COMMENTARY: The Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality took place this past weekend and was a spirited, enlivening, cultural melting pot comprising 50,000 enthusiastic participants, the ending of which was unfortunately marred by momentary police violence, somehow very fitting on the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Riots that happened only a few hundred yards away.
Because of the arrival of COVID-19 this spring, annual LGBT Pride festivities around the world had been canceled. But, as health conditions improved in NYC a month ago and the importance and visibility of Black Lives Matter grew after the murder of George Floyd, a consensus developed that NYC needed a march and it had to be centered on the movement for Black lives.
Fortunately, Reclaim Pride, a scrappy do-it-yourself LGBTQ activist group formed in 2018 in reaction to the inflexibility of Heritage of Pride, the traditional NYC Pride March organizing body, took over and made it happen.
Reclaim Pride is democratic to an extreme: there are no leaders, no spokesperson, and every member has an equal voice. I’m a nominal part of the organizing committee and sat in on the final Zoom organizing call four days before the march.
Having created an event of such magnitude in only three weeks, Reclaim NYC Pride was flexible enough to pull it off. Last week's New Yorker Magazine compared it to the traditional organizers in this way: "It's as if the COVID-19 meteor killed off a twelve-million-dollar dinosaur, and a smaller, more resourceful organism survived to fill the parade-sized void."
As a 68 y.o. bald man with a history of bronchial issues, I’m vulnerable to the virus four different ways, so I’ve been cautious in terms of protecting myself from potential infection. My decision to attend the march two days ago was the first major risk I’ve taken since the lockdown began in NYC on March 22nd. I felt the importance of standing up for the equal treatment of blacks and LGBTQ people at this fraught time justified the risk.
Fortunately, the event was outdoors, where the risk is known to be reduced. Further, I promised myself I’d limit my time at the march, wear a mask and bike gloves throughout, practice social distancing (where I could), and keep moving around often (where social distancing wasn’t possible). With that in mind, I set off on Sunday for the staging ground at Foley Square.
The crowd was spirited and came from every background imaginable, which was uplifting. There were lots of Blacks, of course, but many other people of color. And not only LGBTQers, but many allies, too. Not surprisingly, many were decked out in fabulous outfits.
There were chants and singing, people using megaphones, and some “kickoff” remarks around the center of the square, near NYC’s City Hall. Fifteen feet-high puppets on poles representing various LGBTQ people of color, like Sylvia Rivera and Bayard Ruskin, were being held aloft by a corps of marchers.
Then, the march took off, at one point passing in front of a police detail patrolling City Hall Park. The stoic looks on their faces as the crowd shouted in unison, “No Police Violence”, “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” and other cheers contrasted markedly with the purposeful and lively appearance of the march’s participants.
The press accurately reported that QLM was an unlicensed march. What the media didn’t explain is the reason why: many people-of-color participants in the community have had negative interactions with police and understandably aren’t comfortable around them, especially after the George Floyd incident. Accordingly, the organizers preferred to minimize the police presence (and eliminate corporate involvement, keeping the focus purely on the people).
By not applying for a license, Reclaim NYC Pride was able to almost entirely exclude police involvement from the event.
Street intersections were patrolled by volunteer marshalls recruited by the organizing committee. Other than the abovementioned detail, the ONLY police presence I noticed during my two hours at the march was four policemen on motorcycles who served as the advance guard, ensuring that no street traffic blocked the path of those marching.
After two hours in extreme heat and given my promise to limit my time at the march, I decided to return home. As a result, I missed the violence that later erupted, the result of senseless police provocation that ruined a purely celebratory mood.
The march ended at Washington Square Park and impromptu celebratory dancing broke out. Some police were present, but not many, until a dozen or so additional cops arrived, along with 3 or 4 police cruisers, raced into the mass of participants, and began trying to arrest a couple of attendees, ostensibly for having planted graffiti (Rumor has it they defaced one of the patrol cars.).
Talk about not considering their surroundings! They were in the midst of thousands of defiant LGBT people and allies who’d just spent the afternoon demonstrating against police violence. Trying to make a couple of arrests for a minor crime at that moment was an unwise move on their part.
I heard the targets were black trans people, but that’s unconfirmed. According to an e-mail circulated among the organizing committee afterward, a group of white marchers at one point formed a line, encircling their arms around each other, and, in a show of solidarity, refused to let the police through to reach the POC “perpetrators”.
Eventually, the police contingent recognized the hostile situation they were in, began attempting to leave, and seemingly panicked. In the process, they pushed demonstrators to the ground, knocked over some bystanders on bicycles, and pepper-sprayed a dozen (doing the same to a few of their police peers in the process).
They carried a few march participants off with them, later arresting them. Hours later, the NYPD still hadn’t disclosed how many they had arrested, what crimes had ostensibly been committed, or even accurately informed the organizers which jail their friends were being detained in.
An amusing coda to this story, provided in one of the e-mails circulated among committee members after the violence had ended:
“Overheard in Washington Square Park (by a Reclaim Pride livestream correspondent packing up near the south side of the park). As a line of cops walked towards the north side melee, one policeman said to the others, ‘Those guys are invincible and they know it.’ “
The outburst of unprompted violence by the police and the visibility it received weren’t good optics for the NYPD and may have proved costly: it had previously been publicly announced that the NYC City Council would vote two days later on the city’s annual budget, including a proposed $1 billion cut in the NYPD’s fiscal budget. When the vote was held yesterday, about $850 million in cuts were announced (though some observers say the actual figures were overstated). And today, NY State Senator James Sanders Jr called for an investigation into the police clash with LGBTQ/Black Lives Matters Protesters.