Eric Fretz reports on the radical Reclaim Pride demonstration in New York City last month, emphasizing the ways this year’s protest intersected with the insurgent anti-racist rebellion still raging across the Unites States.
“Black Lives Matter!,” we shouted over and over again on this year’s Pride march. The New York demonstration–organized by the Reclaim Pride Coalition for June 28th—was called the “Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality.” We marched in solidarity with the anti-racist rebellion that have erupted around the country since the murder of George Floyd.
I attended with my union organizing committee, at Housing Works, a multi-racial, largely queer group of workers engaged in a winning fight against the non-profit for the right to a union recognition election. The march was a surprising tens of thousands of enthusiastic people on a hot, sunny June day—Reclaim Pride estimated it at 50,000!
The Pride march in New York City has been a yearly tradition since the year after the great Stonewall rebellion. As the march grew bigger over the years, with more (often hypocritical) corporate sponsors, it became less and less of a protest march and more of a pre-planned parade. It was filled with corporate floats and felt walled off from spectators by police. Last year, Reclaim Pride produced their own Queer Liberation March, on the same day as the corporate-sponsored parade (Reclaim Pride organizer Jay W. Walker wrote about it for Marx21 last year). It drew 45,000 people and looked back at the militant spirit of the original Christopher Street Liberation Day March of 1970, marching with no corporate funding or police contingent. Plans were underway for another event this year, with activities planned at the Hudson River piers in downtown’s Greenwich Village, bringing attention to trans and queer people of color. With the advancing Covid-19 outbreak in New York City, those plans were cancelled, and ambitious online programming was being planned. But then, as many Reclaim Pride members joined with the outpouring of street protests after the police murder of George Floyd, the group felt compelled to call its own march in solidarity with the movements to defund, disarm, dismantle and abolish the NYPD, and police nationwide.
The March of 50,000
As the crowd gathered in Foley Square, masked and safely filling that large outdoor space, it combined the celebratory mood and visuals of last year’s Queer Liberation March with the mood of one of the many Black Lives Matter protests that have formed around New York every day for weeks.
The march had no permit, and police did not know the exact route, but we successfully took the streets and, with little visible police presence, marched around City Hall, and towards the village. All along the way, volunteers offered free masks, hand sanitizer, sunscreen and water. Tens of thousands of colorful marchers could be seen stretching out before and after us as we marched up Sixth Avenue (see clips of the march going past City Hall, and up Sixth Avenue). After we swung left to pass the Stonewall Inn many people stayed in that neighborhood, while the rest of the march headed back east to end in Washington Square Park.
“You Can’t Deny It / Stonewall Was A Riot / It Shouldn’t Be Surprising / Stonewall Was an Uprising” went one syncopated chant. Of course, it was the resistance to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn that sparked days of resistance and rioting in the West Village in 1969, and sparked the Gay Liberation Front and the modern militant LGBT movement. Just as the Gay Liberation Front was influenced by the radical Black liberation movement (and in turn convinced Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers to change their position on homosexuality), so too was this second Queer Liberation March created in solidarity with the current uprising against police violence and racism.
Solidarity / All Black Lives Matter
It was important that this expression of solidarity was directed at all Black lives, but within that, as Francesca Barjon, one of the Reclaim Pride Coalition organizers said, “We did this march to center Black and brown trans people,” who suffer disproportionally from violence, poverty, and suicide.
Protesters carried a large floral figure of Marsha P. Johnson, one of the trans women of color who played a leading role in the 1969 Stonewall Riots and movements that emerged from it. Other sculptural effigies depicted Stormé Delarverie, a mixed-race butch lesbian credited by many as throwing the first punch at the Stonewall in 1969, and Bayard Rustin, the Black, socialist, gay man who worked with Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement.
This June marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubiletta Polanco, an Afro-Latinx Trans Woman, who was held at New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail on minor charges after she was unable to post $500 for bail. Multiple corrections officers negligently failed to seek critically needed medical attention for an hour and a half after Layleen suffered a seizure, leading to her death.
As Francesca Barjon said “Police brutality against Black LGBTQ+ New Yorkers, particularly Black transgender women, has not improved since the 1969 Stonewall Uprising against the NYPD. It is time we stop trying to reform the police and realize that the policing system must be defunded and dismantled.”
Police Attack at Washington Square Park
That sentiment was proved at the end of what was otherwise a peaceful march. As the crowd was arriving at Washington Square, folks were happily dancing on Waverly Place and 5th Avenue on the north end of the park, when police started storming into the crowd. I had gone to the West Side piers with my union contacts for a separate speak out, and missed the start of the attack, but multiple witnesses and videos on social media show a crowd of officers shoving shocked and angry protesters, using clubs, and even a bicycle against them. A rumor was that one protester who started to tag an empty police car was spotted by a plain-clothed officer, who called in the massive police presence waiting just out of sight. In any case, when cops grabbed someone for an arrest, the crowd chanted “let them go” and were attacked with pepper spray. At one point, protest marshals had the crowd take a knee as to not give ground, at another point the crowd regrouped and pushed the remaining cops out of the park. People then resumed the dancing, while others were organized for jail support of those arrested.
“I wish that I could say what I saw today was shocking, but how could I reasonably expect anything else from the NYPD?” said Jake Tolan, one of the march organizers. “51 years after the Stonewall Rebellion, the NYPD is still responding to peaceful, powerful, righteous queer joy with pepper spray, batons, and handcuffs. Thank you, Commissioner Shea and the entire NYPD, for continuing to show us why you should be abolished.”
Continuing Rebellion Against the System
The transphobia and homophobia of police departments, like their consistent racism, is a violent expression of prejudices in society and broader systems of oppression. This policing function is being effectively fought in the streets, but these structural oppressions can not be abolished without deeper structural changes.
Continued visibility and activism has produced huge advances in society at large in welcoming LGBTQ+ people, with the anti-racism movement often in the forefront, and government reforms lagging behind. But much of the ruling class find our activism and growing unity threatening. The current government has told embassies not to fly the rainbow flag during Pride month, and supported religious exemptions that allow people to deny services to gay people. There have been new attempts to kick trans people out of the military. The homophobic President Trump has removed workplace protections for gays, healthcare protections for trans people, and joked about the deeply biggoted Mike Pence wanting to hang gay people. Alabama mayor denounced “homosexuals,” “transexuals” and “socialists,” called for “killing them out,” and there have been continuing deaths in police custody and at the hands of the independent far-right.
The ruling class has always used strict gender roles, not only to privatize “social reproduction” (pushing the ideological responsibility for child-rearing and other caring onto women in the nuclear family), but to inoculate ideas of hierarchy as natural, and to add to the oppressions that divide working class resistance.
“One of our mottoes was ‘We’re here for queer liberation, not rainbow capitalism’,” Reclaim Pride organizer Natalie James said, expressing the thoughts of many participants.
Unlike the cancelled official Heritage of Pride parade, which often seemed a celebration of queer capitalism, most on the march this year believed that, not only was a pink-washed status quo not the answer, but racism, homophobia and oppression of trans people was intricately tied into contemporary capitalist system. And they were committed to taking it on.
The Solidarity shown by Reclaim Pride towards Black lives, and of Black Lives Matter movement towards trans lives, and even the smaller steps integrating union and working-class struggles, are all signs of a growing militancy that, united, could take on the roots of oppression and exploitation.