The family of a transgender woman who was attacked in a Baltimore County McDonald's last week thanked the woman who stepped in and tried to help, as more than a hundred supporters gathered at the Rosedale restaurant Monday night. The rally drew together representatives of transgender, civil-rights and faith-based communities in a call to action to stop violence against all people.
"I'll never forget you for this," Renee Polis told Vicky Thoms, who was hit in the face as she stepped between Chrissy Polis and the two teens who were caught on video punching and kicking Polis, and dragging her by her hair until Polis appears to have a seizure.
The attack was filmed by a McDonald's employee and was first posted on YouTube last week. Despite being removed from the video-sharing site, it quickly went viral, garnering hundreds of thousands of views after being linked from several websites, including the Drudge Report.
Stepping into the McDonald's restaurant on April 18, the 55-year-old Thoms stumbled onto the attack — she said she saw a woman cowering on the floor outside a restroom as two other women pummeled her.
Stunned, Thoms watched for about two minutes, wondering what to do. Then, despite her fear of aggravating a back injury, Thoms said she stepped in, and was punched in the face while doing so.
"I couldn't take it any more," Thoms recalled Monday. "I thought, 'They're going to kill her.' "
Teonna Monae Brown, 18, was charged with first-degree assault and two counts of second-degree assault in the attack. Brown — who was charged with assaulting another woman in the same restaurant a year ago — was ordered held without bail Monday at the Baltimore County Detention Center. Brown's companion, a 14-year-old girl, was charged with second-degree assault in last week's incident.
Court records show that Brown was involved in a previous confrontation with a woman on July 27, 2010, at the same McDonald's on Kenwood Avenue. The victim in that case, Danielle K. Dower, ultimately asked prosecutors to drop assault charges against Brown.
Polis, who will turn 23 this week, appeared to suffer a seizure during the attack, as well as cuts to her face and mouth. She was taken to Franklin Square Hospital Center for treatment of her wounds and later gave interviews in which she said that no one but Thoms had come to her aid.
Polis called the attack a hate crime, and the Baltimore County State's Attorney said Monday that he has not ruled out adding other charges to the case.
"We're looking at both defendants in regards to the whole case and we are reviewing the case for the possibility of additional charges," said State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger. Referring to the 14-year-old and the likelihood of her being charged as an adult, the prosecutor said, "We're looking at the proper place for her case to be."
Asked whether he was considering charges against the McDonald's employee who shot video of the attack with his cellphone but apparently did not intervene or report it to the police, Shellenberger said that Maryland law does not impose punishment on bystanders who fail to help a person being attacked. Only people who are deemed to have aided and abetted a crime can be charged in such circumstances, he said. The employee was fired from the restaurant after the incident.
Attempts to protect transgender people have foundered in the Maryland legislature. Earlier this month, delegates rejected an antidiscrimination measure that would have prevented employers, creditors and housing providers from discriminating against transgender people. A clause dealing with discrimination in public accommodations, which would have included places such as restaurants, was stripped out of the proposed law even before it went to a vote said Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk, the sponsor of House Bill 235, known as the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act.
Peña-Melnyk wrote an email Monday to her colleagues in the General Assembly in which she included a link to the video of the attack, warning them that it is "disturbing and portrays a horrific hate crime" that had brought "shame to the state of Maryland for allowing such things to take place."
She said that such incidents "illustrate why the transgender community in Maryland and elsewhere needs to be protected through antidiscrimination legislation."
Other politicians also weighed in. "Although this vicious attack was an isolated incident and in no way reflects on the Baltimore County or Rosedale communities, it does serve as a wake up call that we all have a role to play in moving society forward," Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said in a statement issued by his office. "It is the conversations around our dinner tables and the casual chatter among friends that develop patterns of behavior. Each and every one of us plays a role in deciding what kind of a society we deserve and what kind of a society we will help create."
According to a court document, Thoms "attempted to separate the suspects" from Polis and was punched and pushed by the two assailants. Darick Jones, the restaurant's manager, told police that Thoms became "disoriented" after being punched. The suspects then pushed Thoms away while the attack on Polis continued, the document said.
Polis "fell to the ground after struggling to fend off the suspects and the two suspects fled the area," according to the document. The brawl apparently had erupted after Polis had tried to use the women's bathroom.
In the interview in the kitchen of her home on Monday, Thoms said she had stepped in because she feared the assault on Polis might be fatal. She also said she had no idea the victim was transgender, but added that it would not have mattered.
She said the employee who shot the video did not try to help and warned the suspects to leave because the police were on their way. Of the video, she said, "It makes me sick to watch it."
The video, she said, lasts only about three minutes, but the actual assault went on for ten. "It's terrible that a human being had to go through that," said Thoms, who expressed a wish to see Polis again and "give her a hug."
The rally on Monday evening outside the McDonald's, where organizers took donations for Polis, was "in support of peace," a billboard at the site said. At one point, the crowd swayed to "We shall overcome."
Polis' twin brother, Matthew, and their mother, Renee, both greeted Thoms and thanked her. Renee Polis said that when she saw the video, "I was scared for my daughter… Now, I'm angry."
"I was upset that I wasn't there — that bothered me," Matthew Polis said. "I couldn't watch the video, but I had to watch the video. There's a lot of people out there who wouldn't have taken a stand."
Renee Polis said that she was concerned when her son first began the process of changing gender. "I always had to worry about her as a mom, but I didn't think someone would beat her half to death for being who she is today."
"I hope they pay for what they've done," she said.
Caroline Temmermand, who belongs to several support groups for the transgender community, told the crowd that the video was "shocking to all of us" and that "violence against anybody just shouldn't be."
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said, "This is not new in Baltimore — this happens all the time."
"It's not OK," he said. "It is not moral. It's not something we should all be OK living with."