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New York City LGBTQ bar set ablaze in arson attack

The recently opened Brooklyn venue, Rash Bar, had quickly become a fixture in the city’s queer nightlife scene.
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A bar serving LGBTQ New Yorkers has closed after an arson attack over the weekend, the New York City Police Department confirmed Wednesday. 

At approximately 9 p.m. on Sunday, a man walked into the Rash Bar in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood with a bottle of flammable liquid, poured it on the bar’s floor, lit a match and set the venue ablaze, according to the NYPD. Police said the suspect fled as the bar became engulfed in flames.

Jake Sillen, one of the bar’s owners, told NBC News on Wednesday that they are still in shock. 

“It’s so hard to believe and process,” said Sillen, 26, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. “It’s more confusing than anything.” 

The Rash Bar in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.
The Rash Bar in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.Rash Bar / via NBC New York

Three people — a bartender, DJ and security guard — were inside when the venue was set on fire. A 25-year-old female was transported to nearby Wyckoff Heights Medical Center with minor burns, while another victim was evaluated on the scene for minor burns to the shoulders, the NYPD said. 

Claire Bendiner, a co-owner of Rash, had just stepped outside when the fire broke out. 

“Everyone rushed out,” Bendiner told NBC New York. “The side door has a glass front, and I looked over and saw flames to the top of ceiling. It was crazy, it happened so fast.”

The bar was left unrecognizable and torched, NBC New York reported.

Bendiner, who uses they/them pronouns, said the suspect boldly left behind evidence. 

“He left the gas canister inside. Kind of calmly placed it on the bar counter. Wasn’t knocked over or anything,” they told NBC New York. 

Police are reviewing surveillance footage that shows someone filling up a gas can minutes before the fire.

'Easy target'

Police are still investigating a motive for the incident, and no arrests have been made. The bar’s owner declined to comment on the suspect’s intentions but noted that serving a large LGBTQ clientele makes the space vulnerable. 

“I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, because we don’t know anything about the person that did this,” Sillen said. “It could easily turn out to be a motive that we aren’t expecting.” 

“It’s easy to see why our space would be an easy target for someone looking to do harm to the queer community,” they said, adding that in Rash Bar, “people feel safe to be themselves, and it’s a shame that anybody would do anything to threaten this.” 

Since the bar opened nearly five months ago, it has become a staple in LGBTQ nightlife and a refuge for queer young adults and performers. It is also known for being packed late into the night, according to NBC New York.

This is not the only reported incident targeting bars in or near the Bushwick neighborhood that are popular with the city’s LGBTQ community: In February, someone threw a pepper-bomb spray on the dance floor at a party for the Black queer community at Nowadays, and last summer there was a wave of attacks at Happyfun Hideaway. 

“We, definitely in the last year, have seen a rise in anti-LGBT violence,” Sillen said, noting that more people are taking cars to and from parties. “The streets haven’t been as safe as they were three or four years ago.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the bar owners had raised $52,000 of their $200,000 goal on GoFundMe to help reconstruct the damaged building and care for the injured employees. Sillen said they are thankful for the outpouring of support. 

“What we’re doing is important, and no matter what, we will be reopening,” Sillen said. “We’ve never once thought about that not being a possibility.” 

Sillen, who is still on edge after the fire, said they have a message for the arsonist. 

“Turn yourself in,” Sillen said. “You’ve harmed so many people. Not just physically, but the waves that this is going to create — between the loss of income, wages and just the space for as long as it’s going to be gone. … It’s a lot of loss.”

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