Many people know that New York's legendary Gay Pride Parade was launched in response to the violent 1969 police raid of a Greenwich Village gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. Less well-known is that a key organizer of that initial defiant and celebratory march was a cop.
Not at the time, mind you. Fred Sargeant was then the 20-year-old manager of his partner Craig Rodwell's Oscar Wilde Bookshop in the Village when he walked by the Stonewall melee, after which he and hundreds of others rioted in the streets for days against the heavy-handedness of the NYPD. But having helped midwife a new era of gay liberation, Sargeant soon decamped to Stamford, Connecticut, and decided to change policing culture from within.
"I wanted to see if I could make a difference, and having seen the situation at Stonewall and how the NYPD handled that, I thought I could do it differently," Sargeant later told PBS. "Stonewall wasn't the only riot I saw. I'd been caught up in riots in the Village before and watched what the police did." Sargeant would rise to the rank of lieutenant before retiring.
That gradual commingling and grudging tolerance between activist and officer is now beginning to unravel. Late last week, bending to pressure that had intensified after the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd, organizers of 2021 Pride announced a five-year ban on parade participation by uniformed police and corrections officers.
"The sense of safety that law enforcement is meant to provide can instead be threatening, and at times dangerous, to those in our community who are most often targeted with excessive force and/or without reason," NYC Pride organizers said in a statement.
"The community really called us out as an organization," Pride Co-Chair André Thomas explained to The New York Times. "Because they felt that we weren't necessarily living up to our mission, our higher ideals and standards."
Those ideals apparently now include collective guilt and racial paranoia:
[T]he changes are meant to address concerns voiced by some transgender, Black and Latino people who say they felt unsafe marching in front of a police force that routinely targeted and victimized them. […]
"The issue is, how do we make Pride safe for the people who feel the most marginalized and have often been left out of the conversations about how Pride is run?" said Beverly Tillery, the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, an L.G.B.T.Q. rights group. […]
"As the police presence at Pride has grown over the years, the members of our community who are most marginalized, who are most harmed by police, have felt like Pride is not a safe place for them."
There are several situations in which interacting with a heavy police presence could make members of a historically marginalized community feel tangibly—as opposed to rhetorically—unsafe: a massage parlor raid, a housing-project sweep, an immigration crackdown. It's hard to imagine an event lower on that hierarchy of danger than a televised Gay Pride parade in the sunny streets of Manhattan featuring a phalanx of ebullient gay cops.
For decades, uniformed members of New York's Gay Officers Action League (GOAL) were barred from participating in Pride—not by parade organizers, but by the NYPD, including long after the event had become a bipartisan civic celebration featuring the likes of Rudy Giuliani. Only in 1996, after filing a federal discrimination lawsuit, were the cops allowed by their own department to march in full dress.
In a press release Friday, GOAL said it was "disheartened" by what it called a "shameful" decision to "placate" activists, adding: "GOAL and our members have had our hands in every police reform and policy revision touching on the LGBTQIA+ community in New York City."
Like all other parades in parade-happy New York, Pride will continue to have a police presence; just on the outside, one block away, and not as exhibitors. "The idea of officers being excluded is disheartening and runs counter to our shared values of inclusion and tolerance," NYPD spokeswoman Sgt. Jessica McRorie told the Times. "That said, we'll still be there to ensure traffic safety and good order during this huge, complex event."
Some police critics and criminal justice reformers, including many I respect, will no doubt cheer this news, seeing it as a continuation of the recently accelerated push to disentangle police from unnecessary and potentially fraught interactions with the citizenry. But using an anti-discrimination event to discriminate against cops has its potential downsides, too.
If you demonize all cops as irredeemable, radioactive sources of potential violence and oppression, this may serve to discourage from police service precisely the types of people—those from historically marginalized communities themselves, and sensitive to the related policy concerns—who reform advocates have long been agitating for departments to hire.
Recruitment right now is not some academic issue: Cops in New York and elsewhere are retiring at rates not seen in years. The types of rookies willing to withstand the refrain that All Cops Are Bastards may not be as friendly to black transgender Pride marchers as the officer who literally sued their way into the parade.
There is a radical reaction to this complaint that's popular among some progressives and libertarians, amounting to: So what? People shouldn't become cops (or soldiers, or tax collectors, or immigration agents, or abortionists, or public school teachers, or practitioners of any fill-in-the-blank profession deemed by the beholder to be furthering evil). If fewer good people are attracted to fundamentally corrupt jobs, that's a net gain for virtue, the argument goes.
Maybe. But also, on the planet we currently live on, there are not many countries where those professions do not exist. Often, jobs involving the use of deadly force are among the most respected in a society, and the most likely to be increased during times of real or perceived crisis. Until we achieve Anarchotopia, there are going to be cops, and (in the case of New York and many other polities where crime is on the dramatic rise) lots of them.
There are many strategies for diffusing tensions between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and many concrete ideas about bringing true reform to an overly violent and carceral criminal justice system (read Reason's October 2020 cover package, titled "Fix the Police," for a primer). One of the biggest eye-openers for me since moving to New York is how many of those reform conversations are taking place on the badge side of the debate—police chiefs against "Stop, Question, and Frisk," district attorneys who launch false conviction review units, vice cops who complain about the Drug War.
To treat those people as interchangeable cogs of a malevolent machine is not only inaccurate and nihilistic, it discourages reformers and encourages brutes. All at a time when rising violent crime threatens to undermine the public case for criminal justice reform.
Unpredictable things happen when people collide, rather than segregate. In that first parade in 1970, Fred Sargeant later recalled in the Village Voice, marchers had no idea whether the NYPD would just start cracking skulls. "There were no floats, no music, no boys in briefs," he wrote. "The cops turned their backs on us to convey their disdain, but the masses of people kept carrying signs and banners, chanting and waving to surprised onlookers." It was the beginning of a beautiful thing.
"I've marched in several other parades and have worked and watched countless others over the years, but the cheers and adulation shown to cops marching in pride by far & hands down is always the greatest and loudest out of them all," Officer Anthony Nuccio wrote in an emotional Twitter thread Sunday. "The decision to ban gay cops from marching is absolutely disheartening and hypocritical. It does nothing but create an even deeper divide in our already divided city & community…. I will always be proud of the work GOAL has accomplished & how it has pushed & will continue to push from within the police department for positive changes. I'm proud to be a member of GOAL, I'm a proud gay man & I am equally proud to serve as a police officer."