On Feb. 1, Pablo Gomez Jr. had what appeared to be a breakdown in court. Following a meeting with an Alameda County public defender, the 22-year-old murder suspect was dragged out of the courtroom by a flurry of grunting deputies, slender limbs flailing in red scrubs, while screaming: "Get off me," "Stop," "Ah!" Many of Gomez's friends and family members in the back of the gallery cried, their chairs creaking with each sob.
Pablo Gomez is a student activist at the University of California, Berkeley — a senior majoring in Chicano/Latino studies. Gomez has advocated for climate change education, organized for survivors of sexual assault, and supported Black Lives Matter, once helping to shut down a freeway to protest the police. But as of Jan. 6, Pablo Gomez is also an accused murderer, suspected of stabbing two women, one of whom died. The murder of Emilie Inman, a 27-year-old artist and teacher, was later described by police as “very brutal and very unusual.”
Maybe you read about Gomez on Ann Coulter’s Facebook. Maybe you saw the hashtag #BLMSlashing. Because when news began to spread in early January of the ghastly crime, it wasn’t the charges that propelled Gomez’s name from local news blurb to the most far-right corners of the internet. It was Gomez’s identities — activist, queer, person of color — that drove the outrage.
The crime caught Coulter and company's attention, but what fueled their brief yet intense fascination was Gomez, who became, as one commenter put it on an Oregon college sports message board — because that’s how far this story of a Berkeley murder traveled — “the perfect leftist perp.” Coverage of the crime turned into debate about whether Gomez had the right, as an alleged murderer, to be referred to by the gender pronoun “they.” Details of the crime and victims gradually dissipated, absorbed into the far-right's platform (filed under: violent social justice warriors).
Crimes committed by ideologues like Gomez have long been used by opposing political sides to further their agendas. But the fervor around Inman’s death, and Gomez’s pronoun, is different. It reflects not just the ability of the new online right to swiftly hijack a local tragedy to make a point, but also its omnipresence, its ability to penetrate and rattle one of America’s most liberal communities. Gomez and Inman’s story is the story of Berkeley, a progressive paradise where cracks were revealed by Donald Trump’s election — with the help of a jackhammer named Milo Yiannopoulos and a stampede of protesters — and where those fissures continue to be revealed in surprising ways.
Berkeley’s first homicide of 2017 began on a Friday, at the uncommon criminal hour of 11:40 a.m., with a 911 call that reported a 21-year-old woman needed help on Ridge Road, a block north of UC Berkeley’s campus. The woman had been stabbed.
According to unconfirmed scanner audio on Broadcastify, the woman told police she’d been stabbed south of campus, at a house on Ashby Avenue, then dropped off on Ridge Road. She named her assailant as Pablo Gomez, a fellow Berkeley student who, it later appeared, had once been her friend. An officer shared Gomez’s description with dispatch: “Hispanic male, twenties, gray shirt, dark gray pants, has kitchen knife that he took from someone’s house … According to the victim, the suspect is still in the area.” Later, “buzzcut” and “5-foot-4 thin build” were added to the description. Gray shirt became gray sweatshirt, and 5-foot-4 became 5-foot-6. Gomez’s name and description weren’t yet made public.
While the woman was taken to the hospital, police went to the address she provided. Hours later, they found another woman, stabbed to death.
The house on Ashby Avenue is unusual, even on the kind of picturesque, lush Berkeley block where every house is visually distinct. Look beyond the lopsided signs in the windows (Not Our President, Stand With Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter) and it’s a child’s drawing of a house, squat and A-frame, with a little chimney and a white-picket fence and an enormous red door — a door the width of two doors. When police arrived, that door was wide open.
“It was clear,” police said in a community alert, “a violent crime had occurred there.” Later, they added “a significant amount of blood was found in certain parts of the property.”
No one was home when police arrived. There was only a gray sedan in the driveway, registered to Emilie Inman. Officers began searching the property. That evening, around 8:30 p.m., the local news website Berkeleyside published a story reporting Inman was missing; friends and family hadn’t heard from her since that morning and were worried.
Around 11 p.m., almost 12 hours after the first 911 call, Inman was found dead in the house with the red door. Police have released few details about the circumstances of her death. Berkeley Police Capt. Ed Spiller only told the local Fox affiliate that “it was very brutal and very unusual. … Stabbings are not uncommon, per se, but with this type of violence, it is uncommon.”
Inman was a French-born folk singer, a student at the Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training, and a graduate of UC Santa Cruz. Her degree was in environmental studies, which she used as a nature instructor for kids. Inman’s friends would later use phrases like “walking artwork” and “intoxicatingly liberated” to describe her. In some photos they shared, her long auburn hair was styled into thick dreadlocks; in others, it was short and curly, peeking out from beneath a hat.
Shortly after Inman’s body was found, police named Gomez as a homicide suspect, who was armed and dangerous, and urged Berkeley residents to call with any information about Gomez’s whereabouts. They said Gomez reportedly “shaved his head, which may have been done in an effort to alter his appearance.”
Emilie Raguso decided to drive around that night. The Berkeleyside senior reporter — a 38-year-old longtime local journalist, a graduate of UC Berkeley’s journalism school, and the only full-time reporter on Berkeleyside’s staff — had been following the story all day from her desk: making calls to police sources, piecing together events using hours of scanner audio, posting updates to a Berkeley community Facebook group. Her first story that day — when the only known victim was the 21-year-old stabbing survivor on Ridge Road — was published two and a half hours after the late-morning 911 call, breaking the news of the stabbing.
Much later, after reporting that a body had been found on Ashby Avenue, Raguso went to see the still-active crime scene. She took some photos and talked to a police officer. She watched as a carousel of officers went in and out of the house, and as police began taking down some yellow tape around 1:30 a.m. — otherwise nothing noteworthy, she said. But after leaving the scene, she got a message from a woman who had seen Raguso’s posts in the UC Berkeley Facebook group. The woman said she knew Gomez through the campus activism community and that Gomez used the gender pronoun “they,” rather than “he.”
“I was looking and I was driving and I was like, ‘Holy shit, I don't want to be misidentifying Pablo,’” Raguso said. “‘I need to change this right away.’”
Raguso trusted the woman who wrote to her, but to ease her mind, she talked to a source at the Berkeley Police Department, who confirmed the pronoun, she said. Raguso changed “he”s to “they”s and added one line: “A friend contacted Berkeleyside after publication to say that Gomez Jr. uses the pronoun ‘they.’” Raguso didn’t include the name of the friend who sent the tip. The woman didn’t ask for anonymity, but Raguso said she didn’t want to “put her on blast.”
“And I’m glad I didn’t,” she said. If Raguso had included her name, the woman would have likely been caught in the same hurricane of criticism that swept up Raguso, spinning the Gomez story wildly away from Berkeley and splat-landing it in the most raw, politically heated, no-holds-barred corners of the internet.
The tweets began taking off the morning of Jan. 7, five hours after Raguso updated the pronouns and five hours before Gomez’s arrest. Tim Groseclose, a George Mason University economics professor, shared a link to Berkeleyside’s story: “UC Berkeley student wanted for murder, calls himself ‘they’. They is [are?] a Chicanx/Latinx studies major.” Two hours later, the professor dug up a photo of Gomez smiling with California Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic donor Tom Steyer.
The politicization was instantaneous. But it wasn’t just right-wing spectators shaking their heads at a murder allegedly committed by someone on the left. These spectators, ranging from conventionally conservative to full-on alt-right, implied Gomez’s motive for the murder was left-wing beliefs. Ann Coulter tweeted a similar thread to the professor’s, adding “This homicide sounds more like BLM” (Black Lives Matter). Prominent right-wing blogger Mike Cernovich called Gomez “another violent criminal on the left. These are feral ‘people,’ prone to violence. Avoid!”
Gomez’s old tweets about white people began surfacing in Twitter circles where Coulter and Cernovich reigned. “Why the fuck do white people always think they’re the victims do you not understand you are the world’s #1 perpetrators,” Gomez tweeted in March 2014. Two years later: “i believe (white) ‘america’ is still a young twisted fantasy too evil for fruition.” Inconsequential Twitter exchanges with Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson became smoking guns.
With Gomez’s social media mostly public, there was plenty to see of the “nonbinary, pan xicanix who loves dr pepper.” There was Gomez talking climate change in a Vice News video. There was Gomez fighting with Sweetgreen on Twitter about the salad restaurant printing “Make America Healthy Again” on its menus. There was a video of Gomez trying to take a Donald Trump cardboard cutout from a College Republicans booth on campus — a 14-second clip with “vandalize” and “assault” in the title that didn’t quite appear to show either.
There was Gomez making jokes, tweeting GIFs, posting selfies with friends and screenshots from Jack’d, a dating app. Not everything was about activism, but a lot of it was.
By the evening of Jan. 7, Gomez’s story had been picked up by GotNews — the brash doxxing website popular among the online right — which characteristically published screenshots of Gomez’s Facebook page, including one in which they voiced support to abolish the police, and to “transform every structure that is posioned [sic] by a toxic whiteness that threatens Black lives every day.” GotNews also pointed to a quote Gomez reblogged on Tumblr in defense of looting.
“It’s unclear,” the GotNews story read, “if Gomez’ far-left ‘social justice’ justification of looting — a violent, criminal act — played a role in justifying Gomez’ alleged murder.”
The Unz Review’s Steve Sailer later raised similar questions about Gomez’s motive (with a dramatic emphasis on pronouns). “How much evidence is there that They’s stabby outburst consisted of hate crimes?” Sailer wrote. “Was They motivated by hatred of whites, the female sex, heterosexuals, or what?”
As awareness of Gomez’s case spread, picking up coverage from the Daily Caller, Breitbart, and the Weekly Standard — and smaller websites like the Other McCain, MagaFeed, Red State Watcher, and the Gateway Pundit — more stories began taking on this just-asking-questions tone. Did Gomez kill Emilie Inman because they hated white people, or was it because Gomez was a “social-justice warrior,” who everyone knows are violent, “feral ‘people?’” Just asking questions.
All partisans are drawn to certain narratives. For the online right, one favorite narrative is the story of a nonwhite criminal committing violence against a white victim. They comb through national news for stories like these — stories that provoke emotion in everyone, regardless of political beliefs. A brutal crime and tragic death in a college town, for example. If that story also promotes a piece of the far-right agenda, like the proliferation of minority violence, they spread it, rearranging the facts for shocking emphasis. (And they do generally deal in facts, however selectively chosen; there’s nothing “fake news” about this phenomenon.) In Gomez’s case, that might mean emphasizing in headlines or tweets that the murder suspect was an activist or queer. But the heart of their retelling of the crime will always be race.
That’s how Gomez’s story became #BLMSlashing, a sequel to #BLMKidnapping, tied to Black Lives Matter by the online right. #BLMSlashing appeared to begin with Paul Nehlen, the Republican businessman who tried to oust Paul Ryan in 2016 as a further-right candidate for Congress. It was picked up by hundreds of others — someone claiming to be a former Trump campaign staffer, an alt-right-endorsing firearms dealer, users with the occasional “#MAGA” or “deplorable” or “pro-white” in their Twitter bios — many pointing out how the mainstream media wasn’t covering the double stabbing.
After a few days, the Twitter pundits moved on. Just a handful of conservative outlets have continued to followed Gomez’s case. One of the only writers who covered Gomez’s apparent breakdown at the arraignment was Sailer, of the Unz Review. His take, citing a report that Gomez had scratched one of the deputies’ hands in the scuffle: “Berkeley activist Pablo ‘They’ Gomez assaults deputies in courthouse.”
Something else happened on Feb. 1, the day Gomez was ejected, kicking and screaming, from the courtroom. That evening, Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak on campus at the invitation of the Berkeley College Republicans. Instead Yiannopoulos was removed from UC Berkeley before his speech, chased off by protesters who had launched a night of destruction, lighting fires on campus and smashing storefront windows on campus-adjacent blocks.
Late into the night, it became clearer that most of the masked and baseball bat–armed protesters weren’t Berkeley students. But many Berkeley students were still around, holding up signs calling for safe spaces for queer people, broken glass crunching under their sneakers as Rihanna blasted from some distant portable speaker. It wasn’t hard to imagine that Pablo Gomez, seasoned campus protester, would have been among these students, if Gomez weren’t in jail on murder charges.
The same ecosystem that made Gomez’s case go briefly viral turned the Berkeley protest into much bigger national news. The two stories shared the same essential theme: the shock — and, to conservatives, hypocrisy — of violence in America’s liberal heartland. And as progressives turned away from both stories, either ignoring or dismissing them as anomalies, conservatives owned them. Yiannopoulos’s ejection became a story about how people with right-wing viewpoints are oppressed.
But the partisan drama of both the Yiannopoulos riot and the Gomez case has overshadowed a more subtle truth: Berkeley has changed, and is changing. Just because it’s America’s liberal heartland does not mean the grass-and-granola mecca exists in a vacuum. It became evident Berkeley was not immune to tensions created by the rise of white nationalism, or to battles over political correctness.
Emilie Raguso saw that firsthand. As she continued following the case — Gomez’s arrest after checking into a Los Angeles hospital on Jan. 7, the charges formally brought on Jan. 17 — she moderated and responded to dozens upon dozens of reader comments. The general idea behind most comments, as laid out by username “xlrq”: “Who the hell cares what pronoun he/she/it prefers to be called by? I'll bet his victims would have preferred not to be stabbed.”
Berkeleyside, like other local news outlets, has a lively discussion community with a number of regular commenters. As comments rolled in on Raguso’s Gomez stories, she recognized screen names next to some of the most irate pronoun-centered responses, she said. It baffled her.
“We're in Berkeley, so I was not used to seeing all of the anger around these issues. It just took me aback. This is really where we are?” she said. Raguso thought the pronoun change was uncontroversial, and that Gomez should be identified by the right pronoun, no matter the allegations.
These long days of moderating — and participating in — a gender pronoun debate left Raguso struggling to recognize the community she covered. That feeling was underscored by what was happening in Free & For Sale, the Berkeley university community Facebook group where Raguso was posting updates about the Gomez case.
Free & For Sale is a 39,000-member group, open only to those with a berkeley.edu email address and largely used by students for housing listings or buying, selling, and giving away goods like concert tickets or unwanted H&M sweaters. But it also has an active community discussion, and here too comments poured in on Raguso’s links. Another heated debate about pronouns surfaced on one post, propelled by students who knew Gomez directly, until the moderators deleted all of Raguso’s posts and booted her from the group.
“I was really surprised — this is the Berkeley community,” she said, again emphasizing the name historically synonymous with young progressive radicals who love free speech and open debate. “There was a lot of anger on both sides about how Pablo should be referred to. And I was really floored that someone would remove the document of that, because it seemed like such an important dialogue to be having.”
As the back of the courtroom — those rows filled with Gomez’s friends and family during the Feb. 1 arraignment — quietly wept, the front row was silent. Four young people locked hands and stared ahead as Gomez’s screams filled the room. They were Emilie Inman’s roommates, and they didn’t want to talk to anyone. “Just respect our privacy,” one of the women said sharply, when asked if she or the others wanted to make a statement about Inman. One of the men added with apologetic eyes, “Thank you for respecting our privacy.”
Inman’s friends and family have spoken little to the press. When Raguso wanted to write a story for Berkeleyside memorializing Inman, no one would talk to her directly. Inman’s friends and family decided only to send Raguso individual emails with their thoughts on Inman’s passing; Raguso couldn't get them on the phone to ask follow-up questions, and several requested that their last names be withheld.
Although her friends and family have shied away from the media, they’ve made sure Inman herself is no mystery. They told stories to Raguso about Inman’s adventures at Burning Man, the sharing circles she organized for local women, and the dinners she hosted around celestial phenomena.
But this fuller picture of Inman — of a vibrant, loving, artistic woman whose life was taken too soon — didn’t really make it into far-right media’s coverage of the Gomez case. Inman wasn’t their version of an ideal white woman victim; Steve Sailer on Unz called her a “NorCal hippie chick” and “an old-fashioned Berkeley hippie chick folksinger.” When Ann Coulter posted about the case on Facebook, a friend of Inman’s fought back in the comments:
“I knew the victim. She deeply respected people of all identities, genders, sexuality, immigration status, nationality and faith. She would certainly never publish nor support this kind of intollerance [sic] for humanity. She would speak against this and offer only love in return.”
Gomez’s family hasn’t said a word publicly since the arrest. Just one friend has made a non-anonymous, on-the-record statement to reporters. Speaking to reporters at Gomez’s first post-arrest court date — the hearing before the interrupted arraignment — Alex Nebrida said he couldn’t reconcile Inman’s grisly murder with his friend, “a scholar, very intelligent person,” he said.
“What was the motive? There was no motive yet,” said Nebrida, who used male pronouns in reference to Gomez.
Other friends have implied, without being named or quoted, that mental health issues played a role in the alleged crime. But none of the 20-plus friends and family members who showed up to Gomez’s arraignment — the one that ended in Gomez being yanked from the courtroom — would speak to reporters. Neither did the six who showed up to a hearing five days later, a month to the day since Inman’s death, in which a judge ordered a six-week mental evaluation for Gomez before the case could proceed. Gomez’s attorney at the public defender’s office would not comment on the case. A half dozen student LGBT leaders at Berkeley — Gomez’s peers and former colleagues — would not comment.
“You would think someone would have organized something, a statement of some kind,” Raguso said, pondering the activist community’s silence. “At the same time, these are all probably relatively young people and maybe they're just grappling. ... They want to show up to support Pablo, but do they really want their name associated with it?”
Beyond the fears of marring their Google results or getting caught in some conservative media shitstorm — or simply not knowing what to say about their peer or loved one allegedly being involved in such a violent crime — there’s another reason people aren’t speaking out on Gomez’s behalf.
In addition to identifying as nonbinary (neither male nor female), Gomez identifies as pansexual, or pan — a sexuality similar to bisexuality, except that the attraction is to all gender identities, not limited to male or female. Drawing attention to Gomez’s case could reinforce harmful stereotypes about queer people, who, for decades, have been cast in the media as dangerous or depraved.
The organization GLAAD tracks these media portrayals of queer people, to show how often bisexual and transgender people in particular end up being depicted as killers, villainous sociopaths, or sexual deviants. According to GLAAD, the television industry has greatly improved in writing LGBT characters; film has taken longer. But portrayals in the news media rarely catch GLAAD’s attention anymore, the media watchdogs said. Most traditional journalists are familiar with the recommended practices.
Fred Fejes, a journalism professor at Florida Atlantic University who has studied gay and lesbian media portrayals, said it’s no longer acceptable for reporters to treat “sexuality as an aberration,” turning crimes involving LGBT suspects into moral panics, like in 1954 in Miami, when a succession of brutal murders were connected by the media to the city’s large gay community. GLAAD has a reference guide specifically for reporters covering stories involving LGBT suspects, but these days it rarely has to point to it.
Regardless of why people have stayed silent about Gomez — from Berkeley activists and LGBT campus leaders, to Gomez’s and Inman’s friends and family — silence doesn’t mean the story has gone away. It’s just been left in the hands of the people most committed to advancing it for ideological purposes.
After the days-long pronoun crisis, Raguso said she wondered whether she could or should have handled it all differently. Fred Fejes maintained that unless Gomez’s gender identity “was an important element in the story, unless it figured in somehow to what was going on, it shouldn’t have been mentioned.”
GLAAD’s Nick Adams, director of programs for transgender media, said while he agrees that reporters should not “bring up the fact that [people] are LGBTQ unless it is relevant to the case at hand,” he said in a case like Gomez’s, “you don’t really have much choice to bring their gender identity into it … I don’t think we’re at a point where journalists can use ‘they’ to refer to a single person without explanatory notes.”
But both Fejes and Adams acknowledged this is an uncommon case in uncharted territory. This central question — how to respect a pronoun identity without drawing undue attention to it — hasn’t really come up before. And so Raguso’s question remains: If the pronoun issue had never come up, would the far-right have latched on? Was gender the one thing that tipped Gomez’s story over the precipice from local news to viral political content?
Not long after that tipping point, someone said to Raguso, “‘You've really done Pablo a disservice, because if you had just called Pablo ‘he,’ then it wouldn’t have gotten this national attention. Ann Coulter isn’t going to jump on the bandwagon and start firing up people up about it,’” she recalled.
“Well, I guess that is a point,” Raguso said. “Maybe I did do Pablo a disservice. But then I look back to the person who had written me, and she was like, ‘Thank you so much.’”
So much of what happened on Jan. 6 in the house with the big red door is still unknown. But at least, Raguso felt, she could bring one truth about Inman’s alleged killer to light. ●
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Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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