Community feature: Black Pride 4 inspire community to examine Pride, protest and police response

Erica Thompson
Black Pride 4 from left: Ashley Braxton, Wriply Bennet, Deandre Miles and Kendall Denton

In light of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, much of the conversation during Pride month in 2016 centered on terrorism and hate crimes against the LGBTQ community as a whole. This year, the community's focus has shifted inward to address the marginalization and racial discrimination faced by its minority members.

On June 17, seven days after organizers protested during Capital Pride in Washington, D.C., a group of 10 people blocked the Columbus Pride parade. The participants, who said they were unaware of the D.C. action, wanted to protest the June 16 acquittal of the Minnesota police officer who killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop. The group also hoped “to raise awareness about the violence against and erasure of black and brown queer and trans people, in particular the lack of space for black and brown people at Pride festivals, and the 14 trans women of color who have already been murdered [in the United States] this year.”

During the demonstration, the protesters linked arms and stepped into the street. Video footage then shows Columbus Police officers using mace on protesters, pushing them back with their bikes and tackling them to the ground. Four black protesters — Wriply Bennet, Kendall Denton, Ashley Braxton and Deandre Miles — were arrested. In the aftermath, Lori Gum resigned from her post as Stonewall Pride and program coordinator, citing the organization's failure to issue a meaningful statement in the week following the incident. “I can no longer be part of Stonewall Columbus's indifference to the pain of our community,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

As the community awaits the fate of the group, which has become known as the #BlackPride4, and in particular Miles, who was charged with felony aggravated robbery for allegedly attempting to disarm an officer, it is grappling with the meaning of Pride, and the proper methods for protest and police response.

“How can you celebrate when black trans folk are being murdered every day?” Bennet said, referring to some people's perspective that Pride should be fun, festive and free of conflict. Bennet and other protesters also mentioned that, given the recent deaths of black citizens like Henry Green and 13-year-old Ty're King at the hands of Columbus Police, they don't feel safe with CPD presence at Pride.

Over-policing at Pride events has been cited as one of the reasons for other parade-blocking protests, which have taken place in cities such as New York, Seattle and Minneapolis. And the Pride protesters weren't the only locals criticizing police. On June 15, two days before the parade, youth from Kaleidoscope Youth Center, an LGBTQ organization, and youth from First Unitarian Universalist Church held a peaceful protest at the Columbus Police Department “to call upon [CPD] to be more transparent about their police presence at Pride,” according to a Facebook post.

The act of protesting police action is one of the origins of Pride, which was sparked by the 1969 riots at New York City's Stonewall Inn. That two trans women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, played a role in the uprising is not lost on the Columbus Pride protesters.

“If anything, Pride should definitely be a time when we should acknowledge the foundations,” said Indya Jackson, who helped organize the parade protest. “Where is the acknowledgment of people of color and their role in this movement?”

“People always say now is not the time to protest,” Denton added. “But nobody tends to say when the time for protest is.”

“There's a difference between protesting and interrupting an event,” said Sgt. Rich Weiner, who explained Columbus Police worked to assist Stonewall Columbus, which had obtained permits for the parade. “There is a proper way to protest and that is not to infringe upon the rights of others in doing so.”

“Protest is never asking for permission to do what's right,” Bennet said. “It's one of our First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble. Nobody was being hurt. … It was [just] a nuisance and inconvenience for us to stand there.”

The protesters said they had no intent to cause harm, and are challenging the CPD response. Some said there were no attempts to de-escalate the situation, and no warning of physical force given.

“It's not a surprise how we're going to respond to certain events,” Sgt. Weiner said, referring to CPD's standard protocol, an “Action-Response Use of Force Continuum,” which he explained is public information. He also said police presence and verbal commands to move are forms of de-escalation.

CPD is not the only institution facing criticism from the community. Protesters are making demands of Stonewall Columbus, including: an official call for charges against the #BlackPride4 to be dropped; ask for an investigation by the Department of Justice into CPD's “use of force against people of color”; pay for the #BlackPride4's legal fees; and hire community-based security for future events.

To date, Stonewall has not agreed to any of the demands, and its statements regarding the event, posted to Facebook, have been dismissed by a majority of commenters as inconsistent and inconsequential. Moreover, protesters said they were promised a meeting on June 22 with Stonewall Executive Director Karla Rothan, who canceled without notice. (Stonewall did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

“That's typical of how [Rothan and the Board of Directors] have dismissed this issue and dismissed the protesters, [and] typical of the condescension toward this portion of our community,” said Lori Gum, who announced her resignation from Stonewall on June 23 (Gum was joined in her exodus by a group of 16 Pride planning committee members, who posted an open letter to Stonewall online). “I cannot be aligned with these people anymore.”

“This community and [I] absolutely saw the paralysis of this board and this executive director,” continued Gum, who called for Rothan's resignation. “That paralysis is indicative of the paralysis of leadership that has been at Stonewall for a while.”

Gum disagreed with CPD's response to the protesters — “[Their] protocols need to change,” she said — and she publicly called for charges against the #BlackPride4 to be dropped. She also spoke to the difficulty in providing security for all people while addressing multiple threats against the LGBTQ community and complying with the city's requirements for large events.

“It's for a better person than myself … to find the fine line between creating a safe space for queer people of color with the CPD presence, and actually making sure that this community and the participants and the city and everyone that [attends] is safe,” she said. “I would love a new model for collaboration between community policing and CPD and Homeland Security. … But you're going to have to get the buy-in.”

*This article has been updated to clarify that youth from Kaleidoscope Youth Center and youth from First Unitarian Universalist Church held the protest on June 15.