Two months after cops busted nine men on public indecency charges in Zwicks Park, Belleville is still reeling from the sting and the media frenzy where the charged men were named.
In mid-March, two undercover police officers in an unmarked car spent several afternoons in the west lot of Zwicks Park, a well-known Belleville cruising area. The officers were evidently well-acquainted with a popular form of cruising in which men meet up or have sex in their cars. As one undercover officer explained to the media, “We’ve been pulling up to these vehicles and they will openly masturbate in front of us.”
None of the men’s alleged sexual activities occurred outdoors in the park but were confined to their cars, including two men caught having sex in the back of a van. In one case, one of the accused men apparently approached the unmarked police vehicle.
“He walked right up to my window, asked me how I was and grabbed me by the balls,” claimed one undercover officer. That man is now facing a sexual assault charge.
The nine men are from Belleville, with a population of less than 50,000, and the surrounding county. Zwicks Park, like other public sex sites, draws gay men and other men who have sex with men, described in the press as married with children.
Though the arrested men are obviously media shy, Xtra was able to contact other Belleville-area cruisers on condition of anonymity; we’ve changed their names.
“It’s almost entrapment… actually, it is entrapment,” says Pete, an out gay student at the local college. The effect of the arrests has been to give people “another reason to think gays are deviants,” Pete says. He is quick to add that, “Belleville isn’t the most gay-accepting place in the world.”
David laments the heightened police and public scrutiny of recent weeks.
“I visit the park on a regular basis, and I think it sucks,” he says, adding that in a small place such as Belleville, with no bars, bathhouses or community centres, the park is a vital meeting place.
“In the summer, there is a picnic table over by the dog run and there would be maybe 20 guys hanging out, not having sex, just a friendly chat with others like themselves.”
David doesn’t shy away from the fact of sex in the park. “If the opportunity for sex arises, then go for it,” he says. “Most men are very discreet about it.”
But police surveillance has put a chill on both the sexual and social dynamics of the park.
“Many men are scared away,” David says. “Now you can’t sit for five minutes without the police cruising through and shining big spot lights on you.”
While the most recent crackdown may be unprecedented in its severity, police surveillance of men’s activities in the park is nothing new.
“I was driving through and they pulled me over and asked me 300 questions – what are you doing here, how long have you been here, where are you from,” David says in reference to an experience a year ago. The police are “just in there giving any single guys a hard time.”
Lorne, another man who goes to the park all the time and knows three of those arrested, says he could see the crackdown coming. He says that over the past two years, groundskeepers have trimmed bushes and removed trees, in what some see as an attempt to discourage sexual activity. Lorne says the charged men should have been more careful.
“I feel sorry for them but they were not discreet by doing it in the daytime.” To him and others, the actions of some of the arrested men broke the implicit code of discretion and careful use that governs public sex and which, despite occasional police harassment, allows it to carry on.
Since the arrests, Lorne notes that cruising “has moved to other parks in the area.” Recent events have not deterred him from going to the park, although he admits he’s more cautious.
“We [now] know the cars, so that helps,” he says of the Belleville police force’s eight unmarked police vehicles. “I still go every night. Only thing, my friends and I are more discrete about who we talk to.”
As for the arrested men, Lorne says they are “really left with the short end of the stick.”
Most of the accused men appear in Belleville court on Thu, May 16.
* Steve Maynard lives in Kingston.