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Remembering Matthew Shepard: 18 Years Ago, Gay Man’s Horrific Murder Changed America Forever

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1998 Wyoming Attack Remains A Vivid Symbol Of Anti-LGBT Violence

Eighteen years after the horrific murder of Matthew Shepard, we remember a gentle young man who became a vivid symbol of the hatred and violence visited upon LGBT people.

On the night of Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was lured from a gay-friendly hangout in Laramie, Wyoming, by two young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who pretended to be gay.

McKinney and Henderson drove Shepard to a remote area, beat him with the butt of a .357 magnum pistol, stole his wallet (including his credit card, which provided a first clue to the police) and his shoes (so that he could not walk back), and tied him to a fence.

About 18 hours later, a mountain biker found the brutalized young man. At first glance, he thought what he saw was a scarecrow. Shepard was only barely alive in the 30-degree weather. The only visible part of his bloody face were the tracks made by his tears.

He was rushed to a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, and put on full life support, but in the early hours of Oct. 12, without regaining consciousness, he expired, with his parents, who had been summoned from their home in Denver, by his side.

As Nikolai Endres observed: “The scarecrow image, a vivid reminder of homosexuals as outcasts, coupled with the Biblical symbol of a crucifixion, caused an outcry across the world. Shepard made the cover of Time magazine and the front page of the New York Times; thousands of candlelight vigils were held across the nation.”

The LGBT community grieved deeply, and our grief was exacerbated by the gloating of homophobes such as the Phelps clan of the Westboro Baptist Church, who picketed Shepard’s funeral with signs alleging “Got hates fags.”

In due course, Henderson and McKinney were convicted of Shepard’s murder. Henderson struck a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty. McKinney was convicted of felony murder after a trial. At the request of Dennis Shepard, he was spared the death penalty and, like Henderson, was sentenced to life in prison.

Matthew Shepard has become a fixture of popular culture, evoked by celebrities and performers in order to signal their position on hate crimes and gay bashings.

Inspired by Shepard’s death, Melissa Etheridge wrote “Scarecrow” on her album Breakdown and dedicated it to Shepard’s memory; Elton John presented a concert in Laramie and played “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” especially for the slain young man; Peter, Paul, and Mary also performed in Wyoming at a concert in Shepard’s memory.

In 2000, Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project performed the play The Laramie Project in Laramie and then across the country; made into an HBO motion picture in 2002, it has since become a staple of university and community theater.

In 2002, NBC broadcast a made-for-television movie, The Matthew Shepard Story, starring Stockard Channing and Sam Waterston.

In 2008, members of the Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to conduct follow-up interviews with residents featured in The Laramie Project. Those interviews were turned into a companion piece, entitled The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which debuted on Oct. 12, 2009.

Shepard also became a poster boy for hate crimes legislation. As a result, he was defamed by right-wing politicians and conservative religious figures. In the House of Representatives, the execrable North Carolina Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, in a speech characterized by Keith Olbermann as “the most despicable thing said on the floor of the House in decades,” declared that Shepard was not killed because he was gay and that the story of his death is “really a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these [hate crime] bills.”

Despite the efforts to discredit Shepard, hate crimes legislation finally passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama on Oct. 28, 2009, eight years after first being introduced. The bill is named the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, after Shepard and an African-American man whose racially motivated murder in 1998 also made national headlines. 

The hate crimes bill was the first federal legislation that specifically recognized the civil rights of LGBT people. Fittingly, the parents of Matthew Shepard, Judy and Dennis Shepard, were present at the signing ceremony.

Upon the passage of the bill, Judy Shepard issued the following statement: “When Dennis and I started calling 10 years ago for federal action to prevent and properly prosecute hate crimes against gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans, we never imagined it would take this long. The legislation went through so many versions and so many votes that we had to constantly keep our hopes in check to keep from getting discouraged. … We are incredibly grateful to Congress and the president for taking this step forward on behalf of hate crime victims and their families, especially given the continuing attacks on people simply for living their lives openly and honestly.”

Central to the success of the legislation was indeed the unstinting efforts of Shepard’s parents and the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which they established in 1999 “to honor Matthew in a manner that was appropriate to his dreams, beliefs and aspirations.” The Foundation “seeks to ‘Replace Hate with Understanding, Compassion & Acceptance’ through its varied educational, outreach and advocacy programs and by continuing to tell Matthew’s story.'”

This video from the Matthew Shepard Foundation tells Matthew’s story: 

In 2012, Lesléa Newman published October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. A slim but powerful volume of poems, “a historical novel in verse,” October Mourning explores with heartbreaking insight the meaning of a gentle young man’s unspeakable death at the hands of gaybashers.

In 2015, Michele Josue’s highly personal documentary, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, was issued to critical acclaim.

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Watch: Senator Cory Booker Delivers Emotional Speech After Rand Paul Holds Up Anti-Lynching Legislation

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It was reported Wednesday that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was the only barrier to passing anti-lynching legislation.

Paul argued in his statement to the media that he thinks the language would turn lesser crimes into being considered a lynching. So he wants to edit the bill so that it would only qualify “serious bodily injury standard” that would only make it a hate crime if it’s a “substantial risk of death and extreme physical pain.”

It prompted Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to take to the Senate floor with a fiery speech imploring his colleagues to act.

“This idea that someone would be brought up on lynching charges for slapping is absurd,” said Booker.

“I do not need my colleague, the senator from Kentucky, to tell me about one lynching in this country,” he went on. “I’ve stood in the museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and watched African American families weeping at the stories of pregnant women lynched in this country and their babies ripped out of them while this body did nothing. I can hear the screams as this body and membership can of the unanswered cries for justice of our ancestors. Every one of us is sensitive to that anguish, to that pain, as is the senator from Kentucky. And this week, the senator from Kentucky mentioned the colleague Justin Amash. I want to tell my colleagues on both sides of the aisle he is one of only four congressmen of the 435 to vote against the antilynching bill. That means this bill was supported by the leader of the Democrats, the speaker of the House. It was supported by the leader of the Republicans, the whip of the Republicans, the whip of the Democrats. 400-plus votes supported this.”

Booker said that surely if the bill was so “wrong” then the GOP leadership would stand up against it in unison. Instead, Paul is an outlier.

“If this bill is wrong, 99 senators are wrong. If this bill is wrong, then the NAACP is wrong,” he went on. “If this bill is wrong, then the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is wrong. If this bill is wrong, then the Urban League of America is wrong. Legal organizations, civil rights organizations, Democrats and Republicans — tell me another time when 500-plus congresspeople, Democrats, Republicans, House members, and senators come together in a chorus of conviction and say now is the time in America that we condemn the dark history of our past and actually pass anti-lynching legislation.”

But it’s one man that is “standing in the way of the law of the land changing because of a difference of interpretation.”

Watch the full speech below:

 

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‘I Know a Dying Administration When I See One’: British Journalist Says Brutal Crackdown Will Seal Trump’s Doom

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British journalist Ed Luce called out Senate Republicans for covering a dying Trump administration that’s threatening U.S. democracy as it gasps for survival.

The Financial Times‘ chief U.S. commentator told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that President Donald Trump is trying to crack down on dissent and rally his hardcore base as the coronavirus and now nationwide protests against police brutality threaten his re-election chances.

“There are other Republican senators who are keeping silent because they know that what Trump is doing, what Trump is suggesting, is wrong,” Luce said. they’re scared of a backlash if they speak out.”

Luce, who warned of the Trump administration’s fascist creep in a new column, called on GOP senators to follow the example set by former Defense secretary James Mattis, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Mike Mullen and current Defense secretary Mike Esper and speak out against the president’s abuses.

“They need to speak out — it is his party,” Luce said. “Ultimately, they are enabling him. You know, I don’t think the threat of this situation can be overstated. Trump has his back to the wall. He will do lots of things to try and prevent his defeat.”

Luce said he was worried that Trump’s brutal crackdown on protesters set a dangerous precedent and energized his base, but he said that also disgusted more moderate GOP voters.

“Large, large minority Republicans strongly support these protests and support the continuing lockdown,” he said. “Now, these go directly against two things that Trump is really pushing for, the lifting of the lockdown and the racial polarization, the sort of panic element of these mostly peaceful protests.”

“I lived in many democracies, including America,” Luce added. “I’ve lived in many democracies. I know a dying administration when I see one.”

 

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Ellison to Charge Three Other Ex-Officers Involved in George Floyd’s Killing and Increase Charge Against Chauvin

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Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison will charge three fired Minneapolis police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd, and will elevate the charges against the other fired officer, Derek Chauvin.

Charges against Chauvin will be increased from third degree murder to second degree murder.

“The other three officers at the scene — Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane — will also be charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, according to the sources, who spoke on conditions of anonymity,” the Star Tribune reports.

“Thao was recorded watching as Chauvin continued to press on Floyd’s neck with his knee. Kueng was one of the first officers on the scene and helped pin Floyd down. Lane was detailed in earlier charges as pointing a gun at Floyd before handcuffing, and later asked whether officers should roll Floyd on his side as he was restrained.”

Floyd died of “mechanical asphyxiation,” an independent autopsy commissioned by the Floyd family concluded on Monday.

Ellison (photo) took over the case on Sunday.

This is a breaking news and developing story. Details may change. This story will be updated, and NCRM will likely publish follow-up stories on this news. Stay tuned and refresh for updates.

Image by Lorie Shaull via Flickr and a CC license

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