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Uniformed police will march in Vancouver’s Pride parade

‘This is our way through and our compromise for this year,’ says Pride society

Police marched in Toronto’s 2015 Pride parade. Credit: Kyle Burton/Daily Xtra

After months of community consultation and debate, the Vancouver Pride Society has decided that police will march in this year’s Pride parade, some of them in uniform.

In a statement released May 18, 2017, the VPS says members of the Vancouver Police Department and RCMP are invited to march with the City of Vancouver’s parade entry. Officers will be mixed together with staff from the city, fire department, emergency health services, parks board and public library.

The statement says about 20 percent of the police contingent, including those who are “visible in the community,” will march in uniform. The rest will wear T-shirts.

In an email clarification to Xtra, the Pride society says the exact number and identity of “visible” officers in uniform will not be known until volunteers sign up, but reiterates that the contingent won’t exceed 20 percent. Last year, about 110 police officers signed up to march in the parade, according to the VPS.

This year, the VPS has asked police not to use sirens and not to bring any marked law enforcement vehicles in the parade. The RCMP will still have its purple diversity bus, the VPD will have an unmarked vehicle, and Correctional Services of Canada will have a white van with a logo on the door.

“The steps that the VPD and the RCMP have agreed to take in response to community concerns must be the beginning of an inclusive, ongoing process to building new relationships and a new way forward,” the VPS says in its statement.

The decision to reduce police presence follows last summer’s sit-in at Toronto Pride, when Black Lives Matter activists asked Pride uphold its principles of diversity and equity, fully support more community spaces, especially for marginalized groups within the community, and remove police from the parade. Since then, Halifax police have voluntarily withdrawn from this year’s Pride parade and the Toronto police force says it will respect Pride Toronto’s decision to ban uniformed police from the parade too.

“We recognize that the conclusions we have come to this year are not going to make everybody happy,” says VPS co-executive director Andrea Arnot. “We feel like our process has been solid. We have taken our time to reach these decisions, we have listened to many voices on this topic on all sides, and in the middle.”

Arnot says the work Black Lives Matter groups in Toronto and Vancouver have done to bring the issue to the forefront remains an ongoing conversation. “This is a step we are taking this year, and by no means do we think this work is done,” she says.

But, she says, in its consultations the VPS heard more people ask not for police removal but for some kind of gesture to change police participation, hoping to see the conversations continue throughout the year, not just around Pride.

“It’s not about a majority or a popularity contest, it’s about listening to different voices,” Arnot says. “BLM in their original open letter said last year they would be content with an entry like this, so we have based our work partially on that letter. The goalposts were changed later on. In recent meetings with BLM, our board and staff have felt that they don’t want to be banning police entirely from the parade, so this is our way through and our compromise for this year.”

Banning groups may make them unlikely to cooperate in future, she adds. “When you ban someone from something they are probably not going to want to work with you. What we want is to hold police accountable 365 days of the year and have them do this work on a daily basis, so that’s why we have allowed them to be in the parade this year.”

According to the Pride society, police and RCMP have agreed to participate in listening circles organized and facilitated by the VPS before and after Pride — “where community members can share their stories with police in a supportive and accessible space, so that we might learn more about each other and find a path to breaking down barriers to trust.”

When asked how police will be held accountable for engaging in the listening circles, Arnot says community members who attend will evaluate the experience and officers will provide feedback on what they might have learned.

Black Lives Matter Vancouver member Jabari Cofer says while a reduced police presence is a step, BLM wasn’t given an opportunity to offer feedback on the VPS’ police strategy.

“They’re claiming this was a dialogue but it hasn’t been. They haven’t talked to us since the meeting in February,” Cofer says, where BLM alleged their concerns were disregarded by both the VPS and the police department’s LGBT liaison officer.

Cofer says Pride’s policing decision appears cosmetic, and obscures continuing police brutality toward people of colour and a lack of meaningful work to change. “It just looks different from the outside without changing anything,” Cofer says. “Having the VPD and RCMP in the parade is pinkwashing these violent institutions and it seems like the whole purpose of having the cops in the parade in the first place seems to be a PR move to make it seem like they’re so supportive of LGBT people, when in reality they just aren’t.”

Fatima Jaffer, founder of the South Asian queer support group Trikone, believes the blame lies largely with the Vancouver Police Department.

“It’s the VPD that isn’t listening,” she says. “If this is the extent of what the VPS has managed to negotiate with the VPD, it’s shame on the VPD that they haven’t listened to the calls that say, ‘step back right now, this is the best way you can be an ally or listen.’”

While she believes the Pride society is accountable to some degree as representatives of the queer community in conversation with the police, a voluntary police withdrawal is the appropriate response to such a fractious issue in a community they claim to want to support.

“Their persistence in being in the parade is for me the appalling thing about this. The fact that the VPS has left it open and said the conversations will continue is a step in the right direction.”

Jaffer warns that racism is on the rise in Canada, including activities by Soldiers of Odin, which shares a name with a European neo-nazi group and whose members allegedly attacked anti-racism protesters at a rally in March. Jaffer alleges police stood by and watched while queer people of colour cried out for help, and did not intervene until violence erupted.

“There is a nationwide rise of these right-wing groups but the police are not making those links. It is tied to Pride in that the bodies that are not being protected in this country are the same people who don’t feel included at Pride.”

Cofer questions the VPS’ listening circle plan, saying there seems to be no way to hold police accountable for practicing better community relations, even if they attend meetings. Marginalized people may feel unsafe talking honestly to police about assaults and negative experiences, potentially fearing retaliation, Cofer points out.

“I hope that wouldn’t happen, but that could be something that’s a barrier to them participating in these circles.”

Cofer says they are unsure how BLMV will participate in Pride 2017, but the group will continue pressing the VPS for action.

“We’re not pleased and this definitely isn’t over, it’s not final by any means and we are going to continue pushing for the removal of police from Pride,” Cofer says.

“We think Pride needs to return to its roots. At Stonewall it was the queer, trans, Latinx and people of colour who started the riot against police that led to Pride, so it’s ridiculous to have an institution that has been oppressing folks for decades stand up and say, ‘we’re okay now.’”

Imtiaz Popat, who founded the queer Muslim support group Salaam and last year organized a Pride march for queer people of colour, says he boycotted the Vancouver Pride parade last year. The 2017 plan changes nothing, he says.

“Their desire to march is an act of pinkwashing,” Popat says, referring to police. “The police have not been accountable or accepted their actions against all of our communities, including two-spirit communities, and they certainly have not engaged the queer and trans people of colour who are more harmed by their actions, so we are not pleased.”

Popat agrees with BLM that police should be uninvited from the march, rather than simply asked to reduce their presence. He says while the VPS decision is a step in the right direction, Vancouver police have not done enough to deserve a spot in the parade.

“It’s causing friction in the community, the rise of racism in the community. Things haven’t gotten any better, they’re actually getting worse,” Popat says. “The community loves the police more than they love queers of colour and trans folks. They don’t feel welcome in the parade.”

“People want the police more than they want us,” he says. “They can have their white Pride parade then, that’s what it’s turning into and we don’t want to be any part of that.”

Like Jaffer, Popat points to the anti-racism protest in March, where he and other members of visible minorities allege Vancouver police stood by while people of colour were assaulted by the group Soldiers of Odin. Popat says police, city council and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson have all been idle about growing racist sentiment.

Last week, former VPS directors Chrissy Taylor and Tim Richards called on Robertson as police chair to support a voluntary withdrawal of police from the parade.

Robertson welcomes the VPS’s decision to work with police to keep them in the parade.

“I’m pleased to see the Vancouver Pride Society and Vancouver Police Department work constructively to reach a mutual decision regarding police participation in this year’s Pride Parade,” Robertson tells Xtra in an emailed statement.

“The VPD has made tremendous progress in building bridges with Vancouver’s diverse communities, but I understand that many marginalized communities do not feel comfortable around police,” he continues. “This is a global, systemic issue that we collectively need to address as a community, and continually strive for legal and lived equality and inclusion.”

“I strongly support VPS and VPD’s listening circles where marginalized voices will be able to safely voice concerns,” he says, “and I encourage residents to use that channel to participate in constructive dialogue before and after the Pride parade.”

In a statement from Vancouver police, Sergeant Randy Fincham says, “supporting Vancouver’s LGBTQ2S+ community goes beyond just the parade. We will continue to enhance our existing outreach, education, and awareness efforts year-round to help the community thrive and feel safe.”

Fincham cites the police force’s LGBT liaison officer, mandatory transgender sensitivity training video for new officers and “safe place” program where businesses post a window decal to display their willingness to assist victims of hate crimes, as examples of “a significant amount of work to support Vancouver’s LGBTQ2S+ community.”

“Our members and volunteers look forward to participating in the Pride parade each year, and we’re pleased that we can keep that tradition going,” Fincham says.

In its report on its consultations, the VPS highlights a few other key issues also raised, including concerns about the corporatization of Pride, too much emphasis on partying, trans exclusion, erasure of femme and bi community members, people of colour inclusion, diversity in representation, and costs to participants. The full report, and its proposed strategies to address these concerns, can be read here.