ATHENS — No arrests have been made in the June 27 vandalism and defacement of four Pride flags at Riverfront Park and the case remains under investigation, Athens Police Chief Roger Masse said Friday.
The four flags, which denote pride for the LGBTQ community, were posted in the park for the month of June, which is Pride Month. The group Athens Pride had obtained a village permit to post the flags.
Overnight on June 27, the flags were torn down and an unknown substance that may have been bleach was splashed on them. Three of the flags were salvageable and the fourth, which was tossed into the river, was damaged beyond repair.
Former Athens Mayor Chris Pfister was injured retrieving the flags. He broke three ribs and a bone in his spine when he slipped and fell trying to recover one of the flags.
Pfister is recuperating and is using a walker to get around, his wife Carol Pfister said Friday.
“He is slowly recovering. He is mending,” Carol Pfister said. “It has been very painful. Getting in and out of the car is especially hard, but it is getting better.”
The former mayor is expected to make a full recovery, his wife said.
Athens Pride filed a report about the vandalized flags with the Athens Police Department.
The department is continuing to investigate. No arrests have been made at this time.
“It’s frustrating, but there haven’t been any further developments,” Mayor Amy Serrago said.
Masse said he could not comment on specifics as the investigation is ongoing, but said there is not enough evidence at this time to classify the incident as a hate crime.
“When we are complete and if there is enough information, the responsible person will be charged with any appropriate crimes,” Masse said. “You can’t say it is a hate crime unless it has been proven — there is not enough evidence to classify it as a hate crime.”
Marya Warshaw from Athens Pride said the group views the vandalism as a hate crime.
“At this point, our feeling is that if charges aren’t ever made against anyone it doesn’t take away from the fact that it happened and it was hateful,” Warshaw said. “There are a lot of fellow residents that are concerned about it and want to make sure it is not acceptable. It would be good if they were able to determine who did this, but the issue remains regardless — it happened.”
Athens Pride has received strong support from the community in the wake of the incident, Warshaw said. One person anonymously replaced the flag that was too damaged to be reinstalled.
“It’s very clear that it is important for individuals, businesses and village officials at every possible level to continue to express that hate is not tolerated in the village of Athens or anywhere else,” Warshaw said.
While the vandalism has not been officially classified as a hate crime, Michael Richardson from Hate Watch Report, a local tool and website for reporting and receiving news about hate groups, said the fact that the flags were not just torn down but defaced was of particular concern.
“When there is defacement, it is usually planned and intentional. Somebody said, let’s go get those flags,” Richardson said. “The fact that they defaced by using bleach, I don’t think it was a random act of vandalism. Vandals would have just torn them down and thrown them in the river. If bleach was thrown on them, it was probably planned.”
Investigations of incidents that are classified as hate crimes can be passed on to larger law enforcement agencies such as county sheriff’s offices or state police, but Greene County Sheriff Peter Kusminsky said there are no plans at this time to do so.
“At this time, Athens is handling it,” Kusminsky said Friday.
The local police department can handle the investigation and has no plans to transfer the case to another law enforcement agency, Masse said.
“There is nothing they can do that we can’t do,” Masse said. “We will take care of it and if it requires to be pushed up to another agency, that would be up to me and the district attorney. There is no reason at this time to do that.”
Richardson said Hate Watch Report is not aware of a spike in blatant anti-LGBTQ incidents in the area lately, but when they occur, they are concerning.
“There are many in our communities that want to say, you are not from here, you are not one of us. Sometimes they will shout it out at a meeting and other times they will do it through acts of vandalism like this,” Richardson said. “It sends a chilling message that we are not all inclusive. That is why it is important for local elected officials and community leaders, religious leaders and law enforcement to speak out against it and not just against this type of expression of hate speech, but that diversity is welcome and is part of the community.”