How the Virus and Protests Changed a 50-Year Celebration of Pride

Not six months ago, the idea of this year’s Pride March in New York City, on the 50th anniversary of the first parade, would have conjured images of colorful floats, elaborate costumes and hundreds of thousands of revelers packed into city streets.

But the festivities on Sunday barely resembled those of years past, drawing far fewer participants and bearing the hallmarks of a year rocked by turmoil.

One procession of several dozen people and five rainbow-colored BMWs began in the Flatiron section of Manhattan and headed south toward the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Organizers, including members of N.Y.C. Pride, which runs official Pride events for the city, actively encouraged people to stay away. Some signs read, “Stay Safe, Stay Home Stay Proud.”

A separate event, the Queer Liberation March, was much larger. It began later at Foley Square and headed north toward Stonewall, drawing several thousand vocal demonstrators, and focused on protesting police brutality and racism, inspired by weeks of similar demonstrations nationwide.

“This moment has to be seized, and we have to keep pushing things forward,” said Jay W. Walker, co-founder of the Reclaim Pride Coalition and an organizer of the march.

A breakaway group of about 2,000 protesters gathered at Washington Square Park, and for about 10 minutes, a confrontation erupted there between demonstrators and the police, with pushing and shoving. Videos posted online showed the police pushing through the crowd on motorcycles, as one officer was knocked to the ground. Protesters said the police used pepper spray.

It was not immediately clear what sparked the conflict and whether there were any injuries or arrests.

Corey Johnson, speaker of the City Council, called for an investigation.

The pandemic and the recent protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, transformed festivities in New York City.

As the Pride parade has grown from its more rebellious roots to a mainstream summer event, a segment of the L.G.B.T.Q. community has increasingly complained that the event has become too bloated, commercial and bureaucratic.

Last year, the Reclaim Pride Coalition organized a competing march for that same day that was meant to hew more closely to the political aims of the initial Christopher Street Liberation Day March.

They raised concerns that the inclusion of uniformed police effectively marginalized transgender people and racial minorities, who have long held that they were unfairly targeted and victimized by law enforcement — a concern that has new relevance this year after weeks of protests against police brutality and systemic racism in New York City.

One attendee at this year’s Queer Liberation March, Richard Baskin Jr., fanned himself with one sign that read “REPARATIONS” and another that read, “BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER.”

“Since we’re not going to work, you know, might as well be safe and come out here and demonstrate,” Mr. Baskin said. “You know we read about this in high school and middle school and I’ve been learning about it since elementary school, but this is our opportunity to change the status quo now.”

Mr. Baskin, 29, who lives in Harlem, said he never goes to the city’s commercial Pride celebrations.

“I don’t feel like I’m represented, and I’m not going to sit up here and have arguments with anybody on it,” Mr. Baskin said. “I just celebrate who I am.”

But for him, and many others, the Queer Liberation March felt different.

“We’re doing something, it’s not just like, ‘We’re all gay and we’re proud,’” Baskin said. “It’s got a little muscle on it.”

Victor Pickens, from Harlem, led chants in the crowd as the march moved up Sixth Avenue. He felt the risk was worth it.

“Luckily I’m in good health: I’m 20 years old and I don’t have asthma; I don’t have pre-existing health conditions. So I feel as though it’s still in my place to fight,” Mr. Pickens said. “Although I’m concerned about my safety, I’m more concerned about my safety after this pandemic is over and how I might be treated by the police.”

The earlier procession down Fifth Avenue drew far fewer people.

Cathy Renna, a spokeswoman for N.Y.C. Pride, called it a “tiny, symbolic gesture,” in lieu of the official Pride celebration that was canceled in April. At the time, the city was still under a strict lockdown, hospitals were still flooded with virus patients and hundreds of residents were dying daily.

“We couldn’t let the 50th year go by without acknowledging it,” she said. “But we’re doing it safely.”

Harish Karthikeyan, 26, the director of diversity, accessibility and inclusion for N.Y.C. Pride, said that the group encouraged people to “stay home and stay safe” while organizers marched on behalf of everyone.

He added that while he understood why celebrations had to be muted this year, he still missed the “whole shebang” of last year’s celebration.

The city provided some hoopla Sunday night with a five-minute fireworks display on the Hudson River in honor of Pride.

Toward the end of the N.Y.C. Pride procession, which lasted about two hours, dozens gathered outside the Stonewall Inn. There, a drag queen posed for photos and a woman with a Chihuahua held a giant balloon that said “Black Lives Matter.”

Wendy Dumas-John, 62, wearing a T-shirt from last year’s celebration, said she had been marching for 26 years, and the lack of crowds was “a bit strange.”

But she said the smaller crowd had its advantages.

“I’m kind of happy to see some of the locals around without all the tourists,” she said. “This is us; it’s a breath of fresh air.”

Amr Alfiky, Julia Carmel and Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

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