As controversy and heated rhetoric swirls around the OutReach decision to exclude law enforcement agencies from this weekend’s Pride Parade, leaders of the law enforcement agencies say they understand and support the decision.
The decision comes after months of deliberation in response to some members of the community feeling marginalized by police presence in the parade.
“Last year at the pride parade, the theme was marching towards diversity and inclusion,” says Johanna Heineman-Pieper, one of the people pushing to exclude police from the parade. “And while we could see that they were attempting to make a step, it wasn’t as much as we really would have liked to see.”
Some have expressed concern that the move could alienate allies in the police departments.
“The only conclusion being that police are bad and they can never be worked with, discounted all the work that’s been done over the years,” says John Quinlan, one of the organizers of the first Pride Parade in Madison in 1989, and a longtime advocate for racial justice. “With the police department, I think arguably, saw the most groundbreaking work that’s been done anywhere in the country. That’s everything that (former Police Chief) David Couper did that included women, people of color, and LGBT people.”
But Heineman-Piper says true allies will understand.
“I think that ultimately if they’re really an ally, they will understand where we’re coming from, and … examine the situation further and then realize that by actually excluding cops from this, even though they are thinking of it right now as a discriminatory act, it actually is more inclusive,” she says. “And this is important, to listen to members of the community. If you have seven, 12, 13 black trans women in a row, in the community saying, ‘Yeah, I don’t feel comfortable going to Pride because there’s all those cops there.’ Then it’s like, okay well then how do you be an ally to those people? How do you be an ally to all queer people in the community? I mean once the most marginalized person is liberated, then we are all liberated. So, it’s kind of seeing a bigger picture.”
That seems to be, more or less, the position the law enforcement agencies have taken.
“When I first received the email from (OutReach executive director) Steve (Starkey), it caught me off guard. I got to admit I was disappointed. So I called and spoke to Steve and found out the reasons why, and understood,” said Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney. “I understand that, I agree with it.”
Mahoney said he appreciated that it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision.
“What was persuasive is Steve said that there’s been extensive conversations about this and we, in the eleventh hour, have decided that we want to ask law enforcement not to participate, so as to build a more collective and cohesive community, not drive a wedge between community members, but bring them together. And to do that, right now, we need to ask law enforcement to stand down and that’s fine. It’s what we should do,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney has participated in Pride Parade and similar events for many years, he said.
“As the sheriff, I represent all communities within Dane County. And I feel a strong commitment to being in support of all communities, particularly those who are impacted by marginalization, by racism, by bigotry, by bias,” Mahoney said. “My entire life I’ve had very dear friends who had been marginalized going back to my early days in the sheriff’s office, the late ’70s and ’80s. I’ve seen the impact and that’s why I’ve made a commitment to represent and be there to be a voice for all communities.”
Mahoney said he will participate in the weekend’s festivities and remain engaged with OutReach and other LGBT organizations.
Similarly, MPD Pride, the group representing LGBT police officers and allies within the Madison Police Department, understands and supports the decision and does not want anyone to boycott the parade.
“I get their predicament, and I have a good appreciation of where they’re coming from, a nonprofit organization that’s just trying to provide a resource and be an advocate for a community,” said MPD Pride administrator Brian Chaney Austin. “We definitely don’t want to be a burden. We definitely feel horrible that people have a fear of police, or a mistrust of police. That’s something that we strive to work for and to address.
“We’re encouraging people to still partake in the event,” Chaney Austin added. “We’re not advocating for any kind of protest or boycott of the event at all. In fact, some of us in our personal lives will be attending, not as active participants, just persons who are just celebrating with members of their community.”
“We are disappointed in today’s decision by OutReach — in particular because of our continued efforts to find a method of participation that was acceptable to all of our community members (such as marching in the parade without uniforms or police vehicles),” UW Police said in a statement. “We respect the decision, and we will use this as an opportunity to continue our work and commitment to OutReach and other local LGBTQ+ groups, to build and strengthen our relationships and trust.”
Both UWPD and MPD Pride had offered to participate in the parade in what Chaney Austin called “soft uniforms” — polo shirts or t-shirts that identify participants as police officers, but no official uniform and most importantly no firearms or police vehicles. That wasn’t enough for some, though.
Chaney Austin is confident that the relationship between the police and the LGBT community can remain strong.
“I think it’s a little early to tell. I know there’s valid, hurt feelings,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is just relay to people that we understand. Of course, we wanted to take part in it, but we understand that they’re a private, non-profit entity and they have difficult and challenging decisions to make. This is one of those.”
Madison Police Department officers will still be present at the parade to provide security as they would for any large event.