Summary: An exploration of tensions between Black ground-up organizing and longstanding corporate Pride in Los Angeles through the “All Black Lives Matter” march.
The commodification of Pride has always gone hand-in-hand with the regulation of Pride by state entities and corporations working side by side. I saw this in 2016, when the Orlando nightclub shooting sparked feelings of anguish and anger in the LGBTQ+ community nationwide. In response, LA Pride was among the big Pride events to organize using an either-or approach: the march would be free to attend while the festival would have paid admission. Seeing this compromise in action forced me to reckon with two dissonant ideas of Pride which were in direct conflict with each other. It was the side of community organizers, managing the march, who’d sparked conversation about Pride being something inherently owned rather than sold, and about whether or not police deserved to be at Pride events. Regardless of the conversations being had, the police were there in full force.
This year, LA Pride faced controversy again because Christopher West Street (CWS), the non-profit tasked with coordinating the annual event, took it upon themselves to coordinate an ”All Black Lives Matter” march in solidarity with Black Lives Matter for June 14th in lieu of the standard Pride parade. They did this in the same way they usually go about planning Pride: by requesting an event permit from the police. In a permit application letter to the Los Angeles Police Department, a CWS representative went so far as to say, “For the past 50 years, we have demonstrated a strong and unified partnership with law enforcement in the annual organization of PRIDE here in Los Angeles and West Hollywood”. Although LA Pride coordination with the city and with the police is far from new, this truly tone-deaf decision shows just how removed those who plan Pride are from the most vulnerable LGBTQ+ people who ought to be welcomed and included under the auspices of Pride. Furthermore, CWS framed the event as a “solidarity” march in a way that ignored the fact that there is an intersection of LGBTQ+ and Black folks, who are especially vulnerable to police violence. As such, CWS should have sought leadership from black LGBTQ+ community leaders before looking to the police for collaboration, as pointed out by Black trans activist Ashlee Marie Preston.
The demands at the front of this current wave of protests are more than just symbolic. Recognizing that Black Lives Matter or that Black people are systemically oppressed by police in this country is no longer enough. Protesters now seek either significant police reform or police abolition. CWS’s letter also conveyed to LAPD officials that police “support of this peaceful gathering is the key to its success.” This couldn’t be further from the truth, because the “success” being sought in the BLM and George Floyd protests is far removed from the conservative vision of success that Christopher West Street imagined for their own event. Success, in times like these, means structural change towards justice and a substantive shift toward peace, not just the ability to uphold immediate peace via law and order.
CWS eventually ended up responding to due criticism by distancing themselves from the event and passing organization of the march over to BLAC, a Black, queer advisory board, that denounced “official police involvement in organizing the All Black Lives Matter march.” The advisory board also released a statement saying that “All Black Lives Matter supports Black Lives Matter in its current global demands: 1) Prosecute killer cops, 2) Defund the police and reinvest in the community.”
Despite CWS ultimately handing the reigns of the march over to Black leadership, and despite the lack of “official” LAPD involvement, the truth remains that the event was planned and regulated on the basis of a longstanding working relationship between CWS and the LAPD. Furthermore, the transition from CWS to Black leadership was undercut by the facts that 2 CWS representatives were included in BLAC, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the advisory board, and that the march was not canceled despite significant reservations from many Black community leaders. In a meeting between CWS and other Black community organizers, CWS was met with criticism for wanting to stage a solidarity march while failing to adequately address CWS’s history of anti-black action and exclusionary politics. Ultimately, BLM chose not to acknowledge or involve themselves in the march.
With these last-minute shifts in place, the All Black Lives Matter march had a significant turnout on June 14th. Attendees from different sociopolitical backgrounds marched together around 9 miles in the hot LA sun. If one were to measure based on numbers, diversity of attendants, and zeal, the All Black Lives Matter march was a success. Signs and sentiments from ongoing protests for racial justice throughout Los Angeles were interspersed with the colorful, celebratory note of more typical Pride celebrations. Nevertheless, the march brings up some important questions. When can white capital and social capital be used to uplift Black voices (and especially Black queer voices)? When the state gives a protest space, guidelines, and support, how revolutionary can that protest truly be?
The face of LA Pride in 2020 is a complex one. In its first stages of planning, the All Black Lives Matter march was a blatant cooptation of BLM by CWS, an organization that has been historically backed both by significant corporate capital and by local law enforcement. The creation of BLAC incorporated CWS representatives, relied on police cooperation established by CWS in an unofficial capacity, and ignored broad criticisms from the Black queer community. The conflict leading up to the June 14th march along with the march itself seem like strong evidence of the tension between corporate Pride and the current BLM movement, which is essentially incompatible with capitalism in its demands. While the All Black Lives Matter march gathered a large crowd, it was only made possible through police facilitation. The “facilitation” of dissent by the Police erases people’s grievances in their totality. This is especially true of current calls to abolish the police. More insidiously, framing the ideal protest as peaceful, legal, and state-sanctioned makes it much easier for law enforcement to differentiate it from all other unregulated activity, which can then be more easily labeled and vilified as “looting” or “terrorism.”
Despite this, the upshot of the current political moment is that Pride has been forced to take a stronger political stance in regard to race and abolition than it has in decades. It’s clear that Pride has long been coopted by capital, and now Pride works on behalf of capital to try to recuperate BLM and related movements, diminishing the more powerful messages carried within them. Nevertheless, it has been exciting to see the people of Los Angeles working against the oppressive structures that have made LA Pride such a powerful force to rail against. Modern Pride needs to reclaim the revolutionary potential it was born from. It needs to be stripped of its corporate trappings along with the racial and socioeconomic prejudices that come along with them. Black community organizers continue to point out the hypocrisy in modern Pride, paving the way forward towards a Pride that is truly, sincerely transformative and inclusive.