What Do Buddhists Do When Police Dominate Pride?
When beloved members of our spiritual-political communities take divergent paths, how do we choose which ones to follow?
In a public statement, Pride Grand Marshal Ms. Janetta Johnson of the Transgender, Gender Variant, & Intersex Justice Project said,
While I am thankful for this honor, and grateful to Pride for bringing our work to the front this year, the decision to add more police to Pride does not make me, or my community, more safe …the truth is my community needs house keys not handcuffs, needs care not cages, needs jobs and job training, economic power and cultural self-determination. We need safety, real safety. And when Black trans women are safe, in our city, in our society, every single day. When my community is safe, then we can be really proud.”
My first instinct when I saw Ms. Janetta, Black Lives Matter, and St. James Infirmary had pulled out of the march, was to join them in protest. As a racial justice, anti-police violence, and sex positive activist, these are people and groups that I look to for leadership and insight about how those most marginalized are harmed by oppressive forces.
LGBT sex workers are often victims of violence and exploitation at the hands of police. The increased police presence at Civic Center, as well as the ban on shopping carts and items typically belonging to marginally housed and homeless people will only make pride less safe and accessible to our communities. These policies do not reflect the theme of racial & economic justice which we sought to march under proudly.” – Stephany Ashley, St. James Infirmary, chosen for Pride Community Award
Queer Buddhists of Color Represent
At the same time, I was scheduled to march in Sunday’s parade celebrating two other Grand Marshals — Larry Yang and Fresh! White — dear friends and teachers at East Bay Meditation Center, my home sangha (a word that means Buddhist community). As a queer person, I’ve been hungry for near constant queer community after the massacre of 49 LGBTQ folks at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando two weeks ago. This wasn’t a year I wanted to miss out on Pride.
Larry and Fresh! had decided to march – choices that had their own complex set of causes and conditions. Despite my own draw to pull out, I felt especially compelled to support Larry in the parade, who has been a decades-long champion of diversity in Buddhist communities as a gay Asian Buddhist teacher. It had been an especially embattled year for our Insight Buddhist communities, Spirit Rock Meditation Center and Insight Meditation Society, working to repair harms and increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in meaningful ways. It felt important to keep showing up for community in a tender time.
For Fresh!, the positive impact of being a visible Black transman was a key reason to stay:
Shortly after the press conference [where the 3 honorees dropped out], I arrived at the Trans March where the Elder and Senior Brunch was ending. I spotted a young poet that I had heard speak at the Common Wealth Club on Monday night. As we talked, they looked me in the eyes and asked me if I was trans, and of course replied, yes. That’s when his face lit up. ‘I have never met an African American transman before. I’m so grateful that you are out, now I have an idea of what to expect as I transition.’ It tears me up just imagining I’ve made a positive impact, for anyone, in my role this month.”
All day Friday, I held the question:
“How can I be …
in solidarity with Latinx & Black queer and trans lives lost in Orlando
in solidarity with Black queer and trans activists who no longer feel safe at Pride with increased police presence
in solidarity with POC queer and trans Buddhists who I work alongside to increase sangha diversity and inclusion
… all at the same time?”
In conversations with others, including Larry and Fresh!, I began to see my participation as an opportunity to educate ourselves and parade attendees about how harmful our current model of policing is – not just in Pride festivities, but in our day-to-day lives. I got down to work with others to make signs and flyers for distribution. (Lucky for me, my glam silver outfit was already picked out and ready to go.)
Patrick Brown, holding the “Police out of Pride” sign above, was quoted in the SF Gate News, saying all the cops “make me feel less safe — the increased police presence feels like a police state.”
“While some of us learned to call the police when we needed help,” the flyers read, “others know too well how devastating cops can be to communities of color, disabled folks, sex workers, trans & gender nonconforming folks, homeless people, and more.” Parade goers, including those in the Buddhist contingent, were invited to question police presence in all areas of their lives, and contemplate how they might avoid calling the cops, who too often kill instead of help. “If police can’t bring us safety, how can we be part of building community-centered approaches to safety?”
In the Bay Area, and the rest of the country, Black communities experience real fear and terror at the hands of homophobic vigilantes and law enforcement, and we work every day to find solutions. We know the militarization of large-scale events only gives the illusion of safety. We are choosing to do the real work of building safe communities.” — Shanelle Matthews, Black Lives Matter
Beyond making personal changes in who we rely on for help, we can also join movements to slash police budgets, stop jail expansion, and build alternatives to contacting the police for help. In the SF Bay Area, these movements have gained significant momentum, blocking a new jail from being built in San Francisco and ousting SF Police Chief Greg Suhr for ongoing departmental racism and police murders.
While I chose to participate in the Pride Parade, I also respect others who chose not to participate – because of the increased policing, because Pride remains too physically inaccessible to them, because they can’t stomach the corporate pandering, because they felt too scared something bad was going to happen after Orlando. In such complex times, we each must find ways to make our own imperfect decisions – talking with others ahead of time to learn how they will be impacted by what we do, and afterwards listening to feedback, whether supportive or harsh, so we can continue to hold as complex an understanding of our impacts as possible.