SF Pride Calls (Out) the Cops

SF Pride’s membership called a meeting to discuss the presence of law enforcement after 2019’s arrests. But ‘Police out of Pride’ means different things...

Last Friday, The Intercept broke the news that the San Francisco Police Department had cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on 120 counterterrorism operations over a three-year period. City cops, in serving two masters, occasionally violated S.F.’s privacy laws, and SFPD withdrew shortly after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

The revelation is part of a long series of dubious practices by the department, which appears reluctant to consider reform. As the Examiner noted two weeks ago, after the federal Department of Justice intervened in the wake of several fatal shootings by officers, they issued 272 recommendations, but SFPD is slow-walking the proposals and won’t satisfy the DOJ until 2046.

Another incomplete internal investigation stems from the episode at this year’s Pride parade, during which demonstrators formed a human barrier across Market Street, halting the event for roughly an hour. A resulting altercation with officers led to two arrests, and video shows multiple cops holding one person to the ground and carrying another individual away as crowds chanted, “Shame!” 

The theme this year was “Generations of Resistance,” and many of the protesters’ demands were for Pride to become permanently free of any police presence. 

Several months later, community activists such as Alex U. Inn are now members of the Pride board of directors. The office of the District Attorney has not dropped the charges against the arrested protesters, in spite of Pride’s request that they do so, and rifts remain open. Unsatisfied with SF Pride’s response, some members made use of a provision in the group’s bylaws that allows them to call for an open membership meeting.

That meeting took place on Monday, Nov. 4, at the SF LGBT Center on Market Street, where roughly two dozen people addressed Interim Executive Director Fred Lopez, other staffers, several members of the board, and three members of the Department of Police Accountability who remained quiet throughout. 

Lopez began by reading a statement that noted this issue is not exclusive to SF Pride but to similar organizations worldwide, and that when the incident on June 30 occurred, the staff and board worked with SFPD to de-escalate the situation and to ensure that something similar doesn’t happen in 2020, which will be the 50th anniversary of SF Pride. Citing the June 2016 Pulse massacre — at which 49 mostly Latinx people were killed at a gay club in Orlando and which was at the time the deadliest single-shooter episode in U.S. history — Lopez stated that Pride’s security costs have more than quadrupled in the years since, and San Francisco requires thorough security protocols to issue permits for an event of its scale.

“Our event attracts hundreds of thousands of people from around the world,” he said. “We rely on the expertise of SFPD and other law enforcement agencies, as well as agencies like the San Francisco Fire Department, the Department of Public Health, Department of Public Works, the Department of Emergency Management, and more. … We also understand that we have a responsibility to hold up the voices of those who are marginalized and victimized.”

With board president Carolyn Wysinger moderating, Lopez then ceded the floor for an hour-and-a-half to members whose opinion was near-unanimous: The cops have got to go. 

Or, as one speaker put it, cops “have not earned the right to be at Pride. It makes people fearful to see them there. The most vulnerable of us are unsafe. I’m a white old lady — I’m a lot safer than most people are.”

But “Get the cops out of Pride” means different things to different people.

It can mean a total ban on any police presence whatsoever, largely out of respect to queer people of color and other LGBTQ communities who endure overpolicing in their daily lives. This interpretation also acknowledges  the sordid history of raids on gay bars, the policing of trans people’s bodies, and ongoing sweeps against homeless encampments in city where the unhoused are disproportionately LGBTQ. (It was for these and similar violations of civil rights that SFPD Chief Bill Scott apologized to the community in August.

“No cops at Pride” can also mean wresting control of the event back from a police department still reeling from multiple scandals, with a reduced number of officers stationed outside the event’s footprint in case of emergency. It can mean training community members as public-safety monitors instead — a point Lopez touched on, calling to “reinvigorate our safety volunteer corps.”

Lastly, “No cops at Pride” can simply mean not allowing contingents of law enforcement to march in uniform, alongside drag queens and leather folk (and occasionally controversial sponsors like Facebook and Google).

Many participants indicateda desire to help SF Pride navigate this situation, not see it torn apart. Inn, who uses the singular they pronoun, emphasized the police department’s history of racist misdeeds, from text messages to fatal shootings to the mass arrest of 37 Black drug dealers in the Tenderloin while dealers of other races stood on the same corner. This resonated with members who view SFPD as an un-reformable tentacle of a white supremacist patriarchy.

“One of the things we want to do is understand exactly what our position is,” Inn said. “If we had a white supremacist group [requesting to march], we would say, ‘Hell, no!’ right away.”

Discussion followed about whether Pride attendees would feel safer if policing were turned over to a greater percentage of LGBTQ-identified officers. This suggestion met with pushback as one activist after another rose to say that the problem isn’t with individual cops but with the very culture of policing, which is rooted in exacerbating a power dynamic. Similarly, several speakers attacked the notion that opposition to a police presence constitutes its own form of discrimination as a “false equivalency.”

Attorney Brooke Oliver, recognized for her work with SF Pride, Burning Man, and other well-known nonprofits, stated that she’d observed a casual form of ingrained bias from officers at previous Prides. Large groups of officers had massed at stages whose performers and attendees were largely people of color. 

Many speakers spoke about traumatic physical encounters with SFPD at queer events as far back as 1995, or of distressing police actions they witnessed at the Dyke March, the Trans March after-party, and other Pride weekend events. Advocates broadly agreed that Pride should update and publicize any agreements it has with the police department, and that the organization should more forcefully convey that law enforcement has a sworn duty to protect its citizens irrespective of their political beliefs.

Distilling the general vibe, someone asked, “What is the minimum police presence the city will tolerate, and how can we as a community meet the gap of what is left by them removing themselves from the parade?” 

The most important question of the evening, however, went unasked: What would happen if, at a largely police-free SF Pride 2020, someone shot and killed three dozen people, and another hundred were injured in the resulting pandemonium? It’s not altogether hypothetical, as this year’s DC Pride saw several people hospitalized after panicked crowds fled from “gunshots” that turned out to be just noises. Lopez touched on this during his opening statement, but participants largely framed the idea of safety specifically in terms of protection from the cops.

The meeting was largely a listening session. There was no vote, and there was no debate over the wording of a conclusive statement. Even a timeline for such things has yet to be established. But the discussion will inform future membership meetings as the organization figures out exactly how confrontational it must be. Clearly, SFPD’s documented resistance to reform is not something a nonprofit with a staff of four can overcome, no matter how much its world-famous parade may generate in hotel taxes. But Monday’s meeting demonstrated that if Pride should choose to flex its muscles, it has a team of committed activists willing to back it up.

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