No Cops at Pride (And How They Can Earn Back Their Right to Be There)

CW: Police brutality, violence, sexual assault

When people ask me, “why don’t queer and trans people want police in pride?”, the reason that I give is that police haven’t given us any reason to trust them. Though many people hold no issue with police, we have yet to see police, as individuals and institutions, consistently treat us with the respect and quality of service that more privileged people regularly receive. From past police actions to present police passivity, there are many stories written in the news and even more anecdotes passed around communities that inform and reinforce the lack of trust that queer communities feel towards police. This is a post about that mistrust, as well as a critically-informed analysis of what work police need to put in to earn and re-earn that trust.

Before I start, I have heard the complaint that this piece is one-sided. I don't think that's a fair way to frame it - police do not need advocacy in the same way that marginalized groups do. Police possess the power, resources, and funds that marginalized groups still lack access to, and police are not the recipients of the specific kind of trauma that only comes from being abused by someone with institutional power over you - the exact type of trauma experienced by everyone who has suffered abuse and violence at the hands of police. And finally, this piece is considerate towards police - I'm not advocating for abolishment, defunding, or any kind of removal of power. My requirements do centre the victims in situations of police violence, but they are quite conservative in that they aim only to improve police competency and police-community trust. With that said, let's get into it.

Reviewing police/LGBTQ+ history: Why no cops at pride?

Speaking to the mistrust that queer and trans people have towards police, there is of course evidence to back up this position historically as well as presently. Hopefully, we all know about Stonewall and how pride in the US began as a riot led by black/POC trans women against police discrimination and violence. If you missed the memo, Stonewall was the event that ultimately sparked the U.S. gay liberation movement and set the foundation for us having the rights that queer and trans people possess today. Because I want this analysis to include Canada as well as the United States, however, I also want to provide context for what happened in Canada. First and foremost, pride began in Canada as an anti-police riot as well, in response to police raiding gay bathhouses in Toronto in the early 80’s. Similar attempts to wipe queerness from the face of Canada’s most populous regions happened at around the same time in Montreal, for example, the raids on Bar Truxx and Sex Garage in the late 70’s and early 90’s respectively. Discriminatory practices in policing took place here in British Columbia as well, with Little Sisters bookstore in Vancouver having their queer erotica shipments often seized by police forces within the same time frame.

As we know, the vast number of events that show police’s abuse towards queer communities are not all relegated to the past. In 2016, a Toronto police officer was reprimanded for telling bystanders that an HIV positive person he was arresting was “going to spit in your face, you’re going to get AIDS”. In March of this year, a Chicago cop raped a trans woman of colour under threat of arrest. Less than a month ago, Hamilton’s police chief used their lack of Pride representation as an excuse after demonstrating their passivity while far-right protestors harassed Hamilton Pride festival-goers. (Pride Hamilton released a statement stating that “this was an opportunity for police to demonstrate that they were there to protect and act in solidarity with the community”.)

These are just the high-profile stories in Canada that are deemed worthy of being covered by news sources and written into history books – there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of undocumented instances of police violence and abuse towards marginalized communities that occur every year in North America. However, they largely go unheard of - we in marginalized communities rarely even bother to report them, since we have learned that any resulting inquiry or investigation that may occur is unlikely to dismiss abusive officers or change policies.

This is only speaking of one type of marginalization, as well - queerness and transness overlaps and intersects with other identities that police lack the competency to interact respectfully with. If queer white people experience sub-par interactions with cops, what might it be like to interact with police as a queer black woman? A 2-spirit Indigenous person? Other factors that add to and compound police insensitivity and violence include disability, homelessness, being a sex worker, being feminine, being Muslim… I don’t claim to be an expert on those identities, but from what I do know, police brutality for them is still a front-and-centre issue, and it is only worsened by being queer or trans.

With regards to having police represented in pride, then, it is no wonder that the most vulnerable people in our community do not want them present - Pride is an event that exists to celebrate our resilience against violence and discrimination, and why would we want to visibly include and celebrate a group that continues to perpetuate that? Even LGBTQ+ cops are still complicit in allowing their colleagues to abuse us, in keeping investigations opaque, and in failing to demand better from their colleagues for our safety. To quote Kitty Stryker, “Police cannot peacock as allies for one day a year and not expect to be held accountable for their actions the rest of the time”.

Now, most discussions of police at pride stop here, having explained that the root of mistrust between police and marginalized people is police’s policy and actions both in the past and in the present. With this post, however, I am hoping to further the dialogue into new territory where we can consider what needs to happen for the tenuous relationship between police and marginalized groups to begin mending.

What Police Need to Do to Earn Our Trust (Back)

The first thing that you’ll notice about that heading is how I phrased it: “What police need to do”. Yes, the responsibility is on police. Why is that? Two words: power imbalance. When we talk about this issue, we are speaking of two different groups of people: a group that lacks power, and a group that possesses some of the most power of any group in society. Police are hired to be policy enforcers for governments, and they are granted a lot of power to enforce these policies. Meanwhile, queer and trans rights are still being decided by legislators in many parts of the world, and those rights are still very much being fought for even in the U.S. and Canada. Police are paid a good salary, with full benefits and often paid administrative leave even when they are under investigation. Meanwhile, queer and trans people are still denied employment and housing opportunities, which drives us further into poverty. Essentially, police must shoulder the responsibility for improving their interaction with us because they have the power and resources to make change happen, whereas queer and trans people (much less multiply marginalized queer and trans people) do not.

(I also say “earn our trust (back)” because, as it was pointed out to me recently, not all people had trust in police before losing it, like I did as a white person. Many people who are members of social groups that are harmed more often by police never trust them at all, and for good reason. So while I can say that I was socialized to believing that police were good when I was younger, I want to recognize that my experience doesn’t speak for everyone else’s.)

Having understood, then, that police/queer community relationships need to be mended before police can be at pride, and that police need to perform the majority of the work to do that, the next step is to ask what that work entails. What do police need to do for us to start trusting them? I have come up with three reasonable and realistic requirements that we need to see police meet in order to begin repairing the damaged relationship between us and police.

Three Reasonable Requirements for Anti-Oppressive Police Reform

These requirements are reasonable because they are attainable and by no means radical. Some of my peers want police to be defunded, or even abolished. I'm not even going so far as to suggest that. These suggestions are for what police can do with their current budget without even losing any of their institutional power. With that said, let's get into it.

Requirement number one is better training. We in the LGBTQ+ community would need to know that any given police officer that we see, in any place, time, and context, is culturally competent and possesses knowledge on how to treat all people with respect and dignity. A huge reason that we don't trust any cop that we see is that we can't tell which cop is “good" or “bad” until it's too late and they're already interacting with us. To give an example of better training standards, I am studying mental health and addictions at Camosun College at the moment, and as a part of my 10-month program, we are required to take an entire course on Indigenous health. This is because of the cultural competency required to provide Indigenous people with the same quality of care as non-Indigenous people. What we marginalized people need to see is similar training and retraining given to new and existing police officers - how to respectfully treat Indigenous people, and queer people, and black people and people of colour, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, sex workers, people with disabilities, people who use substances, all of these groups who are vulnerable to police violence within our society. This would at the very least decrease implicit bias while increasing police's sensitivity and competency. Even if this training doesn't change minds, it would disrupt malicious police officers by highlighting their oppressive practices - or, if they continued those practices, it would make it clear that they should be fired. To summarize this point, police need better training to understand the special considerations required by different groups in order to have their experience with the police be fair, as opposed to of violent, traumatic, or abusive.

Number two is better accountability and transparency practices. Let’s say we’ve fixed training. It’s done. What next? We need the ability to safely report incidences of mistreatment and see internal investigations have transparent results that assure us that our voices are being heard. This point is informed by current events - how many unarmed black people in the States have been shot only to have the officers responsible declared free of wrongdoing following an opaque internal investigation? It’s the same in Canada, primarily with Indigenous people - for example, of the 54 complaints made by Indigenous people in Val-d’Or, Quebec, zero had led to charges as of the end of 2018, and when asked, police refused to release details on over 90% of those cases. We marginalized folks need transparency to be able to trust that the system is working for us, rather than just working to cover up police malpractice. We can’t be expected to trust the process if it lacks transparency and fairness. We need safe avenues to report police violence and systemic transparency so we can see results.

The last requirement, number three, is also the most important. We need to see police taking the initiative, specifically in using their position of power to change policies in ways that reflect our needs as vulnerable populations. I say this is the most important because this lack of initiative is why many of us marginalized folks still don’t trust cops, even if those cops are marginalized themselves - because even if a cop is black, or queer, or a woman, we still don’t see them rushing to out their colleagues who perpetuate harmful practices and get them disciplined or fired. We still don’t see cops, marginalized or otherwise, using their positions of power to pressure higher-ups to change policies that they know are harmful. We still don’t see cops, straight or queer, white or non-white, demanding better training and accountability practices for themselves and their colleagues to make sure that these harms don’t continue happening. We still don’t see cops of any sort dismantling the system that has been criticized for these issues for decades. If police’s jobs are to serve and protect, then they should be listening to us when we tell them what needs to change - otherwise, they are existing in ways that deeply harm us.

We know that the root problem with the police at pride debate is mistrust and power between police and marginalized groups. If our end goal is to fix that root problem, then surely the first thing to change must be police’s passivity and inaction in dealing with these issues.

If police’s jobs are to protect and serve everyone, and not just privileged individuals, then they should be right here next to us demanding that practices change. If police want queer, trans, and other marginalized people to feel safe, their voices should be even louder than ours in calling for better accountability and transparency. If police want to be at pride due to allyship, rather than simple entitlement, then they should be outpacing the rest of us in putting in the work to assure that they’re trained to treat us with dignity and respect.

It is an absolute requirement that we see police taking the initiative to help us feel safe before they are allowed in pride. Police can demonstrate this by listening to what our communities’ needs are, how they are failing to meet them, and putting in the work to make sure that our needs as members of vulnerable and marginalized communities are being met.

To conclude, LGBTQ+ people as well as other marginalized people still don’t feel safe around police, and for good reason. Not only have police as an institution continued to perpetuate violence and discrimination towards us, but they have gone decades, if not centuries, without putting in meaningful work to change that. Given this context, it is absurd to suggest that police of any nature should be represented or celebrated at Pride. However, I don’t want to burn the bridge entirely - if they are able to improve their training, make reporting police easier, increase the transparency of their internal investigations, apologize for their past actions, and demonstrate that they’re putting in the work to that happen, then I’m sure that we would be willing to talk. Until then, we will continue to defend our right to a space free of oppression and violence - including violence leveraged upon us by police.

This post is part of a two-part series about police at pride. See Lin’s other post, “Counters to Common Pro-Police-At-Pride Refrains”, here.

Our Search For the Unproblematic White Person Is In Vain (And We Can Do Better)

Counters to Common Pro-Police-At-Pride Refrains