The pressing heft of the police-reform-Black-Lives-Matter conundrum landed squarely on Aurora and Denver Pride organizations this week.
“I am heartbroken we’re faced with this decision,” a visibly upset Jerry Cunningham told fellow Aurora Pride board members yesterday during a hastily called virtual meeting. Cunningham is president and former publisher of Colorado’s Out Front Magazine, one of the nation’s oldest news sources serving the LGTBQ community. He was also the driving force behind Aurora Pride, now a years-old organization that honors and supports Aurora’s LGBTQ residents, and especially its families. A separate foundation governs that event.
The meeting’s focus was in reaction to news that Denver Pride, a larger and older regional event, announced it would not permit LGBTQ police officers to participate in any 2021 Pride Fest events.
“We cannot in good conscience, as an organization that speaks up for justice, look the other way when it comes to police violence aimed at the Black community — a history of violence that goes back even further in American history,” Denver Pride officials said in a statement. “While we value our relationships with law enforcement and want to continue to build a safer community for all Coloradans, we feel we must take a stand. We have decided not to allow police participation in the 2021 virtual pride parade or to allow law enforcement agencies to participate as exhibitors.”
Some Aurora Pride board members agreed that people of color who are LGBTQ or straight are understandably afraid of police. Even their presence, armed and in blue uniforms, creates a visceral, unnerving reaction.
In Aurora, the horrors are plentiful and fresh. The entire nation is repulsed by the death of Elijah McClain and how involved officers mocked his cruel death.
No one can unsee Black Aurora children face down on hot pavement during an erroneous stolen car stop.
It hasn’t even been a year since Aurora police in riot gear stormed through a rally at city hall where protesters were pepper sprayed by Aurora police as violinists played just feet away in honor of McClain.
It is impossible to forget a handful of Aurora city council members on the dais, clad in t-shirts backing local police during a tasteless and offensive in-your-face moment against the Black Lives Matter movement.
Anyone denying the justification of Black Americans seething over recent and historical abuses at the hands of police in Aurora, Denver and across the nation is deluded.
But was Aurora police officer Chris Amsler among the abusers and damned? Amsler has long been part of the police department’s public information squad, an affable and passionate cop. He’s openly gay and became a celebrated icon for the local and national Pride movement when he walked, in full uniform, hand-in-hand with his husband during the 2017 Denver Pride Fest parade. The emotionally moving moment was immortalized by Denver Post photographer Helen H. Richardson.
The emotional dilemma that gay activists now face was made even more apparent by a stunning letter to Denver Pride leaders written by an openly gay Aurora police sergeant who leads a unit investigating the worst crimes perpetrated on children.
Sgt. Bill Hummel appealed to Denver Pride officials this week to reconsider ostracizing gay police officers, just because they’re cops.
“In 2015, I finally got up the personal courage to march with APD in the Pride Fest parade,” Hummel said. “I had tears rolling down my face as I walked westbound on that mile stretch of Colfax. Not only did I come out of the closet, but I was marching in my police uniform in front of the whole world. I’ll never forget when we neared Clarkson Street and my mom ran out in the middle of Colfax Avenue to hug her gay police officer son.
“I had come so far, and I finally understood why the festivities were referred to as ‘Pride.’”
Hummel pointed out the huge transformation among police ranks that once unabashedly beat and abused gay people throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He said had he began his career back then, he would likely have been “hazed” and then “fired” for being open about his sexuality. You can read his entire essay here.
The abuse of LGTBQ cops is far from over even now.
“A now-retired colleague called us “faggots” behind our backs while we organized,” Hummel wrote. “He went on to file complaints to city leadership that APD was marching for a “special interest group,” that being the LGBTQ community. Some members of the community spewed anti-gay hate while APD ramped-up efforts to be more outwardly involved in pride and fostered the concept of inclusivity.”
Hummel’s plea for clarity was matched by Aurora Pride board members as Wednesday’s meeting went on.
“I am acutely aware of perceptions and of a strained relationship between police and communities across the nation,” Hummel wrote. “I wholeheartedly agree in police reform and getting to a place where our community trusts their police. Legislation, transparent practices and a raw dialogue are some things that will help us accomplish this.
“…exclusion is not the answer,” Hummel said. “Excluding the police and further fracturing the relationship that we are working to repair is not how we accomplish change.”
The back-and-forth drew Aurora Pride board members yesterday into talking about a possible compromise. While Denver’s events this year are virtual, Aurora is planning for public events later in the year.
Could police be invited but asked to not come in full uniform, one board member proposed.
In full disclosure, I sit on the Aurora Pride board but, as Sentinel Editor, recused myself from voting on whether Aurora Pride would follow suit with Denver Pride for events planned this year.
But I couldn’t help but point out the irony of an organization focusing on the victory of drawing LGTBQ people out of the closet of shame, asking some of its community to closet or “tone down” a huge part of who they are.
Also, no one can or should overlook that Aurora’s police Chief Vanessa Wilson is openly gay and a paragon of inclusion, pushing her way to the front of the parade of police reform amongst the Black Lives Matter movement.
While Cunningham and other board members pointed out none of the board members are people of color, he tearfully pushed for inclusion by pointing out that the mantra of the Aurora Pride project is “Pride for All.”
All means all, he insisted.
It was at that moment it became apparent that as Aurora, and police organizations across the nation, struggle to push through critical reforms, it can’t be done without including the police, all of them.
I’ve frequently pointed out that I’ve known a lot of cops during my career. Some were high school friends. Others became friends as we worked alongside each other as journalists and law enforcers. Believing that all cops are corrupt or insensitive to racism is mistaken folly. The Black, gay and Latinx officers I’ve known are among many white cops who go into law enforcement because they genuinely like helping people and seeing that justice prevails, for everyone.
The Sentinel has also been at the front of the parade, for years, in demanding structural reform of the police department to ensure it operates transparently and is accountable to independent, outside oversight. We have been adamant that police must create a way to police each other for racial and other abuses, to weed out the bad cops and empower the righteous cops, because they’re there.
Some of them are gay.
The Aurora Pride board agreed, not unanimously, to reach out to leaders of the regional Black Lives Matter movement, Wilson and local Aurora LGTBQ police group officials, and find a way to allow everyone to participate in its events this year.
Current co-publishers of OFM, Addison Herron-Wheeler and Maggie Phillips, voted to support the Denver Pride exclusion.
“We as LGBTQ media are very concerned about the association between the OFM and the OUT FRONT Foundation because we are media sponsors of Black Pride and have supported BLM since the beginning of the protests” they said in an email. “Our stand as a magazine is different than Aurora Pride or the Foundation.”
The message send from the foundation board to the media last night differed.
“We understand and support (people of color) members of our community advocating for police reform, and that experiences of harm from police violence have led them to advocate for police not being at Pride,” Aurora Pride officials said in a statement released Wednesday night. “In the spirit of being in community together, Aurora Pride will not exclude any person or organization from any of its LGBTQ+ events.”
Pride for all, means all.
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