By Aly Beach/The Oshawa Express
With Pride Week right around the corner, questions have been raised about the controversial issue of police presence.
On April 25, Pride Durham, an organization that handles various pride events in Durham Region, released a statement inviting Durham Regional Police Services (DRPS) to the events.
“…It is the feeling of the majority of the board that we accomplish more by deliberate inclusion of all people who wish to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community rather than by deliberately excluding them…It is understood that should members of the DRPS opt to participate in the Durham Pride Parade in street clothes rather than their uniform, they can do so at their discretion.” reads part of the statement.
After the announcement was made, many community members expressed anger and frustration at the controversial decision, as the DRPS have been accused of racism and using homophobic slurs.
“Policing is in direct conflict with the principles of anti-oppression because it enforces the very systems that criminalize people based on race, gender, sexuality and income,” said community organizer Ali Humza Naqvi in a statement following the announcement.
Former vice-president of Pride Durham and director of Durham Region Writing Rainbow, Sarah Larock disagreed with the Pride Durham board’s decision, stating it marginalizes certain groups, including people of colour (POC), LQBQ trans and POC trans folks, low income earners and Indigenous peoples, even further than they already are.
“The most marginalized communities seeing police in uniform, at pride, reinforces for them that they are not being prioritized, they are not being welcomed,” says Larock, “That it’s more important to have a uniformed police presence than it is to be there as peers, as part of a community. Sort of putting the LGBTQ+ first, before the badge and gun.”
The April 25 announcement came after a public meeting on April 24, where community members had the chance to discuss their feelings and opinions on whether or not DRPS should participate in Pride. A majority of participants were against having uniformed officers.
“I think we have resounding statements from our community, specifically statements from…the most marginalized members of our community that are saying they don’t feel safe around police and when we prioritize police participation over theirs, they feel left out of the community,” says Naqvi.
According to Larock’s notes from the meeting, 22 people spoke for two minutes each. Two speakers were neutral on the matter, six people wanted police to be present, and a total of 15 people requested that the DRPS not be in uniform or not be present. Six of those 15 specified they wanted police to be there, but out of uniform, while only two of the 15 specified they wanted absolutely no police presence.
While many community members were against the participation of uniformed police officers, the board decided to allow the DRPS to participate in whatever capacity they see fit. The board decided that anyone and everyone should be able to participate.
“We felt inclusion was better than exclusion,” says Pride Durham President Adriaan Bakker, who signed the statement.
According to the April 25 statement from Pride Durham, the DRPS has been participating in the Durham Pride event since its inception in Whitby in 2004. They initially wore street clothes, but switched to uniforms when “tangible physical and violent threats were made against the LGBTQ+ community.”
Naqvi says there may have been a conflict of interest in the board’s decision as two board members are associated with the DRPS.
Larock says she believes there may have been a fear of losing funding from DRPS and Durham Region municipalities as it could be seen as an insult or punishment to not allow police to participate in uniform. She thinks this fear is unwarranted.
“It comes down to fear and misunderstanding. I think there is a real fear in alienating the police and alienating the towns and the cities, when really, we should be afraid of alienating the people who already don’t have anything, or don’t have as much,” says Larock.
The DRPS responded to the board’s decision with a statement by DRPS Chief Paul Martin, noting they are aware of the controversy around police at pride events.
“We are thankful for the opportunity to continue supporting Pride Durham and participating in the upcoming celebrations in Durham Region. We understand the fact that police involvement in the parades has become controversial and we recognize the fact that there are divergent opinions on this issue within the LGBTQ community.
“We are strong supporters of the LGBTQ community here in Durham Region and don’t want to be a distraction for the important messages being sent by Pride celebrations – messages like mutual respect, understanding and the strength of inclusivity. We are honoured to be participating once again and hopefully, for many years to come.”
On the other side of the argument, Bakker had hoped the community would have a different reaction.
“I’m disappointed with how they reacted…I had hoped they would understand our reasoning behind it,” says Bakker.
Michael Morgan, Manager of Operations at the AIDS Committee of Durham Region feels the community reaction might be missing the point. The AIDS Committee will not be marching in the parade this year, but will be participating afterwards.
“I think the reality is that Pride is really all about inclusion and so anybody who’s using language about exclusion is a little bit off the mark,” says Morgan.
Naqvi says the decision is “pink-washing” pride and is an attempt at homogenizing the marginalized members of the community. Pink-washing refers to when an organization attempts to appear LGBTQ+-friendly to be seen as progressive, while downplaying negative actions or behaviour.
“Police co-opt LGBTQ+ causes to valorize their own public image. You can’t be beating us up by night and say that you support us during the day,” says Naqvi.
According to Larock, another problem is the oversimplification of the issue into “all police and no police”. She says the conversation is much more complex than that and it’s “just not that black and white”.
According to Larock, the conversation should be looking for different ways to support the marginalized groups, rather than fighting about police participation.
“Because the situation gets oversimplified to pro-police or no police, it ends up creating this fear for people who think that this is what the issue has to be,” says Larock.
The Pride Durham board for 2018’s Pride Week was established in Feb. 2018. According to Larock, the question of police presence was raised fairly early. She voiced her opposition of police in uniform to the board, noting they should listen to the community.
“I thought we should think carefully about the decision, particularly since…having the police there, but out of uniform, is my preference,” says Larock, “I think we should at least talk about why it’s important to have a responsive ear to what the most marginalized people in our community are asking for.”
In the aftermath of the announcement to allow DRPS to participate, three board members, including Larock, resigned. According to Bakker, one of the three had left due to an unrelated commitment, and that it was “in the plan.” Larock disagrees and says all three decided to leave because of the vote to allow police to attend pride. She also notes that the decision was not unanimous among the board members.
“If that’s what a majority of the board voted, I wanted to have it known that that was not an unanimous decision, or at the very least not a decision that I felt adequately reflected what the most marginalized communities were asking for in terms of what their needs are and what their wellbeing is,” says Larock.
Several acts and bands performing for Pride Durham also dropped out of the festivities and some events, such as the Hot Damn It’s a Queer Slam competition and a Writing Rainbow event has chosen to be independent from Pride Durham.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” says Naqvi, noting that it would be a difficult choice, “I don’t think anyone wants to do that. Those bands rely on this money and they’re also queer bands who want to play for our audience. And it’s really positive or the community.”
The Robert McLaughlin Gallery has chosen to “separate” from Pride Durham, by not being sponsored by them, due to being “dedicated to creating an equal, safe and accessible space” for the community and did not want pride participants to feel unsafe.
The RMG is still hosting their annual RMG Friday: Pride event, but is not associated with Pride Durham.
As for pride event attendance this year, Naqvi says from what he can see, there are many community members choosing not to participate and instead going to other pride events that are considered less problematic.
“Unfortunately the current board, has handled this by consistently ignoring the community and I’m grateful there are other folks who will listen to us,” says Naqvi. He says that while he is excited about Pride, he wants to feel safe as well.
Pride Week 2018 begins on May 27 with many events all over Durham Region, including the Pride Parade in Ajax on June 3, the final day of festivities.