police Department.
“It is true that people have freedom of speech,” said Kamkar. “But we have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bias crimes and intimidation. We take those very seriously.”
That’s why Curran said he decided to come forward: “I would like to see others do the same if it happens to them because I feel like these issues are not talked about in Eugene.”