With tears welling up in his eyes, Jawhar Edwards paused to collect himself before describing a traumatic moment last month when he said he was attacked in a brutal, homophobic assault on the Riegelmann Boardwalk in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.
It was around midnight on November 4 when Edwards, an out gay man, said he departed a birthday celebration honoring his late godmother, who recently died of complications stemming from COVID-19. Edwards went to the part of the boardwalk between 19th Street and 21st Street to feed homeless individuals — something he has done for years — but this time his good deed was met with a serving of hate and a trip to the hospital.
“I got assaulted for being gay. They robbed me of my walker, my coat, and money in my pocket,” Edwards said during a December 10 rally and press conference organized by Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus. The rally took place outside of her district office at 2002 Mermaid Avenue.
Edwards said he usually sets up tables of food for those in need and allows folks to help themselves. This time, though, he said two attackers called him a “faggot” and hit him in the eye with a metal pole, causing three broken bones in his eye socket and vision loss in that eye. Bystanders who were on the boardwalk ignored him before responders arrived and brought him to Kings County Hospital.
Edwards subsequently underwent multiple surgeries on his eye — and now he’s left with a stack of medical bills and constant anxiety.
An NYPD spokesperson told Gay City News that 21-year-old Infenet Millington, a homeless individual, was arrested and charged with second-degree robbery — the only arrest made so far in the case. Edwards said he told authorities that the attackers voiced anti-LGBTQ remarks, but police did not say the case is being investigated as a hate crime. A law enforcement source said nothing in the case notes indicate anti-gay comments.
It was the third time Edwards said he faced homophobia in public. He was on a subway train at 34th Street in Manhattan three years ago when he mistakenly bumped into a straphanger, prompting that person to physically assault him in a fit of homophobic rage. Edwards also recalled facing homophobia in a building he previously lived in.
The latest attack was especially hurtful for Edwards because he had recently returned to live in his hometown area of Coney Island after leaving the area for several years.
“I came back out to Coney Island to my home, to my family,” he said. “For this to happen to me is not right.”
Edwards’ deep ties to the area were evident through the strong support he received from different community groups at the press conference, including two anti-violence organizations — Operation HOOD and the Coney Island Anti-Violence Collaborative — as well as additional members of the local community. Others on hand included Jeffrey Severe from Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ office and MK Okma of Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders (SAGE).
“[Edwards] is not hurting anyone,” said Ann Valdez, a community organizer who lives in Coney Island. “He’s not bothering anyone. He went out there to feed the homeless. He’s not being paid for that. He’s doing that out of the kindness of his heart… My question for Coney Island is, ‘where is your heart?’”
Frontus, a Democrat, convened the press conference because she wanted to shed light on Edwards’ experience and emphasize recent statistics released by the NYPD showing a three-fold increase this year in hate crimes targeting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation. There is also a slight increase in hate crimes targeting people on the basis of gender identity.
“I stand here today ashamed that more than 50 years after the Stonewall riots, members of the LGBT community are still at risk and have to watch their backs as they are walking down the street,” Frontus said. “We will not tolerate hate or discrimination or violence of any kind right here in our backyard.”
Edwards told Gay City News he yearns for a future in which members of the community are able to come together without turning to bigotry.
“I hope to see that the world will get better — that we will be able to live together as unified people,” he said. “Gay, Chinese, or Jewish — that we will all be able to live together as unified people.”