St. John's Pride bans uniformed police at events; meeting organizer laments 'rush to judgment'
'It's really quite disappointing,' says organizer of cancelled Police and Pride meeting
St. John's Pride will not allow uniformed police officers to attend any events during this year's Pride Week, including its annual parade next month.
As well, it withdrew from a now-cancelled event planned for this weekend that had been intended to hold open discussions about the relationship between police and the LGBTQ community.
The Pride board's decision followed a social media controversy over the organization's participation in a Police and Pride discussion panel that had been scheduled for Saturday.
The event was to feature speakers from the LGBTQ community, researchers from Memorial University and representatives from the RNC and RCMP.
Sulaimon Giwa, PhD, an assistant professor in MUN's school of social work, helped organize the Police and Pride event.
As a racialized member of the LGBTQ community, he said he understands why people were upset but he argues that organizers had been keeping safety and sensitivity top of mind during planning.
"I've been subjected to those sources of racism, so I know what it feels like and I know what lack of safety also means in terms of my ability to exist in society," said Giwa.
"For people to just rush to judgment, without having the full facts, it's really quite disappointing."
According to the event description, the Police and Pride discussion panel was intended to "provide interactive opportunity for dialogue about police and Pride," and "consider what the relationship between police and Pride could look like going forward."
Giwa said that the discussion would have welcomed all viewpoints, and generated recommendations for a report about future police participation in Pride.
St. John's Pride declined to comment for this article.
Safety is top priority, board says
Pride Week will take place July 16-25, and will include both in-person and online events.
In a statement, St. John's Pride explained that while some members of the board are in favour and others are against uniformed police at Pride, the history of criminalization of the LGBTQ community led to the final decision.
The Pride movement's roots started in June 1969, when members of the LGBTQ community, including many people of colour, rioted following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan. In Canada, LGBTQ communities were also subject to police raids throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
"We want, and need, those in the community that have been affected by these historical and continuing events to feel safe," the board said.
In its statement, St. John's Pride also announced that it would not be participating in the discussion panel, which has since been cancelled.
"We think that having open dialogue is important, however, we must determine the appropriate steps for open dialogue and reconciliation."
RCMP spokesperson Glenda Power said the force will respect the decision by St. John's Pride, and officers who wish to attend Pride events will not be wearing uniforms.
Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officers will also attend Pride Week events out of uniform.
"We're willing to participate however we can," said Const. James Cadigan.
Policy should be permanent, board member says
There are varying views among St. John's activists and advocacy groups about creating dialogue between marginalized communities and police.
Kristen Murray, a board member of the Social Justice Co-operative of Newfoundland and Labrador, said she was relieved when St. John's Pride withdrew from the event and announced the ban on uniformed police.
"We hope to see them keep this standing policy permanently," she said.
Murray argues that police participation in Pride is antithetical to its origins as a riot against oppression.
"There is no room for that dialogue," she said. "Police have no place at Pride, because it is a direct safety issue. Their presence in uniform at Pride is harmful because of the history and ongoing harms that the uniform and the institution represents."
St. John's lawyer Caitlin Urquhart, who chairs the St. John's Status of Women Council, is also co-chair of the new First Voice Working Group on Police Oversight.
Created in response to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the working group aims to strengthen civilian-led oversight of police services in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Urquhart said she understands the emotional reaction on social media to the Police and Pride event.
"We know that Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks continue to be disproportionately impacted by violence," said Urquhart. "They don't get the same attention as other demographics in terms of the police response."
Urquhart said the group is willing to work with police who are committed to reconciliation. However, she also said police continue to be involved in removing Indigenous children from their families and communities.
"We know that there are people working within the system to try to improve it," said Urquhart. "The challenge is the system itself."