The decision to ban uniformed police from marching at this year’s Toronto Pride Parade has prompted an invitation from the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL) asking Toronto police to join the NYPD in uniform during the NYC Pride March. Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders is embracing the invitation and permitting his officers to attend. But, given the parallels between Toronto police and the NYPD in their dealings with marginalized communities, some are skeptical about whether or not uniformed police are wanted there either.
“One of the good things about the police services is that we are a brotherhood and sisterhood of law enforcement and for NYPD to invite us I think is a fantastic thing, and if any of the officers wanted to do that, I would definitely allow them to do that,” Saunders said, while speaking to reporters.
The NYC Pride March is planned for June 25, the same day Toronto hosts its annual Pride Parade. But it’s not only a day of celebration that both cities share. In both cities, Pride originated as a riot against police.
1969 was the year of the New York Stonewall Riots. The rioting began after police raided the Stonewall Inn gay bar because it was operating without a liquor licence. Though police raids weren’t uncommon, especially inside known gay bars, which were continuously targeted, it was first time the gay community fought back against the police. The night of the Stonewall raid ended in a community uprising. LGBTQ people congregated onto the streets outside of the bar and joined the fight against police injustice. The protest lasted for six days. In 1970, the first Gay March in New York was held.
In 1981, Toronto police conducted raids in four bathhouses. The police were armed with sledgehammers and crowbars, and they arrested hundreds of gay men in a single night. After the raids, more than 3,000 people gathered in front of 52 Division to protest the police.
In 2000, Toronto police conducted a second controversial raid inside of a women’s bathhouse. Several women (many of whom were naked at the time), were confronted by six male officers who alleged they were searching for liquor violations. The women sued the Toronto Police Service in 2005 for an undisclosed amount.
In 1996, the NYPD was under scrutiny for discriminating against LGBTQ people, only this time it was for alleged discrimination within the ranks of the police. GOAL, which has represented LGBTQ law enforcement and criminal justice professionals in New York since 1982, successfully sued the police department in federal court to allow police officers to participate in Pride March while in uniform. The NYPD had prohibited uniformed police from appearing in the Pride March, despite allowing uniformed police to participate during every other ethnic, cultural, and religious celebration, including the Columbus Day parade and the Celebrate Israel Parade.
The lawsuit was settled, but even though uniformed officers have been able to participate in the Pride March since 1997, GOAL president Brian E. Downey says officers continue to face stigma.
“Our cops put a tremendous amount of courage putting themselves on the chopping block, they should be celebrated for it, and not excluded… This is something that we’ve marched for and this is something that we’ve sued for. That’s really where the invitation [to the Toronto police] came from,” he says.
While Downey recognizes the concerns of LGBTQ people who are subject to discrimination by law enforcement officials, he says his organization has been dedicated to combating those issues. Downey says GOAL has provided LGBTQ sensitivity training and awareness to every New York police academy recruit. Recently, the FBI, customs and border protection, and immigration officers contacted his organization to provide training to their staff.
Despite the work of organizations such as GOAL, some police officers who identify as LGBTQ still don’t feel safe about coming out to their colleagues.
“We have cops here today that are HIV positive that will not get their drugs from the City’s prescription drug plan because they don’t want the City or police department to know they have HIV. There is still a tremendous amount of fear amongst my members,” Downey says.
For people like Don, a Toronto resident who asked that his last name not be published, combating the uniformed police presence at Pride has put him in a tough situation. Don is not a member of Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO), but joined BLMTO’s Pride protest last year. He says, since participating in halting the Pride March, he’s lost many friends who disagreed with BLMTO’s Pride interruption and people began to treat him like “less than a human being.” While losing the support from many of his friends and dealing with backlash both online and off has been “difficult,” he says the protest has reshaped his life.
“Civil disobedience is not something you do because it’s popular, you do it because it’s the right thing to do… it transformed my life in such a way, and I am grateful to Black Lives Matter,” he says.
Don says that as a Black man he’s experienced racial discrimination over the years, especially from police. In a case of mistaken identity, he once found himself swarmed by a bunch of police officers who thought he was the suspect they were looking for. He says store clerks, who assumed he would steal, have followed him. He’s also been stopped and questioned about whether or not he belonged in a certain neighbourhood. Don says BLMTO has had an important role in forcing people to confront the lived experiences of the Black and LGBTQ communities.
“I’ll admit [BLMTO is] not perfect, but at least they are standing up there and addressing the issues… I shouldn’t have to sit here begging people to treat me with respect. It’s not my agency as a human being,” Don says.
While Don is confident that the BLMTO protest had opened opportunities for productive discourse between the Black and LGBTQ communities and the police, he says the invitation from GOAL to have Toronto police join the NYC Pride March while in uniform has been unsettling. He wonders why the officers can’t march in Toronto without uniforms.
“It made me feel very sad. It’s their prerogative; it’s their right. They can march, but march without their uniform. Their uniforms, guns, and weapons symbolize, for many of us, weapons of oppression. And symbolize the stop and frisk, carding and driving while Black,” he says.
While Don says it’s important for people from the LGBTQ community and racialized communities to be part of the police force, he believes that once someone becomes part of law enforcement, they tend to adopt the same oppressive behaviours that already exist in those institutions.
In 2015, Edwin Raymond, a Black NYPD officer, joined 11 other police officers in a class action lawsuit against the NYPD, claiming the NYPD issued monthly quotas to each officer to have them meet a fixed number of stops, court summonses, and arrests. Raymond described these quotas as inherently racist policies that predominantly targeted Blacks and Hispanics.
The latest data on carding statics in Toronto shows that in 2013, Black people accounted for 27% of individuals who were stopped, questioned, and documented by police (despite representing only 8.4% of the population). According to New York Civil Liberties Union, that same year, Black people accounted for 56% of those stopped and questioned in New York, while Latinos made up 29%.
Don is also worried that NYC Pride March attendees share the same concerns about having a uniformed police presence at their event.
In 2015, then-25-year-old Jacob Alejandro filed a lawsuit against the NYPD alleging an NYPD officer fractured his ribs and called him a “faggot” during the Pride March. In an interview with the New York Post Alejandro said “I have seen too much bias and bigotry from NYPD officers, and I hope my case makes a difference.”
This January in Toronto, not far from the annual Pride route, cellphone footage captured a Black man being kicked and tasered by police while handcuffed on the ground. An officer began to intimidate the man recording the scene, threatening him with homophobic stereotypes saying, “he’s going to spit in your face and you’re going to get AIDS.”
Sarah Schulman is an AIDS historian, a novelist, and one of the original members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power Group, a grassroots political movement founded in 1987. Shulman attended the first NYC Pride March and recalls the corporate takeover of Pride during the early 90s. She says the way Pride is governed in Canada and the U.S. has caused it to become less political and more commercialized. “It’s about making money,” she says.
Shulman says if communities want to start taking control of Pride and start politicizing the event, they need to start by addressing Pride funding,
“It’s time to separate the parade from corporate money and government money. GOAL, I understand why they [invited Toronto Police], that’s consistent with who they are, and it’s consistent with government- and state-run Pride. If this was a grassroots movement who opposed violence [uniformed police] would not be included.”
She says the existing negative relationship between Black communities and the police in New York and across America should be “clear” to people, given the surge of cellphone videos depicting Black people being killed by police. One of the most well-known examples is the cellphone footage taken on July 2014 that captured Eric Garner, a Black man, put in a chokehold by an NYPD officer for selling cigarettes on a street corner. Garner later died in hospital. A grand jury decided not to indict the officer.
“There’s a very bad relationship between people and the police and that includes queer people… If the queer community wants to be a place for people of colour, and people of colour are being killed by the police, then that is not a place for the official structure of the police to be there,” she says.