As the punches kept coming, landing across his face and head, Kenni Shaw tried to talk to his five attackers but couldn't get the words out.
"I was pinned down by punches," Shaw said of the beating he received Christmas night, outside the East Baltimore liquor store he frequents near his home. "It was so hard that I felt my lip and side face swell up immediately. I was trying to talk to these guys, but they weren't letting me talk."
Instead, they were intent on beating him — simply out of hate, said Shaw, a 30-year-old gay man.
"I was just beaten in my face. Nothing was taken. No words were exchanged before the incident," he said. "So to me, I think it was a hate crime."
Police are still investigating the assault and have "some good leads in the case," but have not determined a motive, said Detective Jeremy Silbert, a Baltimore police spokesman.
To Shaw, the motive is clear.
He knows he stands out in his Berea neighborhood. His dyed blond hair rests atop a wiry, 6-foot frame. His chosen career path, as a cosmetologist and hairstylist, puts him at odds with the tough mentality of other men in the neighborhood. He's noticed the tension that creates before, in offhand comments muttered by men he doesn't know but recognizes, about them not wanting "faggots living on the block," he said.
For that and other reasons, Shaw generally keeps to himself, he said. He tries not to bother anyone.
Still, trouble found him Christmas night.
After a Christmas Eve celebration with family, Shaw was back home nursing a cold. He'd popped into the liquor store near the intersection of East Hoffman and North Rose streets about 9 p.m. just as five men were heading out, but didn't pay them much attention. He chatted briefly with the clerk before leaving the store and heading home.
Outside, not far from the store, he was suddenly punched from behind, he said. For minutes on end, the punches kept falling, he said. One man had clearly initiated the attack, but the others joined in, he said.
Shaw said he remained conscious, and could feel each blow. Finally, someone else came out of the store and his attackers left. At least they'd only used their fists, he said.
Shaw gathered himself and made it home. Inside, he called his mother.
"I can't even describe that moment for me. I thought my world was ending," said Sheila Shaw, his mother. "No parent wants to get that phone call. The tone of his voice ... I thought, 'He's strong enough to make the phone call, but I'm probably going to lose my son.'"
While he was on the phone, police arrived on the block. Neighbors must have called for them, Shaw thought. Soon, they were banging on his door.
Shaw was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital. His face and head were bloodied and badly swollen; his knees and elbows scraped. Luckily, doctors told him he didn't have any fractures, he said.
By Thursday night, Shaw, who is staying with his mother in Baltimore County, said he had recovered some. His swelling had gone down about 50 percent, he said.
And the more it goes down, the more he wants to stand up, he said.
"It makes me angry and upset, but at the same time, I am here and I made it through," he said. "I just want to stand and make sure I have a voice, so this doesn't happen again to a loved one or anyone."
Shaw believes strongly that he was attacked because he is gay, and he said he has had discussions about that with police, who have been receptive.
"This needs to be spoken to because somebody needs to take a stand," he said. "Hate crimes happen every day."
Shaw's mother said she is standing solidly by his side.
"There's a lot of crime in Baltimore City, but I'm just one of the parents who is willing to stand up. I'm just sick and tired," she said. "As long as my son is willing to stand up, I'm going to back my son 100 percent."
Silbert, the police spokesman, said if suspects are identified and arrested in Shaw's beating, police will consult directly with the state's attorney's office to determine the appropriate charges. Whether the attack constituted a hate crime would be decided then.
A determination by a court that a crime was fueled by hate can increase a convicted person's sentence.
Meanwhile, Shaw said he has been overwhelmed by the positive feedback he has gotten from friends and strangers, more than 200 of whom left comments on a photo he posted on his Instagram account of his bruised and swollen face.
"I'm glad I could share my story and people could empathize with the story, because I'm getting a lot of feedback from people who have been through it or who have had family members who have been through it," Shaw said. "I'm glad I could be a spokesman, because a lot of people don't make it through situations like this."
Anyone with information related to Shaw's beating is asked to call Eastern District detectives at 410-396-2433.