The theme of San Francisco Pride 2016 was “For Racial and Economic Justice.” One of the parade’s grand marshals was scheduled to represent Black Lives Matter. However, divergent reactions to the Orlando nightclub massacre and other issues of violence exposed tensions among Pride’s organizers and some LGBTQ communities of color.
The relationship between police officers and the Black community is currently at the center of an ongoing national discussion about racism, violence, safety, and law enforcement in the U.S. following a string of high-profile police shootings of Black citizens and retaliatory shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
As the nation reflects on the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement, activists across the country are mobilizing to dismantle structural and interpersonal white privilege and supremacy and rethinking the future of policing. Recognizing the primacy of this movement, it is necessary that members of the LGBTQ communities join this struggle by discussing and fighting against the alliance between white LGBTQ people and the police.
In the wake of the slaying of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, San Francisco Pride organizers decided to heighten security at the city’s festivities. Organizers installed security screenings and metal detectors at event entrance points and requested a larger police presence at all Pride events in the city.
Sam Singer, a spokesman for the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Celebration Committee, said that Pride organizers contacted the police in the aftermath of the shooting to discuss security arrangements for the city’s events.According to Deputy Chief Michael Redmond of the San Francisco Police Department, there were approximately 25 percent more officers (both uniformed and plainclothes) on duty to monitor the city’s celebrations. Redmond did not give an estimate of the total number of police officers who patrolled the festivities.
The parade itself was quite similar to the past several years’, albeit with a noticeably larger police presence. Officers dotted Market Street on bikes and on foot; some stood on street corners patrolling, while others moved along the parade route with marchers.
The recent events in Orlando had cast a somewhat somber pall over the beginning of the parade, as a large group of marchers holding signs bearing the names and portraits of those massacred in the shooting led the parade. The reminder of the mass shooting momentarily subdued the crowd, but as the floats transitioned to corporate sponsors, the mood lightened and became more boisterous.
Companies like Virgin America, Facebook, Apple, and Google took center stage with flashy floats, scantily-clad dancers, contingents of employees decked out in rainbow apparel, and blaring dance music.
A break in the corporate delegations came in the form of a group of marchers carrying coffins decorated with the names and portraits of several Black and Latino men killed by San Francisco police in recent years: Mario Woods, Luis Gongora, and Alex Nieto. In contrast with the lively corporate floats with their saccharine slogans and catchy pop tunes, these marchers were solemn and reverent. They stood silent amidst the thumping music and cheers of the crowd. For a poignant moment, they stood motionless at the intersection, holding their protest signs and coffins high in the air. Then they continued to march slowly up Market Street.
Directly following these marchers was a float for Uber, the ride-sharing service emblematic of the fight between tech companies and Bay Area residents over the region’s rapid gentrification and displacement of low-income residents and residents of color. Uber employees danced on a float emblazoned with rainbows, the San Francisco skyline, and the sugary-yet-empty phrase, “#LoveMovesUs.”
The juxtaposition of these two groups lays bare the stark differences in the LGBTQ communities’ political priorities and strategies, as some wealthier/whiter LGBTQ communities promote assimilation and inclusion in capitalist structures as a vehicle for “progress,” while some low-income/LGBTQ communities of color are left behind to contend with intense racial and economic injustice (in addition to homophobia and transphobia).
These vignettes underscore some of the tensions underlying the issue of police at Pride (which itself speaks to the larger issues of a fractured/divided community): Who is served by the additional security measures and who is harmed? Who is supported at Pride (wealthier LGBTQ communities) and who is alienated (low-income LGBTQ communities of color)? Which parts of our community are centered, and which parts are pushed to the margins?
Of course, law enforcement officials are in a rather awkward situation regarding Pride. Without increased security measures at Pride, the police would likely be criticized by some LGBTQ community members for not taking seriously the reality of homophobic/transphobic violence and not caring about the protection of vulnerable groups. Moreover, not all LGBTQ people of color hold negative feelings about the police or feel threatened by an increased police presence at Pride. Any action (or inaction) relating to the police is so fraught with tension and controversy that there is unlikely to be a solution that satisfies the needs and desires of all the diverse LGBTQ communities. Given the complicated nature of the dialogue surrounding police presence in various LGBTQ communities, it makes sense that the decision to increase police presence at San Francisco Pride would provoke diverse reactions.
In response to the increased police presence, Black Lives Matter, this year’s most high-profile organizational grand marshal, announced that it would no longer be participating in the parade. Likewise, two Bay Area organizations – the Transgender, Gender-Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project) and St. James Infirmary – dropped out of the parade in protest. Before the weekend’s events, the three groups published ajoint press releaseto explain their decision to pull out of the parade.
“As queer people of color, we are disproportionately targeted by both vigilante and police violence,” said Black Lives Matter member Malkia Cyril. “We know firsthand that increasing the police presence at Pride does not increase safety for all people. Militarizing these events increases the potential for harm to our communities and we hope in the future SF Pride will consider community-centered approaches to security at pride events.”
Representatives of the TGI Justice Project (which works to end the systemic abuse of incarcerated transgender, gender-variant, and intersex people) and St. James Infirmary (which is a peer-led health and social services organization for sex workers) echoed this sentiment.
“The decision to add more police to Pride does not make me, or my community, more safe,” said TGI Justice Project Executive Director Janetta Johnson.
St. James Infirmary Executive Director Stephany Ashley further outlined the potential dangers of the security measures, noting that LGBTQ sex workers are particularly vulnerable to police abuse.
“LGBT sex workers are often victims of violence and exploitation at the hands of police. The increased police presence at Civic Center, as well as the ban on shopping carts and items typically belonging to marginally housed and homeless people will only make pride less safe and accessible to our communities,” Ashley said. “These policies do not reflect the theme of racial & economic justice which we sought to march under proudly.”
The groups’ apprehension towards the police is well-founded. Throughout American history, queer and trans people have faced violence, harassment, discrimination, criminalization, and incarceration due to their sexual orientations and gender identities. Until the twenty-first century, many cities and states enforced anti-sodomy laws and anti-cross-dressing laws, which were designed to explicitly suppress and regulate “non-normative” sexual acts and gender expressions. Police have frequently used laws against vagrancy, lewdness, and disorderly conduct to harass and arrest LGBTQ people. Laws that criminalize HIV, indecency laws, and drug enforcement laws also disproportionately impact LGBTQ people.
Homophobic and transphobic policing is not a relic of the Stonewall bar-raiding era. In March 2015 the Williams Institute, a UCLA-based law and public policy think tank dedicated to independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity, published a comprehensive reportoutlining the discrimination and harassment faced by LGBTQ people today. The institute highlights that a 2014 national survey found that, of the 73 percent of respondents who had interacted directly with police in the past five years, 21 percent had experienced hostile attitudes from officers and 14 percent had been verbally assaulted by officers. Similarly, a 2013 report found that 48 percent of LGBTQ survivors of violence who interacted with police had experienced police misconduct, such as unjustified arrest and excessive force. In 2011, a study reported that 22 percent of transgender people had been subject to harassment by law enforcement.
Furthermore, LGBTQ adults and youth are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. According to a report published in February by the Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project, although only 3.8 percent of American adults identify as LGBTQ, 7.9 percent of the state and federal prison population identifies as LGBTQ. In the juvenile justice system, an estimated 20 percent of those detained identify as LGBTQ, while only 7-9 percent of all youth identify as LGBTQ.
Queer and trans people of color are especially vulnerable to violence at the hands of the police. The Williams Institute report notes that survey respondents of color experienced higher rates of police abuse, neglect, and misconduct. The data show that LGBTQ people of color (along with transgender people and LGBTQ youth) are at the greatest risk of harassment and discrimination by the police. This is partly due to the fact that communities of color (particularly Black and Latino folks) are already disproportionately targeted by law enforcement due to their race, so LGBTQ people of color face marginalization on behalf of both their race and sexual orientation/gender identity, which magnifies and intensifies the potential for violence and abuse.
Because of these abysmal circumstances, there is considerable – and understandable – mistrust towards law enforcement within LGBTQ communities of color. According to a2015 surveyof San Francisco’s LGBTQ community, only 50 percent of LGBTQ people of color and 40 percent of transgender people of color believed the police would help them if they needed it.
Given this context, it is somewhat ironic (though not unexpected) that police had such a significant presence at San Francisco Pride, especially considering that the parade’s theme this year was “For Racial and Economic Justice.”
It is problematic for a celebration that is meant to honor the legacy of the Stonewall Uprising – which was a protest against police brutality led by Black and Latina trans women – to eagerly and uncritically partner with law enforcement organizations that have continually threatened the safety of people of color and other marginalized groups, such as undocumented immigrants, Muslim people, homeless people, people with mental illnesses, and sex workers. Racially and/or economically privileged members of the LGBTQ community should rethink why they endorse mass surveillance, militarism, and state-sponsored violence as strategies for LGBTQ progress, if they do, given the reality of how these policies disproportionally negatively affect low-income LGBTQ communities of color. Embracing militarism and the police state is ultimately a flawed, short-sighted, and wholly counterproductive plan that undermines our community’s well-being.
Sofie Werthan wasa summer intern atTikkun. She is a junior at Wellesley College, where she majors in ethnic studies with a concentration in history. Her academic interests include racial politics, gender, and carceral studies.
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