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A historic coalition of traditional race-oriented civil rights organizations, labor unions, and LGBT groups met yesterday at the Stonewall Inn to endorse the upcoming SIlent March to End Stop and Frisk on Father’s Day, June 17. The “press conference” featured an impressive roster of speakers — including the Rev. Al Sharpton, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and NAACP President Benajmin Jealous — and had anyone wanted to wipe out nearly every LGBT leader in the city, they could have done it with one strike.
But as historic as it was to see “Gay Inc” standing alongside black civil rights groups at the location where the Stonewall Riots kicked off the gay rights revolution four decades ago, there was one inconvenient truth which the event did not acknowledge. In fact, when the Voice even asked about this — that the assembled were joined to fight a policy which belongs primarily to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a very close ally of several of the speakers, particularly Speaker Quinn, and also the Human Rights Campaign, who honored Mayor Bloomberg last year — it brought the “press conference” to a hasty end. (Like most events we cover, it was expected by organizers that the speakers would talk at us and we journalists would transcribe whatever they said and repeat it without question.)
Still, it was one of the most unusual events we’ve covered, and a hearteningly significant one at that.
We chatted briefly before the event began with Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union ( RWDSU), the ringleader behind the day’s activities. Appelbaum stressed to us, and in his public remarks, how his union is largely made up immigrants, blacks, Latinos, and, yes, queer people. This is the future of labor, he said (hours before the old face of labor took a real drubbing in Wisconsin and California), and issues like police profiling and LGBT equality are of great importance to them.
The most touching moments through out the press conference were when speaker after speaker made the connection between the fights for LGBT civil rights and the fight for racial civil rights, and the many spaces the two struggles share. Rev. Al Sharpton talked about supporting same-sex marriage since he ran for president in 2004. He joked about people being surprised to see him in gay bars downtown (surprised, he said, because he doesn’t drink), but he didn’t mince any words in comparing the Stonewall Inn to Selma in its hallowed, historic nature, and he elevated the Stonewall Riots to a place of importance in American civils history equal to anything that happened in the south in the sixties.
“You must be for the civil rights of everyone, or you’re not for civil rights of anyone,” Sharpton said as he recalled telling other black ministers when he first backed gay marriage.
Similarly, Benjamin Jealous, the head of the NAACP, talked about the need for everyone to have civil rights protections from police profiling, gay and straight. This month’s march will only be the second silent march ever undertaken by the NAACP; the organization finds profiling to be sufficiently important that it warrants their first silent march since 1917, when they marched against lynching.
Jealous spoke about a transgender sibling in very personal terms, and his familial example was a strong personification of one of the most compelling arguments yesterday: when talking about police profiling, it’s important to realize that the biggest victims of it are black and Hispanic men, especially in terms of stop and frisk here in New York (where 87% of NYPD stops are of black and hispanic men). And, while stop and frisk affects LGBT people as well, it overwhelming affects “T” – trans- people of color the most.
Sharon Stapel of the Anti-Violence Project and Stacey Long of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force put out the numbers in stark terms. Poor people of color from the trans community (of which there were many at the Stonewall riots) are often assumed to be prostitutes and are routinely harassed by the NYPD; carrying condoms on your person can now be presumed as proof that you are a prostitute by the NYPD. Rates of being arrested can be 25 times higher for trans people of color than their white counterparts; according to the Task Force, 41 percent of transgender people of color tell them they have been locked up at one point, as opposed to just 4 percent of white transgender people.
Speaker after speaker talked about people they knew being profiled for being gay, black or transgender. The most perverse was when George Gresham talked about 8 and ten year old black boys living in the projects joking darkly as they call their friends “stop and frisk virgins” who haven’t been stopped by the NYPD yet, and teasing each other about when they’ll lose their “stop and frisk virginity.”
The youngest speaker, Chris Bilal, spoke about being a victim of stop and frisk himself, while invoking James Baldwin’s legacy and a belief there has never been separate experiences of being black and gay. Similarly, Jealous said communities of color have been together with gay activists “since Bayard Rustin,” but acknowledged it needs to be “more visible now.” The final speaker, Robert Pinter of the Campaign to Stop the False Arrests (who was falsely arrested for prostitution in 2008) echoed Bilal’s story in a sad way. At the last meeting of his group, Pinter said, one of the participants was 45 minutes late because he’d been stopped by the NYPD.
The event ended on something of a sour note, however (although one completely appropriate for something which had been billed as a press conference), when the Voice asked the second (and final) question of the awkwardly brief question period. We asked Marty Rouse, the representative of HRC, the following:
Your organization gave your National Ally award to Mayor Bloomberg last year. Stop and frisk is essentially his policy. How do you respond to him about that?
Rouse said, “I can respond to that. We’re here to support this event, and proud to do so.” Appelbaum asked for a next question, was met with silence, and promptly ended the conference.
It was a disappointing exchange, but not surprising, given that HRC hasn’t responded to our queries over the past couple of years. As we wrote yesterday, HRC is often criticized by activists for being overly concerned with the well-being of Washington insiders and the Democratic Party, and not particularly concerned with poor people or people of color. While it was exciting to see HRC at yesterday’s event which denounced the stopping of hundreds of thousands of black and Latino men, we wanted to know what they said to one man behind it who also happened to be, out of every person in the United State of America last year, the person they considered the most important ally in achieving equality.
We approached Rouse again, and had the following exchange:
“Sir, HRC has no response to this policy, which is one of the major policies of the person you honored last year? [No comment.] Is this something you are going to push him on?”
“I can’t say what the next steps are. I can say we’re here, we’re proud to support the march.”
“You obviously have his ear. You can push [Bloomberg] on this, can’t you?”
“Our president is here, and we’re sending a message that we’re working with other organizations, including the NAACP, for this march.”
Rouse then walked away. To be fair, we would have asked Quinn and Sharpton, who both also have the mayor’s ear, what they would say to the mayor about stopping three quarters of a million brown and black men every year; however, they’d made their exit before the end of the press conference.
Will this march mark a real turn towards racial and economic justice for Gay Inc., or will it just be a one off? It’s hard for these groups to aggressively tackle the structural problems of economic justice and institutional racism in this city (like stop and frisk) because they are so closely aligned with the mayor, the governor, big business and the finance industries. And whereas the labor and black groups are certainly tied to special interests, too, it’s important to remember that during the heyday of Occupy Wall Street (which, for all of its flaws, is undoubtedly the major reason why police abuse is being so fiercely debated right now), the NAACP, the SEIU, and the RWDSU all issued statements of support with the protesters. Gay Inc, meanwhile, was silent; HRC in particular honored the man who shut Zuccotti down and fetted Goldman Sachs, one of the movement’s biggest targets. Chase Bank, which donated 4.6 million dollars last year to the NYPD Foundation to back up the very police department engaging in the stop and frisk policy HRC was denouncing yesterday, is an HRC corporate partner.
HRC has the access to the right players to affect real change with stop and frisk. Will they use it?
The June 17 march will go down Fifth Avenue and pass Bloomberg’s house. Alas, we imagine he will probably be in the Bahamas or breaking curfew in his helicopter on a Sunday.