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Man arrested after volunteer assaulted at Pacific Center

by Tony Taylor

Chalk messages of support were written on the sidewalk outside the Pacific Center for Human Growth's office in Berkeley following an incident last week in which a volunteer was physically assaulted and a rainbow flag was burned.

"We support you. We love you. No hate here," read the messages that greeted Executive Director Leslie Ewing when she arrived at the center Saturday morning, she said.

The day before - Friday, October 20 - a rainbow flag was burned outside the center and a volunteer was physically assaulted.

"A man screaming obscenities against LGBTQ people took our rainbow flag down, set it on fire, and when the volunteer receptionist went out to tell him to stop, he slugged her," Ewing said in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

The volunteer, whose name was not released, was not seriously hurt, Ewing said.

"Fortunately, one of our staff members came down during the confrontation, and, along with a passerby on the street, they were able to get good photos of this person," said Ewing.

The Berkeley Police Department responded around 11 a.m. and within half an hour the suspect was apprehended.

Police Sergeant Andrew Frankel told the B.A.R. via email that the suspect is 32-year-old transient Richard Woods.

"He was arrested and charged with arson, committing a hate crime, and battery with bodily injury," Frankel confirmed.

Ewing, who was in a meeting on the premises when the alleged assault happened, said her first concern was for the volunteer.

"The paramedics looked her over. She didn't want to go to the hospital and she didn't need to," Ewing said.

Since the incident, Ewing said center staff are checking in with volunteers on a daily basis and will continue to do so over the next few weeks. "I don't think too much that could've been done differently," she added.

"It's a blessing it was away from the building," Ewing said, noting that no damage was done to the Pacific Center office at 2712 Telegraph Avenue. The nylon flag ended up on the sidewalk and was quickly engulfed in flames.

"It's shocking when this stuff is happening in places like Berkeley," Ewing added. "We're in a bubble, or so we think. In the last year, since the inauguration, we've seen hate crimes all over the country at LGBT centers. Here in Berkeley there's been a lot of confrontation. We have to expect this kind of thing."

The Pacific Center provides support groups and mental health services to LGBTQ youth, seniors, and adults. The center has over 20 therapists dealing primarily with low-income clients. Founded in 1973, it's the oldest LGBT center in the Bay Area and the third oldest in the nation.

Ewing said that there's "a lot of distrust of the police department in the queer community. But in this particular case, Berkeley PD was responsive and honestly apprehended someone quite quickly."

Frankel said he believes "this was an isolated incident."

There was an outpouring of support from locals once news of the attack was disseminated over social media.

"It's sweet. Someone brought doughnuts and unicorn stuffed toys," said Ewing. "Those are our neighbors; the people that count."

Ewing, who identifies as queer and prefers "she/they" pronouns, has led the center for nine years.

"I used to work at the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt where terrible things happened," she said. "The sweetest things have also happened and that's the fuel that keeps grassroots organizations rolling forward. That's where we are now."

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