National Column: Pride proud to not single out groups

by Martin Regg Cohn

Toronto’s Pride parade prides itself on never shouting down – or shutting down – participants.

That may be news to the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter, which rained on this month’s parade when it ransomed the event. But it’s an important distinction, the difference between protest tactics and parade principles.

Holding up the show by 30 minutes wasn’t so much a demand to be heard (they were already designated honoured guests) as a determination to prevent other gays, in this case cops, from being seen or heard.

Or more precisely, banned from any future floats.

Unsurprisingly, their demand has backfired in the court of public opinion.

And for all the cries of betrayal from Black Lives Matter – furious that Pride organizers later declared they wouldn’t be bound by promises made under duress – there is a larger point here:

Pride’s membership has a history of sticking to its guns when anyone tries to tell it what to do.

It’s a core principle enunciated by Pride for years, and an established precedent.

Remember QuAIA? Queers Against Israeli Apartheid made its name by sullying the name of the Jewish state, year after year, at Pride parades. Having covered the Middle East conflict during a four-year posting to Jerusalem, I had my own view of QuAIA’s quixotic crusade.

Why would a gay group demonize the only gay-friendly oasis in a Middle East brimming with homophobia?

More than a logical stretch, it amounted to sophistry wrapped in enmity. The obtuse fascination with the semantics of apartheid seemed a pointless diversion. (Almost all occupiers segregate and discriminate against the occupied; the bigger question was whether a South African term for institutionalized racism helped anyone comprehend – or merely misapprehend – an entirely different geopolitical and historical context in the Middle East.)

Was QuAIA even aware that Lebanon’s government kept its Palestinian refugees penned inside designated camps, barring them from working in the professions and refusing citizenship even to Lebanese-born Palestinians several generations later? Another form of apartheid, or just another word game?

Against that backdrop, critics called QuAIA hate-mongers and, more specifically, accused them of hate speech.

Personally, I thought their appearances at Pride were more hurtful than hateful, and that banning them from parades would only make martyrs of them.

Why didn’t QuAIA organize its own anti-Israeli protests, rather than piggyback on a specifically LGBTQ parade? Good question, but that was Pride’s call, not mine.

Under enormous political pressure, parade organizers set up an internal review and decided there were no grounds to ban them. Similarly, city hall concluded that the comments fell within the limits of free speech.

Despite its clear discomfort over the group’s antics, Pride held its nose, stood its ground and declined to disqualify QuAIA. Ultimately, the group withered away, crumbling under its own internal contradictions as their anti-Israeli obsessions were overtaken by far graver human rights abuses in neighbouring conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

The point is that Pride refused to single out a group for banning, thanks to its broader ethos of a big tent and a bigger parade.

Yes, protest has its place. But dialogue also pays dividends, which is presumably why Black Lives Matter will meet yet again with Premier Kathleen Wynne and Mayor John Tory this week to press its demands.

No one doubts the disproportionate amount of discrimination borne by black people, and the Star has long held cops to account for the racial profiling that culminated in carding. I’ve written my share of columns criticizing the police, notably for vetting their notes and possibly colluding with colleagues after shootings of the mentally ill, a reminder that many tragic killings aren’t just race-based, but fear-based.

Yes, Black Lives Matter. But not just black lives.

Lacking familiarity of “the other” – gays, black people or the mentally ill – and lacking proper training, can be a deadly combination. That’s why police participation in the Pride parade, which increases familiarity and enhances understanding, is surely a good thing.

Most of us understand, intuitively, that for all the systemic and institutional challenges facing Toronto’s cops, demonizing them is a dead end. And can sometimes prove deadly.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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