Pride, welcoming to all, but what about police?

Mayor Lyda Krewson of St. Louis said in a statement that officers belonged at the Pride parade because “exclusion of the Police Department, or of anyone, is not in the spirit of our city.”

Pride, welcoming to all, but what about police?

Organizers of LGBT Pride festivities in Toronto voted this year to bar the police indefinitely from their parade. In Minneapolis, the police decided not to march, citing community opposition to their presence. And Vancouver Pride organizers in British Columbia said officers could march alongside city employees such as librarians and park workers, but only if they left their uniforms at home.

Uniformed police officers were barred from marching in Sacramento and St. Louis until organizers in both cities reversed their decisions after criticism from law enforcement groups and others. And LGBT activists in New York plan to shun official Pride events this weekend in favor of an alternative march that will exclude police officers and corporate sponsors.

“This is where the movement is heading, and it is happening nationwide,” said Sayer Johnson, executive director of the Metro Trans Umbrella Group, the nonprofit that will serve as grand marshal of St. Louis’ Grand Pride Parade on Sunday. “Whether or not people want to pay attention to it, this is where we are going.”

Mayor Lyda Krewson of St. Louis said in a statement that officers belonged at the Pride parade because “exclusion of the Police Department, or of anyone, is not in the spirit of our city.”

But the spirit of Pride is another question, LGBT activists say. They have long debated what place, if any, uniformed police officers should have at Pride marches, which began as a commemoration of a 1969 anti-police riot outside the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan.

Those debates have crossed into the mainstream since 2016 — the year President Donald Trump was elected and the Black Lives Matter movement dominated headlines. They have boiled over into the churn of social media and the muted boardrooms of big-city Pride organizations.

The result has been protests at Pride events in cities such as Toronto, Washington and New York. In 2017, a dozen activists were arrested during a sit-in outside the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, which stopped the march. It was an embarrassing spectacle for an event commemorating a police raid on that very spot.

Regardless of whether organizers invite police officers to participate, they are obligated to provide security for public events like marches. For decades, activists frustrated by the presence of police officers, politicians and corporate sponsors at Pride marches have organized their own events. The oldest may be the Dyke March, a protest started in 1993 by the Lesbian Avengers in Washington. Dyke Marches are now held annually in cities around the world.

“The police don’t have a place in Pride for me, personally, and I would say they are not doing a good job of maintaining peace in our community,” said Alex Tereshonkova, a Dyke March organizer. “Their priority is to keep the traffic moving, not the safety of 20,000 dykes in the street.”

But a poll conducted this month by Whitman Insight Strategies and BuzzFeed News found that 79% of LGBT Americans welcomed police participation in Pride events, including parades. Only 8% said they opposed including the police, and 13% said they did not have strong feelings either way.

The poll found strong support among nonwhite LGBT people for police participation: 77% said they supported including police officers in Pride events, compared with 8% who opposed doing so and 15% who said they did not have strong feelings on the matter.

Activists who want to keep the police out of Pride events draw a straight line from the Stonewall raid to present-day police misconduct that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. When James P. O’Neill, the New York City police commissioner, apologized this month for the 1969 raid, some activists rejected it as an empty gesture.

“He framed it as Stonewall was this thing the NYPD did 50 years ago and it is something that would never happen today,” said Colin P. Ashley, an organizer with the Reclaim Pride Coalition in New York. “This isn’t just historical, it is continual.”

Ashley, whose group is organizing a Queer Liberation March on Sunday that will include no police officers or corporate sponsors, pointed to police shootings like the 2016 killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota or the unexplained death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman, at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York this month as proof that the past is not really past.

“For us, Stonewall is connected to a larger system of structural violence that includes mass incarceration,” Ashley said. “These institutions haven’t really figured out how to deal with trans and queer people at all, or with people of color, and so they end up disproportionately harming them.”

Caught in the middle of this debate are LGBT law enforcement officers, some of whom have spent years working to improve the relationship between gay and transgender people and the police.

“I respect activists and by definition I think I am an activist,” said Brian Downey, a detective with the New York Police Department and the president of the New York chapter of the Gay Officers Action League, a nationwide organization of LGBT law enforcement employees. “But change in an institution like this is a marathon; it is not a sprint.”

For gay officers, the prospect of being excluded from Pride events can feel like an attack from their own community. It may feel as though they are being blamed for the misdeeds of overwhelmingly heterosexual agencies that can still be challenging places for LGBT people to work.

“I understand optics,” said Downey, who is white. “I understand that we’re not everybody’s favorite people. I respect that. I understand that there are people that have experienced things that I haven’t experienced in my life. I am very aware of it. And I try to maintain the maximum level of sensitivity to that.”

But Johnson said barring uniformed officers did not mean barring people who work for the Police Department. He said the presence of police uniforms or weapons was both symbolic and a practical concern for people who often live in fear of law enforcement.

Leaving those things at home could be “an opportunity for the police to say, ‘We see you, we value you, we know we have hurt you and we are sorry,’” he said.

The decision to once again allow officers to march in the St. Louis parade came after pressure from the police union and the city government, Johnson said.

Organizers in Sacramento used the brief ban on police uniforms to get the department to agree to hire a liaison officer, create a community advisory committee, hold community forums and devise an officer training program — all dedicated to LGBT issues.

“Do I wish the Police Department had been interested in having these discussions months or years ago? Absolutely,” David Heitstuman, the executive director of the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, said. “But the circumstances were that they were unhappy they couldn’t participate in uniform.”

Gay Officers Action League members have marched in Pride parades across the country since the group was founded in 1982, and Downey said several hundred planned to march in New York on Sunday.

The group sued the Police Department in 1996 for the right to fully participate in the New York parade. James Fallarino, a spokesman for NYC Pride, called the court victory “a point in our history that has significance.”

“We have always treated the New York City Pride March as a free speech event, which means any group is welcome to register and participate in the march,” Fallarino said. “We don’t limit people in how they dress or express themselves and that means, for some folks, wearing your work uniform.”

Members of the gay officers group have trained officers and advised the department on how to approach LGBT people. They have instituted patrol-guide revisions and policy recommendations aimed at addressing the concerns of transgender officers and civilians, Downey said.

They have also participated in community celebrations across the country, including raising money for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida and serving food at Youth Pride Fest in New York, an event primarily attended by young LGBT people of color.

Being part of the parade is another way to build a bridge, but it may be one that not everybody wants to cross.

“I am at a point where I think they understand what I do and I understand what they do,” Downey said of LGBT activists skeptical of the police. “I can’t stress it enough that I respect what they are doing. Whether they respect what I am doing remains to be seen.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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