An ugly anti-gay incident turned violent shortly before one float began its journey in the annual Chicago Pride Parade, Sunday, June 30.
A police report was filed Monday morning against the float rental company (Chicago-based Associated Attractions) and the unnamed float driver, an independent contractor hired by and provided as part of Associated Attractions' $1,600 float rental fee charged to the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN), as the incident involved TPAN's Ride For AIDS Chicago float.
There was a problem with one of the Ride For AIDS Chicago flags on the left side of the float, as it fell off along Montrose Avenue as the float made its way to the parade starting point at Broadway. Ride participants who were on the float were shouting at the driver to slow down or to stop, so the flag could be fixed, said Ryan VanMeter, TPAN's director of development. "The driver slammed on the breaks and a number of our riders literally fell over."
The driver also was driving "erratic" during the parade, VanMeter said.
"Even [during] the parade, we all had to hold onto each other [while on the float] for safety. He kept slamming on the brakes and accelerating, yet I don't know how easy or difficult it is to drive a parade float," said Richard Cordova, TPAN's director of endurance events. "Maybe that's something all floats [endure,] but I can tell you that, if we weren't holding on to each other, we were falling over."
VanMeter said the driver reportedly spat out his car window on a Ride participant, Brandon Downs, and allegedly called him a 'faggot' after Downs asked the driver to slow down so people would not get injured. "I heard the word 'faggot' come out of the driver's mouth several times," said Leslee Pawelko, who will be riding in the upcoming Ride For AIDS Chicago.
The driver tells a different story in a Wednesday conversation with Chuck Huser, general manager at Associated Attractions. "He said he never called anyone a … faggot, which is a word I don't even like to say [for this interview]," Huser said.
Matt Swenson, a Ride participant, was trying to fix the flag while the driver was erratically driving, VanMeter said. "As float participants were yelling for the driver to slow down or to stop, Matt banged on the driver's truck to get his attention. That's when the driver got out of the car and started wailing on Matt."
Swenson suffered a bloody nose from the punch.
The driver's side of the story involving Swenson was, again, different. Huser said the driver told him that he simply grabbed Swenson around the neck after Swenson made contact with his truck.
Huser said the driver's physical actions "were not correct," regardless of what precipitated them. "Violence is never the answer," Huser said.
Huser said the driver, who he would not name, has towed floats for Associated Attractions for three or four years, including past Pride Parades, and he has never had an incident previously with the driver.
Huser said his company will not re-hire this driver ever again.
"I just heard about the incident [on Wednesday] via an email. I was shocked and sick to my stomach just reading the email," Huser said "If [the driver] did say that [anti-gay] term he is alleged to have said, that is just one person's view, definitely not the views of our company.
"This was just a very unfortunate incident that we hope never happens again. We are very sorry for the driver's actions."
Guadalupe Aquino, another Ride participant who was around the float, was scraped and bloodied when the driver went after Swenson, Cordova said.
Paul Hirsch, who will be riding in the annual 200-mile Ride For AIDS Chicago in mid-July, photographed the physical assault involving Swenson, which occurred close to the intersection of Montrose and Clifton streets.
"The Ride For AIDS Chicago participants were all in a bit of shock and tried to keep it together," VanMeter said. "With everything going on[including an estimated] 1 million [spectators] and more than 200 floatsour concern was to confirm the immediate safety of our participants and the victims, to finish the parade, and to get everyone and our belongings off of the float at the end.
"It was decided that since the victim [Swenson] was only bleeding slightly and did not require medical attention, that they would go first thing Monday morning to file a police report."
"I don't know what set him off. Maybe he didn't know he was going to be in the Pride Parade. Or maybe he didn't know he was going to be pulling the Ride For AIDS Chicago float," Cordova said. "People still have a lot of misconceptions about HIV. If he didn't or doesn't know how HIV is transmitted, and then he shows up and sees that he is pulling the Ride For AIDS Chicago float, perhaps he was scared or angry. Maybe he thought he was going to get AIDS [just by driving the truck pulling the float.]
"I answer questions all the time, almost every day, from people with misconceptions about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted. Who knows what this [driver] was thinking."
TPAN officials also have been in contact with Ald. Tom Tunney's office, Cordova said. Plus, TPAN has reached out to Jose Rijos, the LGBT liaison for the Chicago Police Department.
"We need to make sure that this never happens again; this is unacceptable," Cordova said.
TPAN said a formal letter is being sent to Associated Attractions.