The Reclaim Pride Coalition Is Trying To Take Back New York City’s Pride March

· Updated on June 25, 2018

Activists from ACT UP, the Queer Caucus of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, Rise and Resist, Gays Against Guns, Jewish Voice for Peace, and a number of other activist organizations have met to coordinate action jointly as Reclaim Pride Coalition (RPC). They have been working in response to widespread changes made to this year’s NYC Pride March by the March’s long-time, self-proclaimed steward, Heritage of Pride (HOP), which has been working in conjunction with the New York City Police Department. The RPC’s demands to HOP address the tone-deafness, white supremacy, classism, ableism, greed, boot-licking, and lack of respect for queer heritage they claim have crept into HOP’s organization of Pride activities for decades, further underscored and made urgent by the challenges visited upon the LGBTQ+ community under the Trump administration.

RPC claims HOP has failed to adequately publicize meetings, canceled several meetings with RPC representatives at the last minute, and consistently demonstrated a lack of clarity with regard to its messaging. Given, in particular, the risks to undocumented immigrants posed by HOP’s alleged refusal to properly engage stakeholders in New York’s many diverse queer communities, organizations that interface even obliquely with immigrants — Judson Memorial Church, for one — have struggled to decide whether to participate in the March at all. Long-time activist Ken Kidd emphasizes that, while HOP has agreed to debriefing sessions with and feedback from the public following the event, these communities should have had the opportunity to offer input from the very beginning.

Reclaim Pride Coalition’s Demands

The complaints published in RPC’s materials have first to do with HOP’S decisions around a change of route (it now ends in Koreatown instead of Greenwich Village), its new requirements that marchers wear wristbands, and its new headcount cap of 200 marchers per group marching at NYC Pride on June 24. RPC activists see these changes, respectively, as a slap in the face to the history of Pride, which commemorates the 1969 protests at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s West Village; dangerous to undocumented immigrants, people of color, trans people, and other vulnerable communities who wish to march; and exclusive, in opposition to the inclusivity and diversity at the core of the queer social justice movement.

In addition to a demand for reversals of HOP’s new wristband and headcount policies, the Coalition demands of the NYPD a curtailing of police involvement in the March, especially given that the Stonewall Riots broke out in response to police brutality against LGBTQ+ people of color, who continually face oppression by police; and a public apology from the NYPD “for the part it played at Stonewall and for historic and ongoing violence by the NYPD against members of the LGBTQ community, particularly the most vulnerable members of our community” (from the group’s demands to the NYPD).

The Coalition also cites the continued violence and harassment against queer people by officers within the NYPD to support their demand that, if NYPD Gay Officers’ Action League (GOAL) officers choose to participate in the March, they do so out of uniform, without weapons, without police vehicles, and without the police band. They demand the restriction of sound cannons and police barricades; the creation of Police Free Zones at two points along the March route; the ability to engage in peaceful protest without arrest; a refusal on the part of the NYPD to cooperate with ICE; and deference by NYPD officers to marshals trained and supplied by HOP and RPC for security.

The Origin of Reclaim Pride Coalition

“Reclaim Pride originated, mainly, with contingents that had marched in 2017 as part of the Resistance Contingent that arose out of the catastrophe that was Trump’s election and the particular oppression posed to the LGBTQ+ community,” Natalie James tells INTO. She’s a member of the Queer Caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and an organizer with Reclaim Pride Coalition. “We have been meeting every single week on Saturday at the LGBT Center here in New York since late March, when we found out that the Resistance was dissolved by Heritage of Pride, along with various other terrible changes to the March.” James, a lawyer, is responsible for drafting the demands issued by RPC to HOP, the NYPD, and the Mayor’s Office. “[DSA has] definitely been in the leadership; however, I have to say that other organizations, particularly Rise and Resist, have been supplying the numbers and extremely important individuals,” she continues. “It’s been a very collaborative effort.”

“I think [HOP’s decision to dissolve the Resistance Contingent] has to do with the general policies they’ve put in place this year of limiting the number of marchers in a group and limiting the overall size of the parade,” says Jake Tolan of Rise and Resist. “The initial reason that we were given is there wouldn’t be any organized coalition of the people of groups,” he continues. “Specifically, the reasoning was, it would dilute our message to concentrate us all together. But then we learned that there would be one organized people of color group,” organized by the Audre Lorde Project, “and so, apparently, it did not dilute their message.” The Resistance Contingent was eventually reconstituted and allowed 2,000 wristbands by Heritage of Pride, but only after a great deal of effort on RPC’s part.

The New Route

The new route begins at 16th St and 7th Ave, travels southwest past the AIDS Memorial, snakes east on Christopher St and West 8th St, then continues northeast along 5th Ave to 29th St. Last year’s route began at 36th and 5th, traveled southwest to 8th St, then followed 8th St and Christopher St west, to end at Christopher and Greenwich, passing the Stonewall Inn towards the end of the March. The March has ended in the Village since 1984.

In Heritage of Pride’s June 5th town hall, March Director Julian Sanjivan cited several reasons for the change of route: “preparation for World Pride/Stonewall 50, impact on the area, ease of dispersal & transportation, improving stakeholder experience, and safety & security.” HOP sees this year’s Pride March as a “trial run” for next year’s 50th-anniversary events. “They really do come across as party planners,” says Jeremiah Johnson, another activist with Rise and Resist, after having attended a few of HOP’s planning meetings and having spoken to a few of its representatives one-on-one. “And I appreciate that, because I think, for a long time, we’ve been really feeling much safer as a community. We were very successful under the Obama administration, and really forwarding the discussion around our rights and protecting ourselves. But the times have changed now, and we’re in a period where we really need to be fostering a sense of rebellion and fighting back within our community.”

Johnson believes that HOP’s concern about “impact on the area” and “stakeholder experience” falls flat when the historical context, of Pride as a protest for queer liberation, falls below the comfort of West Village gentrifiers on the priority list — and, in any case, research done by Duncan Osborne for Chelsea Now indicates that HOP’s claims regarding noise complaints made by residents of Community Board 2 are simply unsubstantiated. “I think that this needs to be about the community taking over the streets,” he continues, “taking it over as long as we want, for at least one day in the city, and letting as many people march as they possibly can, to feel the power of coming together as community, and expressing ourselves, and expressing our political views as loudly as we possibly can.” Johnson points to Christopher Street West, which did away with many of the “parade” elements of LA’s Pride March, as a successful model to follow.

Leslie Cagan, who’s been involved in community organizing for five decades (and currently plans to march on behalf of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid), marched in the very first Pride March on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. She agrees with Johnson, and lamented the over-commercialization and over-policing of Pride events at Reclaim Pride Coalition’s town hall on May 4. Of the early Pride Marches, she said, “Those Marches began in the Village and walked uptown, as a way of saying that ‘we, as a community, no longer want to be ghettoized,’ that ‘it’s one thing to willingly be part of a community; it’s another thing to be in a ghetto… We were saying, ‘We are taking the fullness of who we are, as individuals and as a community, out into the world.’” She noted that the direction of the March was eventually reversed (ending in the Village, as opposed to beginning there) so businesses in the Village could profit from revelers’ fatigue at the end of the route, signaling a shift towards corporate interests in Pride organizing.

Headcount Restrictions & Wristbands

As for wristbands, HOP made no mention of the policy in response to RPC’s formal demands in its statement on Medium on May 21. At June 5th’s town hall, the NYPD stated it is “not in the business of enforcing wristbands.” In response to hearsay that the wristband policy may be disbanded, INTO reached out to HOP on June 17 to ask about the specifics of its current policy, the likelihood the policy will change between now and the March, and who will responsible for enforcing the policy. As of this writing, we have not yet received a response.

Micah Bucey is the Arts Minister at Judson Memorial Church, which houses New Sanctuary Coalition, “an interfaith network of congregations, organizations, and individuals, standing publicly in solidarity with families and communities resisting detention and deportation in order to stay together,” according to the organization’s About Us page. Bucey’s role with NSC is as a faith leader: he goes on accompaniments to ICE with New Sanctuary Coalition clients, serves as a faith-based attaché to the organization’s staff, and attends some staff meetings and trainings. “At my group leader training there was an immigrant group that was saying, ‘Well, we have people coming and we don’t know how many there will be, and we probably won’t know until right as the march is starting,’” Bucey says, “and basically, the answer was, ‘You get 200 wristbands, and they have to have the wristbands, and that’s that.’” He’s less concerned about the safety of his own community as he is for other LGBTQ+ communities that are more likely to experience contentious run-ins with the police.

Police Presence

Gays Against Guns activist Jay W. Walker emphasizes the importance of elevating the voices and needs of people of color in the context of the over-policing that has become so characteristic of Pride events. He points to the NYPD’s ongoing harassment of trans women of color and the nation-wide infiltration of police departments by white supremacist groups as systemic problems that need to be addressed whenever police officers and queer people of color occupy the same space. More specifically, he speaks to the “ramped-up assault,” over the last 15 years, “on black and brown bodies of youth in the West Village” by the 6th Precinct, as an ongoing issue that the NYPD has failed to adequately address.

When it comes to GOAL, and its participation in the March, Walker is critical of GOAL President Detective Brian Downey’s refusal to “dishonor Charlie Cochrane and Sam Ciccone by taking off those uniforms,” in response to RPC’s request that LGBTQ+ police officers march out of uniform. Charles H. Cochrane, the first openly gay cop on the NYPD force, is famous for publicly declaring, “Today’s New York City Police Department is not comprised of narrow-minded homophobes; there is no systematic plan for the oppression of gays by the Department,” only months before the NYPD raided and brutalized Blues, a Midtown gay bar with mainly people of color as clientele, in 1982.

“Members of the community who are people of color, members of the community who are trans, do not feel safe around police officers,” adds Walker. “[To march without uniforms is] a symbolic act. Police forces in other cities around the country have agreed to do that for those specific reasons. The NYPD has refused to even entertain the possibility. The NYPD says, ‘Oh, we fought in court in 1996 for the right to wear uniforms and the Pride March.’ And yet, you weren’t fighting Heritage of Pride or the March organizers for that right. You were fighting the NYPD in an employment discrimination suit.” He continues, “When gay people are attacked by the NYPD, GOAL says nothing and they do nothing. They’ve said nothing about the policing of black and brown bodies in the West Village. They’ve said nothing about the policing of trans bodies in East Harlem. They are silent. They only care about the rights of gay cops to be gay cops and to not be harassed by straight cops for being gay cops.”

Ken Kidd has his own, personal bone to pick with the NYPD. “I’m a survivor of a very brutal queer-bashing,” he says. “They broke my jaw in two places, I had a hematoma on my brain, they cracked my ribs, they broke my teeth, broke my nose, I had a cut on my eye that went all the way through my eyelid and they said, ‘It’s a miracle you can see.’ I had amnesia for two weeks. I was in the hospital. I had my jaw wired shut for six weeks.” His night didn’t end there: “The second time I got gay-bashed was by the NYPD, when they found me on the street, bleeding, and they dropped me off at the nearest hospital. And they refused to press charges, because they said to me, ‘You picked the wrong group of guys to hit on.’” Despite this experience, Kidd sees progress made on the part of GOAL to address structural oppression against LGBTQ+ people by the police.

Police barricades, which are metal and lock together, pose significant safety risks for elderly people and people with disabilities who may need to exit the March between intersections. Additionally, the presence of a police barricade criminalizes entry and exit to the March. Whereas newly out LGBTQ+ youth from around the world — many of whom have had their first encounter with queer community at NYC Pride — used to be able to hop on and off the route, their decision to participate spontaneously now comes with the risk of arrest. The NYPD cited standard procedure at the June 5 town hall, adding that marchers can step off the march at many intersections, with the caveat that if they do, they may not be able to step back on.

Corporate Presence

With regard to the over-commercialization of Pride, RPC activists point to the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index — a rating of workplaces’ commitment to LGBTQ equality within their workforces — as a poor indicator of corporations’ broader LGBTQ+ advocacy. Johnson speaks to HRC’s designation as another form of “pink-washing” — “casting a favorable light on entities that haven’t necessarily earned that brand of safety, or that brand of allyship,” in his own words. Of the corporations involved in Pride, he challenges, “Have we looked to see where they’re investing their funds? And does that impact communities of color? Or indigenous communities? Or, you know, the environment? I’m not so sure that we’re doing that.” In his opinion, corporations have to do more than take care of their own employees to “earn our rainbow stamp of approval.”

While RPC rejects HOP’s headcount cap of 200 for community, activist, and non-profit groups, the coalition demands this restriction be held in full force for corporate and for-profit entities.

During the June 5 Heritage of Pride town hall, Detective Carl Locke — GOAL NY’s Community Outreach & Education Chair — spoke to his involvement as a social worker with Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the New York Anti-Violence Project to support his position as a spokesperson for the NYPD and GOAL. INTO requested a comment from GMHC and AVP on HOP’s decisions regarding the Pride March — as of this writing, we have not received a response from AVP. GMHC has responded as follows: “GMHC has longstanding relationships with Heritage of Pride/NYC Pride and GOAL-NY. We will continue to stand by their collective work, and look forward to the upcoming NYC Pride March and Festival.”

Chelsea residents’ concerns regarding HOP’s changes to the Pride March, as well as City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s responses to HOP’s unsatisfactory coordination with his office, can be found in research and reporting done by Duncan Osborne for Gay City News. Speaker Johnson’s office declined to comment on any questions related to HOP’s Pride March decisions when requested to by INTO.

Honoring Our Heritage of Pride

There are obviously many threads to pull when it comes to assessing Heritage of Pride’s performance in its role as steward of our communities’ heritage. But every activist who spoke to INTO connected their advocacy work — and their challenge to Heritage of Pride — to a coming-together around the celebration of Pride as a big, broad community that looks after its most marginalized. “What Donald Trump’s election has done has un-siloed the broader human rights movement in the country, so that people are not just thinking of their own issues,” says Walker.

As for Judson, its decision to march in solidarity with RPC, in spite of the problems embedded in the March, was a difficult one to come to. Bucey says, “We link our queerness very, very wholeheartedly and specifically to our spirituality, to our creativity, and to our social justice work, and we fight vehemently against an over-corporatization and an amnesia about why this Pride March exists in the first place.”

“This is hard work, and it’s challenging, and it’s fighting against structural elements, and it’s going against the grain,” adds Johnson of activism work. “We need to do better, and we need to train ourselves to be there for people who are being left behind. In my case, my activation really came around growing up as a middle-class white kid, in a conservative community, and having male privilege, having white privilege, having financial privileges associated with that, and having that really taken away from me: one, due to my sexual orientation, but two, due to my HIV diagnosis back in 2008. That sense of injustice really came from… certainly, I like to think that it is connected to a broader sense of empathy for other communities who are oppressed at this point, but it really was about the fact that I felt what was happening to me was unfair. And so that continues to be at the heart of my activism and why I remain engaged.”

He continues, “But what I’m cognizant of is that I need to continue to do better and continue to tie my independence, my freedom, my revolution, to the freedom and the revolution of other communities that are oppressed. Because really, it’s all connected, and really, we all should be in this together.”

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