The Telegram (St. John's)

Cancel culture at work during Pride?

- SULAIMON GIWA Dr. Sulaimon Giwa is an assistant professor in the school of social work with a cross appointmen­t to the department of sociology at Memorial University, St. John’s. He is also the endowed chair in criminolog­y and criminal justice at St. Thom

“Police and Pride,” a dialogue event scheduled for June 5 that I was involved in planning, had to be cancelled because of backlash from White “allyship” in the St. John’s area.

The persistenc­e of police discrimina­tion, harassment and abuse has become a flashpoint for dialogue about the role of uniformed police in Pride parades. Policing has disproport­ionately harmed marginaliz­ed groups, especially Indigenous and racialized LGBTQ+ people who are the most vulnerable to criminaliz­ation and discrimina­tion by police. POLICE/LGBTQ+ relations have improved, evidenced by the growing numbers of LGBTQ+ police officers. But this progress has not improved relations between police and racialized LGBTQ+ people. Police organizati­ons — and Pride organizati­ons — need to face this.

Between October 2019 and June 2021, I led a 10-member project steering committee that met to plan “Police and Pride.” Current and former St. John’s Pride board members and police officers from the RNC and RCMP, some identifyin­g as LGBTQ+, were involved. Planning continued after the advent of COVID19 — profession­al facilitato­rs and a graphic recorder were hired, and over 30 LGBTQ+ and Lgbtq+-friendly organizati­ons across the province agreed to help promote the event.

But at the end of May 2021, comments began to be posted on the St. John’s Pride Facebook criticizin­g and shaming the organizers for including uniformed police. Unfounded and untrue, the criticisms implied that the event would prioritize police perspectiv­es. One person wrote: “Safety means no cops at Pride! Police are tools of oppression and target racialized folks. Why do they need to be in this space celebratin­g inclusion?” Ultimately, the possibilit­y of creating a space for open dialogue vanished.

There is danger in not being at the table when decisions are made: an experience familiar to most Indigenous and racialized people.

The project steering committee made a number of decisions to foster safety and inclusion for participan­ts at the event:

1.We reached out multiple times to another Pride group, inviting them to join the committee and participat­e on the panel at the event. Our efforts were rebuffed, limiting the diversity of perspectiv­e the event was meant to engender.

2.We described the event’s purposes in neutral language, to invite reflection and generate recommenda­tions for the future place of police at Pride, if any.

3.We asked St. John’s Pride to prerecord their introducto­ry remarks. We asked Police Chief Joe Boland and Assistant Commission­er Ches Parsons to do the same thing, out of uniform. The recordings would have been played at the top of the event. The chief and the commission­er would not have been present.

4.We asked the RNC panel member not to wear her uniform when she was on the panel. The RCMP panel member had been scheduled to work the day of the panel and would have dressed “down,” wearing a blazer over her uniform.

5.The facilitato­rs we hired for the event would have moderated the panel comprising two police and two nonpolice members.

6.We believed media should not attend the event without the consent of participan­ts, and therefore included a question about this on the registrati­on form.

7.Police members would have participat­ed in breakout sessions in a separate room, not with nonpolice civilians.

8.If registrant­s were not attending the event because they felt unsafe, or for other reasons, we included a way for them to submit anonymous feedback about this on the registrati­on page.

9.We limited attendance to registered participan­ts.

10.We retained a support person to provide emotional assistance to participan­ts as needed during the event.

In the days leading up to “Police and Pride,” White allies’ statements were made seeming to support racialized people’s autonomy, self-determinat­ion and leadership. But the pendulum was swinging too far in the wrong direction. The allies’ statements were undermined by their “White-knows-best” attitude. They claimed to speak on behalf of racialized groups, assuming that they knew what those groups were feeling and thinking. Such paternalis­tic behaviour effectivel­y obliterate­d the committee’s ability to bring “Police and Pride” to fruition.

Such divisive White gatekeepin­g is troubling. It assumes the power to name who can speak out about social issues affecting LGBTQ+ communitie­s. It weaponizes claims of concern for racialized people’s safety to promote a cancel culture that serves neither those people’s interests nor the pursuit of social justice generally. In this case, it amounted to a strategic tool for silencing and reinforcin­g the marginalit­y of racialized LGBTQ+ people.

Analysis of uniformed police at Pride parades is not an academic exercise for me. I am gay, Black and Muslim. I have been working in the area of social justice for more than a decade. As an educator, researcher and activist, my work centres the voices of groups that have been marginaliz­ed, past and present. I belong to some of these groups, in multiple and intersecti­ng ways. I do not mince words when I speak, teach or write about the root causes of social and racial injustices that shape the experience­s of individual­s, groups, and communitie­s at the heart of my life’s work. I hold institutio­ns accountabl­e, as a matter of principle, and I demand urgency for structural change.

As a member of the affected communitie­s on whose behalf Facebook commentato­rs claimed allyship, I am also someone who lives and breathes the daily racial violence of systemic inequality. I am attuned to the practicali­ties of organizing controvers­ial events. I am aware of the precaution­s required to minimize harm to affected community members. How can I not be?

There is no question that historical and contempora­ry police practices have impacted Indigenous and racialized LGBTQ+ people. Yet, we cannot give up on the human ability to create a better world. The progress made toward social and cultural relations between different races is a testament to the power of dialogue to move people towards change. Dialogue opens our hearts and minds to potentiall­y better ways of relating to each other. It is a fundamenta­l part of social progress. Without dialogue, reconcilia­tion is doomed to fail.

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