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by • March 27, 2024 • Weekly ColumnComments (0)77

Dog Park Shooting is a Warning on the Dire Consequences of Political Polarization

In early February, Walter Lay was shot to death in a Tampa-area dog park by Gerald Declan Radford, who goes by the nickname “Dec”. The men started out on decent terms and were part of a group of acquaintances that socialized daily while walking their pets. It was a source of joy and created a budding sense of community in the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, the comity didn’t survive our state’s bitter polarization. The bonds forged between neighbors began to fray along political lines. Lay’s best friend, Will Meyer, said that differences about how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic led the group to split in two.

“One group was a little bit liberal and the other side was bleeding a little too much to the right,” Meyer said. “It escalated and one group would meet at one corner of the park and the other group in another.”

Tragically, this is an ominous snapshot of American election year politics in 2024. The Tampa Bay Times reported that after Radford found out about Lay’s politics and sexual orientation, he began allegedly harassing Lay with homophobic slurs. Parkgoer Sue Jones described Radford’s open hostility and bullying campaign.

“Here comes the [homophobic slur],” Jones said Radford would say.

Albert Darlington, who also walked his dog in the park, recalled, “Whenever Walt would get here, Dec would say, ‘Here comes that [expletive] [homophobic slur].”

ABC Action News asked Radford if he disliked Lay because he was gay, “but he didn’t answer.” His Facebook account paints a portrait of a vitriolic homophobe, with Radford posting multiple anti-LGBTQ memes, as well as his account having been frequently restricted for violating the platform’s community standards.

After the shooting, Radford claimed self-defense and said he was attacked by Lay, despite overwhelming evidence he was itching for a violent confrontation.

“He [Radford] made it a point to say he was carrying a gun,” remarked Andy Prince who frequents the dog park. “You could see the bulge. And he also said that he hates gay people. Unprompted.”

The day before he was murdered, Lay made a cellphone video to document how he was being harassed by Radford.

“So, this morning while I’m walking — and we’re the only two here — he comes up to me and screams at me, ‘You’re going to die, you’re going to die,’ and I asked him to just leave me alone, and so far he has.”

The LGBTQ community was greatly relieved after Radford was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The state is seeking an enhancement as a hate crime charge. Radford was also denied bond, with a judge ruling that he is a danger to the community.

If we look at the Big Picture, this horrific incident represents far more than a random anti-LGBTQ homicide. It is an allegory about how people who were once civil are now bitterly, even violently, divided into opposing political camps. How life-affirming exchanges with neighbors have stopped altogether or take place with increased hesitation. Before smiling and saying hello, we must ask ourselves, “Does this person hate me for no reason, and will our basic interaction lead to a confrontation?

The Tampa tragedy reminds us of how the MAGA movement, with its bullying rhetoric, us-versus-them mentality and undignified name calling, has emboldened cruel behavior, and given license to openly intimidate people. While MAGA is not solely responsible for society’s nasty turn, the movement has done more than any other to legitimize meanness and views kindness as a weakness.

The toxic behavior displayed by MAGA-aligned neighbors in Tampa shows how polarization, warped by zero-sum politics, had transformed a pleasant dog park, where friends socialized, into a churlish middle school playground, with foul cliques and taunts from belligerent bullies.

Finally, the episode drives home the heartbreaking reality that none of us are safe because our state and country has allowed the mindless proliferation of guns. Whether at a Kansas City football celebration or a Florida dog park, any paranoid extremist, with an ax to grind, can end lives in seconds.

This incident is the sum of our worst fears. Today, it was a gay man who was wantonly killed. Tomorrow, it could be, well…anyone. That’s why this episode is so bone chilling, as well as indicative of where our society is headed. If we can’t walk carefree in a serene dog park to socialize with friends without politics causing deep, even dangerous, divisions, are any of us truly safe, secure, or free?

We must use this dog park nightmare to take pause and consider future consequences if we continue down the destructive path of dehumanizing and demonizing our neighbors. It should prompt each one of us to ask, “what are we doing, where is this leading us and is this the world we want to leave behind for our children?”

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