Police in Reading, Pennsylvania, arrested street preacher Damon Atkins for speaking briefly at a pride event at Reading City Hall. The arrest was caught on video on June 3 by Matthew Wear of Reading, another street preacher.
For the last three years, the city of Reading has flown a pride flag at city hall during June.
The group Reading Pride Celebration partnered with the city for the flag raising event this year. Members of the LGBT community gathered for the flag raising before marching in a short pride parade—about three and a half blocks—on the way to a park where there was a rainbow pride celebration with speakers and free food, Reading Pride Celebration Executive Director Enrique Castro told The Epoch Times.
Atkins arrived at the event at about 10:05 a.m. carrying a sign with a slogan that showed his opposition to the event, the police criminal complaint said.
Atkins, 41, wore a T-shirt that said, “You must be born again.” His sign had two sides with quotes from the Bible; one side said, “Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life,” while the other said, “Jesus said go and sin no more.”
The flag ceremony was on one side of the street while Atkins stood on the sidewalk on the opposite side. Reading police stood in the road, Wear’s video showed.
“He began to yell to the people at the event. I immediately approached him and told him not to yell comments intended to disrupt the event. Atkins said he understood,” the complaint said. “Less than a minute later he resumed yelling derogatory comments to the people at the event.
“Because I had already given him a warning, I immediately told him he was being arrested for disorderly conduct,” the complaint read.
Police Preempt Preacher
It is not clear from the video that Atkins was yelling before a police officer approached him and told him to be respectful and to “let them have their day,” as he used his thumb to point to the gathering across the street.
“Oh, I’m respecting,” Atkins said in the video. “You know who is cheering for us? The people that are in hell. So you do you, and I’ll do me. This is public property.”
The officer turned his back and walked a few steps away. In just a beat, Atkins raised his voice to street preacher level.
“Yo. God is not…” That was all he got out of his mouth before the officer was behind him putting him in handcuffs. “Would you grab this for me brother?” he asked of the man standing near him, handing him the sign.
Atkins asked if he could take off his backpack, which slipped down his arms and hung from his cuffed wrists. Police kept the backpack like that and walked him across the street, away from the crowd.
While he was being arrested, members of the LGBT community clapped and cheered.
He shook his head. “They’re clapping.” Then he raised his voice again, saying “God is not the author of—” but the officer pulled his arms, spun him around, and put his face up to a wall.
Atkins was transported for processing and spent a few hours in police custody. He could not be reached for comment before press time.
Reading Police Chief Richard Tornielli did not respond to The Epoch Times’ request for comment about free speech on public sidewalks.
Opportunity for Understanding
As all this was happening, Castro was just opening the event with a speech.
“My comments when that happened were asking the crowd not to cheer for the gentleman being arrested, but instead to show them the love and compassion that they refuse to show us,” Castro said. “If we are asking for understanding, love and compassion, we should be doing the same, because oftentimes when people are just screaming and arguing, the opportunity for understanding is completely lost, because nobody’s really hearing what the other has to say.”
He thanked them for joining the event and invited them to the pride celebration in the park. The protesters did not attend.
“Part of what is enjoyable about this country is our freedom of speech, so if they want to say what they want to say, that’s on them,” Castro said. “When they talk about a God of love, they’re really being hypocrites.”
Throughout history, he said, there’s always a group of people that is under attack or being marginalized.
“Our community is the most diverse in the world. It includes every religion, every race, and every gender and nationality. We, by default, are accepting of everybody and inclusive because we have members from every community, so there would be no other way to be,” Castro said.
“We just happen to be the church’s target for the last however many years and people like that, street preachers, who don’t have anyone else to listen to their words and decide to bring it to the street for everyone else to hear—to people who may not even be interested—and force their beliefs on other people or threaten them with some kind of condemnation.”
Wear, the man who recorded the video, had not heard about the event and was headed out of town for a day of recreation with his family when he noticed the gathering at city hall and two men who were there to protest. Neither of them were Atkins.
“I see all the rainbow colors and people, and I noticed that there are two older men on the same side of the road that have signs. They’re clearly protesting,” Wear told The Epoch Times. “I’ve done this type of ministry before, so I’m familiar with the kind of threats and the hard time that you have when you are out there. So I told my wife that I just felt compelled that I need to pull us over. I just need to go and encourage those two older men that are out there. Because I know that whatever happens to them, they’re going to have a hard time today.”
He did not know them but started speaking with them.
“They warn me that one of the police officers had threatened to arrest them if they don’t move to the other side of the street,” Wear said. “It was just the three of us over there. I decided that I was going to start preaching. So I preached for maybe 10 or 12 minutes. As I’m doing that, I see an officer walking across the street directly towards me. This would be the arresting officer later and he got right up in my face, laid his finger on me, pressed against me, and said if you don’t stop shouting insults to those people, I will arrest you.”
Wear stopped preaching and started recording the event on his phone, describing the event. Atkins, who is unrelated to the other three men, arrived soon after that.
“He didn’t get one word out to the audience, not even to us. He just showed up and the officer approached him and pretty much made the same threats, you know, like, you’re not doing this today. And he stands up for himself and says this is public property, I have every right to be here,” Wear said.
He has never seen anyone arrested like this before, but Wear says it is a typical response to the gospel he preaches.
“You don’t have to name all the controversial things. You can just say sin, and how we’re all guilty of this and need a savior, and people will get so angry with you,” Wear said. “I think what really is at the heart of it is people just do not want to agree that what they’re doing is sinful and wrong.”
“But what happened on Saturday was just so utterly shocking,” Wear said. “The cop went out of his way to harass him.”
From The Epoch Times