After nearly a year of discussions on how to make Pride events inclusive for queer people of colour, Black Lives Matter Vancouver demonstrated how a police-free Pride celebration could be both political and inclusive.
The march, which started with speeches at Emery Barnes Park then took to Davie Street June 25, 2017, was organized by the Vancouver chapter of Black Lives Matter as a way of reclaiming LGBT Pride celebrations and centring the voices of queer and trans people of colour.
“This march was necessary because Pride is a protest, and the celebration of the institution of police in the Pride parade is not the thing that is true to the roots of Pride,” says Daniella Barreto, one of BLMV’s core organizers.
A team of 50–60 volunteers helped orchestrate the event, managing the sound system, handing out food and water, and helping to block off traffic when the event took to the streets.
Co-organizer Cicely-Belle Blain says the march is about centring black voices.
“We kind of wanted to have an event that centred black people and centred QTPOCs and centred other marginalized people who might experience police brutality and therefore wouldn’t want to be in a parade with police,” Blain says.
A solid turnout
An estimated 700 to 1,000 people attended the event.
Participant Kita Onokale says she was surprised by the number of non-Black people who attended.
“It was beautiful, it was amazing actually, the vibes were really great,” she says. “Honestly, being a person of colour I did not think that there would be that many people, it was just nice to see so many allies, so many people from other ethnicities, lots of white people here, lots of other, other people here . . . it made me way more hopeful for Black Lives Matter, because we are such a small population in Vancouver.”
Barreto says she’s happy with the turnout too.
“I’m really excited that so many people showed up. As we crested the hill [on Davie Street] and were coming down and I turned around to have a look at the crowd I was floored by the amount of support that we have and the number of people that came out to support was incredible,” she says.
Before the March on Pride, she says she’d “never been to a Pride event in which I felt that Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour were front and centre and it was for us by us.”
A place to heal, celebrate and get political
The event started midday Sunday at Emery Barnes Park (named after the first black speaker of the BC legislature), with the first hour dedicated to a Black and Indigenous healing gathering facilitated by local musicians, including Vanessa Richards. Richards says people respected the circle’s intention as a Black and Indigenous space, and organizers say about 25 people participated.
“I think song is always a really important place for people to feel connected and let the song do its work, songs have their medicine right?” Richards says. “Songs want to be sung and they’re made for these purposes of gathering people.”
Co-organizer Joy Gyamfi spoke to the crowd before the march.
“In 1969 there was a riot in a New York bar called the Stonewall Inn. This bar and so many others were often raided by police. Police who wanted to arrest, violate, gaybash and potentially kill queer and trans communities,” she says.
“In the present day, the same institutions that these riots fought against have not changed enough . . . In 2017 queer and trans people are still experiencing violence from police, whether it be through micro-aggressions like misgendering or the use of harmful slurs, Black, Indigenous and racialized folks are particularly familiar with this kind of treatment. Pride began as a protest and it can’t be a celebration if only some people feel safe.”
Reclaiming Davie Village
Around 2pm, the march took to Davie Street, which Blain says was a strategic decision.
“There’s still a pretty specific demographic that uses that area, particularly white gay men, so we wanted to shake that up a bit and show this LGBTQ area of town, all of those things, Qmunity and all the other community centres that are there, they’re for everyone in the community and some peoples’ voices aren’t being heard or are being left out,” Blain says.
Led by a group of people holding a “Black Lives Matter” banner, the marchers walked west on Davie Street, as Vanessa Richards and others led them in songs and chants. Several onlookers waved and cheered, including a handful of seniors, who came out onto their patio and cheered as the march went by.
At the intersection of Davie and Bute, members of BLMV staged a die-in at the rainbow crosswalk.
As the marchers formed a circle around them, the five members lay down on the hot pavement, while several allies drew chalk outlines around their bodies. Another participant then read the names of people allegedly killed by police in Canada. A moment of silence followed, then a mournful song, as one attendee wept loudly and another held them close.
“The die-in was about forcing people to pay attention to the amount of violence that black people experience from police . . . the mood we wanted to create was one of centring Black and Indigenous folks but also, like a sombre mourning for the people who have experienced police brutality, violence and death,” Barreto explains.
A space for families
Several young children, seniors and folks using scooters and walkers participated in the march. One attendee, Meagan Clarke, came with her partner and their son. Clarke doesn’t think it’s necessary for police to be present at the Pride parade, and says she wanted to show her son the importance of standing up for his rights.
“My wife is from the Bahamas and my son is half-Jamaican. It’s important to stand up when police brutality is happening . . . It’s important for him to learn that to be a citizen of the world is to also participate in making it better, so we try not to shy away from what he’s really going to face as a little guy of two lesbian interracial moms, and being, you know, Black himself,” Clarke says.
Police presence at an ‘anti-police’ event
The goal of the march was to provide a safe place of political assertion and celebration for queer communities of colour, and allies were strongly encouraged to attend. However, the police and certain other institutions were not invited.
According to the March on Pride’s Facebook page, the “event is open to everyone except institutions that criminalize, brutalize and kill Black people and other marginalized groups.”
The Vancouver Police Department was present at the event, with about five uniformed officers on motorcycles blocking off traffic as the march walked down Davie Street. Even though BLMV did not apply for an event permit, the route for the march was made public on their event page. In an interview six days before the march, Blain said a BLMV ally had been in contact with the police well ahead of the march.
Blain, who readily acknowledged that police would probably be present in some way, was apprehensive about how police would behave at the march. Normally “police just kind of block off traffic and just kind of stand there, so I imagine it will be fine, but that’s just always on our mind, especially since this is an anti-police event.”
After the march, Blain said the police presence “was to be expected, there were a lot of them, obviously we wish they weren’t there at all. But ultimately they were well behaved.”
A year in the making
The idea for the march first came up a year ago, shortly after Black Lives Matter started talks with the Vancouver Pride Society about ending police participation in the Pride parade.
“We wanted to do our own celebration because we knew ultimately the VPS parade wasn’t going to be entirely inclusive,” Blain says.
Extensive community consultations to discuss the presence of police at the 2017 VPS parade ensued, culminating in the VPS’s decision in May to allow officers to participate, up to 20 percent of whom can march in uniform.
“Personally I feel quite let down and not listened to . . .they really should have put our voices first,” says Blain, who says they left one of the consultation meetings in tears.
Reclaiming, not retaliating
While the title “March on Pride” may lead some to think the event was planned as a retaliation against the Vancouver Pride Society, Blain says the event was named to reclaim language used by the civil rights movement’s March on Washington.
“We’re not trying to attack them,” Blain says, adding that they’re hosting a “march on Pride as an ideology.”
A year ago, when Xtra first interviewed Blain, they were optimistic about the relationship between Black Lives Matter Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department. When asked again six days before the march, Blain says they’ve learned a lot in the past year.
“I myself have grown as an activist and have gotten a much deeper understanding of the way the police are complicit in systems of oppression . . . Being a part of Black Lives Matter, I have learned so much more about the violence that police perpetuate in Vancouver and elsewhere, and I think knowing all those things it’s hard for me to trust police anymore, and I don’t think we will be developing any sort of relationship with them,” they say.
“Police are still a system and they still fail us,” Blain says.