Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include statements from the Columbus Division of Police and the Columbus & Central Ohio LGBTQ+ Leadership Roundtable.
The Columbus, Ohio police chief defended an officer seen high-fiving a member of the violent white supremacist group Proud Boys during a protest of a drag show. The show was canceled over security concerns and organizers alleged local police refused to provide security for the event. City officials and performers, however, say that isn’t true and internal divisions caused the cancellation.
While the event was canceled, over 50 right-wing protesters dressed head to toe in combat gear and carrying massive weapons showed up, making the neighborhood look like a warzone.
After video of the cop getting chummy with a white supremacist surfaced on social media, Chief of Police Elaine Bryant told reporters that the whole thing was simply a misunderstanding.
“A video has been shown online that shows one of our dialogue team member high-fiving a member of the Proud Boys,” she said in a statement. “We understand how this looks and how this could make community members feel. However, this was not done to show solidarity, but an attempt to defuse a tense situation.”
She went on to brag that there were no arrests, violence, or use of force at the protest. Of course, since the event was canceled due to the threats of violence, it’s not surprising that there wasn’t violence. And with police officers high-fiving members of the paramilitary group, the lack of arrests or use of force isn’t exactly shocking. Many Proud Boys members are either former or current law enforcement officers.
The “Holi-Drag Storytime” event was supposed to take place this past weekend at the K-5 Red Oak Community School within the First Unitarian Church of Columbus, NBC News reported.
Speaking through tears on an empty stage amongst holiday decorations, including a rainbow Christmas tree, the school manager, Cheryl Ryan explained how the decision not to host the story hour came about.
“I’m here on this empty stage because in the end there was a disagreement about how this community should be best protected. There is a long documented history of law enforcement doing harm to the LGBTQ community among others that continues to this day… As even a cursory Google search will illustrate, it is no secret that extreme right-wing groups including the Proud Boys enjoy a cozy relationship with law enforcement.”
“When the Proud Boys stated they would show up to intimidate and harass and bully our attendees and organizers, we had to make a decision about how we were going to keep everyone safe.”
She said after a week of communication with the police department, she was told they could hire a special duty officer “who may or may not show up because they’re understaffed.” Ryan said that police had assured journalists they were monitoring the situation, but in reality, “The police had offered nothing and were not in touch with us.”
“Yet I received hundreds of emails, calls, and messages from folks in the community asking, ‘How can I help? What can I do? I’m ready to show up.’ I never heard this message from the city’s leadership and those whose job it is to protect us.”
“It turns out our biggest problem wasn’t the Proud Boys after all. I implore this community’s leaders to consider how this could have gone differently,” Ryan said.
The Columbus Police Department, however, disputed that. The department put out a statement to clarify that “what was said about our involvement was incorrect.”
“CPD learned about the event through Facebook and immediately reached out to the church and the school. A face-to-face meeting took place with all parties on November 18th to talk about the event and a safety plan. The school did request a special duty officer, but canceled that request on the same day as the meeting,” the department posted on social media.
“During this week, CPD continued to communicate with the church, school, neighbors and businesses in that area to inform them of our safety action plan. The school and church were consistently involved in those discussions through email and phone calls… Even though the event was canceled, we still had personnel and officers in the area to make sure all parties were safe.
“The Columbus Division of Police protects all residents of the city equally. We have had several meetings with the LGBTQ community and continue to work together in partnership to make sure they feel supported and protected at all of their events.”
The Columbus & Central Ohio LGBTQ+ Leadership Roundtable also challenged the claim that CPD was derelict in their duty.
“The organizers made a significant last-minute change to the already established security plan. The result was that some of the performers withdrew due to their concern that they no longer had the assurance of personal safety, as promised by their private security team, that they expected based on the original security plan.”