A Street Spirit vendor was struck in the face Saturday when he intervened to stop a hate incident outside a popular College Avenue café between a lesbian family and a man described by police as a “nomad.”
Kristina Hill, a professor at UC Berkeley, said she was waiting in line at the Elmwood Café with her wife and 10-year-old daughter shortly after noon when a man with shaggy hair came out of nowhere and began ranting at her family, making threats and using derogatory terms about homosexuality. Hill, who wears her hair quite short, said the man looked directly at her and came up close to her face to make his comments.
She said she tried to remain calm, and keep the man calm, as the 10 or so other people in line watched the scene unfold. But the man — whom she had never seen before — continued to escalate. She tried to reason with him, telling him she was with her family and needed some personal space. But he continued to shout about “lesbian bitches,” called them “faggots,” and said “I told you I was gonna do it to you.”
A Street Spirit vendor who is a regular on the corner told Berkeleyside the man “was focusing” on Hill and glaring at her: “He was getting really close and threatening.” The vendor, a man in his 80s whose name is Jeremy, got in front of the man and interrupted the rant by yelling “Hey” in a loud voice. The man responded, “I’ll knock your head off,” then called Jeremy a “goddamn faggot.” Then the man suddenly struck the side of Jeremy’s face: “He did a roundhouse slap with his left hand. I was slightly shocked. I didn’t expect him to do that.”
Hill said the strike knocked Jeremy to the ground and left his face red and bruised. The man ran north on College as Hill called police. Her wife followed the man for a short distance, but he was able to get away before officers arrived. After making their statements to police, the family bought Jeremy lunch, and the Elmwood Café gave him a free hot chocolate, Hill said.
Her family moved to town from Charlottesville, Virginia, five years ago “to try to get away from the craziness of people staring at us and saying things to our family,” Hill said. “It’s kind of surprising to have it happen here in Berkeley.”
But she said it wasn’t the first time she’s been targeted with hateful comments in the city. There’s a homeless man north of campus who has repeatedly made slurs to her about homosexuality in the past year. Hill said she thinks it’s her very short hairstyle that sometimes causes men to zero in on her. As a gay activist, she added, she’s had people in the distant past throw food at her from passing cars, or target her in other ways, but it’s become increasingly rare over the past decade.
She also said she was disturbed by the lack of action or help from the others waiting in line with her family. No one stepped up to express support, and no one took the man’s photograph during the exchange.
“That’s why I thought it was so cool when this guy got up,” Hill said, of Jeremy. “Here I am in this so-called nice neighborhood and the only person with the nerve to stand side by side with me is the person selling Street Spirit.”
She said she didn’t expect anyone in line to escalate the situation but was surprised no one did anything at all.
“I think people have to say something,” Hill said. “They have to have the nerve to at least act as if they’re in solidarity.”
Both Hill and Jeremy said the assailant displayed no obvious signs of mental illness. He was walking normally and didn’t seem drunk, said Hill, though he did spit when he talked.
“I think he knew what he was doing,” Jeremy said. He called the incident “slightly disturbing,” but said he wasn’t surprised because he knows there are some bad characters in Berkeley. There’s one man in his West Berkeley neighborhood, he added, who considers himself a Nazi.
In the end, Jeremy said, he did not regret taking a stand. And he appreciated that Hill’s family had been grateful.
“It worked OK for me,” he said. “Some people gave me some money. A lot of people were sympathetic.”
Berkeley Police spokesman Sgt. Andrew Frankel said the department will likely write up the case as a hate incident. He said, according to the report, a nomad made derogatory comments to a same-sex couple and their daughter in line in the Elmwood, then hit a man in the face before running off.
Frankel said the case would likely not be considered a hate crime because the battery was directed at the vendor rather than the initial targets of the comments. As of Saturday evening, no arrest had been made, but Frankel said police would be on the lookout for the man responsible. He also said this type of incident is not that common in the city.
Berkeley Councilwoman Lori Droste, who represents the district that includes the Elmwood, said she could not address the case directly because the city had not shared an official report on it with her. But, speaking generally, she said, she applauds “anyone who speaks out against hate, especially given the climate in the nation right now.”
Saturday evening, Hill said she and her daughter made “therapeutic cupcakes” to help recover from the events of the day and the “post-adrenaline harassment hangover.”
“Nobody wants their own kid to see stuff like that,” she said. “I sort of wish I had pushed back on that guy more, because I want my child to feel safe.”
She paused, then added, with emotion in her voice, “It’s a bad feeling to think that your kid is less safe because they’re with you.”
When they first got home, the 10-year-old played her viola, then mother and daughter played piano together. And then they made vanilla cupcakes. Hill said she tried to reassure her daughter that, despite what she had seen, Berkeley is a safe place with mostly nice people.
“Everybody just has a need to kind of come down from the stress of it,” Hill said. “Nothing wrong with a little sugar under those circumstances.”
Berkeleyside’s Frances Dinkelspiel contributed to the reporting of this story.