Decades before “Say her name” became a rallying cry for a new generation of activists, we said her name. Hattie Mae Cohens. We said his name. Brian Mock. We said their names. Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock.
Your writer doesn’t remember that we called Hattie Mae and Brian martyrs but the November 1, 1992 New York Times article, “Violent Backdrop for Anti-Gay Measure,” reported that the No on 9 campaign and other gay rights groups “sent out press releases describing the victims of the Sept. 26 firebombings as martyrs of the campaign.”
In years to follow, the direct-action group Lesbian Avengers enshrined the memory of Hattie Mae and Brian into a protest ritual. The Boston Dyke March History & Archive Project describes the origin of the political performance art that became the groups’ signature: “In response to the Oregon firebombing, Lesbian Avenger Chapters across the U.S. began a fire eating ritual. The Boston Lesbian Avengers performed it at the first Boston Dyke March in 1995 and it has been part of every Boston Dyke March since then. Its purpose is to memorialize and honor all the LGBTQ folk who have experienced hate crimes, and to call upon our collective strength and power in the face of bigotry and hate.”
While the debate over Measure 9 was raging there were people just trying to make it through their day and night alive and with some measure of community.
Hattie Mae Cohens, a 29-year-old Black lesbian, and Brian H. Mock, a 45-year-old white gay man, had met and become friends in a day program for adults with disabilities. She moved into his basement apartment in a run-down rental not long after serving a six-year sentence in the nearby state prison. Hattie was known for her good sense of humor and many friends. Brian was called “a gentle giant” for his mild demeanor and burly stature.
Despite his gender, race, and size, Brian was frequently subject to harassment. A neighbor told the Ballot Measure 9 documentary crew, “Brian got beat on all the time. He’d walk by here every day with new bruises. His face was fractured, beaten brutally this last time he was beaten for being gay.”
That year, the number of racist skinheads in Salem had nearly tripled over the prior year, from 23 to about 70 members, according to police. This followed a “low profile” period after the 1990 convictions for the Portland murder of Mulugeta Seraw. (One of those convicted, Kyle Brewster, went on to brawl with the Proud Boys and participate in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.)
The Salem paper reported, “before the firebombing, police received constant complaints about skinheads harassing, intimidating and assaulting people.”
Brian was one of their victims. As reported in the Statesman Journal (“Neighbors say beating led to fatal fire”), the assailants continued to taunt Brian after that last beating as he sat in his yard. Four friends of Hattie’s, all Black, set out to confront one of the skinheads who had attacked Brian. The skinheads in turn, came back for a showdown with Hattie and her friends.
“There was an argument and a short scuffle, and the group left, shouting racial slurs,” the press reported. “Later, the residents were awakened to the sound of breaking glass and the smell of smoke.”
Another newspaper account summarized the sequence of events:
“Edwards and Tucker, who are white, were seeking revenge after an earlier confrontation with four friends of Cohens, who were all Black and were sleeping in the apartment. According to trial testimony, friends of Cohens kicked in the door of an apartment Tucker and Edwards had visited earlier. They confronted the pair over a racist insult yelled loud enough to be heard in the other apartment.
“Edwards, who was punched in the mouth, drove with Tucker to an apartment shared by Wilson and Cotton. There the firebombs were assembled.
“Tucker and Wilson testified they neither had a plan nor intended to kill. Tucker and Edwards claimed they moved from one window to the next to avoid tossing the bottles where someone might be sleeping.
“David Kramer, Marion County deputy district attorney, dismissed that explanation. He said Tucker boasted to friends at a party after the firebombing, saying: ‘Mess with the best – die like the rest.’”
Hattie’s four young friends escaped the blaze through windows. Hattie died in the fire even as her cousin tried to rescue her through the smoke. Brian died the next day.
Racism and Rage over Sexuality
“What Ballot Measure 9 has done is open up a window for people who are bigoted to display those feelings, and that’s what happened in the Salem slayings,” Suzanne Pharr told The New York Times in her capacity as a spokeswoman for No on 9. “Measure 9 has lit a match to a fuse that was already there.”
“Ms. Pharr said the group was using the firebombings in their advertisements and mailings as an example of extreme intolerance. When asked if the killings were motivated by hatred of homosexuals, Ms. Pharr said, ‘I would say race was a primary factor, combined with rage over their sexuality.’”The New York Times
The misleading question of racial versus homophobic bias and intent was debated throughout the investigation and trial. The same law enforcement that was prosecuting the four racist skinheads arrested for these murders had declined to prosecute Brian’s earlier gay bashings. Within a week, the FBI had joined the investigation “to focus on civil rights issues and the possibility that the fire was motivated by bigotry.”
Guilty/ Not Guilty
In March, 1993 the Marion County District Attorney’s office spent two weeks making its case before a jury against 22-year-old Leon Tucker, 21-year-old Philip Wilson, and Wilson’s fiancée, 20-year-old Yolanda Cotton. (The fourth defendant, 21-year-old Sean Edwards, had pled guilty the month before.) The defense spent a week presenting its case.
The Statesman-Journal “Firebomb Verdict” coverage on April 9 summed it up with this headline: “Jurors say their job was tough; the decisions please both the prosecution and defense.” Tucker and Wilson were found guilty of two counts of felony murder, four counts of assault, one count of arson, and two counts of racial intimidation – but not guilty of aggravated murder. Of beating the aggravated murder charge, one defense lawyer said, “we would have pleaded guilty to [felony] murder without all of this.” Another said, “We’ve said from the beginning, and on the record, that this was over-charged. We are elated. It was obvious the jury worked incredibly hard on their decisions.”
Yolanda Cotton, the only one to deny her involvement, was accused of helping make the firebombs by pointing to a source of bottles. She had been held in county jail for the six months since her arrest. The jury found her not guilty on all counts.
One juror told reporters, “I keep thinking how tragic the whole thing was. They were just kids mixed up in things that they shouldn’t have been.”
In the profiles of the victims and the defendants that accompanied the verdict coverage, the Statesman-Journal summarized the troubled early years of the three guilty men: more than a half-dozen foster homes, dealing drugs by age 14 to support his habit, did not finish high school, alcoholic mother, drug and alcohol abuse….
Yolanda Cotton had been raped in her mother’s home for years before the age of 7, ran away from her adoptive home, and attempted suicide twice. She got her GED while in jail awaiting trial. She described herself during the trial “as living two lives – one in which she had minority friends; the other, racist friends. She said she gravitated towards racist friends because they loved her and treated her like family.”
Demonizing the Demonizers
“White supremacists recruit teens by making them feel someone cares.” This post-Charlottesville TODAY Show headline is one of many featuring stories like Yolanda Cotton’s. Stories like well-known former racist skinhead Christian Picciolini who was recruited by a neo-Nazi when he was 14 and friendless. “The way he approached me is that he cared,” Picciolini told TODAY.
Picciolini hadn’t been raised in a home with racist dogma but “after being told over and over that minority groups were ruining his life, [he] started believing it. And feeling that he belonged to a powerful organization gave him something he never had before. ‘That feeling of power was so intoxicating, because I was powerless,’ he said.”
Recognizing the damage done to so many young people by abuse, poverty, limited opportunity, and other social ills does not excuse the violence they may commit or the violent ideologies they may adopt. But it does create a more complex picture of what fuels political violence, and what’s needed to prevent it upstream.
As the bloodsport of politics has become more than metaphor, as political violence becomes increasingly normalized in Donald Trump’s America, the demonization that took hold 30 years ago in Oregon is a cautionary tale.
A city councilman in Springfield, Oregon reflected on finding himself on both sides of the demonization dynamic at the time. Springfield was a base-building practice field for Ballot Measure 9; the OCA passed a local anti-LGBTQ ordinance there during the primary election in May of 1992 (read the New York Times coverage, A Blue-Collar Town Is a Gay-Rights Battleground).
When the Oprah-precursor Phil Donahue Show filmed an on-location episode about Ballot Measure 9, Springfield Councilman Ralf Walters argued the pro-OCA position. The Oregonian reported, in an October 17 piece titled “Ballot Measure 9 Creates Climate of Fear,” that one of Walter’s critics “wore a button with Walters’ picture and a slash through it. ‘Basically it scared me,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t take much imagination to see a bull’s-eye in that button.’” The next day he found a pink triangle painted on the sidewalk outside his home.
“What’s happening here? What kind of climate are we living in? Is this what the United States has become? It’s just frightening.” Those are Rafe Walters’ words, reflected one-hundred-fold by those subjected to anti-LGBTQ violence and violence targeting No on 9 supporters.
Walters went on to reflect on his own role in the dynamic which now threatened him.
“People are not identifying with each other as evil. I’ve caught myself referring to the opposite side as ‘those people.’…It’s dangerous referring to the opposite side as ‘those people.’ When you isolate them like that, you dehumanize them and that creates a situation when people can get hurt because they are less than human.”Rafe Walters, Yes on 9 proponent
Just as political violence has become far more normalized in the 30 years since Ballot Measure 9, demonization has deepened across the political spectrum.
Reflecting on those times as ancestor to the ones we’re in now, anti-authoritarianism expert Scot Nakagawa says, “When I think back to those years, the thing I am constantly reminded of is that we did some good work. But that good work merely slowed the slide to authoritarianism. It did not interrupt the key dynamics driving us in an authoritarian direction.
“Rather than interrupt those dynamics, many of us assimilated to them,” Scot says. “For instance, we reacted to being demonized by demonizing our demonizers. That act does many damaging things.
“One of the most serious consequences of demonizing those who demonize us is that demonization makes pluralism appear unappealing or impossible. You can’t compromise with the devil without going to hell, can you?”
“I love everybody the same way”
A year after Hattie Mae and Brian were killed, the local paper ran a headline, “Bad publicity stunts growth of Salem gang.” A police sergeant said of the effect of the firebombing, “It basically stopped the skinhead movement in Salem. They’re not getting new members, and they had to curtail their activities.”
Police said they didn’t know “if the firebombings woke them up, or they went in separate directions.” But they believed the response of the community was essential.
“Overall, the community just stood up and said, ‘We don’t want this kind of activity. We’re not going to tolerate it.’ Basically, that made it come to a halt,” the sergeant said. “Now how long that will last, we don’t know.”
This is my life Why people have to be so ugly And make people feel anger and different From another person They are no better than the next person We are still people We have feelings like everybody I love everybody the same way We should be together We should be the best of friends I just want to say I love everybody the same way This, me myself, I mean that from the bottom of my heart. ~ Hattie Cohens, February 14, 1991 From poetry salvaged after the fire, read at the candlelight vigil held to honor and mourn Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock; printed in The Statesman Journal on Sept. 30, 1992.
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.