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Trial of man charged in alleged attack on gay MLA’s office begins

Spencer Chandra Herbert testifies he heard accused talking about ‘fag flags’

“What this is about is a man came into my office and attacked my assistant,” Vancouver West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert told a provincial court judge Dec 18. Credit: Jeremy Hainsworth

The constituency assistant of gay MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert testified in provincial court Dec 18 that Michael Melvin Williams came into the politician’s Vancouver office Feb 21, allegedly shouted about “faggot flags,” and assaulted him.

Williams, 54, is charged with assault and mischief under $5,000.

Constituency assistant Murray Bilida identified Williams in court as the man who had allegedly attacked him. He testified that the man entered the Denman Street office smelling of alcohol and slurring his words. Bilida said the man asked to speak to “the Chandra.” He said he told the man Chandra Herbert was not in although later said the MLA was in the back of the office. Bilida said the man asked what he thought about the Olympics, then began asking about the Pride flag flying outside the West End Community Centre.

“He said, ‘What do you think about this fucking flag across the street?’” Bilida testified. “I asked, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Those fucking faggot flags on my library across the street.’” Bilida said that because the man had allegedly used a pejorative term, he assumed he was referring to the Pride flag.

“‘Faggot’ being a well-known pejorative for homosexuals, correct?” Crown prosecutor Mark Jetté asked.

“Yes,” Bilida responded.

Bilida said he told the man he didn’t know what flags on the library had to do with the MLA’s office. He said the man then noticed a Pride flag in the MLA’s office. “He said, ‘You have a fucking flag right here,’” Bilida testified. He said he told the man it was probably best that they agree to disagree, then left his desk behind a counter, went out through a door, which he closed behind him, and entered the reception area where the man was. Bilida said he pushed an automatic door opener as an invitation for the man to leave.

“He took a swing at me and missed,” Bilida testified. “His fist came to my right, missed me and went through the door behind me.”

“He took another swing at me, and he connected his punch with my mouth,” Bilida told Judge David St Pierre. “I went down; I collapsed onto the floor.” He said his lip became swollen and his jaw hurt for several days. He said the man left soon after that, adding that Chandra Herbert came forward after hearing raised voices and a bang.

Defence lawyer Terry La Liberté questioned Bilida about his past community activism, which the latter agreed included organizing a rally in the wake of Aaron Webster’s 2001 killing and another at the courthouse during the trial of the accused in that case. La Liberté suggested Bilida was a community activist working against homophobia.

“I wouldn’t say I’m very active at all,” Bilida said. “I work in a nonpolitical role. I did one thing in the wake of a murder.”

La Liberté suggested the man’s comments had made him angry. “I wasn’t angry in the least,” Bilida replied.

“I’m going to suggest he never used the word ‘fag’ or ‘faggot’ at all,” La Liberté said.

“I disagree,” Bilida said.

“I’m going to suggest he used rainbow flag,” La Liberté said.

“I disagree,” Bilida responded.

La Liberté also suggested Bilida took a swing at the man.

“Absolutely not,” Bilida said. “I’ve never hit an adult in my life.” Asked why he came out from behind the counter, Bilida said he was concerned for Chandra Herbert’s safety.

When he took the stand, Chandra Herbert said the first he knew of the incident was hearing shouting. “It was a man’s voice. I heard a shout about rainbow flags,” he said, adding that he “heard a loud bang.” Going out, the MLA said he saw the man leaving and Bilida holding his jaw. “He said, ‘That man hit me,’” Chandra Herbert testified, telling the court he noticed a smell of alcohol in the office.

Chandra Herbert said he told Bilida to get a camera, then went outside and told the man, who was standing outside smoking a cigarette, not to leave. Chandra Herbert alleged he heard the man talking to another man about “fag flags.” He said he called the police.

“For someone to come into your office and use ‘faggot’ or ‘fag,’ that is inflammatory, is it not?” La Liberté asked.

“It’s an offensive word,” Chandra Herbert told the court. “It’s a hateful word.”

“This homophobic incident was very convenient for you,” La Liberté said, noting the MLA had left the words out of his statement to police.

“I hate that word, sir,” Chandra Herbert replied.

“That’s what this is about isn’t it?” La Liberté asked.

“That is not what this is about,” Chandra Herbert countered. “What this is about is a man came into my office and attacked my assistant.”

“This is the most important word in the case,” La Liberté said.

“I have the call on how important it is,” Judge St Pierre said.

La Liberté suggested the MLA had used the situation for political traction, having brought it up in the provincial legislature.

“It gave me no pleasure,” Chandra Herbert said. “To suggest otherwise is insulting.”

Under questioning from La Liberté, Williams said he was interested in the three levels of government and wanted to talk to the MLA about why a municipal flag was not on the community centre.

Williams, who lives on Davie Street, testified that he is bisexual and said he interacts with gay friends and neighbours often. “I don’t want to see anyone beaten,” he said. He said he had drunk 15 cans of Budweiser the night before but didn’t have much of a hangover.

Williams said he told Bilida, who he thought was a volunteer, that he wanted to speak to Chandra Herbert about the flags. He said he was irritated by Bilida’s “high and mighty attitude,” adding that he knew the MLA was in the office. “I caught a glimpse,” he testified. “I looked at Murray and said, ‘Pants on fire, pants on fire.’”

Williams said Bilida responded, “Okay, let’s go,” and came out into the foyer. He said Bilida allegedly grabbed his left arm with both hands, which caused him pain due to a shoulder injury. “All I could think of was getting him to let go. I threw a punch. It missed him and hit the door,” Williams testified. He said he didn’t know how Bilida came to have a swollen lip.

“Did you ever use the word ‘faggot?’” La Liberté asked.

“No,” Williams said.

“Are you sure?” La Liberté asked.

“Positive,” Williams responded.

On cross-examination by Jetté, Williams said he had written his version of the events shortly after the incident and circulated it to media and members of the legislature. He said he distributed it because he felt the situation was “turning into a lynch mob.”

Vancouver Police Department Constable Thomas Hall said he arrested Williams when he arrived at the scene as Chandra Herbert flagged him down. Hall testified that Williams gave his name but when asked for his date of birth, he responded, “Why is there a gay flag on my library? You’re Chandra Herbert’s boy.” When asked if he understood his rights when read them, Hall said, “The accused replied, ‘You’re Chandra Herbert’s little boy.’”

Police spokesperson Sergeant Randy Fincham said at the time that a 53-year-old intoxicated man had been arrested. On the stand, Williams said he would classify himself as an alcoholic.

Long before the trial began, Williams disputed Chandra Herbert’s version of events. “It was not in my mind to express hatred or demand he do anything,” Williams said in a letter to Xtra.

Jetté was appointed by the government as an independent special prosecutor because of Chandra Herbert’s status as an MLA.

Williams’s trial was scheduled to start Sept 25 but was put back until December. The case continues Dec 19.