Suspect allegedly assaults volunteer, burns rainbow flag at Berkeley’s Pacific Center

Sally Dowd/Staff

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A volunteer at the Pacific Center for Human Growth on Telegraph Avenue was assaulted Friday after trying to stop an individual from allegedly setting fire to a rainbow flag displayed outside the building.

The Pacific Center is a LGBTQ+ community center that has been providing mental health and social support services to the Berkeley community since 1973. According to the center’s executive director Leslie Ewing, the volunteer, who was inside the center, saw a person come onto the property and allegedly set fire to the rainbow flag with a lighter while yelling homophobic slurs.

The volunteer went outside to stop the suspect but was assaulted by the alleged arsonist. A pedestrian caught a picture of the entire incident, and an arrest was made by Berkeley Police Department within 20 minutes, according to Ewing.

Berkeley police identified the suspect as 32-year-old Richard Woods, as reported by Berkeleyside.

“It’s unfortunate that it happened,” Ewing said. “We don’t know anything about this person or the motivation or any of that. We’re glad the volunteer was not seriously hurt physically.”

The center has received a “tremendous outpouring” of support from neighbors, as well as messages from people who have visited the Pacific Center in the last 25 years, Ewing said. She added that the Pacific Center has not recently dealt with other similar incidents.

According to Ewing, BPD said it would file the incident as a hate crime. A spokesperson for BPD could not be reached as of press time despite multiple requests for comment.

Billy Curtis, director of the UC Berkeley Gender Equity Resource Center, or GenEq, said GenEq has worked with the Pacific Center in the past. According to Curtis, some students who have been interns with GenEq have also been interns with the Pacific Center.

Curtis added that if there were a hate-related incident at UC Berkeley that targeted the LGBTQ+ community, GenEq would ensure that the affected students or persons received adequate psychological, social and medical support. Additionally, GenEq would work with administration to devise an appropriate response, Curtis said.

The incident near the Pacific Center is not the first instance of public display targeting the LGBTQ+ community in Berkeley. In August 2016, chalk graffiti supporting the “straight liberation movement” and advocating a “straight-only safe space” was spotted on parts of Telegraph Avenue and Sproul Plaza.

ASUC Senator Juniperangelica Cordova-Goff, who identifies as a member of the transgender community, condemned the incident that occurred at the Pacific Center, attributing it to a political climate that “not only permits, but encourages” displays of hatred toward marginalized communities.

“Chalking and pride flag burning may not seem violent. But violence is never considered violence until someone is killed,” Cordova-Goff said in an email. “I would like to remind queer and trans people to seek resources on campus and within (the) community through these times.”

Contact Cade Johnson at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @cadejohnson98.