A year after the Black Pride 4 protest, the community wrestles with the meaning and future of the event

Update: According to a June 13 Facebook post, BQIC is no longer utilizing Highland Security & Investigations for Community Pride in Mayme Moore Park on Saturday, June 16. The organization said the private security company "has collaborated with [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and utilizes current and former police officers." Instead, BQIC will employ a "community-based safety team."

In June 2017, Wriply Bennet was planning to celebrate Pride in a simple manner with friends who understood the challenges for people of color in the LGBTQ community. “We were supposed to cook out … and talk about what gay looks like and queer looks like and trans looks like for us and our history,” she recalled.

But then the Minnesota police officer who killed Philando Castile, an African-American man, during a July 2016 traffic stop was acquitted of all charges.

In response, Bennet's friends abandoned their plans and devised a protest to highlight “indifference about black death,” as well as “the violence against and erasure of black and brown queer and trans people, in particular the lack of space for black and brown people at Pride festivals.”

On June 17, 2017, Bennet and nine others linked arms and blocked the Stonewall Columbus Pride Parade. Within seconds, Columbus Police arrived, pushed the group back with their bikes and sprayed them with mace. Some protesters were tackled to the ground.

“I've read so many times about people being brutalized by the police, but to actually experience it is much different,” said Michaela Mason, one of the protesters. “After they maced us, we tried to keep the line together … but our line broke.”

Unable to see clearly, Mason remembered being passed to a stranger, who moved her out of the way. “That was really scary, but also just not knowing what's happening to my friends and … waiting to hear gun shots at any moment.”

“I'll never forget seeing three officers on top of [Bennet],” said Indya Jackson, another protester. (The moment has been captured on video.) “I was so sure they were going to shoot her. … That was extremely traumatic.”

Bennet, along with Kendall Denton, Ashley Braxton and Deandre Miles — now known as the Black Pride 4 — were subsequently arrested. The former three were convicted of charges ranging from disorderly conduct to resisting arrest, and sentenced to pay fines and complete community service and probation. Miles, who was charged with felony aggravated robbery, is still awaiting trial.

The year also proved tumultuous for Stonewall Columbus. Pride and Program Coordinator Lori Gum resigned, along with 16 Pride planning committee members. Executive Director Karla Rothan also retired amid the fallout. The organization was also criticized for not showing more support for the protesters, with community members demanding the organization call for the charges to be dropped, pay for the Black Pride 4's legal fees and make a statement regarding the actions of the police, among other directives.

Some in the community were also outraged when Stonewall testified at the Black Pride 4 trial, though Stonewall leadership maintains its testimony was limited to procedures for obtaining permits. On Feb. 19, Stonewall also co-authored a letter to Judge Cynthia Ebner along with other Columbus organizations, including Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) and Equitas Health, requesting “leniency” and no jail time for the Black Pride 4.

Still, regarding the purpose of the protest and its aftermath, Stonewall Interim Executive Director Deb Steele said, “Folks are right that those concerns were there and [have] the right to be frustrated about the response from Stonewall.”

“What we could have done differently is had a little bit better preparation around the communication [with the community],” said Stonewall Board President Rob Podlogar, who replaced Tom McCartney in early 2018.

Bennet, Denton and Braxton said they don't regret the protest, but are still experiencing effects in different ways.

“I'm literally still suffering from PTSD,” Bennet said. “I lose words left and right, and I have to constantly stop to find them.”

“It's been a very painful year,” Braxton said. “I haven't stopped feeling the fallout of what was done to us that day, not just by the Columbus Police department, but also by Stonewall and the white LGBT community … and even some of the black LGBT community.”

“I really didn't think anything of it as far as trauma goes, but as soon as June 1 hit [this year], and everybody was sharing ‘happy Pride month' [messages], it all just came back,” Denton said. “And I was just angry all day.”

Pride month is inspiring myriad emotions in Columbus this year as Stonewall prepares to, once again, host a parade Downtown and festival in Bicentennial and Genoa parks for an expected attendance of more than 500,000 people this weekend. On Saturday, June 16, Black Queer & Intersectional Columbus (BQIC) will put on the first-ever Community Pride Festival, an event “centering queer, transgender and intersex people of color,” in King-Lincoln's Mayme Moore Park.

With the events approaching, Stonewall is taking steps to mend fences in a long-divided LGBTQ community, and activists are grappling with how to best create safe spaces for people of color. Individuals, performers and businesses are considering where to lend their support. And all are wrestling with the meaning of Pride.

II.

Stonewall has approached this year's Pride planning with a mix of excitement and reflection. During a late-May interview in the Short North, Deb Steele, Rob Podlogar and new Pride Coordinator Sabrina Boykin insisted they'd “heard the voices” of the protesters. And they cited the Black Pride 4 and about 100 protesters' takeover of Stonewall's July 2017 community conversation at the Northland Performing Arts Center as a teachable moment.

“[The meeting] was totally wrong,” Podlogar said. “For individuals outside that building who have felt that they always have to do what somebody else says and play to those rules, it was the wrong format for a discussion.”

“It was important for Stonewall to see their frustration,” Boykin said. “It was very effective. It was unlike anything that I had seen before. … They should be very proud of it because it has truly sparked a very large and important conversation.”

On May 16, Stonewall and a coalition of other LGBTQ organizations sent a letter to Police Chief Kim Jacobs, Mayor Andrew Ginther and other government officials, asking for “patience and restraint” regarding protesters — with a specific call for limiting the use of mace — at the upcoming Pride festivities.

“For some, police presence is reassuring and eases fear; however, for some the opposite is true — particularly for persons of color,” the letter stated. “We respectfully ask for dialogue leading to a safe and secure Pride for all.”

“It's something that we need to have an ongoing conversation with them [about],” Steele said. “I don't want to tell a police officer how to be a police officer, but I can ask for diligence and restraint on what is a peaceful protest.”

Additionally, Stonewall said there will be some community security wearing orange T-shirts, as well as neutral legal observers wearing lime green hats.

Lori Gum, who called for a boycott of Stonewall Pride earlier this year, wrote an e-mail to the staff and board, commending the organization. “With the resignation of Karla Rothan, the appointment of an interim Executive Director, and the community letter addressed to Columbus Police Chief Jacobs … I believe that you are now truly headed in the right direction,” Gum wrote. “You have begun to heal the schism in our community.”

“I'm not calling for a boycott [anymore], but I am encouraging people to attend the Community Pride,” Gum told Alive. “I'm neutral on whether or not people should attend [Stonewall] Pride. … Let's see what they're going to do [next].”

In February, Stonewall also sent a letter to its donors, members and sponsors, expressing the organization's support of peaceful protest.

“No one should feel afraid or disempowered to stand up or speak out on issues affecting our community in a peaceful manner,” the letter stated. “That is precisely why SWC's namesake honors the Stonewall riots of 1969 that were part of a national protest for civil rights for LGBTQ+ individuals.”

Steele said that there is room for Pride to honor its radical roots while also being a celebration for individuals and businesses.

“[Corporations] do this to celebrate their LGBTQ workers,” Steele said. “They deserve to be part of the Pride event. But that's a valid concern that it's gotten very corporate-heavy, as well. And I think a balance can be struck between the two.”

While Stonewall leadership has invited the Black Pride 4 and BQIC to participate in the parade — both declined — it also supports Community Pride.

“If you look at Pride events throughout the country, it's never just one event [per city],” Boykin said. “I think it's fantastic that they're creating a space that they feel is home for them.”

III.

“The city is being shifted,” BQIC co-founder Dkeama Alexis said during a May 17 Community Pride planning meeting at the Northside Branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

The gathering commenced with announcements from BQIC co-founder Ariana Steele. Dozens of attendees sat in a circle and listened, nibbling snacks and swigging water. Some folded pink mini-zines with “Where is Your Rage?” and “#PickAPride” written on the cover.

Throughout the evening, suggestions and questions were thrown out: Be sure to max out Facebook invites to Community Pride. Did someone ask Willowbeez Soulveg to join the lineup of POC (person of color) vendors? Another person spoke up to offer a 30 percent discount on printing services via their employer.

Wriply Bennet breezed in just as the group divided into Events, Education/Outreach and Fundraising committees, greeting and hugging each person in the room. The meeting adjourned after a discussion about the future of BQIC, but people stayed and chatted well afterward.

It took multiple meetings in that library to plan Community Pride, which included four social and educational events leading up to the festival: A kickoff party at the Summit on June 2; a screening of “Major!,” a film about trans activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy; a zine release party; and “Marsha P. Johnson Day,” dedicated to the seminal figure of the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

According to BQIC leaders, Community Pride is a direct boycott of Stonewall Pride, which they described as “whitewashed, corporate fanfare” divorced from its radical roots. BQIC also emphasized the lack of safety for people of color given the police presence at Stonewall Pride.

By contrast, Community Pride is employing a community-based safety team. Instead of seeking corporate sponsors, organizers set up a GoFundMe and solicited donations from individuals and organizations.

BQIC was officially founded in March 2017 as “a space for black, queer and trans liberation.” The group, led by Steele, Alexis, Bennet and Helen Stewart, helped organize protests and events, and raised money following the Black Pride 4 arrests.

While the group is arguably the most visible in the media, it is building on the past and present work done by individuals and organizations in the POC LGBTQ community. One organization, Columbus Urban Pride, even worked in partnership with Stonewall from 2012 to 2016.

“One of Columbus Urban Pride's main goals was to hold Stonewall Columbus and the Columbus Pride Parade and Festival leadership accountable for the festival's long history of POC erasure,” former CUP Chair Dwayne Steward said in a message to Alive. During its peak, the organization drew hundreds of attendees to its events.

But even within the organizing community, there are disagreements on the best way to develop safe spaces for people of color.

“What's being created is spaces for white guilt,” Indya Jackson said of BQIC, which attracts a large group of white participants. “I don't want to be overwhelmed by white allies if you're creating a space for me. What does a safe space for black people look like? That's what they're going to really have to ask themselves.”

“A lot of white folks in the LGBTQ community were awakened by [the Black Pride 4] protest,” said Alexis, pointing to the large number of white people who assisted in the aftermath. “Community Pride is about centering people of color … but that doesn't mean we can just push out white people.”

“Personally, I'm supportive of both [Stonewall and Community prides],” said Letha Pugh, a member of Black, Out & Proud, a collective of LGBTQ+ people of color. “I believe in integration, but not at the cost of feeling unsafe or invisible within a space. There are some fundamental differences in how these events are orchestrated … and there is nothing wrong with that.”

Jackson stressed that focus must be kept on black death and the effects of the prison system and police on the black community. “Things are not OK, and things aren't just going to get better by us having more and more marches and celebrations,” Jackson said. “That's not going to save black people.”

“I don't think this is unprecedented, this tension that's existing right now within the movement in Columbus,” said Steward, citing disputes among social justice groups during the Civil Rights Movement. “I just hope that all activists can come together and help move Columbus forward.”

IV.

For all five years of Archie “Tom Foolery” Brennick's tenure in the Royal Renegades, the long-running drag king troupe has been participating in Stonewall Pride, performing on multiple stages, raising money and marching in the parade. But after the Black Pride 4 were arrested, the performers re-evaluated their support.

“At the time, I didn't have any doubt that Stonewall was going to do the right things [and] basically take care of the people who got arrested,” Brennick said. “[But] just watching them fumble and the community meetings that they had [and] just never actually listening to the people … we just became more and more disappointed.”

This year, the Royal Renegades turned down the offer to participate in Stonewall Pride's festivities, and will perform at Community Pride instead.

“This is not a time to go to Stonewall's partying event,” Brennick said. “This is a year for protest.”

“Stonewall split the community when they left members behind. Period,” he continued. “Sadly, I do see that there's a lot of people that don't even understand that there are issues.”

Some businesses are supporting Community Pride, as well. On April 24, Rendezvous Hair Salon made an Instagram post announcing it was collecting donations for Community Pride. “It's time to take Pride back to its original radical roots,” the post read.

Two Truths manager Laurie Granger is also donating 10 percent of bar sales during her June 15 “Broads” dance party to the Black Pride 4's legal fund. “As many of our attendees may be coming in correlation of the Stonewall Pride event, we want to find a way to take the money being spent around this event to support those who have faced continued discrimination in our community,” the Facebook event stated.

“How do we protect our friends?” Granger said in an interview with Alive, referring to people of color in the LGBTQ community. “Or how do I show them I support them? And how can I still run a business? I hope that the other businesses are asking that same question.”

Granger is attending Community Pride and also teaching yoga and operating a booth at Stonewall Pride. “Ultimately, for me, Pride is not about Stonewall. It's about my friends,” she said.

V.

Both Stonewall and BQIC are looking at initiatives beyond Pride; both specifically mentioned working on emergency housing for homeless LGBTQ youth.

“This is a year-round thing for us,” said Rob Podlogar, highlighting forthcoming programs planned in conjunction with Stonewall's new community center, slated to open late summer. “We need BQIC at the table to help us with that.”

BQIC said it will “potentially” meet with Stonewall, but the activists aren't satisfied with Stonewall's measures, such as the letter to the Columbus Police. “Expecting patience and restraint from the Columbus Police officers is an irresponsible request,” Dkeama Alexis said. “The same police force that shows up at the Columbus Pride parade is the same Columbus Police force that killed Ty're King, Henry Green and Jaron Thomas.”

“It's more about putting more trust into our own hands than into the hands of folks who don't know us and don't know our struggles,” Wriply Bennet said. “I think it's about building leadership and self-determination when it comes to our communities.”

Indya Jackson's request of Stonewall was short and simple: “Give resources to black queer people.”

“I definitely think that Stonewall Columbus is trying to head in the right direction,” former Columbus Urban Pride Chair Dwayne Steward said. “I just think that they need to be doing it a little faster. I think they need to be much more intentional about how they engage the leaders in the community, and engaging all the leaders, not just certain leaders that are LGBTQ folks of color. I'm just curious to see how it all plays out.”