By: Adrianna Michell and Hannah Walters-Vida
A month after far right demonstrators attacked Hamilton Pride, members of the queer community are working to come together, heal and fight to rid the city of hate groups.
Past Hamilton Pride events have been attended by conservative preachers and others who attempted to intimidate festival goers who annually come to Gage park to celebrate. Hamilton Pride has typically been a family and community-oriented arts event, despite Pride’s history as a protest event beginning with the violent activism at Stonewall 50 years ago.
In Hamilton on June 15, community members and allies gathered in Gage park. Leading up to the Pride events there had been tensions between the queer community and Hamilton Police Services over police presence at Pride. “No police at pride” campaigns have sparked discussion about police and state presence at Pride celebrations across Canada.
No uniformed officers were allowed at Victoria Pride this year and in 2016 Black Lives Matter shut down the Toronto parade for 30 minutes to protest police attendance. Hamilton Pride did not permit the police to have a recruitment booth at Pride this year.
Last month’s Hamilton Pride marked an escalation of violence. Anti-Pride demonstrators gathered during the event shouting religious, homophobic and white-nationalist rhetoric. The anti-Pride group is speculated to be in part members of the fascist Yellow Vests who moved from city hall to Gage Park on the day of Pride. According to witnesses, one person was punched in the face, while another was hit in the head with a motorcycle helmet, amongst other acts of violence.
Since January, hate groups associated with the yellow vests have been holding weekly demonstrations outside of Hamilton city hall. The groups hold signs displaying far right anti Muslim, anti immigrant messages, and known white supremacists have been present at rallies.
Witnesses accused HPS officers in attendance of not stepping in early enough to prevent the attacks, leaving people to defend themselves. Pride defenders countered the anti-Pride protestors with a “black hole” tactic, wherein a large black banner was used to visually block the fascist signs and protestors, while defenders donned pink masks and used physical presence, counter protest tactics and noise makers to block the hate speech.
When asked why officers did not respond right away, Chief of police Eric Girt said at a town hall last month that responses would have been different if police were welcomed at the Pride events.
Councillors Maureen Wilson and Nrinder Nann are calling for an independent investigation into the police response at Pride.
However, not all members of the queer community agree that strengthening police presence will ensure their safety. A June 2019 study surveying 900 members of Hamilton’s queer community found that approximately one third of respondents believed that they had been treated unjustly by the police. Transgender respondents were even more likely to recount unjust treatment.
For some, what happened at Pride was an example of the queer community coming together to defend one another without the need for police involvement.
“2STLGBQI+ folks can protect each other and we do not need the police or the carceral justice system to ensure the safety of our communities,” says a statement from the McMaster Students Union Pride Community Centre, “there is no Pride in policing.”
The arrests that have occurred since Pride have further exacerbated tensions between the queer community and police. In the past month, five people have been arrested in connection to Pride. According to the Tower, a Hamilton anarchist social centre connected in the queer community, four of the people arrested were associated with the pink masked pride defenders. HPS has only announced the arrest of one far right protestor.
The most high profile arrest was that of Cedar Hopperton, the first person to be arrested in connection to Pride. Hopperton was arrested on June 22 for allegedly violating parole conditions from their involvement in the 2018 Locke Street vandalism.
On June 18 Hopperton made a speech at city hall in which they called on members of the queer community to defend themselves against violence and to not rely on police support. On July 8, the parole board voted to continue to revoke Hopperton’s parole, in large part because they ruled that Hopperton was inciting violence in their anti-police speech.
Hopperton’s arrest and parole hearing sparked massive backlash, leading to the “free Cedar” campaign, which condemns city hall and HPS and calls for HPS to drop the charges against Hopperton and other pride defenders.
Many community organizations have publicly supported the campaign. Scholars from 100 universities across Ontario, as well as McMaster faculty members, have submitted open letters expressing solidarity with the pride defenders.
In a statement released on July 12, the PCC stated that the pride defenders were acting in self defence and should not have been punished.
“The Canadian state frequently criminalizes the self defence that is often necessary for the survival of marginalized people,” says the PCC’s statement. “This is completely unacceptable and is a tactic of repression of social control.”
In the month following Pride, community members have repeatedly taken to the streets to demand that all charges against pride defenders be dropped. There has been a heavy police presence at many of the demonstrations, with some officers showing up on horseback.
This past Monday, the Tower released a video of 11 officers arresting a young woman who had allegedly written an anti-police slogan with sidewalk chalk during a rally on June 28. A crowd of bystanders intervened and the woman was eventually released. In the comments on the video, people were critical of the police for allegedly arresting the woman over sidewalk chalk, and questioned why it was necessary to have such a large number of officers present for the arrest.
CITY HALL RESPONSE
Representatives of the queer community have been critical of city hall in the months prior to the Pride attacks, and council’s response to the attacks have exacerbated much of the tension.
Last May, Hamilton’s LGBTQ2 advisory committee voted unanimously against the annual Pride flag raising outside city hall. This was in large part in protest of the city’s employment of Marc Lemire, the former head of a white supremacist organization.
Following the Pride attacks, on July 5 Mayor Fred Eisenberger released a statement naming two special advisors for Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ community initiatives, Cole Gately and Deirdre Pike, to help address the queer community’s concerns.
However, other members of the queer community responded by stating that the discussions should happen publicly and should be accessible to everybody. Cameron Kroetsch, who was invited to take part in the discussions, stated in a public Facebook post that the private meetings did not feel safe or productive.
“I won't attend private meetings with no shared list of invitees and no detailed agenda. It doesn't feel safe, for so many reasons, and won't until Fred Eisenberger, our City Council, and the Hamilton Police Service can demonstrate that they're willing to build trust with our community,” wrote Kroetsch.
As an additional response to the Pride attacks, city council proposed a “hate incident prevention policy” that aims to assist in the identification of, and response to, hate motivated crimes. The proposed policy calls for increased surveillance on city-owned properties.
Initially, the policy placed strict limitations on acceptable activities during protests on city grounds, prohibiting the use of sound amplifying equipment, swearing and writing with sidewalk chalk. The policy has received criticism for limiting the rights of all protestors, not just hate groups.
“We said ban hate speech, not ban all speech,” said a sign from a city hall protest this weekend.
In the past month the community has come together to support one another and demand justice.
This past weekend, two different queer community groups converged at city hall. The Tower organized a weekend long occupation at city hall called “Camp Chaos Gays.” They held a series of workshops and community building events, at the same time protesting police harassment and the hate incident prevention policy.
At the same time, the July 13 “Hamilton for Who?” event cosponsored by Pride Hamilton and other organizations, was a non political, family friendly rally against hate groups.
Following the backlash against the hate prevention policy, council has since amended the list to remove many of the previously banned activities. However, the security provisions remain. The policy will now go out for public consultation.
On July 16, the Tower announced that Hopperton was released from jail early. The announcement was met with a wave of relief from supporters. However, the fight is far from over.
The yellow vests have continued to demonstrate outside of city hall every week, drawing counter protests from the community. Furthermore, many members of the queer community feel that city council has not properly consulted them and addressed their concerns. Demonstrators have reported being harassed and intimidated by police officers at protests, and many queer people report feeling unsafe around police.
Members of the queer community are working to regroup, support one another and find a way forward.