NPR logo After Pulse Shooting, LGBT Folks Of Color Worry About Increased Police Attention

After Pulse Shooting, LGBT Folks Of Color Worry About Increased Police Attention

Heavily armed police officers watch over the crowds at the NYC Pride Parade in New York on June 26. Seth Wenig/AP hide caption

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Seth Wenig/AP

Heavily armed police officers watch over the crowds at the NYC Pride Parade in New York on June 26.

Seth Wenig/AP

After 49 people were killed at the Pulse nightclub in Florida in June, gay pride marches across the country saw amped-up police presence. Law enforcement agencies shared support for LGBT people on social media and in the press. The NYPD rolled out a cop car decorated with rainbows.

Safety and security for LGBT people became a political talking point. Donald Trump decried violence against LGBT communities in his "Law and Order" Republican National Convention speech. Calling the victims, who were mostly LGBT and Latino, "wonderful Americans," Trump promised "to protect our LGBT citizens."

Though some have questioned the sincerity of Trump's pledge, others have welcomed increased security at LGBT events and spaces. Still, some activists worry that more police presence won't protect them from vigilante violence — and might actually make these events less safe for the communities they serve.

In recent weeks, activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and organizations of LGBT people of color have protested greater law enforcement participation in gay pride parades around the country and have called on others to consider the needs of those vulnerable to police violence and harassment.

These activists say that while police pledge to protect some in LGBT communities, there are patterns of victimization toward others, especially those who aren't cisgender and white.

"The only way politicians can think to show solidarity with a community that's grieving and feeling deeply vulnerable is to have more of the people who make us feel deeply vulnerable and cause us to grieve," says Andrea Ritchie, a civil rights lawyer who is researching profiling and policing women of color as a Soros Justice Fellow and is the author of Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States.

Ritchie has represented several transgender people in complaints against law enforcement officials, including a transgender woman arrested for "loitering for the purpose of prostitution" who settled a lawsuit with the NYPD after she was chained to a wall "for an extended period of time" and her arresting officer falsely claimed that she was carrying nine condoms.

Ritchie says "people of color in the trans and queer community feel police do not take crime against them as seriously as other offenses, including the offenses they enforce against us. So it's like, 'You're gonna ticket me for standing on this corner, but my sister's killer is going free?'" At least 17 transgender women have been murdered this year across the country, and many of these crimes remain unsolved.

A 2012 survey by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs of LGBT survivors of violence found that 48 percent of those who'd had contact with police reported they'd experienced some form of misconduct during those interactions including excessive force, unjustified arrest or entrapment.

Police sometimes "misgender" trans victims of crimes in the media — describing the victim using names or pronouns the victim no longer identified themselves by — like in January when the Austin Police Department identified a trans woman who was murdered in front of her home as male.

And a survey of Latina transgender women in Los Angeles County found that two-thirds say they've been verbally harassed by law enforcement, 21 percent had been physically assaulted, and 24 percent say they were victims of sexual assault by law enforcement.

In 2011, the Department of Justice found that LGBT people in New Orleans were subject to "harassment and disrespectful treatment" by New Orleans police, as well as unfair stops, searches and arrests. So, when organizers of the New Orleans Pride Parade beefed up security in light of the Pulse shooting, BreakOUT!, an organization of LGBT, trans and gender nonconforming youth that had agreed to serve as grand marshals, decided not to attend.

BreakOUT! members say they don't feel safe because they've been profiled as sex workers and harassed by security in French Quarter gay bars. Outreach coordinator and youth organizer Jai' Shavers says the problem was that "folks who are not used to being targeted by police, did not think about the experience of folks who have been."

Several San Francisco LGBT Pride grand marshals and awardees, including Janetta Johnson, a longtime activist and the executive director of the Transgender Intersex Justice Project; Black Lives Matter; and the St. James Infirmary, the first health clinic in the country run for and by sex workers, sat out their city's parade in June for similar reasons.

"While first responders can be an incredible resource in crisis, they are too often the cause of harm in queer communities of color," the organizations wrote in a joint press release.

In an email, Sgt. Michael Andraychak of the San Francisco Police Department says that LGBT community support for the SFPD during this year's Pride Parade "was strong" and a meeting between the acting police chief and Black Lives Matter activists resulted in "good dialogue."

"I want to be at that Pride celebration and I want my agency to be at that Pride celebration to not only show a visible support for this community but also to provide protection for that community," says Sgt. Brett Parson, an officer in Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department who has been out as gay for his entire 30 years as an officer.

"Police officers right now are feeling highly scrutinized, misunderstood, and at a bit of a loss for how to change this perception, because from their perspective, they're simply doing what they're asked to do and trained to do," says Parson. "Our law enforcement leaders and executives have to really get in front of this and educate the community about what we are trained and why — the history, experience, science behind it."

In order to change perceptions, Parson thinks law enforcement leaders and executives need to start a discussion about "what you want police officers to do in practice. We need to move beyond the argument that 'this is bad' and move onto, 'OK, how do we mitigate this? How do we potentially avoid having to take someone's life?'"

Washington, D.C.'s Capital Pride Parade came the day after the Orlando shooting. Parson thinks a visible police presence there made people feel safe. "In areas where there's been a question of whether police should be at [a] pride celebration, we're losing sight of the fact that sometimes their presence just makes people feel good and safe," he says. "With that said, we have to acknowledge that there are going to be people in the community that don't feel safe around us and we need to work our butts off to figure out why."

Objections to increased police presence at pride events weren't limited to the United States, either. In Vancouver, police compromised with Black Lives Matter protesters and agreed not to have an armored rescue vehicle at the city's pride parade in late July. "The removal of the Armoured Response Vehicle from the Vancouver Pride Society's parade, while a small act, is symbolic to Black Lives Matter and especially to Black queer people," the department said in a statement.

During Toronto's parade, Black Lives Matter activists, designated an "honored group" by Pride Toronto, halted the parade for 30 minutes until Pride Toronto executive director Mathieu Chantelois signed a list of demands that included prohibiting police floats and booths at future events.

When asked about activists' objections to the police presence at pride, Mark Pugash, director of corporate communications for the Toronto Police Service, said he believes "the issue is one for pride and their people to resolve with Black Lives Matter." He adds that, in response to Black Lives Matter Toronto's opposition to police at pride, "I was overwhelmed by the reaction that we got from the public. We received emails, text, phone calls of support from people in the LGBT community and outside the LGBT community."

The march in Toronto "brought up tensions over who feels safe with increased police presence and who doesn't," says Janaya Khan, a Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder who was at the march. "You cannot talk about that without talking about race. Who is criminalized outside of pride and who isn't?"

Black people in Canada are three to four times more likely than any other group to be stopped by police. Statistics on police shootings in both the U.S. and Canada are often unreliable, but some estimate that half of all people shot by police in Canada are black, though black people make up less than 10 percent of the population.

"Pride in its truest form should exist for those most marginalized," says Khan. "It was people of color, trans women, sex-working people who pushed back against police at Stonewall." The 1969 Stonewall Riots, where LGBT people in New York City who were fed up with bar raids and police harassment set fires and flipped over a car, beat up police officers, forced overwhelmed NYPD to barricade themselves inside the bar, led to the very first Gay Pride march in New York City.

Pugash of the Toronto police says his department is aware that some trans people don't feel safe with police, and are therefore less likely to call law enforcement when they're victims of crime or violence. He points to a number of recent ways the department has responded to the needs of LGBT people: police officers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender and act as liaisons to the broader community; a new service guide aimed at making the trans community feel more comfortable with police; and new gender-neutral bathrooms at the police headquarters.

In the weeks before Pride, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders expressed "regret" during a press conference for raids on gay bathhouses in Toronto during the 1980s and "for treating those communities as not fully part of society," and he unveiled a mural in honor of the LGBT community. Addressing the Orlando mass shooting, he pledged to protect marginalized people. "Policing requires building trust," Saunders said. (It should be noted that Black Lives Matter Toronto protested the mural's unveiling, and co-founder Janaya Khan called it "political maneuvering" on the part of the Toronto Police Service.)

"I don't want to discount that people were genuinely scared and terrified in Orlando and beyond, and a response was required," says Ritchie, the civil rights lawyer. "What I hope comes out of Orlando is a deeper conversation about what produces the kinds of violence that we saw there, what prevents it, and what response we need to that kind of violence."

Correction Aug. 3, 2016

A previous version of this article stated that Andrea Ritchie serves as senior policy counsel for Streetwise and Safe. She is no longer in that position.