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It was supposed to be a panel exploring “a way forward” for police participation in St. John’s Pride.

Instead the event sparked controversy, led to a formal ban on uniformed police in Pride, and was then cancelled by its organizers.

“Police and Pride: A Local Dialogue and Panel” was scheduled to take place over four hours on June 5. It was funded by Memorial University and organized by Dr. Sulaimon Giwa, a professor in Memorial’s School of Social Work as well as Endowed Chair in Criminology and Criminal Studies at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. The event was to feature four panelists: a police officer from each of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, local performer/writer/director Santiago Guzman, and Michael Jackman, an instructor in Memorial’s Department of Gender Studies.

The panel generated controversy from the start. Hundreds of comments poured onto the Facebook page for St. John’s Pride, which was listed as a partner in the event. The online registration link was circulated via Canadian police networks on Twitter, with officers around the country promising support and attendance. Activists across the country who are opposed to police participation in Pride also shared the event and their opposition to it. On Wednesday June 2, St. John’s Pride issued a statement that it was severing ties with the event in response to local complaints. It also banned police in uniform from Pride events going forward.

On Friday, June 4, a notification was sent to registrants announcing that the panel was cancelled. The entire sequence of events underscores the complex history—and fraught present—around engagement between law enforcement and 2SLGBTQIA+ communities.

(St. John’s Pride and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary were approached for comment on this story by The Independent. Both organizations declined.)

Dealing with Division

Giwa told The Independent that the panel had its origins in a report produced for St. John’s Pride in 2018. That year, St. John’s Pride experienced internal turmoil when Co-Chair Noah Davis-Power demanded an apology from the RNC for the 1993 arrests of several dozen gay men on charges of public indecency. When the RNC did not apologize, Davis-Power threatened to bar the governing Liberals from participating in the Pride Parade that year. Following the resignation of several Pride board members, Davis-Power himself resigned.

A ‘Crisis Management Team’ was struck in an effort to rebuild St. John’s Pride and grapple with these issues. The team, which included Giwa along with four others, conducted a survey in addition to other community dialogues. One of the questions in the survey addressed the question of police in Pride. A majority of respondents were in favour of police participation (out of 275 responses, 161 were in favour; 72 opposed; 41 unsure, and 1 did not answer that question). However, the report also indicated several dozen respondents did not appear to identify as members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Other responses suggested they may have come from outside of St. John’s.

Either way, the responses revealed significant division over the issue, and so the Crisis Management Team decided to continue dialogue on the subject. Giwa successfully applied for funding from Memorial University for this purpose, and set about organizing the Police and Pride Panel.

When Giwa learned about the uproar on social media caused by the event, he said he was shocked. He felt some of the comments were unfair and outlined a ten-step safety plan the project steering committee had developed to address people’s concerns, such as asking police officers to cover up their uniforms, and by ensuring separate police and civilian break-out rooms to avoid confrontation. He said there was a frustrating period of back-and-forth when it was unclear whether St. John’s Pride would be pulling out of the event, which they eventually did. The participating police forces indicated they felt uncomfortable continuing without clear support for their participation in the event. Giwa consulted with the project steering committee, which voted to cancel it.

He said the entire experience was a difficult one.

“I don’t come to this particular conversation lightly,” he told The Independent. “I am a member of the community, I’m also a racialized person, I study racism and racial profiling. I understand the danger and the damage that policing as an institution has done to those vulnerable, marginalized, racialized, Indigenous communities. I get it. But at the same time, because we’re talking about social justice, we’re talking about social transformation, we’re talking about institutional change—I wonder how we get to that spot without engaging the same institutions that we are critiquing, if we want them to change.”

“I equate this to conversations around race relations,” Giwa explained. “We talk about slavery, we talk about colonialism, we talk about trans-Atlantic slavery. We’re here now, where you and I are able to sit across from each other and have that conversation. If there was no dialogue that had allowed for that to happen, you and I would probably not be talking to one another. So I wonder whether or not there is a space for dialogue to happen. And if there is a space, how can we create an opportunity for a healthy, well-informed, well-articulated dialogue?”

“I believe in dialogue, I believe in democratic processes that allow for those kinds of dialogue to happen. I think that we are at risk when we don’t allow the diversity of those perspectives to be heard.”

“That’s not to negate the fact that the police as an institution has been at the forefront of some of the concerns that those marginalized communities have been expressing for so long,” Giwa said. “There’s a place for police accountability, there’s a place for LGBTQ community accountability, and I think that we need to find a medium where we can actually co-exist and have that kind of healthy dialogue. In the absence of that, I question where we go from here.”

Apologies and Actionable Change

One of the groups that reached out to express concern was Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), a sex worker advocacy program which operates through the St. John’s Status of Women Council. Program Coordinator Heather Jarvis said the group sent a letter to event organizers following considerable internal dialogue within their community. She said while they acknowledged the organizers’ well-intentioned efforts, there remained deep-seated concerns.

“We really believe in the work of the people behind this event who are trying to organize as queer and trans people in our community, but we really hope that they will understand that we need a different way to move forward,” Jarvis told The Independent. “I think we really have to take a bigger step back and [ask] has there been any substantial real accountability from police forces in our province? We can’t move forward and work towards healing without apologies, but also actionable work to change where we’ve been. And I feel like that is distinctively lacking.”

Jarvis said a central problem with the event was that it centred police voices, rather than those of the marginalized communities most affected by policing.

“Often having these conversations in safe and meaningful ways means not having police present at all, at least to begin with,” she explained. “And only with police involvement later with informed consent of those most directly impacted by policing.”

She cited some recommendations the group shared with the event organizers: providing more advance notice; centring those most directly impacted by policing; providing opportunities for anonymous participation and feedback. She said it’s important to check in with participants about arrangements during the planning stage in order to ensure it’s as accessible as possible.

“If this discussion is going to happen—which it very much seems like it needs to happen—we really need to restructure who is at the centre, whose voices get to be heard first.”

Jarvis said the SHOP community often hears from people who are afraid of being visible and outed during Pride events.

“The idea of policing there on top of that is something that several people in our community have said makes the decision for them that they don’t attend.”

Police and Pride: a storied history

Gary Kinsman is a retired sociology professor, co-author of the book The Canadian War on Queers, and a member of the Toronto-based No Pride In Policing Coalition.

“I was pretty alarmed when I saw [the event ad] on Twitter and saw the involvement of both RNC and the RCMP and Memorial University,” he told The Independent.

Kinsman, who taught at Memorial in the 1990s, was involved in the fight to add sexual orientation protections to this province’s human rights code, which didn’t happen until 1995. NL was the third-last province to add those protections.

“A lot of the stories that we heard [during the campaign] were about police harassment. The police were clearly a major and threatening presence in the lives of many queer and trans people in St. John’s and Newfoundland more generally at that point in time,” he said.

He pointed to the infamous RNC investigation into gay men hooking up at the Village Mall as an example. He also noted that in the early years of the Mount Cashel child sexual abuse investigation, the abuse was often conflated with homosexuality in general, and he argues the police contributed to that perception.

“A lot of that was actually based on the police investigation into the problems at Mount Cashel, which labelled the problem as ‘homosexuality’ at Mount Cashel,” Kinsman explained. “So the police in Newfoundland and Labrador have a long history of contributing to the oppression of gay men and lesbians and trans people.”

Kinsman said the issue is one the queer community has been grappling with for decades, at least since the 1970s.

“One of the major problems that’s existed within [Canada] has been this notion that we have to collaborate with the police,” he said. “The same people who were arresting men for having sex with other men, who were harassing trans people on the street for their gender presentation, who were harassing lesbians—the same police who were doing that were saying they wanted to involve us in liaison and collaboration committees. And to some extent some people within our communities unfortunately fell for that, and got involved in these committees, which by and large just led to people within our communities policing [those] communities, given the historically unjust laws that the police were enforcing.”

In February 1981 the Toronto police launched a series of raids on bathhouses frequented by gay men. Hundreds of officers were involved in ‘Operation Soap’, and by the end of one night over 300 men had been arrested in what was the largest single arrest up to that point in Canadian history. The raids had a Stonewall-like effect on the Canadian queer movement, catalyzing protests and demands for an end to discrimination and police harassment. The Right to Privacy Committee, formed in 1979 in response to earlier police raids on Toronto bathhouses, and at the time the largest gay rights organization in Canada, adopted a policy of no collaboration with the police.

“But there were other people in our community who went forward and collaborated and set up liaison committees with the police anyway,” Kinsman explained. “[This caused] splits in our community and aligned parts of our community with the police, against other people in our community who actually continued to be repressed and oppressed by the police.”

This isn’t ancient history”

Ky Rees is a former Co-Chair (Media Relations) with St. John’s Pride who was also outspoken in their opposition to the panel—and to participation of police in Pride.

“It’s a conversation that our community has had repeatedly over the last seven years,” Rees told The Independent. “Having this come up every two or three years has definitely gotten exhausting. And you can see the frustration from the community members who are most disadvantaged by having the police at Pride. We’re just tired of having the same conversation over and over again.”

Rees says their own thinking on the issue has evolved over time. During their time as Co-Chair, the RNC was in fact involved as a partner in St. John’s Pride. According to Rees, it wasn’t very productive.

“That year it was a priority for us to have the streets closed, rather than just have what we used to have in the past which was one single lane closed in a single direction going down Duckworth Street. When we were making those arrangements with the RNC they were very reticent to close the entire street and were steamrolling us a little bit into keeping the status quo. So even at that moment I’m [thinking] okay, even a formal relationship with the police doesn’t really get you much.”

Rees says subsequent experiences—including a sense that the RNC did not take it seriously when they experienced a threatening situation and were followed by a group of men with baseball bats—have underscored their feeling that police should not be in Pride.

“There’s a real lack of understanding of the gravity of those kinds of events by the RNC,” Rees explained. “This isn’t ancient history, and there’s certainly been many incidents since then. People [say] this is ancient history, this is something that happened in the sixties and seventies. They’re really either not realizing, or privy to, the more recent incidents that are happening repeatedly. This isn’t like we’re talking about something in the past, this is present and palpable for many people still and if people aren’t realizing how current it is, they need to get more informed.”

Jarvis also emphasized that SHOP is concerned about current and ongoing experiences of repression.

“How Pride began was in reaction to police violence and force and the oppression of marginalized, racialized, trans, sex-working communities,” Jarvis told The Independent. “We have to remember that this is still happening today and still happening locally. Newfoundland and Labrador has seen multiple documented instances of Indigenous people speaking about the racism they experience at the hands of the police in our province. We have documented time after time the stigma, discrimination and surveillance that sex workers experience. We have heard far too many instances of people experiencing force by police, pushed to the ground, weapons drawn, when they are experiencing a mental health need. The [recent] Snelgrove case was one more horrific incident of sexual violence, but we have countless examples across our community of people who experience sexual violence, who [then] go to report [and] experience judgment, victim-blaming, or they’re dissuaded from reporting—especially if it’s against someone in a position of power. So we have to really acknowledge that the problems with people feeling unsafe around police are happening now and they’re happening here.”

Looking at the Bigger Picture

The issue of police in Pride, Kinsman observed, is inseparable from the ongoing oppressions experienced by many in the queer community because of their intersecting identities.

“Queer and trans people are never just simply queer and trans. We also live our lives in relationship to race, class, ability, health status, immigration status, a whole series of other questions,” Kinsman explained. “And lots of us continue to be repressed by the police. There’s particular ways in which Black queer and trans people, trans people more generally, people of colour, Indigenous people, two-spirit people, get repressed by the police in particular types of ways. And it’s really important that we defend those people.”

In 2016 Black Lives Matter Toronto drew an international spotlight on the issue by stopping the Pride Parade and issuing a series of demands, including that the police be kept out of Pride Toronto. This helped catalyze similar movements in other cities.

“But it’s important to understand that what Black Lives Matter Toronto was asking for was not simply that uniformed cops not be present within our pride parades, but that any institutional presence of the police not be within our festivals or marches or parades,” said Kinsman. “And that means un-uniformed cops as well. [Plainclothes] cops can also be very very dangerous, in terms of both undercover cops—as we know from various situations undercover cops have actually provoked situations that lead to the arrests of lesbians and gay men—and also the type of surveillance and so-called intelligence gathering that they engage in that can lead to people’s arrests.”

Jarvis echoed Kinsman’s sentiments.

“For us it even goes further, to say it’s not even just about the uniform, it’s actually about the policing culture and the impact of policing on our community that absolutely needs to be addressed. We need accountability and we need real change.”

Michael Jackman was to have been one of the panelists on the abortive panel, and had been looking forward to the panel as a teaching moment. Originally from Newfoundland, he presently lives in Austria. He feels debates about police in Pride locally should not be considered in isolation.

“I want to help people think about how this is a transnational issue,” Jackman told The Independent. “It’s not something that [only] St. John’s Pride Committee is dealing with, it’s something that moves across national boundaries.”

Jackman says the transnational flow of refugees, displacement of populations and closing of borders needs to be part of the discussion.

“People are being displaced, borders are being shut, and that sort of response of armed forces and the securitization of borders has everything to do with LGBT rights activism and the presentation of countries as LGBT-friendly,” he explained. “The way that those things get separated out is part of the problem, that people think of what’s happening within their own countries and within their own citizenry as disconnected from what’s happening in other places.”

“What’s significant in emphasizing this sort of transnational flow is how police, in choosing to wear uniforms and choosing to be present, make all of that use of force and the respect that that demands—they make that visible,” Jackman concluded. “They carry over all of that weight, their authority, into those contexts by indicating who they are as officers. This is not a singular isolated issue, it’s something that’s tied up in processes of securitization that are global.”

Uniformed Police Banned by St. John’s Pride

The decision by St. John’s Pride to ban uniformed police officers drew the ire of some community members, but Rees for one was pleased with the news.

“I am relieved,” they said. “After many years of this flip-flopping I’m glad that the Pride Board decided to adopt a standing resolution that is binding on them and future boards, so it is not just an issue that they can waffle on depending on the year, depending on who’s on it. They’ve recognized it as an issue of importance and as an issue of safety for their members.”

Kinsman feels it’s a good step, but says St. John’s Pride should go further.

“As part of a broader struggle for anti-racist social justice, the Pride movement needs to be supporting people in Black, Indigenous and other communities who are calling for de-funding and abolishing the police,” Kinsman explained. “That’s why I think [St. John’s Pride] need to move further. It’s not simply a question that it’s the uniforms the police wear that are the threat, it’s actually the police as a social institution that are a threat to us. There shouldn’t be dialogue until things are fundamentally changed around how policing is organized in this society.”

As an example, he pointed out that Pride Toronto this year lent its support to an initiative to reduce the budget of Toronto Police Services.

Kinsman added that if there are queer police officers who believe in changing police culture, they should start organizing themselves to push for racial and social justice. He observed that in the US historically, Black police officers have sometimes organized themselves to speak out against unjust actions by police.

“But right now all the queer and trans police officers that seem to come forward, with official support from the police, really what they’re talking about is not so much queer and trans pride,” he concluded. “They’re talking about pride in being in the police.”

Jackman confessed to mixed feelings about how events transpired.

“I’m happy that St. John’s Pride came down on the side of banning cops in uniform, but I still think there is a need to discuss why that is the case,” Jackman said. “I had thought of the event not only as a possible way to push for a ban on police, but also as an opportunity to think about different histories of marginalised groups and transnational forms of securitisation. I think there is a much more complex conversation to be had about rainbow Canada flags, ongoing forms of colonisation, and various other ways in which nationalism are part of pride celebrations.”

“The cancellation of the event left me questioning why the event was put together in the first place. Ultimately I think it’s important to know what police officers themselves think about the issues—or at least what kinds of justification they put forward in public.”

He’s skeptical that the decision to ban police uniforms at Pride will be as permanent as the St. John’s Pride statement suggests.

“I would bet money that the issue and the same questions about dialogue between police and LGBTI will be revisited in the not too distant future,” Jackman concluded.

“Not because St. John’s Pride will fail to keep its promise, but because the state and police officers aren’t going anywhere.”

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Rhea Rollmann is an award-winning journalist, writer and radio producer/podcaster based in St. John’s, NL. She’s a founding editor of TheIndependent.ca, and a contributing editor with PopMatters.com. Her writing has appeared in a range of popular and academic publications, including Briarpatch, CCPA Monitor, rabble.ca, Canadian Theatre Review, Journal of Gender Studies, and more. She was the recipient of an Atlantic Journalism Gold Award in 2017, and finalist for a Canadian Association of Journalism Award in 2018. She also has a background in labour organizing, and queer and trans activism. She is presently Program Director at CHMR-FM, a community radio station in St. John’s, NL.