Letter from New York : Questions about increased NYPD protection for the LGBT community after Orlando shooting

Bianey Garcia, the Pryde-LGBTQ organiser for Make the Road New York, delivered introductory remarks in Spanish during the press conference on Monday in Jackson Heights, Queens. Source : Louis Flores/Progress Queens

Bianey Garcia, the Pryde-LGBTQ organiser for Make the Road New York, delivered introductory remarks in Spanish during the press conference on Monday in Jackson Heights, Queens. Source : Louis Flores/Progress Queens

By LOUIS FLORES

Grassroots activists within the LGBT community are rejecting efforts by the New York Police Department to seize upon fears stemming from the nation's largest mass shooting attack to burnish its standing within the LGBT community.

Top brass are making personal appearances at high-profile LGBT events in an effort to garner good press.

Coïncidentally, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, the municipal agency principally tasked with adjudicating citizen complaints of police misconduct, will be holding a day-long symposium on Wednesday at the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan. The subject of the CCRB symposium will be “Police Accountability and the LGBTQ Community.” The invited speakers include NYPD officers, civic attorneys, and officers of key nonprofit advocacy groups.

The community outreach by each of the NYPD and CCRB to the LGBT community come at a time when the NYPD have been deployed in greater numbers on orders by Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), reportedly in an effort to provide extra protection to LGBT businesses and community spaces in the wake of the shooting attack at the Orlando gay night club, Pulse, last week-end. Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old resident of Florida, was identified by police as the gunman in the deadliest mass shooting event in the nation’s history. Because the attack took place at a gay night club and because the Islamist State has reportedly claimed credit for the attack, Mayor de Blasio has sought to calm fears within the LGBT community by deploying the extra police to key LGBT institutions, including the historic Stonewall Inn in the West Village.

The increased police presence has included the display of force, such as the carrying by police officers of assault weapons. Descriptions of the display of strength ranged from a “heavy police presence” of “heavily armed police officers,” many of whom wore “counterterrorism gear.”

In a report broadcast by WNBC Channel 4 News, James Waters, chief of the NYPD Counterterrorism unit, said that the police department would provide safety to New York’s LGBT community, saying, “We are very capable of protecting you,” he said, directly addressing the LGBT community during his TV news interview, adding the instructions : “Be vigilant, be alert, but go about your business and enjoy your life.”

Despite the constant invoking of terrorism as the cause of the Orlando night club shooting, a report published on Monday by The Los Angeles Times raised questions about whether Mr. Mateen, the Orlando gunman, may have been motivated, at least in part, by internalized homophobia.

Before Omar Mateen attacked gays in a bar, the NYPD used to raid gay bars

The promise of greater police protection comes during annual festivities known within the LGBT community as Pride Month, the holding of celebratory, community-affirming events that were designed to counter intolerance and discrimination and which have come to represent de-politicization of the more strident forms of protest that marked the first gay liberation events that initially followed the Stonewall riots. The Stonewall riots erupted after a years-long pattern of City-directed harassment intended to close gay drinking establishments, a policy carried out by Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., during the 1960's. This policy targeted establishments that allegedly were "permitting homosexual solicitation on the premises," according to a 1966 report published by The New York Times. After the first night of the Stonewall riots, police acknowledged having raiding three such bars in the preceding two weeks, according to a 1969 report published by The New York Times.

Since that time then, police raids of gay bars have continued. As recently as 2011, the NYPD have dropped in on gay bars to reportedly inspect the premises as part of what has been described as routine operations. Yet, such actions have been described as disruptive to patrons. For example, the NYPD chose to conduct one such inspection on the same evening as the LGBT community celebrated passage of marriage equality by the New York State legislature, according to a report published by The New York Times. Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president at the time, described the circumstances of the police raid of one gay bar, named the Eagle, as "ill-conceived and ill-timed."

One of three NYPD vehicles parked outside the offices of Make the Road New York on Monday afternoon. Source : Louis Flores/Progress Queens

One of three NYPD vehicles parked outside the offices of Make the Road New York on Monday afternoon. Source : Louis Flores/Progress Queens

The current, increased police presence was also observed outside the offices of Make the Road New York, one of the City’s key nonprofit social services and advocacy groups, located at 92nd Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens. Hours before a politically-tinged vigil was scheduled to be held outside the Stonewall Inn, Make the Road New York was hosting the Fifth Annual Trans Latina March. Prior to the march, a press conference was called to discuss issues of discrimination still experienced by trans members of New York’s LGBT community.

Outside the offices of Make the Road New York, two police vans and one police squad car were parked along Roosevelt Avenue. Two commanding NYPD officers in “white shirts” and several uniformed officers made their presence known.

Before the start of Make the Road New York’s press conference, the indoor temperature in the office’s great room soared from an overflow crowd was forced to stand in the rear of the room after all the seats were taken, and the overflow crowd spilled into the office's lobby and out the office's open front doors and onto a public sidewalk. Public Advocate Letitia James (D-New York City) arrived early for the press conference, and she politely endured the uncomfortable heat waiting for the press conference to begin. Not long after New York City Councilmember Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) arrived, Make the Road New York Pryde-LGBTQ organizer Bianey Garcia interrupted her introductory remarks to give Councilmember Dromm a priority position within the press conference schedule to address the media. In a dialect described by one trans activist as “Gringo politician Spanish,” Councilmember Dromm said that LGBT New Yorkers have known the kind of attacks that took place in Orlando, and, in English, Councilmember Dromm said that the tensions caused by the Orlando attack should not be used to divide minority communities, referring to the inflammatory reaction to the mass shooting that has sparked expressions of Islamophobia, offering customized messaging in each language. After Councilmember Dromm completed his bilingual address, he received an enthusiastic applause from the audience despite his 2015 vote to expand the NYPD. Ms. Garcia then resumed her remarks. Public Advocate James, the City’s highest ranking Black official, was later given a chance to address the media.

Out on the sidewalk, the crowd of activists waiting for the start of the Trans Latina March were still processing the emotions stemming from the fact that the nation’s largest mass shooting attack had targeted a gay bar on Latino Night. Furthermore, some trans activists in the outdoor overflow crowd expressed suspicion of the LGBT community’s ready acceptance of temporary, increased police security as a solution to institutional discrimination and violence experienced by the LGBT community, including from the City's police force itself.

A reporter was told that one trans activist’s post-traumatic stress disorder was triggered by the strong showing of police officers outside the offices of Make the Road New York, so much so that she had to leave. Another trans activist rejected the notion of needing extra police protection, complaining that New York law made it difficult for the LGBT community to defend themselves, because state law made it illegal for people to possess taser guns. Possession of pepper spray is also illegal if a person is a minor or has been convicted of a felony or assault.

Political awareness ran high amongst some trans activists. One activist, Brooke Cerda Guzmán, complained about how issues facing the trans community in particular are difficult to be appreciated by society-at-large. Ms. Guzmán blamed this lack of shared sensibility, in part, on the fact that no major nonprofit advocacy group in New York is headed by a trans activist, who could help set a more just social agenda.

“We’re not in positions of power,” said Ms. Guzmán.

Lala Zannell, another activist, said, “We’re tired of asking for rights that we are due as humans.”

The activist Brooke Cerda Guzmán standing amongst dozens of activists and supporters outside the offices of Make the Road New York prior to the start of the Trans Latina March. Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens

The activist Brooke Cerda Guzmán standing amongst dozens of activists and supporters outside the offices of Make the Road New York prior to the start of the Trans Latina March. Source :  Louis Flores/Progress Queens

The last time when any of the City’s major, funded nonprofit social services or advocacy groups was headed by a trans activists was in 2015, prior to the transfer of control of the Queens Pride House to the Hispanic AIDS Forum, leading to the replacement of international trans activist Pauline Park with Heriberto Sanchez Soto as the Queens Pride House’s newest executive director. Besides Ms. Park, other past trans advocacy group leaders in New York have included Dean Spade, who founded the Silvia Rivera Law Project, and Kris Hayashi, who was executive director of the Audre Lorde Project. Mr. Hayashi is currently the executive director of the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, California.

Despite political talk about the systemic discrimination and violence facing the LGBT community in New York, Ms. Guzmán expressed extra concern for the LGBT community in Florida, location of the Orlando mass shooting attack. Ms. Guzmán said that she was not confident that America’s culture of hate in red states was going to offer survivors of the attack the support that they needed. Despite southern cities like Orlando and South Beach being described as gay Meccas, Ms. Guzmán compared the conservative climate in the American south to a coal mine into which the LGBT community, comparable to a canary in her view, had been released. “The bird didn’t come back,” Ms. Guzmán said.

Prior to the Orlando attack, political discourse about LGBT equality included weeks of vitriolic backlash, including a threat of a boycott and a lawsuit, to efforts to extend to trans Americans the right to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

The NYPD pattern of discrimination and violence

Alongside the same stretch of Roosevelt Avenue where Make the Road New York’s offices are located was where, in 2013, Ginia Bellafante, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote about an NYPD crackdown on members of New York’s LGBT community, particularly Black and Latino LGBT New Yorkers, who had been being stopped by police and/or arrested on charges of prostitution solely because of the clothes that they wore. Despite the critical public health role of condoms in ensuring safe sex amongst the LGBT community, the NYPD earned mistrust and ill will from the LGBT community in response to police use of the possession of condoms to justify arrests of LGBT New Yorkers, who have been stopped by the police on trumped-up prostitution charges. Furthermore, the NYPD are still defending themselves against charges of the unchecked fatal use of force. Over a 15 year period, on-duty NYPD officers were responsible for 179 fatalities, and, in those cases, only three officers ever faced criminal charges, according to a 2014 report published by The New York Daily News.

Given the NYPD’s history of racial discrimination and use of force, the writer and professor Sarah Schulman questioned in a Facebook post whether deploying extra police in order to nominally protect the LGBT community was a wise political decision, writing, “WRONG strategy. And who is going to protect queer people of color from the NYPD ?” Professor Schulman’s social media post garnered over 200 Facebook emoticon responses, signaling that she had touched a nerve amongst her Facebook followers.

Although the questions about the wisdom of increasing the deployment of NYPD officers to LGBT institutions are being primarily raised by grassroots activists, if there is a swelling of criticism, some of the key nonprofit advocacy groups may be forced to address this issue.

A request made by Progress Queens to the City Hall press office for a response to LGBT critics of Mayor de Blasio's stepped-up NYPD deployment was not answered.

The narrative of the NYPD serving as protectors of the LGBT community was rejected at Monday evening’s vigil outside the Stonewall Inn, where attendees interrupted NYPD Commissioner William Bratton after he took to the microphone. Attendees objected to the politically-tinged vigil by demanding that the vigil organisers read the names of the Orlando mass shooting victims instead of allowing Commissioner Bratton to speak. Other attendees chanted during Commissioner Bratton’s remarks, “You kill people,” a reference to the NYPD’s record of officer-involved homicides.

On Tuesday morning, Commissioner Bratton appeared on the cable news talk show, “Morning Joe,” to complain about the fear being stoked within the LGBT community by terrorists, but he completely overlooked his role as head of a police department that continues to harass the LGBT community, saying of the LGBT community that, “That is a community that is fearful, because this international threat that targets them specifically, among many others. So, it’s something that we’re very mindful of, and the idea of showing solidarity for that community is very important.”

Despite Commissioner Bratton’s pledge of support of the LGBT community, that didn’t stop the police department from charging horses into an anti-discrimination march that passed through Times Square Sunday evening, leading to the arrest of five activists. The NYPD have a history of disrupting LGBT memorial marches, including charging horses into crowds, in attempts to completely shut down LGBT demonstrations, including a 1998 memorial march in memory of Matthew Shepard, leading to the arrest of nearly 100 mourners, according to a report published by The New York Times. Mr. Shepard was a young gay man, who died from injuries sustained in what was described in a hate crime.

The supposed storyline of a newly-protective NYPD also comes at a time when the NYPD is reportedly the target of a wide-ranging, Federal corruption investigation. Reportedly, indictments and arrests are expected any day now of senior, commanding NYPD officers, who have allegedly engaged in providing official acts in exchange for unreported gifts or compensation. As a consequence of the investigation, the NYPD has had to endure embarrassing headlines, including reports that NYPD officers joined the “Mile High Club” after some officers accepted free travel aboard a private plane with a sex worker dressed up as flight attendant.

The growing awareness about the NYPD’s recent efforts at duplicity caught up with Mayor de Blasio during Monday evening’s vigil outside the Stonewall Inn. Attendees jeered him with the demand, “End police brutality,” whilst others yelled obscenities after Mayor de Blasio claimed that he would protect the LGBT community and Muslim New Yorkers. Mayor de Blasio had antagonised attendees of the vigil after he had arranged to be introduced with a reading of a list of his political accomplishments, treating the vigil as an opportunity to plug his troubled reëlection campaign.