By JAMES MARKIN
Last weekend, on June 27, San Francisco celebrated the 52nd Annual San Francisco Pride Parade. With the goal of “educating the world, commemorate our heritage, celebrate our culture, and liberate our people,” the celebration took place in downtown San Francisco this year, drawing a crowd of over 500,000 people. Although this number is significantly less than the last Pride, held in 2019, it is a far cry from the handful of protesters who marched down Polk Street in 1970 at the very first Pride parade.
Indeed, a lot has changed since then. While the first march was a political protest of no more than 20 people to mark the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, this year’s San Francisco Pride included a wide range of corporate partners from booze brands like Don Julio, Smirnoff and Bud Light to tech companies like Apple, Meta, and Amazon.
While everyone enjoys a good party, and the mega-celebration that modern Pride has become certainly has its place, the corporate takeover of the event has been a negative development. Although companies are happy to give money to Pride for some publicity, their participation does not change the fact that capitalists benefit from the oppression of LGBTQ people, which keeps many Queer people in a precarious position in the workforce.
While the Pride Committee argues that “partnership with corporations leads to the overall benefit and increased visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community,” just because a company sponsors a Pride parade, doesn’t mean they will refrain from attacking LGBTQ people when there is profit to be made. For example, Apple, a “presenting partner” at this year’s parade has been caught “proactively censoring” its Appstore oversees to remove LGBTQ apps. An investigation by the Popular Information newsletter also found that among a long list of U.S. corporations, 2022 San Francisco Pride sponsors like Comcast, Amazon, and Meta had given money to anti-gay politicians since 2019.
Comcast, in particular, raised eyebrows for giving over a million dollars to anti-gay politicians and tens of thousands of dollars to the cosponsors of anti-trans bills in states such as Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida. This is the true face of corporate America; while they might promote some LGBTQ people and change their social media to rainbow colors during June, the safety, wellbeing, and rights of LGBTQ people are at the end of the day less important than the company’s ability to make a buck and maintain political influence.
These examples show how the Pride Committee has struggled to balance the event’s historical legacy as a radical stand for Queer liberation with its corporate-friendly image.
No issue better embodies this conflict within S.F. Pride than the recent standoff over police uniforms. Following the killing of George Floyd and the uprising that it sparked, LGBTQ people across the country have called for Pride parades to exclude police officers. In New York, this led to two competing pride events taking place this year, while in Boston the official Pride event ended up being dissolved over a myriad of issues—including how to interact with police. In San Francisco, the issue became national news when the uniformed police were initially banned from Pride. In doing so the Pride Committee was responding to an incident at Pride in 2019, when protesters against corporate and police participation in Pride were violently arrested after blocking the parade route.
One of the protesters, Taryn Saldivar, suffered a fractured wrist, dislocated hip and a concussion after they were thrown to the ground and dogpiled by police. The situation was so bad that, according to S.F. Gate, the city of San Francisco ended up settling out of court with Saldivar for $190,000 in an excessive force and false arrest lawsuit.
Despite this travesty, the Pride Committee still came under fire for banning uniformed officers from the event, with the mayor, police and fire department threatening to boycott it. The Pride Committee ended up hiring a tech PR firm called Bospar for $4000 a month in order to broker a compromise, which allowed some officers to wear uniforms while others wore police department t-shirts.
This compromise was not just a spit in the face to the radical history of Pride, but to the history of the LGBTQ movement in San Francisco, where it largely originated. The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) has not just brutalized protesters like Taryn Saldivar but has a long history of attacking and harming Queer people. By the same token, the LGBTQ community in San Francisco has an equally storied history of fighting back against police violence. This goes all the way back to the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot in the Tenderloin district, when a crowd of mostly Queer drag queens and trans women battled with police at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria after police had attempted to arrest a drag queen for cross-dressing.
The most famous conflict between the police and the LGBTQ community was the so-called “White Night Riot,” which happened in the spring of 1979. The uprising was the result of the murder of San Francisco Mayor Moscone and the popular gay city supervisor Harvey Milk by a former SFPD officer, Dan White. Following the murder, White turned himself in to the police and ultimately was only found guilty of manslaughter. In response to the verdict, at least 2000 people, mostly gay men, marched on City Hall.
According to a participant, “there was no public address system, no organizing group, it was a spontaneous demonstration of rage at the blatant injustice of the verdict.” After liberal supervisors speaking from the balcony had failed to calm the crowd, people began to attack the door and windows of City Hall. When police attempted to stop the group, they chased them off by throwing whatever was to hand. The angry crowd continued to force the police line to retreat and ended up burning 16 squad cars and leaving surrounding financial and government buildings with broken windows. In retaliation for the events of the White Night, the SFPD dispatched dozens of police officers to the Elephant Walk Bar, in the city’s historically Queer Castro District. Perhaps on purpose, this bar was known to be a favorite haunt of Harvey Milk before he was assassinated. When the police arrived at the Elephant Walk, they smashed everything they could find and beat patrons with batons. Ultimately, 21 people were arrested by the SFPD that night and charged with rioting.
By inviting police to Pride every year, the Pride Committee has tried to argue that the SFPD and the LGBTQ community of the city can put this history behind them. However, as Marxists, we know that such a reconciliation is impossible. This is because the police are a product of class society, and while they feign neutrality in the class struggle, in reality they always defend the interests of the ruling class—that is, the capitalist class.
That reality is painfully obvious to many LGBTQ people living today in San Francisco. For example, the SFPD carries out regular brutal and inhumane “sweeps” of the houseless population, 30% of whom are LGBTQ. These “homeless sweeps” show that the police are willing to use force on behalf of the propertied class of the city, who see the people left houseless, largely due to capitalist speculation on property, to be nothing more than vermin. Even worse, these sweeps are heightened before Pride, when the SFPD seeks to push houseless people out of the public areas downtown where the parade will be held. The actions and social role played by the SFPD mean that they can never genuinely be part of a Pride Parade that celebrates the event’s true radical legacy.
In the face of the corporate take-over of Pride and the SFPD’s participation, a new alternative Pride march was launched this year. Seeking to reclaim the legacy of the first Pride, the drag performers and activists Juanita MORE! and Alex U. Inn launched the People’s March & Rally. Tracing the route of the original 1970 Pride parade down Polk Street, the People’s March sought to retain the original’s political character. Juanita and Alex spoke out against the recent Supreme Court decision and gentrification in San Francisco. Marchers, including contingents from socialist organizations and unions, chanted, “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police,” as a DJ on the People’s March bus kept music pumping.
When the main Pride parade barred the People’s March from entering its parade route, the march instead took over South Van Ness Avenue and Market Street en route to Mission Dolores Park. While it was small, only a few hundred people, the success of the People’s March shows that the spark of Compton’s and the White Night still burns in San Francisco.
That spark has the potential to kick off a revolution that can truly challenge the police and their paymasters. However, for this potential to be realized, it is incumbent upon the working class to support every battle for dignity and freedom by the LGBTQ community and press on for victory. Imagine how large the People’s March could be next year if unions put their money where their mouth is and turned out their memberships! We must convince our co-workers that the working class has everything to gain from the victories of the struggles of oppressed people.
Photo: San Francisco Pride march in 2019. (Meera Fox / Getty Images)