Understanding the Police Debate at Pride

Posted by Olivia Williams & filed under Current Affairs.

The Canadian Press / Darryl Dyck

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It’s Pride month for Vancouver, trailing behind the June celebrations in other major cities. The question of police participation in Pride has been a hot-button topic across Canada after last year’s Toronto Pride parade was briefly halted by BLM demonstrators protesting the inclusion of uniformed officers. This year Toronto acquiesced to their demands to remove uniformed officers, while in other cities like Halifax, the police have voluntarily withdrawn.

In the case of Vancouver, a compromise has been reached: the Vancouver Police Department and RCMP will be incorporated into the City of Vancouver’s float, which includes members of other organizations like the Vancouver Park Board and Vancouver Public Library. Most will be walking in t-shirts instead of uniforms, there will be no sirens or marked vehicles, and everyone who participates has to join a series of listening circles before and after the parade. Unsatisfied, BLM held an alternative “March on Pride” in May that excluded businesses and corporations from participation.

Black Lives Matter Vancouver / Facebook

Black Lives Matter Vancouver / Facebook

Unravelling the controversy can be difficult when so many voices have been raised so passionately on either side of the debate. The link between BLM and Pride may not be evident at first, but it has to do with intersectionality: the concept that different kinds of social oppression can combine in one person, and therefore be amplified. A Hispanic Canadian woman might have to deal with both sexism and racism, for example; a Hispanic Canadian woman with a disability will have it even tougher. And by the time you’re a gay Hispanic Canadian woman with a disability, you’ve thoroughly lost the privilege lottery.

In the case of the LGBTQ community, it’s a fact that POC members face greater struggles. Black trans women, for instance, have a disproportionately high risk of being murdered amongst the already-vulnerable trans population.

Black Lives Matter argues that uniformed police officers who participate visibly in Pride create a hostile environment for minorities in the LGBTQ community who want to attend. It should be noted that the ban is largely symbolic, as the police force is generally still present for security and crowd control. It’s also worth pointing out that officers out of uniform would still be allowed to march in the parade. The issue at hand mainly concerns whether or not it’s appropriate to ask the LGBTQ community to cheer them on.

The Canadian Press / Michael Hudson

The Canadian Press / Michael Hudson

The police-Pride debate has been divisive among the LGBTQ community, and even within my own circle of thoroughly-leftist queer friends. Some have choice words for what they see as the exclusion of a group based on the actions of a few―something they see as antithetical to Pride. One or two have told me, albeit quietly, that they understand the concerns but really would prefer to have a few officers on hand in case of hate crimes, particularly after last year’s Pulse shooting. And yet many others are boycotting Vancouver Pride over its compromise solution, pointing to a history of social activism that ignored black voices.

Aside from concerns about making black LGBTQ people feel more welcome, one common point of discussion is that Pride originally marked the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a series of demonstrations against a 1969 police raid that were an enormous milestone for LGBTQ rights in America. Since Pride originally grew from an event rooted in anti-police sentiment, many feel that they shouldn’t be included in the celebration today. There’s also backlash against corporations and government officials using public events like Pride to give themselves a veneer of inclusivity without ever really committing to it, a phenomenon known as “pinkwashing.”

The flip side is that having police officers march in a public LGBTQ event can be seen as the result of historical progress. In many countries Pride celebrations are still actively suppressed by their own police. If corporations and government institutions benefit from supporting the LGBTQ community, that means we’ve finally succeeded in pushing society to the point that it’s more socially acceptable to be for us than against us. It also pays to remember that many officers who choose to march in the parade are LGBTQ themselves, facing their own axis of oppression.

The Canadian Press / Mark Blinch

The Canadian Press / Mark Blinch

It’s unlikely that there will ever be a consensus in the LGBTQ community, or even the black community. The tone of the conversation has become progressively more antagonistic as well, with vitriolic articles spurring the debate on further. What we’re left with is the rhetorically useless but nonetheless true sentiment, “It’s complicated.” Black Lives Matter isn’t “bullying” anyone into accepting their demands, nor are all supporters of the police rabid, pro-establishment  conservatives. And there’s the rub: the LGBTQ community is host to a variety of opinions, but the debate seems to have become polarized, with no room to acknowledge its complexity. The conversation on inclusivity has been faltering over staunch unwillingness to listen and validate, rather than demonize and shun. Vancouver’s listening circles may have drawn mixed reactions, but I think they were on the right track; listening is what needs to happen. And preferably soon, because there’s no doubt that this controversy will rise again at next year’s Pride.

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