by John Wilson
The intervention by Black Lives Matters at the annual Toronto LGBTQ Pride march held on July 3exploded into massive media coverage that blew past everything else related to Pride Week. BLM’s 25 minute sit-in protest at a major intersection, at the head of the parade, and in support of nine demands presented to Mathieu Chantelois, Pride’s Executive Director, will continue to resonate for a long time.
The nine demands relate to strengthening material support and real participation in decision-making in Pride for Blacks and other marginalized communities. Only one demand – to stop police floats in the march – was sensationalized by the corporate media. The rest were largely ignored.
BLM asked additionally for solid financial support for the Blackness Yes group who stage Blockorama, and for a central and fully supported stage for Black Queer Youth. They also want Indigenous, Black, trans people, and those with disabilities to have better access to paid Pride positions, plus the return of the South Asian stage.
Chantelois accepted BLM’s demands, in writing, but immediately repudiated them once the march resumed. He said that he signed only to end the protest. Although there was significant support for BLM in the media and the social media brouhaha that followed, there was a tsunami of outrage that “they” delayed “our” march. This kind of response went from stunningly ignorant expressions of white privilege to outright racism. BLM co-founder Janaya Khan reported receiving a large volume of hate mail. Despite its largely queer and trans, predominantly female leadership, BLM was viewed as an outsider and intruder, despite having been given the symbolic status of “honoured group.” Apparently, if a group is designated “honoured” it is expected to shut up and behave. Even though BLM was recognized for its fight against police racism and brutality (including an ongoing series of wanton cop killings of Black people), the assimilationists can’t grasp why minority communities would feel intimidated by a massive, privileged police presence in the march.
And this despite the fact that a month before the march, Pride sponsored a standing-room-only panel discussion on the massive, violent 1981 police bathhouse raid, the response to which was pivotal to the growth and development of the movement in Toronto and elsewhere. As veteran gay activist Tim McCaskell pointed out, the raid brought together the gay and Black communities in opposition to police oppression. Lemona Johnson, widow of killer cop victim Albert Johnson, spoke at the second of the mass rallies organized by the Right to Privacy Committee (RTPC) in 1981. McCaskell says “Often forgotten is the RTPC’s involvement, along with Black and South Asian groups and the Law Union of Ontario, in the establishment of CIRPA, the Citizens Independent Review of Police Actions, Toronto’s first citizen watchdog of police.” Unfortunately these alliances withered because of the emergence of a largely white, privileged LGBT self-appointed ‘leadership’ more interested in being assimilated into the dominant society than in fighting oppression.
As Rinaldo Walcott wrote in NOW magazine, “Police presence in the parade obscures the work that still needs to be accomplished and whitewashes our history with them”, and “To remove police floats is not to act against inclusion, but rather, to say that inclusion matters and must be earned”.
Walcott’s piece demolishes the reconciliation-and-accommodation line of the Pride bureaucracy. Toronto Police Chief Saunders’ supposedly historic “apology” for 1981 is nothing of the sort. He expressed “regret” – the word apology was missing in action. No such regret was expressed for the multitude of actions taken by cops since then, not only against the queer population, but against racialized minorities, residents of low-income ghettoes, street people and sex workers, all groups that are inevitably inter-related and should seek alliances against their oppressors. The myth that the police leopard has changed its spots is destroyed by the cops’ arrogant refusal to stop defending the blatantly racist practice of “carding.” It is past time for queer activists to ignore the class role of the police. When the first force was established, in not-so-merrie England, its role was explicitly to protect the privileged. That remains its core function in contemporary capitalist society — to “serve and protect” the rule of the tiny, obscenely rich minority, and their state institutions.
BLM-TO’s Pride protest should open a discussion about serious issues that have been bypassed by the cravenly assimilationist elites that dominate expression among LGBT people, and renew interest in the queer liberationist perspective from which Pride orginated.