Patrons at a gay bar in Harlem on May 31 were met with a terrifying scene outside the establishment when, suddenly, two Rainbow Flags were set ablaze.
Alexi Minko, who owns Alibi Lounge at 2376 Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard near West 139th Street in Manhattan, recalled the moment when the flags were set on fire just hours before LGBTQ Pride Month kicked into gear.
“You could see the flames,” he said. “We rushed out and contacted the fire department.”
The scene unfolded shortly after 1 a.m., cops told Gay City News, and rainfall quickly extinguished the fire before it could spread into the bar. Police quickly arrived at the scene, but authorities were not immediately able to track down any suspects.
However, Minko said authorities have been diligently working to gather and review video surveillance footage as part of their investigation, and on June 5, the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force posted security camera footage on Twitter showing a man lighting the flags on fire. The NYPD only described the person as an “unidentified male.” The man appeared to be in his 20s or 30s and was wearing pants and a t-shirt with stars on it.
“They’ve been really handling the investigation in a professional way so far,” Minko said.
The sudden act of vandalism was a shock to Minko not just because there were flames raging outside, but because the bar had never experienced any incidents of homophobia in the three years since it opened.
“The timing of it is quite disturbing,” Minko said. “I was almost wondering if they knew it was Pride or if they just did it because they were trying to get attention.”
The flag burnings have caught the attention of TV shows like “The View” and numerous elected officials, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, who directed State Police to assist the NYPD where necessary, as well as Senator Kristen Gillibrand and out gay City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, among others.
Johnson described the incident as a “terrible crime” and “a grim reminder of how much work we need to do 50 years after Stonewall — including here in my beloved NYC,” while Gillibrand called it a “disgusting act of bigotry and cowardice.”
Minko, a former human rights attorney, said he originally launched the bar after realizing there were no gay bars for local residents in Harlem. He wanted to provide a space for folks who could visit close to home — especially a black-owned space — and he decided to move forward with his plans, opening the bar on Pride Weekend in 2016.
The bar has received a great deal of support from the local community in the days since the incident, Minko said. People of every age, sexual orientation, and gender have visited the bar.
“It’s been quite amazing,” Minko said. “At a community level, we’ve been overwhelmed by the level of support, love, and affection from our neighbors.”