BlackPride4 Take Over Stonewall Community Conversation, Reject Organization Leadership

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega BlackPride4 Take Over Stonewall Community Conversation, Reject Organization LeadershipProtester Justice Harley names the 15 trans women of color murdered this year.
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Editor’s note: This article was updated to include a more accurate estimate of the number of protesters present, as well as additional input from Stonewall Board Member Joshua Snyder-Hill.

When Stonewall Columbus planned their community dialogue, it didn’t include a BlackPride4 hijack. They didn’t expect 100 protesters to filter in and disrupt it. And they didn’t intend to sit accused, rendered ineffective, out of touch — guilty, while members of their community shouted demands for their jobs.

But that’s what they got.

When first announced, the Stonewall-led community conversation was set to take place at the Columbus Health Department. Several days before, the location changed to the King Arts Complex. Then, a couple hours prior to the event, it switched one more time to the Northland Performing Arts Center (NPAC), off Morse Road. Stonewall Executive Director Karla Rothan said later that she was “surprised” everyone had made it there.

Outside were the BlackPride4 (Wriply Bennet, Kendall Denton, Ashley Braxton and Deandre Miles), who’d been maced and arrested at the Pride Parade exactly one month ago. Their supporters, including members of the queer and trans community of color and their allies, joined them. Each had tracked the various venue changes and showed up early to form a swarm in front of the doors.

The BlackPride4 and their supporters rally outside the NPAC.

Inside, Stonewall Board Member Suparna Bhaskaran promptly welcomed the 100-plus LGBTQ community members who’d cleared the time between 6:30 and 8 p.m. to have a conversation about racism and transphobia. They all divided by card color into groups of eight to 10, filled out questionnaires about how they identify, how they’ve experienced discrimination, what Stonewall’s most pressing issue is, and what the barriers and assets are to addressing it. They introduced themselves and listened as diversity and inclusion counselor Patricia Larkins Hicks explained to them the rules of conversation: don’t interrupt; disagree without being disagreeable; focus on issues and not people.

Just as the first question was to be posed for discussion, a hand went up.

“Excuse me,” said Pearl Morgan, an organizer with SURJ Columbus. “Why won’t Stonewall condemn police violence?”

Before Hicks could answer, another person stood, asking the same question. Then another, and another.

Without pause, the doors burst open, letting in the protesters from outside, each chanting “Stonewall should have done more. Drop the charges on the BlackPride4.”

Protester Michaela Mason leads the crowd in a chant.

They formed a line, filing into the increasingly tight quarters, encircling the room. The chant persisted until Stonewall and the community members sitting in their circles were completely surrounded. Hicks went silent and gave up her mic to Bennet.

“This is a community conversation,” Bennet said. “Now the community is here.”

Commandeering the community conversation, Bennet read off her and the other protesters’ demands of Stonewall, which included the resignation of Rothan and the Board of Trustees, Stonewall’s public condemnation of the Columbus Police Department for “deploying violence on peaceful protesters,” a public apology that acknowledges the exclusion of black and brown queer and trans people from the greater LGBTQ+ community, and a formal request on behalf of Stonewall for Columbus prosecutors Ron O’Brien and Richard C. Pfeiffer, Jr. to drop the charges on the BlackPride4, which include a handful of misdemeanors for three of the four, and a felony for Miles, 21.

BlackPride4 member Wriply Bennet takes lead of the community conversation.

Brief disorder erupted as Stonewall Board Member Jay Coleman tried to maintain control over the situation. A voice came over the speaker, warning the protesters that they were violating the fire code and that the police would be called.

The crowd let out a unanimous “No!”

“Shame on Stonewall, let them speak,” protesters and event attendees shouted together.

No police came.

So started a conversation that centralized the voices of the BlackPride4. Several protesters formed a panel, introduced themselves to the group, and answered some questions before posing their own to Stonewall’s leaders: “Why is it so hard for ya’ll to condemn police violence?”

No answer came from Rothan or the board members, all dispersed throughout the room. After several minutes, Lori Gum, who’d resigned as Stonewall Senior Program Manager after the arrests of the BlackPride4, was given the mic.

Former Stonewall Senior Program Manager Lori Gum takes the mic.

She recounted her reaction to the footage that was released showing Pride Parade police shoving the protesters to the ground. She’d taken a 20 minute golf cart ride to the VIP lounge where Rothan and the board were staying, and showed them the video.

“For them to say that they didn’t know what was going on until Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday is a lie,” Gum said before pointing board members out, calling them by name. “I begged you to understand the urgency of what just happened. I begged you that you did not need to know all the facts to see black faces stepped in asphalt to know that something was fucking wrong.”

It wasn’t long before the Stonewall board and the BlackPride4 were standing face to face in a climactic confrontation. Board member Joshua Snyder-Hill asked why a formal complaint hadn’t been made to the CPD in the month that’s passed since the arrests, leading to a conversation about the normalized and daily threat posed to people of color by law enforcement based on their “inherent identities, the ways that they exist in in the world,” said Dkeama Alexis, co-founder of Black Queer & Intersex Columbus (BQIC). “It’s a very traumatic experience to be brutalized in the way that they were — so publicly, so related to their identities.”

Board member Joshua Snyder-Hill addresses the BlackPride4.

“When you file a report with the police, you get interviewed by the police,” added Stephanie Ewen, one of the protesters from the Pride Parade who wasn’t arrested. “So you have to get interviewed by the same department, the same group of people that attacked you.”

It was at that moment that the conversation shifted. Accused of victim blaming, the board was shut out of the conversation, and protester Justice Harley came forward. They presented some facts and statistics on police brutality against people of color in Columbus, the lack of protection against gender discrimination under Ohio hate crime laws, and the silence surrounding the unmitigated violence against trans people of color. They called out local police for their “reputation of excessive force in the case of peaceful protest,” asking, “Since when does it require such violence to step into the street and walk and chant peacefully?”

That question comes a week after CPD was sued by ACLU of Ohio for the excessive use of force on demonstrators at a rally on January 30. ACLU’s staff attorney Elizabeth Bonham described the officers in a video that was released as having “maliciously targeted our clients, even joking about who would ‘get to’ spray each person.”

ACLU senior policy director Mike Bricker added that in this political climate, as protests become more common, “Columbus police must be prepared to de-escalate situations, use force only as necessary, and proactively support demonstrators’ free speech rights – not assault peaceful individuals like they did on January 30.”

Still, Stonewall leaders have remained silent, waiting for facts and formal complaints and procedure. Harley came to the forefront to declare that there was no time for that, outlining the range of injustices experienced by communities of color in the criminal justice system, which, on top of disproportionate arrests and convictions, include physical and sexual violence, placement into facilities that don’t match their gender identities, and denial of hormone replacement therapy.

That the police were at the parade at all was an affront to queer and trans people of color, but police presence is required under city code. Parades require police supervision. The debate, then, strives to answer the question of how long police should wait to use force, and what de-escalation tactics they need to implement to make room for first amendment expression.

After the event, when asked how they plan to engage the larger community — specifically law enforcement — in this issue, Bennet said that was impossible. There could be no engagement with law enforcement, because it isn’t safe. Stonewall was meant to be the middle-man, the go-between with law enforcement, a barrier and resource for the marginalized. As the BlackPride4 and their supporters realized they wouldn’t have that ally in their own community, they turned from it altogether, refusing conversation without the resignation of Rothan and the board.

“It just saddens me that people in our community are hurt, and I wish I could be part of the conversation to help make a difference,” said Rothan as the protesters left, chanting.

When asked if she planned on resigning, she said, “No.”

“It’s a volunteer board. I want to try and help make change,” Snyder-Hill said. “We need people to be on the board, so if people want to step up and apply, I’d be more than happy to take them through the application process, because we need people on the board to keep Stonewall going.”

He added, “We serve the trans community, we serve HIV/AIDs and STI individuals, individuals who need help coming out to their family, individuals who need help finding homes. So, my biggest thing is Stonewall helped me personally. If somebody wants to take a position, my position and replace it, that’s fine. I want stonewall to do right by the community. That’s what’s important. We don’t get paid for this and we try and do our best to help out.”

Stonewall Executive Director Karla Rothan addresses the room after the protesters exit.

Without the board and Rothan’s immediate resignation and public condemnation of the CPD, Harley and the rest of the protesters asserted themselves as the new leaders of the community conversation, announcing their own to take place next week.

“We’re no longer and haven’t really ever been speaking to the Stonewall board, because you have not been listening. So, just a reminder: we are not speaking. There is no conversation without resignation,” said BQIC co-founder Ariana Steele. “Instead we invite you to our own community conversation led by the BlackPride4.

“If you came here seeking a conversation, to leave with action items, to figure out what to do with and for the community, please come to this conversation. I invite you to it. It will be very fruitful, and it will be led by the people who are most marginalized.”

The BlackPride4 will have their community conversation on July 24 at 6 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 30 West Woodruff Avenue.

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