Peaceful Queer Liberation March Ends With Pepper Spray at Washington Square

The banner that led off the Reclaim Pride Coalition's march from Foley Square to the West Village and on to Washington Square.
Donna Aceto

While tens of thousands peacefully marched from Foley Square to the West Village on June 28 to mark the 5oth anniversary of the first Pride March and to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and opposition to police brutality, the event was marred when police arrested an individual who had allegedly sprayed graffiti and then attacked a crowd that had surrounded a police vehicle that the individual was placed in.

The throngs who joined the march.Donna Aceto

“People surrounded the van until the person was let go,” Eliel Cruz, the director of communications at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, told Gay City News, noting that police used pepper spray. “I saw 10 people on the ground with water in their eyes.”

The march organizers, meanwhile, say that several other people were arrested during the melee.

A march participant wiping pepper spray from his eyes near Washington Square.Donna Aceto

The march stepped off from Foley Square at roughly 1:00 p.m. heading north on Lafayette Street then west on Chambers Street and finally north to the West Village on Church Street and then Sixth Avenue.

Tens of thousands joined Reclaim Pride to support Black lives, push back against police brutality

At 3:15, the end of the march was just entering the West Village. While it was an overwhelmingly white crowd, it was filled with signs and chants expressing support for Black trans lives and the Black Lives Matter movement, opposition to police brutality, and calls to defund the police.

A key demand of the marchers was the reduction of at least $1 billion from a $6 billion NYPD budget to divert to the city’s social and economic needs.Duncan Osborne

At roughly 5:00 p.m., police arrested one person near Washington Square Park who the some observers said police alleged had sprayed graffiti on a nearly building. A large group of marchers who had been dancing in or near the park then booed and jeered the police as they put the individual in a police vehicle, which was immediately surrounded, according to video of the arrest and eye witness accounts of the struggle that followed. At one point, an officer used pepper spray on the crowd — and apparently, video from the scene suggests, pepper sprayed another officer. Collectively, the videos of the arrest and later confrontation had received hundreds of thousands of views on Twitter by 6:00 p.m. as many marchers remained in Washington Square Park or were even still arriving.

“It calmed down,” Cruz wrote on Twitter. “They went away when folks held the line.”

Another marcher suffering the ill effects of police pepper spray.Donna Aceto

The 1969 Stonewall riots occurred after police raided the Stonewall bar on Christopher Street. The explanation is that police believed that a blackmail ring targeting gay men was operating out of the bar, which is likely since the bar was owned by the Genovese crime family and operated by a man who had previously run a blackmail ring targeting gay men. During that raid, patrons and LGBTQ community members who were angered by police harassment fought back. The rioting continued for several days. The riots are seen as marking the start of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

In Twitter posts following today’s police actions at Washington Square Park, elected officials including out gay City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer expressed dismay at this turn of events.

One marcher carried a reminder that the iconic 1969 Stonewall event was a rebellion against police harassment of the LGBTQ community.Donna Aceto

“The first #Pride started as a response to police brutality,” Johnson wrote. “Today, peaceful protesters were pepper sprayed on the 51st anniversary of Stonewall. This is incredibly disturbing. We need a full investigation into what happened today.”

Williams retweeted Brewer’s post which said, “I am concerned that in these instances the NYPD failed in their duty to protect NYers & de-escalate. We need answers, especially as we approach a potential budget agreement defining our city’s values.”

Stringer said simply, “This is inexcusable. There needs to be accountability.”

A statement from the march organizers stated, “Marchers had conducted a huge and universally acclaimed event, marching from Foley Square north on Sixth Avenue, around the Stonewall Inn and back east to Washington Square Park. But as they were entering the park, an NYPD officer stepped forward to arrest a marcher (reason unknown and the NYPD won’t say), and a crowd gathered to object, chanting, ‘Let him go.’ Suddenly, a large crowd of NYPD officers rushed in and attacked with pepper spray. All that did was increase the crowd yelling at them to ‘go home,’ while marchers nursed their pepper spray wounds. One NYPD member reached out to slam a woman on a bicycle to the ground. Other marchers were punched and violently shoved.”

The direct action group Revolting Lesbians played a visible role in the march.Donna Aceto

Jake Tolan, one of the march organizers, said, “I wish that I could say what I saw today was shocking, but how could I reasonably expect anything else from the NYPD? Fifty-ones years after the Stonewall Rebellion, the NYPD is still responding to peaceful, powerful, righteous queer joy with pepper spray, batons, and handcuffs.  Thank you, Commissioner Shea and the entire NYPD, for continuing to show us why you should be abolished.”

The NYPD has not responded to Gay City News’ request for comment.

This year’s march was organized by the Reclaim Pride Coalition (RPC), which produced the 2019 Queer Liberation March and Rally that drew a sharp contrast with the march produced by Heritage of Pride (HOP), also known as NYC Pride. It had no corporate sponsors and featured explicitly political messages. The RPC march last year drew an estimated 45,000 participants who later rallied on the Great Lawn in Central Park. Last year’s HOP March, which was the customary mix of prominent corporate sponsors and hundreds of community groups, drew millions. That march was produced in tandem with WorldPride, an event staged in different cities around the globe every several years.

The 2019 RPC march, which marked the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots, took essentially the same route as the 1970 march, the first to honor the riots. The 1970 march had a “gay-in” on Central Park’s Sheep Meadow.

While the city cancelled HOP’s 2020 march and that group held a virtual event on June 28 — with a handful of brief presentations along what would have been the parade route — the RPC announced on June 4 that it would produce a live march on June 28.

The underserved needs of Black people living with HIV were also highlighted.Donna Aceto

“RPC’s Queer Liberation March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality will be focused on elevating and protecting Black Lives,” the group said in a June 4 press release. “This moment, the principles of the 1970 march, and the RPC founding mission demand it. Black Americans and their children have suffered disproportionate abuse at the hands of America’s white supremacist power structure. The most marginalized among Black Communities, like Trans people, Immigrants, Disabled people, Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, and Neurologically Diverse people live under an even greater risk for the worst outcomes within this system. Inordinate risk calls for urgent consideration.”

The cancellation of the HOP event and the RPC’s focus prompted one marcher to carry a sign that read “PRIDE isn’t cancelled it’s just refocused.”

The Reverend Billy Talen’s Church of Stop Shopping carried a totem of the late Marsha P. Johnson.Duncan Osborne

This year’s march featured a contingent from the Church of Stop Shopping, led by the Reverend Billy Talen in his usual pink suit, with members of the Stop Shopping Choir dressed in black. They carried a large icon of the late Marsha P. Johnson, a known participant in the 1969 Stonewall riots, garbed in flowers and wearing a crown of flowers.

“It’s just a funeral, a memorial for Marsha P. Johnson,” Talen said as the group made its way up Church Street to drumming and chanting. “She’s our leader, our teacher. We honor her today, these are her streets.”

A second contingent used 10 large puppets from LGBTQ community history, including Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Stormé DeLarverie, and Raymond Castro, who is known to have been arrested during the 1969 riots at the Stonewall, as well as a puppet of the Statue of Liberty.

Puppets of LGBTQ heroes created by Christopher Williams, Evan Woodard, Cray Caddle.Donna Aceto

“These puppets were a labor of love,” said Christopher Williams, who was assisted by Evan Woodard and Cray Caddle. The puppets were created and built by clients at the Ali Forney Center, an organization that serves LGBTQ homeless youth, and funded by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Center. The puppets in the RPC march and 14 others debuted last year during the HOP march.

Like 2019, the RPC had specific demands.

“We support the demand for at least a $1 billion cut to the NYPD budget and a reassignment of those funds and much more to housing, healthcare, employment, reparative and transformative justice, and other necessities for Black and other people of color communities, particularly for Black trans people,” the group said on June 4.

The march brought attention to police violence against Black Americans nationwide.Donna Aceto

[Editor’s note: The statement from the Reclaim Pride Coalition in response to the police actions at Washington Square Park has been updated to reflect its final release instead of a draft form that had originally circulated.]

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