Jonathan Capehart shoved his foot down his throat in a Washington Post opinion piece this week that declared that queer members of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), known as Gay Officers Action League (GOAL), should be allowed to march in New York’s Pride Parade. This comes after Heritage of Pride (HOP)—a nonprofit that manages the parade while shilling for corporate sponsorships—announced in mid-May that law enforcement would be banned from marching in the parade through 2025.
Last week, the organizers voted to reverse the ban, only to quickly reinstate it a few hours later. A point of contention was the request that GOAL march out of uniform and without their guns. The group refused and condemned their resultant banning—which is interesting because they have yet to criticize the excessive abuses that their siblings in blue continue to inflict upon marginalized communities with impunity, namely Black and Indigenous people and other communities of color, as well as transgender people.
Victims of NYPD brutality also include participants of Reclaim Pride Coalition (RPC)—a group of activists who organize the Queer Liberation March and, in opposition to HOP, wish to return Pride to its iconoclastic roots. The group was brutally attacked by the NYPD during a march last June, just hours after a rally at the Stonewall Inn, a safe haven for the city’s LGBTQ community. Less than a month later, the police attacked RPC members yet again, at the Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality, the group’s massive official march for Pride.
Doing the Wrong Thing
After acknowledging in the first sentence of his article that he has not attended New York City’s Pride in over 20 years and waxing poetic over his fond memories of seeing queer NYPD officers marching in the parade, Capehart delivered a dutiful history of the 1969 Stonewall Riots and affirmed the fact that they were rebellions against police brutality.
Rather than give up the ghost after that admission, Capehart linked to an article from Gay City News—which provided context for the ban—but in his own summation, reduced the NYPD’s actions to pepper-spraying activists.
Reading RPC’s statement about what happened on June 28, 2020 reveals that the police went beyond merely spraying a chemical irritant into the faces of peaceful protesters: “One NYPD member reached out to slam a woman on a bicycle to the ground. Other marchers were punched and violently shoved.” NBC New York’s footage of these altercations confirmed that “a police officer shov[ed] a demonstrator roughly off a bicycle with a baton,” but provided “no context” for why.
It would seem that Capehart wrote his piece without reaching out to either side, so I called Jason Rosenberg—an organizer and media contact with RPC—as well as NYPD’s Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information (DCPI), for comment.
Rosenberg—who was attacked by police officers without cause on June 2, 2020 during an action organized by Queer Detainee Empowerment Project against the murder of Black trans people—is opposed to a police presence at Pride. When we spoke, he said that the unprovoked attack that he experienced is far from unusual when dealing with the police. His numerous injuries from that incident included a broken arm, which went untreated during his hours of detainment. He noted that neither GOAL nor the NYPD has ever contacted him to apologize or to explain why he was attacked.
“This isn’t a discriminatory case,” Rosenberg said. “Being a cop isn’t the same as being Black, trans, or non-binary. I don’t want any cops [at the march] because they make a lot of people feel unsafe.” Rosenberg added that police officers are welcome to come out of uniform to march as part of the community. “But they don’t want that,” he added. “There’s this sense of entitlement [that they have] because of internal homophobia that happened in the ’80s. But that was their choosing—they chose to be agents of oppression. And this is a long history of oppression—this isn’t something that just happened.”
Rosenberg asserted that celebrating cops would be “kind of a slap in the face” for both organizers and people who have been attending a historically anti-cop march that started because Black, trans, and non-binary people decided that enough was enough and took a stand against police violence and brutality. “It’s why [RPC] has made a strong stance of building and creating a march that is solely driven by community effort, without cops or corporations,” Rosenberg added.
In an email statement in response to the ban, Sergeant Edward Riley, a spokesperson for DCPI, wrote:
“Our annual work to ensure a safe, enjoyable Pride season has been increasingly embraced by its participants. The idea of officers being excluded is disheartening and runs counter to our shared values of inclusion. That said, we’ll still be there to ensure traffic safety and good order during this huge, complex event.”
Instead of speaking to someone with skin in the game, Capehart reached out to Richie Jackson, a former member of the international political group, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), who left his activist roots behind to become a Broadway, television, and film producer and husband of the theatrical megaproducer, Jordan Roth.
Reading Jackson’s and Capehart’s takes on how queer activist organizations should react to the police feels equivalent to tone-deaf tone policing that blames rude behavior for why Black people are far too frequently targeted and choked out by the constabulary.
As with using the bathroom, anyone can spew their opinion, but being a journalist requires more than letting it all hang out. Because I recognize that I lack the lived experience to deliver an informed opinion about this matter, unlike Capehart, I reached out to numerous organizers and still-active stakeholders for their perspectives.
Listening to Stakeholders and Experts
“Well, the opening sentence says it all: ‘I haven’t been to New York City’s legendary gay pride parade in more than 20 years,’” remarked Charles King, CEO and one of the founders of Housing Works, as well as a longtime member of ACT UP. King added that while he’s glad that LGBTQ officers have come out in the NYPD and fought for a legitimate place for themselves, “they have yet to take the next step and fight for the queer people they supposedly serve, at least not at the risk of violating the blue wall of silence.”
King, like Rosenberg, recalled a recent encounter with police that left him shaken—the incident happened during a Black Lives Matter march last year. “I didn’t know which police officer in riot gear was queer or straight,” King said. “I do remember being in my clergy collar, standing on a corner on Park Avenue, with the police determined to provoke the crowd.” According to King, an officer suddenly shoved him back with his baton. “I would have fallen to the ground had it not been for a group of young people who caught me and lifted me up to safety,” he said. “I don’t know the sexual orientation of the young Black men who caught me, but they are more my siblings than any queer police officer who was in that police mob that day.”
Ronald S. Johnson, a senior policy fellow with AIDS United and once New York City’s first official coordinator of AIDS policy, expressed his support for the ban, saying that the past year has “exposed realities” of policing in America. “For many people in our community, the police uniform has come to symbolize the horrific role of policing in controlling our lives,” Johnson said. “The issue of uniformed police officers participating in the Pride parade is a difficult one, with legitimate and often painful feelings on all sides of the issue. I agree with the decision to ban uniformed police presence in the parade but disagree with putting a time frame on the decision (i.e., through 2025).”
Johnson maintained that the fear and feelings of unsafety that members of the LGBTQ community have when they see a police officer’s uniform are too real to be overlooked. “The safety of our community members has to override the principle of inclusion,” Johnson said. “I take no pleasure in having this view and feel that we must all work to make sure that safety and inclusion are not antagonistic principles.”
In a posting in the ACT UP NY Alumni Facebook Group, queer activists voiced a number of conflicting responses to Capehart’s piece. I was given permission to share the following statements.
Matt Ebert is a longtime queer activist.
“My name is Matt Ebert. I’ve been dragged, kicked, beaten, Billy clubbed in the spine, had water dumped on my head from the third floor of the precinct building, my shoulder so weakened it dislocated, been spit on and locked up with the intention of throwing away the key by the police, and I forgive them, because they were doing their job and I was doing mine. I can say firmly and quite unequivocally that watching HOP ban a gay from Pride was more traumatizing for me than anything the police ever did to my body.”
Anthony Dolci is a longtime queer activist and co-founder of Stop False Police Reporting Group.
“If gay police officers want to be part of this parade, then why aren’t they standing up to their own badge? I think that banning the police is very appropriate, [though] it doesn’t address the violence, harassment, and oppression that we’re still receiving from the NYPD.
I was right in the middle of the riot that took place just outside of Washington Square Park at the Queer Liberation March last year. And I am not kidding you, I saw in broad daylight cops fist fighting and duking it out with pedestrians. I’m 52 years old, and I have never seen such violence at a Gay Pride Day that is supposed to be about celebrating life, love, equality, and freedom, and like—this wasn’t it. I couldn’t understand why the police were there in the first place, other than to bully us and pick a fight. Well, they got into a fight, but that wasn’t what we wanted.”
Smiling for the Man
Reading Capehart’s poorly researched opinion piece, one can feel his conscious effort to ignore what many marginalized people experience when we see a police officer: fear.
That’s true whether that police officer is gay, straight, Black, or white. It’s the reason why many marginalized people refuse to call the police even when they are in need—because they believe that those who are supposedly tasked with protecting and serving will kill them. Capehart knows this, which is why it is difficult to understand his argument that everyone should get along and ignore the abuse that one side has been inflicting upon the other for decades.
If GOAL really wants to march in Pride, then its members should earn the community’s trust by acting as peaceful observers to ensure that their fellow officers cause no harm and step in when they see abuse taking place. But Capehart isn’t calling for that level of compromise, nor is GOAL offering it. Because they believe that being queer is enough to come to the party. Perhaps that was once true, but today, admission demands that personal celebration give way to liberation for all.
In his penultimate rationalization for carte blanche inclusion, Capehart repeats Jackson’s concern that banning officers from marching “will just make them identify more as cops and less as LGBTQ.”
If that is a possibility—for queer people to identify more with being police officers than with who they were born as—then they are part of the problem, and no amount of marching will ever extricate them from that sunken place.