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When Heritage of Pride, the organization behind New York City’s legendary Pride March, said in May it would ban New York City Police from its events, the backlash was swift. Mayor De Blasio called it a “mistake.” The New York Times Editorial Board said it was a “misstep.” Several outlets framed it as a culture war between law enforcement and Pride.
But weeks later, Heritage of Pride is realizing keeping cops out of an event as big as Pride is harder than it sounds. First, many of its events depend on the NYPD to direct traffic, close off streets with barricades, and relay information to other city agencies. In 2019, a record 5 million partied on Pride weekend in New York for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. This year’s parade will be significantly scaled back because of the pandemic, but it will still draw large crowds. Any supposed ban on police would have to be coordinated with the police themselves and would therefore depend on the goodwill of Police Commissioner Dermot Shea and the mayor.
With the march date of June 27 looming, Heritage of Pride is in talks with the NYPD about a solution: Rather than ban cops, they’ll just try to hide them. Under the new plan being hashed out, the event could still allow plainclothes officers to march, and cops staffing the event could carry concealed weapons to make their presence more discreet.
“For many Black and brown trans people, just the sight of a police uniform is triggering,” André Thomas, the co-chair of Heritage of Pride, told VICE News.
The urgency to camouflage cops comes after years-long calls to get rid of the NYPD at New York City Pride. Those calls got louder after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests when the Anti-Violence Project, a nonprofit organization for LGBTQ youth, sent a letter to Heritage asking them to listen to the demands of Black and brown queer people who didn’t want to march alongside the NYPD.
Many of Heritage of Pride’s predominantly white members strongly opposed a ban, according to Thomas. The Gay Officers Action League (GOAL) had marched in uniform for decades and called the decision “shameful.”
For their part, Heritage of Pride organizers say they never really meant to ban cops completely and that they’ve been talking with the NYPD about reducing their visibility with no major issues. They also said they’d been in negotiations with GOAL about how they would address the growing calls to exclude uniformed cops from marching in the parade.
Many point to the origins of Pride, the Stonewall Riots, as a reason to keep cops inconspicuous. The riots began after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a bar for gay and trans people, which led to a six-day-long violent confrontation between queer New Yorkers and the NYPD.
The surprise statement
As talks to reduce police visibility wore on, GOAL surprised Heritage of Pride organizers by releasing a statement on May 14 claiming that Heritage had banned them from the parade. “They're not acknowledging that we are gay and that we are part of the community,” said Ana Arboleda, vice president of GOAL. She says that Heritage never came to them for a compromise and that the negotiations never took place. “It's disgraceful.”
But Thomas, who is the first African-American co-chair at Heritage of Pride, tells the story differently. According to him, Heritage had been trying to reach a compromise with GOAL and was ambushed by their statement. He says they had discussed the possibility of allowing GOAL to march if they did so without weapons or carried a sign denouncing police brutality and didn’t wear their uniforms. Other Pride parades were already doing that, he told them.
He says it was in the midst of their conversations that GOAL preemptively released the statement accusing Heritage of barring them.
“They're taking the hard-line position,” Thomas said about his dealings with GOAL. “We came to them with what we think is a fair compromise.”
Most members of Heritage first heard the news through GOAL’s statement. Many were unhappy and voted to overrule the ban on uniformed officers, but the organization ultimately stood by it. Then Heritage released its own statement. Soon after, Thomas sent a companywide email announcing his resignation. He told VICE News that he felt some longtime colleagues had suddenly turned on him.
“What was disappointing about the way in which GOAL went about releasing information, it created an atmosphere that was essentially dangerous,” said Thomas. “We've been working hand in hand with the city. We want to reassure people that there is not a police-free zone. There will be police there.”
The organization also said it was still trying to negotiate with an LGBTQ police group to allow them to march in the parade next year, but that the talks have not gone well.
Recently, a younger generation galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement has seen the police murders of people of color as a reason to revert to Pride’s more radical roots. They argue that modern-day laws continue to unfairly target queer people of color, such as New York’s recently repealed “Walking While Trans” bill.
The overall Disneyfication of Pride—think JP Morgan floats banners with vague messages like “Just Be You”—has prompted alternative groups to reject the commodification of what was once an anti-establishment event. Among them are the Dyke March in D.C. and the Reclaim Pride Coalition in New York.
Since 2019, Reclaim Pride has organized the Queer Liberation March, a protest with no corporate sponsorships and no support from the NYPD. Because they don’t have permits, clashes with cops are likely, sometimes inevitable. Their tagline is “No corps, no cops, no BS!” and last June, they were pepper-sprayed by the NYPD in Washington Square Park.
In a statement, Reclaim Pride called Heritage’s decision “too little too late.”
“You still have police presence there, whether that's undercover security, off the block, and retired police officers,” Blake Roberts, an organizer at the Reclaim Pride Coalition, told VICE News. “There’s questions about the integrity of the decision.”
Heritage’s ban on uniformed cops will not resemble anything like Reclaim Pride’s. It’s trying instead to obscure the police presence, similar to other big Pride events that have announced cop bans.
Twin Cities Pride, for example, announced it would keep cops out of its events in 2017 after the murder of Philando Castile. In reality, they negotiated with the Minneapolis police chief to hire more private security, which are often just off-duty or retired cops. Similarly, Vancouver Pride banned police in uniform from attending its parade in 2018, but they allowed them to march in unmarked cars and civilian clothes with other city employees.
In these instances, keeping the cops invisible was the goal. Avoiding the stark visual of police in uniform standing alongside queer people is a great way to placate safety concerns and also appease activists, even if such efforts basically amount to an optics balancing game.
After thinking through his initial decision to resign, Thomas ultimately decided he would not step down as the co-chair of Heritage of Pride. Although he calls the entire ordeal “traumatic,” he says he needed to stay in order to keep enacting change in an organization that’s becoming more racially diverse, in part thanks to him. He also says he’s willing to compromise with GOAL to let them march at next year’s parade if they cooperate with Heritage’s demands to wear civilian clothes.
“If you have a family member that makes the family feel uncomfortable,” says Thomas, “then you ask that member not to come to dinner.” Or at least, keep quiet.