When it comes to NYC’s dueling Pride parades… “The Fight Continues”

When it comes to NYC’s dueling Pride parades… “The Fight Continues”
The 2020 Queer Liberation March in New York CityPhoto: Leandro Justen/Reclaim Pride

Normally during the closing week of Pride Month, the LGBTQ community has the world-acclaimed New York City Pride Parade to look forward to on the last Sunday of June. This year, Heritage of Pride (HOP) organizers of the parade and other city-wide Pride events, made waves by deciding to no longer welcome law enforcement in uniform to take part in the Parade until 2025.

Meanwhile, two marches will take place physically in New York City this weekend — and at least one is aiming to replace HOP’s event, whether they welcome cops or not. Organizers of the Queer Liberation March told LGBTQ Nation that HOP’s recent decision was a development that needed to happen, but it doesn’t sway their mission. In their belief, New York City Pride is just not in the best hands with HOP.

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Reclaim Pride Coalition (RPC) is a separate coalition of LGBTQ community activists that is putting on the Queer Liberation March for the third year in a row, on the same afternoon as HOP’s parade. There are stark differences between the two events, the main one being RPC’s pledge that they were going to refuse to work with law enforcement or corporations.

When HOP, which has put on the more recognized Pride parade for decades, decided to temporarily halt their relationship with law enforcement, it ignited a frenzy of backlash from LGBTQ police organizations, media pundits, and LGBTQ people who believe welcoming law enforcement is a responsibility of the LGBTQ community. Other LGBTQ people and many community advocates note that LGBTQ people are constantly targeted as victims of police brutality, especially trans people and queer people of color.

For example, last year’s Queer Liberation March received violent pushback from law enforcement, which ostensibly may have influenced HOP’s subsequent decision to end its active partnership with the New York Police Department (NYPD), Gay Officers Action League (GOAL), and other law enforcement organizations.

At least for this year, the issue was thought to be somewhat moot, as HOP’s main event was planned to go on virtually — but the group has since decided to put on an in-person demonstration that will have up to 500 people and air on local television, but they have not unveiled details on it.

“Our opinion is that they should cede the march to us. We do it better,” RPC organizer Jay W. Walker said to LGBTQ Nation. “That’s the end goal. Let it go back to the community.”

But really, everything started in 2016. At the demand of community activists who staged a protest by blocking the parade during 2016 Toronto Pride, Toronto Pride Parade organizers pledged to ban police groups from marching in the parade the next year just so the event could continue.

In 2017, GOAL made an invite to those Toronto police officers who had been excluded, which led to Shut It Down NYC staging a similar protest, with members stopping in front of the GOAL contingent at the 2017 parade and locking arms. They stood feet from Parade “judges,” ceremonial guests, and parade organizers, voicing their disapproval of both GOAL and Toronto police’s involvement. The response by HOP was apparently vastly different.

“One of the lead organizers of Heritage of Pride’s parade sicced the working NYPD officers on those protesters and had them brutally arrested,” according to Jason Rosenberg, an activist from ACT UP NY and now lead organizer of RPC.

“That’s a very, very crucial moment,” he recalled. “We would come to find out several months later that HOP was actively participating in the continued prosecution and levying of charges against that group.”

Many of them would end up with community service.

HOP’s involvement in Out of the Darkness events, which are meant to memorialize those lost to AIDS, also became a sore point. “It was always community driven,” Rosenberg recalled, until HOP invited GOAL to be involved. “It felt very co-opted by the police, and something that [harmed] the HIV/AIDS community that was forever discriminated against and brutalized in protest by the NYPD, so having them there just felt very unsafe.

“You know, at least for me and a lot of people of ACT UP, we always reference that event as a breaking and tipping point.”

Still, working to oppose HOP wasn’t the goal of many at that point. According to Walker, the “resistance contingent in the Heritage of Pride” had grown into an internal unit that took part in both HOP and outside advocacy groups, namely Rise and Resist, a direct action group. In 2017, the group was front and center for the first march following the start of the Trump administration.

In 2018, though, HOP organizers made unexpected changes to the standard operation of the parade that “completely flipped the script” for everyone. HOP drastically changed the route of the parade, starting the parade toward where it normally ends. The rules for participation also changed, making it so that every participant had to be a part of an organization, not in the march as an individual or group of individuals.

When resistance coalition members reached out to HOP, they were informed they could not march together. “Their rationale for that was that somehow all of us marching together as a resistance contingent diminished the effect, which was patently absurd,” Walker recalled.

“In response to all of that, several members of the different groups that were parts of the resistance contingent had a meeting at the LGBT center and formed the Reclaim Pride Coalition to just sort of have an organizational structure to challenge all of these aspects of Heritage of Pride’s plan.”

Stung by HOP organizers and “annoyed by… the over-corporatization of Pride,” in addition to other “sources of pain” like “the increasing control” of NYPD officials in planning for Pride, RPC formed with members just tired of what Pride had become.

“It had gone from the ’70s to the early ’80s, [when] marchers were shouting to onlookers, ‘off of the sidewalks, into the streets, come join us’,” Walker said, “to what came out of the Giuliani and later the Bloomberg years — a completely locked-off parade where nobody except for organizations could join, really just a spectacle for onlookers rather than an event for our many LGBTQIA+ communities to come together in protest as well as joy.”

Concerned that “the political aspects of the march had increasingly diminished over the years, especially after the Obergefell decision,” RPC pushed HOP to hold a town hall. “The town hall was held by NYPD and Heritage of Pride jointly, just to give you an idea of just how closely connected those two organizations have been for years,” Walker said.

HOP did decide to allow the RPC contingent to march together — but they were slotted late into the parade that went on for hours with hundreds of organizations participating. They did not march until well towards the end of what Walker recalled as “a long, painful slog” of a parade, when the paradegoers had largely dispersed. Their group, and other community-focused groups, were allowed fewer participants than other organizations.

RPC goers found that the community aspect of Pride was lost on parade participants, who had to stay with their contingent the entirety of the single-direction, hours-long, barricaded parade.

For the rest of the proceeding summer, RPC had meetings trying to persuade HOP to put on a community-led, politically motivated event in light of Stonewall’s 50th anniversary in 2019, and the Trump administration’s attacks on LGBTQ people. Walker said that with NYC Pride being selected as the location of World Pride, the internationally-selected Pride celebration, HOP ultimately decided against that suggested course.

Walker recalled, “We left that final meeting saying, ‘OK, well, then we’re going to do our own march.'”

Now, fast forward three years later, RPC has put on two marches the opposite of HOP’s. For the “official” Pride organizers at HOP, the pandemic limited their ability to hold the usual celebrations in 2020, and to some extent for this year as well. For RPC, the pandemic presented an opportunity, and in 2020 thousands upon thousands showed up to the protest-tinged march.

That, changes in leadership from 2018 to 2021, and the “reckoning” that America dealt with after the murder of George Floyd, are what RPC organizers actually believe spurred HOP to change their relationship with GOAL and the NYPD.

“If they did not do this, there was going to be a lot more backlash coming their way that included beyond the Reclaim Pride Coalition, I think,” Rosenberg said, “and I think we honestly pose a threat.”

Both noted that the NYPD continued to have violent encounters with many LGBTQ protestors in the last year, such as at the weekly Stonewall protests that have taken place every week for a year. Last fall, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams was among several protestors, trying to talk with officers, who in return used batons and shields to “disperse” him and several others from the protest.

“Throughout all of that, GOAL has remained silent,” Walker pointed out.

GOAL and HOP’s communication also became an issue when the decision to remove uniformed officers from the official parade was discussed in private. Before HOP could officially make the announcement themselves, GOAL released their own statement, attacking HOP and condemning Pride organizers for “discriminating” against them.

“They have not stood up for any of our people who have been attacked,” Walker pointed out, “so you can’t claim that you’re being discriminated against in our community when you’re not standing up for our community.”

HOP then claimed surprisingly to have reversed that decision a week after announcing it. Then, right after that announcement, the organization again reversed course and re-committed to its ban on police officers in uniforms.

Evidently, while law enforcement’s involvement in Pride is one issue, it is far from what has caused the schism between the two groups now unwittingly dueling for the city’s preference.

HOP is far from the only group that has evidently struggled to work well with parts of its community. On June 24, after LGBTQ Nation spoke to Rosenberg and Walker, RPC released an anti-racism commitment statement admitting that the group had “not done enough to combat repeated instances of structural racism and individual racist acts within our organization,” which resulted in a “hostile environment” for people of color.

It was revealed that organizers of the event had previously communicated with police, or worked with city organizations that were in constant communication with the police, to put on their events — thus, to some, breaking their “no cop” involvement commitment.

RPC has pledged to “begin the work of internal education and restructuring,” meaning the group will be completely revamped by January 2022. They will close the “gap between our public presentation and our internal behavior” and stand with coalition members who are speaking out about their experiences in the coalition.

RPC’s Queer Liberation March begins with a gathering at Manhattan’s Bryant Park on Sunday, June 27 at 2:30 pm. There will be a pre-rally, as well as city-approved vaccine trucks administering the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine, or the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

The march will then commence at 3:00 pm — permit-less — down 7th Avenue until they reach Washington Square Park, where vaccines will also be administered as part of the ACT UP for Health Fair.

There, ACT UP will also lead their third rendition of the popular “Joint for Jabs” program — giving marijuana to anyone over 21 receiving the vaccine or producing proof of vaccination. RPC organizers have demanded that the NYPD stay away and have arranged security from a safety team of “dozens of community members… on foot and on bike.”

Next year, when HOP will likely be able to organize their parade as normal, it remains to be seen if both RPC and HOP will continue to put on both of their opposing events. RPC, for their part, is set on continuing on as long as they can, although they are not pining to dismantle HOP completely — yet.

“I think our medium-to-long-term goal is for HOP to do all the rest of the programing that they do during Pride Month, and they do a lot of, in many cases, very good programing during Pride Month,” Walker said.

As he views it, though, “The real issue is that Heritage of Pride is just really bad at managing that parade.”

The issues dividing the two groups, and other coalitions amongst them, appear to come down to a microcosm: if the aim of Pride is to represent and celebrate the LGBTQ community, can that be achieved through staging a corporate-led, love-driven unification, or grassroots led, action-driven demonstration? It seems society often faces the question and has to determine, can we solve problems plaguing many of us (anti-LGBTQ policies and police brutality, in this case) through the systemic means already available for us, or ditching those means for something untested?

Rosenberg and Walker believe their march will support the latter. If queer liberation is the goal, “They don’t control queer liberation,” Rosenberg said of HOP, “only the people in a people-centered march can outlive a corporate-filled and cop-filled Pride charade.”

“I think they are honestly scared of losing what they have,” he added.

The NYC Dyke March, another event held regularly over the years and sticking to the tradition of the Stonewall Rebellion and other protest marches, will be taking place the day before on Saturday, June 26. “The fight for Queer and Trans liberation, the contributions of people of color have been systematically minimized and ignored,” organizers have stated, “The hard work and dedication that dykes of color have contributed every year to ensure that thousands of dykes can express their First Amendment right to protest should be acknowledged and celebrated.”

The march will begin on the other end of Bryant Park, marching down 5th Avenue starting at 5:00 pm and concluding at 8:00 pm in Washington Square Park.

As for HOP’s NYC Pride Parade, themed “The Fight Continues,” the in-person event will be aired on ABC’s New York affiliate from noon to 3:00 pm, followed by the online virtual march. HOP’s annual PrideFest takes place during the day from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm in Greenwich Village.

LGBTQ Nation requested a response on several questions from HOP organizers regarding their decision to end police involvement in Pride parades until 2025 and the concerns of outsiders. As of publication, they have not responded.

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