Billy Pat Clamp is one of 149 people taken hostage in three buildings in Washington, D.C. on March 9, 1977, by a dozen members of a fringe Muslim group called the Hanafis in an incident that many consider the first major act of domestic terrorism in the United States.
Clamp, who was 36 at the time, was working in his office as a bookkeeper at the international Jewish human rights organization B’nai B’rith’s headquarters building on Rhode Island Avenue, N.W., when members of the Hanafi group stormed the building. They were armed with shotguns and machetes.
They herded Clamp and about 100 other employees into a large room under construction on the building’s top floor, tied their hands, and forced them to lie face down on a concrete floor, according to accounts by Clamp and others.
Clamp was unable to attend a 40th anniversary commemoration in D.C. two weeks ago of what has become known as the Hanafi siege. But he spoke to the Washington Blade last week about his own harrowing experience when one of the gunmen determined he was gay after searching his pockets and discovering a tube of lipstick.
His latest Blade interview came just under 40 years after he talked to the Blade a month following the incident, which led to a story about his experience as a gay hostage published in the April 1977 edition of the Blade.
“What happened is my hands were tied behind my back,” Clamp said in the Blade interview last week. “And there was a lady standing there who worked at B’nai B’rith. The women’s hands were not tied. And he asked me what do you have in your pockets?” Clamp recalled one of the gunmen asking him.
“I said money and keys. And he asked the woman to go into my pockets and she pulled out money and keys,” said Clamp. “Then he said what’s in the next pocket? She was very, very nervous and she pulled out a tube of lipstick,” Clamp recounted.
“And he said, ‘Lipstick!’ He screamed it out and he said are you a faggot? And the lady said no I’m not,” terrified that the gunman was talking to her, Clamp said.
“I’m not talking to you I’m talking to him,” Clamp quoted the gunman as saying.
With everyone else in the room seeming to turn their heads in horror to watch what was happening, Clamp recalled his response came out in an almost serene way.
“I thought to myself – it went through my mind very quickly that I know who I am,” he told the Blade. “He can’t tell me who I am. If I’m going to be killed I want to be who I am. I looked over at him and I said, ‘Yes I am.’ I remember that very well,” Clamp recalls.
The gunman, holding the tube of lipstick, next asked him, “Do you use this?” Clamp recalls. “Yes I do,” he remembers saying.
Clamp later told his colleagues he used the lipstick to brighten his cheeks and never used it on his lips. Conscious about his appearance, he said he liked the idea of going to work with rosy cheeks. But at the time he determined this explanation would have made little or no difference to the gunman interrogating him.
“And then all hell broke loose,” Clamp said. “He took me and he threw me up against the wall. And my head was against the wall. My hands were tied behind my back. And he took a rifle and hit my legs so I was on a slant.”
Meanwhile, within an hour of their takeover of the B’nai B’rith building, other armed members of the Hanafi group seized control of the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. along Embassy Row, where they took about a dozen people hostage.
A third two-man contingent, in what authorities now determined was a well thought out plan, stormed into the District Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., where they planned to take hostage then-D.C. Mayor Walter Washington. As they entered the 5th floor of the building they shot a security guard who had approached to investigate what was happening. He later died after suffering a fatal heart attack while in the hospital.
One of the gunmen next shot to death a 24-year-old reporter for WHUR Radio, Maurice Williams, who covered the D.C. government beat, seconds after Williams unknowingly walked into the area where the gunmen were.
Also shot and seriously wounded was then-D.C. Council member Marion Barry, who was hit with a shotgun pellet that struck one inch from his heart. Barry recovered from his gunshot wound and won election as mayor one year later.
At the 40th anniversary commemoration held at the building where Williams, Barry, and the security guard were shot, which is now called the Wilson Building, then-D.C. Police Chief Maurice Cullinane told of how he engaged with the Hanafi leader in a dialogue by phone for close to 40 hours before a negotiated agreement was reached. The hostages were released, with most unharmed. Some, like Clamp, had been roughed up but not seriously injured.
Cullinane, former U.S. Attorney for D.C. Earl Silbert, and Assistant U.S. Attorney at the time Mark Touhey recounted the motive behind the Hanafi siege. They noted that the Hanafi leader, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, sought to get revenge for an incident that took place four years earlier in which members of his family, including his 9-day-old grandson, were murdered in his home while he was someplace else by members of a rival sect of U.S. Muslims.
Authorities said the murders took place a short time after Khaalis began speaking out against a leader of the Nation of Islam organization. Cullinane said several men from Philadelphia were arrested and convicted for the murders. But over the next four years, according to Cullinane, Khaalis became obsessed with extracting revenge on the men convicted for the murders, who were then serving long prison terms.
In his negotiations with Cullinane, Khaalis demanded that authorities deliver the convicted men to him at the B’nai B’rith building and threatened to cut off the heads of hostages if authorities failed to comply with his demand.
Cullinane credited help he received from the ambassadors from Egypt and Iran, whose citizens were among the hostages at the Islamic Center. He said the ambassadors helped him reach a carefully negotiated agreement in which Khaalis directed his gunmen to release all of the hostages in exchange for him to be allowed to remain free at home while awaiting trial. He was later convicted on charges of armed kidnapping and conspiracy. Cullinane said Khaalis died in prison in 2003.
Clamp, 76, who now lives in Rehoboth Beach, told the Blade in the 1977 interview that the gunman who had been roughing him up was replaced by another gunman who untied Clamp’s hands and allowed him to use the bathroom. As he was being untied Clamp said he asked whether the first gunman was going to come back and hurt him.
“He won’t hurt you,” Clamp quoted the second gunman as saying. “We’re only teasing you. Everybody’s born to be different and to be what they want to be,” Clamp recalled being told.
In 2002, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT political advocacy group, bought the B’nai B’rith building after B’nai B’rith moved to another building nearby. After completing a renovation project, HRC in 2003 moved into the building, which became its national headquarters.
“HRC was honored to carry on the civil rights tradition in B’nai B’rith’s former home,” a statement on the HRC website says.