For the 50th anniversary of the first Pride marches, in-person events were largely canceled. As a direct result of the ongoing global pandemic, which is currently seeing a surge in some American cities, organizers have largely gone virtual. But with the Black Lives Matter protests having re-emerged this month, Reclaim Pride organizers decided to move forward with their Queer Liberation March in solidarity with Black lives. And while that event was entirely peaceful on the part of the marchers featuring LGBTQ+ elders as well as puppets featuring queer and trans historical icons leading the procession, toward the end of the event police violently antagonized those involved. Videos show police pepper-spraying those assembled and shoving them with batons, while witnesses report to Out that in an unrelated incident, police purposefully ran into members of the march who were holding traffic.
"We are horrified and furious at the brutal police attack on peaceful marchers using pepper spray, violent shoving, and arrests," the organizers wrote in a statement. "At the exact moment that Mayor De Blasio tweeted about honoring Stonewall and the LGBTQIA+ rights movement, the NYPD completely overreacted with unprovoked physical violence - including pepper spraying their own colleagues."
The Queer Liberation March began with a rally at Foley Square. There, after gathering, a series of speakers took to the mic, before thousands filled the streets marching along an unplanned route — as this was not a permitted event — towards Washington Square Park. Along the way they chanted a variety of lines about police brutality, Black lives, community, and corruption. But, according to a marshall who helped to guide the procession and stop traffic, along the route at one point New York Police Department officers purposefully ran into marshalls head-on using their mopeds as battering rams.
"We were blocking traffic so that marchers can come through," a marshall named Josh Tjaden tells Out of the incident that occurred at the intersections of 9th Street and 5th Avenue. "There were six police officers on mopeds and they all drove right into the marshals that were holding traffic. Then a police car drove through too." The method of using marshals to stop traffic for marchers — or to halt marchers for traffic — is common within direct action.
"This was intentional aggravation and confrontation by the police, without cause," Tjaden says. No one involved was seriously injured. Not long after, by Washington Square Park the police again turned violence against peaceful protestors.
According to multiple accounts, at the end of the march, those involved danced in Washington Square Park and the blocks around it. At some point, this turned violent as police attempted to arrest and detain a protestor for unspecified reasons. While no one that Out has spoken to was able to identify the inciting incident, what happened next was captured on video.
"I look over and I see a cop pulling someone," designer Willie Norris says. "So a group of people gather around chanting various things like 'let them go,' and stuff like 'fuck the cops.'" This turned into a group of protestors surrounding the police without pushing or otherwise using force. The police began to muscle their way through the crowd.
"Eventually I heard someone yell cover your eyes," Norris says. According to multiple reports and videos, the police began to use pepper spray and mace, sometimes directly into the eyes of civilians.
"It was really wild and it was just because we were asking the cops to let this person go," Norris says.
Other police further escalated the incident, running into the crowds, baton drawn shoving protestors. In footage, one cop shoved someone who was standing peacefully on their bike over. They used pepper-spray so indiscriminately that at least two officers, one Black and one Asian American, were hit by the chemicals. Police also used their own vehicles to mow their way through the crowd. Police also at one point were filmed dragging protestors who they had detained.
"They just started swinging and punching and hitting people with batons," Eliel Cruz says. Cruz was with a camera crew from another media outlet. Some of that crew was pepper-sprayed.
Police at the time would not release where they were taking those that they had arrested but others followed the van they were put in and found that it was the 6th precinct on West 10th street.
This violence came 51 years after the Stonewall Uprisings which, themselves, were a reaction to police violence. The NYPD apologized last year for those actions.
"The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple," New York's Police Commissioner James O'Neill said at the time. "The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and for that, I apologize."
Around the same time as the police were enacting this violence on peaceful queer and trans marchers, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted about the Stonewall Uprisings.
"On the 50th Anniversary of Pride March and the 51st Aniversary of Stonewall, NYC celebrates the Black, trans activists who built the movement and continue to lead today," he wrote.
"The police harassed, assaulted, and arrested peaceful Queer Liberation March protestors in Washington Square Park, who gathered to show our collective support for Black Lives and our dedication to eradicating police violence and white supremacy in this country and in our city," organizers said in a statement. "Using pepper spray against the Black and queer community, beating LGBTQIA+ protestors with batons and bicycles, and intimidating our right to peacefully assemble, reflects the wanton disregard that the Mayor, along with the NYPD, have for the lives and safety all Black and queer New Yorkers.
"Following a shoving match between NYPD and marchers who demanded that they move away, we are relieved that our peaceful marchers finally forced NYPD to retreat — but in the process, several marchers were injured, several were arrested and are now being held at the 1 Police Plaza," they continued. "The police refuse to say exactly how many were arrested, and refuse to state the reasons for arrest or charges. Our March for Black Lives and Against Police Brutality occurred on the anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion against police raids and brutality, and two days before the City Council will vote on a $1 billion cut to the NYPD budget. In the light of today's NYPD brutality and the arrest of peaceful marchers, we urge the Council to take immediate action to Defund the Police."