Rashawn & Beyond: Anti-Violence News for Queer People of Color

The Rashawn Brazell Memorial Fund aims to establish a sustainable tribute to Rashawn that promotes critical thought about the impact of violence and intolerance, particularly upon queer communities of African descent.

Through this blog, we provide action alerts, event postings and breaking news as a means of informing these communities in ways that enable them to combat racism and homophobia.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

U.S. Park Officials Try To Block Black Gay Pride Event in New York

By Keith Boykin

U.S. Park Service officials are trying to put the brakes on one of the biggest activities for this weekend's black gay pride in New York City. Every year for the past 5 years, thousands of black gay men and lesbians have convened at Jacob Riis Beach for a Sunday afternoon festival as part of the annual Pride In The City weekend. The events have taken place peacefully and without incident every year. But this year, park officials who administer the beach are trying to halt the celebration.

People Of Color In Crisis (POCC), a local AIDS organization that hosts the weekend, has been engaged in a 6-month back-and-forth discussion with park officials to secure a permit for the annual Sunday afternoon beach party. But late this afternoon, POCC received a letter from park officials that they would not be allowed to use the beach after all, according to Gary English, POCC's executive director.

Park Service Sets Overly Restrictive Rules
In a letter to English, Park Superintendent Lisa Eckert cited park service violations stemming from previous events as a justification for halting the current event. The previous violations included failure to limit the event to 1,500 people, failure to remove trash, obstruction of the boardwalk, and failure to shut down the event by 9 p.m., according to Eckert.

In a response letter from POCC, English denied the accusations. "We picked up the trash" and "did not obstruct the boardwalk," POCC said. In fact, the group argues that it "left the beach cleaner than we found it." English called the park service decision "harsh and unreasonable," a part of a pattern of mistreatment, he said, and suggested that "racism and homophobia" might be behind the decision. Last year, for example, beach officials "locked the public restrooms because they felt the Black gay men at the event would do 'hanky panky' in there, so we had to supply portable bathrooms," English said.

"We picked up the trash; we left the beach cleaner than we found it and we did not obstruct the boardwalk." -- Official response letter from POCC

Tokes M. Osubu, executive director of Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), agreed with English. “I have been to every single Pride in the City event at Riis Beach for the past five years. What I’ve experienced was hundreds and hundreds of Black gay brothers and sisters having a great time and being themselves," he said. " Were some folks loud and outrageous? Of course! But we always prided ourselves in how we respected our hosts (both POCC and the National Park Service) by cleaning-up afterwards and leaving when we were told. If these shortcoming occurred in other years, who was told? Why weren’t deposits withheld?”

For its part, the park service said that it had spent "countless hours in discussions" about the event and ultimately would only allow it to take place on a very limited basis. The rules would allow POCC only to set up a single tent in the baseball field for HIV testing but would not allow any entertainment or music anywhere on the field or on the beach. Furthermore, the park service imposed a restriction that only 200 people could attend the event at the tent or on the ball field. The park service also instructed POCC to eliminate its scheduled performances and the "hot body contest" set to take place that day. The letter ended with a suggestion that POCC hold the event "some time later in the month."

Park Service Response Unacceptable
That's an outrage, and the park service officials need to hear from the public that this is unacceptable. How can you limit a public black gay pride event to 200 people, and why is that even necessary? The Pride In The City beach party has been an enjoyable and peaceful tradition at Riis Beach for years, and park officials should not be allowed to stop the show now. As English points out, "There have been no stabbings, no shootings, and no overdoses." In fact, the letter from the park service itself makes no mention of any police incidents or violations at any point during the history of the event.

So what's this all about? Are the park service officials afraid of having thousands of black people come into this mostly white beach community? Do they care that this event has been going on peacefully for years without any problems? And what would happen if thousands of black gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people simply showed up on their own, which is likely to happen either way?

When POCC first ran into interference on the issue, the group contacted New York City Councilwoman Letitia James and Rep. Anthony Weiner, the U.S. Congressman who represents Brooklyn. James and Weiner intervened on the organization's behalf, but it made little difference to the defiant park service officials who refused to budge. That's too bad.

There's a clear choice here for park officials, and it's time for the officials to reconsider their decision. I have no doubt that thousands of black gays and lesbians will converge on the beach on Sunday, whether or not the park officials like it. We live in a free country and black people don't need a permit just to show up at a beach. But here's the choice. Officials can either help make this a pleasant and organized experience or turn it into a potentially disorderly and chaotic one.

As GMAD's Osubu pointed out, “This event has been heavily promoted for months, and many hundreds of people are going to show up on Sunday." He said "there is simply no way, at this late date, to publicize its cancellation effectively" and he advised the park service "that they stand a much greater chance of the day turning sour if a thousand folks show up for nothing than if they let the festivities proceed.”

He's right. It's better for the city and the parks department to allow this event to take place under the auspices of an established non-profit organization than to have thousands of angry participants show up at the beach on Sunday. The park service can either do it right and everybody's happy, or they can do it the wrong way and nobody's happy. It's their choice.

Call or Email Park Service Officials
Billy Garrett, Gate Park Manager
(718) 338-3605
Barry Sullivan, Gateway General Superintendent
(718) 354-4665
Lisa Eckert
Superintendent, Jamaica Bay Unit
(718) 338-3799 phone
(718) 354-4605 fax
Public Affairs Office
210 New York Avenue
Staten Island, NY 10305
(718) 354-4606


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