Summary: Musings on the history of Pride, police brutality, and the anti-capitalist turn in Pride in the time of COVID-19 – Editors.
The strain that COVID-19 placed on the increasingly cruel capitalist infrastructure in 2020 stoked a deeper level of racial and class consciousness in the masses, sparking protests all over the world. At the same time, curtailing the danger of spreading the virus called for mass preventative measures, including distance and isolation. However, I witnessed firsthand a third response to the virus that mobilized anti-capitalist rage and championed the importance of community health in the face of sluggish state responses. The pragmatic answer for many was to go out and help each other. In Los Angeles, I saw mutual aid networks (always masked!) work harder than I ever had before to support communities suddenly in need of essentials like food, housing, and empathy. In their actions, there was an implicit understanding that building these networks of interdependence was part of a maturing philosophy of revolution in action. And while these groups responded concretely to the overwhelming need in the face of the economic downturn, they didn’t fail to explicitly link the people’s need to the state’s willingness to prioritize big business and cops’ willingness to back this priority up with force. With variants of COVID-19 continuing to mutate and spread, and the gap between the 1% and 99% only becoming wider, the effects of 2020 have seeped into 2021.
The topics of solidarity, community care, and abolition, of course, informed Pride as well. (It is worth noting that the pandemic has brought attention to the issues of disability and accessibility in Pride events to the forefront, giving greater LGBTQ+ disability advocates more attention than they are usually granted.) I was amused to see the old debate over whether kink belonged at Pride events being revived this year. And while that discussion warrants its own article, I was especially amused to see this debate seemed to overtake discussion of a more pressing question: Do cops belong at Pride? Many who defend the place of kink at Pride events cite that the subculture is deeply ingrained in LGBTQ+ history. In a way, cops are just as ingrained. The only difference is that the cops have always been on the wrong side. The long history of police interactions with the queer community is fraught with raids, entrapment, flagrant abuses of power, and deadly violence. To that end, I would like to provide a short history of police at Pride told through five events.
The Stonewall uprising of 1969, an act of retaliation against a common police raid of a gay bar in Greenwich, is generally considered the big watershed moment that sparked queer liberation in the US. This is not entirely accurate, though. A decade earlier, right in the midst of McCarthyism and the lavender scare, gay folks faced regular harassment and arrest by the LAPD simply for existing in public. One night, the LAPD met resistance at a Los Angeles donut shop in the now-famous Cooper Donuts riot of 1959. In 1966, trans women in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco rioted against similar abuse from the police. Coast to coast and long before Stonewall, cops have gone out of their way to make the public space unsafe for queer folks. The antagonism from cops was so strong that Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson started STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1970 in the sociopolitical momentum that Stonewall left in its wake. STAR prioritized the most overlooked and the most brutalized in the LGBTQ+ community, taking an explicit stand against structural discrimination in the form of police brutality, unjust laws, and housing discrimination while providing unhoused trans women with food and shelter.
By 1973, there was already a marked separation between the milquetoast, white, and middle-class Pride institutions and the sort of Pride that STAR stood for. At the 1973 NYC Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally, it was clear that gender non-conforming/trans people and people of color were an afterthought in the established festivities despite these same communities facing the brunt of state violence and instigating uprisings that made the Liberation Day Rally possible to begin with. At the mercy of capital and the police, trans folks were systematically extricated from formal society, then punished and killed for turning to crime (e.g., theft, sex work) just to survive at the margins. For these reasons, it is especially heartbreaking that Sylvia Rivera was booed through her speech by a “white middle-class club” for pleading with them to turn their attention to the trans people of color that they so readily hung out to dry.
I’ve been trying to get up here all day for your gay brothers and your gay sisters in jail that write me every motherfucking week and ask for your help and you all don’t do a goddamn thing for them.
Have you ever been beaten up and raped and jailed? Now think about it. They’ve been beaten up and raped after they’ve had to spend much of their money in jail to get their hormones and try to get their sex changes. The women have tried to fight for their sex changes or to become women. On the women’s liberation and [sic] they write ‘STAR,’ not to the women’s groups, they do not write women, they do not write men, they write ‘STAR’ because we’re trying to do something for them. ….
The people are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white middle class white [sic] club. And that’s what you all belong to!
Los Angeles Pride this year felt much like 1973. It consisted of star-studded online festivities, and many established Pride events across the country took a similar approach. Comparing these events to the outpouring of marches and protests during Pride month last year, it was easy for me to get the impression that the pressure for social change in 2020 was too weak to make a lasting impact on 2021. From a less myopic standpoint, this is anything but true. Outside of the US in 2020, in places where queer oppression isn’t quite as mystified by cooptation, the antagonism between queer lives and the state was much clearer. In the Philippines, police cracked down on a Pride event that protested an overly broad anti-terrorism bill that gives Duterte further license to overreach his authority past the realm of human rights. 2020 also brought about protests against the obscene amounts of anti-LGBT legislation and rhetoric in Poland that people are now calling “Polish Stonewall”.
This year, there is plenty to be optimistic about regarding Pride in the US, if only one looks outside the scope of the standard celebrations. Discussions surrounding the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and gender have continued in 2021, resulting in the creation of newer Pride events that uplift those most inured to systemic oppression. Two especially exciting actions uplifting the too-often devalued lives of trans folks took place on June 12th and 13th in Boston and Brooklyn, respectively. Brooklyn Liberation, the group that organized the Brooklyn Action For Trans Youth, described the rally as an emergency action in response to a record-breaking number of over 100 pieces of anti-trans legislation being filed in over 34 states in 2021– this is more than the amount of anti-trans legislation passed in the last decade.Meanwhile, Trans Resistance Massachusetts, the organizers of the Boston march/vigil for Black trans lives, included this statement on their event page describing their stance against policing:
…. we recognize policing in all forms as rooted in anti-Blackness, (trans)misogynoir, and the systems of slavery and incarceration. As a collective that advocates for the safety and liberation of Black trans women first and foremost, we reject the notion that police “keep us safe” and refuse to work with them.
Unfortunately, it is largely true that rallies such as these are needed because the increased visibility of trans folks in the last few years has also made us easier targets for transphobia and discriminatory legislation. Nevertheless, it is reassuring to see that organizations can viably organize Pride around principles like trans rights, racial justice, feminism, and abolition (each a powerful indictment of capitalism in their own ways) without relying on corporate sponsors or police cooperation.
Events like these prove the capacities of the queer community without the use of corporate donors or the police. Cops have played the perpetual role of the antagonist to the queer community, so I do not hesitate in saying there is no reason for them to be at Pride today. There are no ills that the police are supposed to address that we, the people, cannot build a better model for. That being said, there is still plenty of work to do towards queer liberation this and every month.