After two gay men were violently attacked in Austin, Collin Acock knew he had to do something.
“I got so mad that this happened again,” Acock told NBC News. “We keep sweeping it under the rug, saying that homophobic attacks don’t happen here in Austin. But they do.”
Acock had served on the city’s hate crime task force and believed the attack that happened on Jan. 19 was no isolated incident. “In Austin, our hate crimes reporting has shown an uptick,” he said.
Leaning into that anger, he decided he could no longer sit back and watch as LGBTQ community members were hurt and harassed. “I thought, you know, we used to do 'rainbow patrols' in the '90s, it’s time to bring that back,” Acock said.
Friends told Acock his idea was “wildly ambitious” and there was no way it would work, but after he posted on Facebook to gauge interest, he realized he wasn’t alone in his desire to make the community safer for all.
Soon after, the Rainbow Patrol was formed.
Now, every Saturday from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., donning neon purple reflective harnesses, the Rainbow Patrol walks around downtown Austin, which is where January's attack happened. The group checks in on people, walks folks to parking lots, hangs out with partygoers as they wait for ride shares and helps lost bar patrons navigate the city.
Unlike Bash Back! — a queer anarchist group founded in 2008 after neo-Nazis threatened Milwaukee Pride that commonly shouted “these faggots kill fascists” — the Rainbow Patrol is “nonviolent” and “non-confrontational.”
Acock said the Rainbow Patrol is “taking the old rainbow guard model from the '90s” while incorporating some “gang intervention tactics” and “using a distraction and deecalsation model to diffuse situations.”
“There is a great deal of historical precedent for this,” LGBTQ historian and Harvard professor Michael Bronski told NBC News.
“Since the late 20th, early 21st century, one of the quandaries that gay men and lesbians faced was that you needed to be visible to form a community, but visibility brought community and also danger,” Bronski explained.
Bronski said in the wake of homophobic violence, many LGBTQ people felt like “the community had to take care of itself.”
“In Houston, there was the Q Patrol in the '90s, which banded together after gay bashes and attacks,” Rafael McDonnell, the communications and advocacy manager at Resource Center, an LGBT service organization in North Texas, told NBC News.
Q Patrol, McDonnell explained, evolved from a group called the Montrose Patrol, an LGBTQ watch group that had been around since the '70s and took its name from the city’s gay Montrose District.
McDonnell is part of his own watchdog group, Take Back Oak Lawn. Formed in 2015 in response to “a wave of attacks” against LGBTQ people in the Dallas gayborhood of Oak Lawn, the group “came together to highlight safety issues and conduct patrol in the neighborhood,” he said.
In Austin, Acock hopes the newly formed Rainbow Patrol will perform a similar function.
“LGBT [people] have a very interesting history with the police and more police is not the solution to these attacks,” Acock said. “We can be that contact point between the community and the police when there needs to be one, and help our own community from within.”
While the Rainbow Patrol was founded specifically to help LGBTQ people, Acock said he hopes it can help anybody who doesn’t feel safe downtown.
“Austin still has racism problems, we have transphobia problems, we have a whole slew of things,” Acock said. “There are people who don’t feel safe going downtown period, because at night it’s a whole bunch of drunk white people. But this is everyone’s downtown.”
Although it has only been around for a few weeks, Acock is already flooded with people who want to volunteer, and has a full roster through March. He hopes going forward the group can expand, and work to build the trust of other marginalized groups in Austin.
“There were tons of groups like this in the '90s, but AIDS truly wiped out an entire generation of leadership, and I’ve been missing that,” Acock said. “I’m part of a new generation of 'guncles' (gay uncles) and fun aunts and cool cousins who are out and proud and don’t sit down when this stuff happens. It’s time for all my 'guncles' to stand up and do stuff, because we used to, and we need to again.”