At Baltimore's Ynot Lot vigil for the 49 victims of a mass shooting at LGBTQ club Pulse in Orlando, Florida, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis got booed—hard. And when he spoke to the group of a few hundred about the "civil rights struggle that is uniquely the LGBT [community's]," someone howled out loudly, "Fuck you."
Organized by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB), the vigil drew several hundred residents—and some in attendance were surprised to see how many police were there on North Avenue and Charles Street directing traffic, forming a perimeter around the event, and keeping an eye on everything.
When Jabari Lyles, president of the GLCCB, returned to the mic toward the end of the evening, he thanked the police for their presence that night. It didn't lead to any "Fuck you's," but there were plenty of murmurs and scoffs from the crowd. Then Lyles added that he would make the Baltimore Police Department "accountable" for the promises Davis made on the stage that night, seemingly speaking directly to those who booed Davis.
And while the event was a call for unity and solidarty, there were several disparate ideas represented at the vigil: between members of the oft-ignored, oft-vilified community who spoke up eloquently and the many politicians who showed up because it was the right thing to do; between an inclusive event and a dulled, assimilationist one; between queer pride and a solidarity with the Muslim community being blamed for the shooting; and between those who thanked the police and those who booed them.
Many vigil attendees described a general sense of unease with the large police presence. Some observed that the same police there that night are frequently seen at Black Lives Matter protests, where their presence is far more imposing and intimidating and where often they are seen photographing or filming activists.
And there were small things, such as police asking people to move this way and that and then putting their hands on people to nudge them along if they didn't move quick enough.
"[The police can be] triggering for many members of our community," said Lyles in an interview with City Paper about a week before Pride began. "Their intentions were good. I'm upset to hear that they put their hands on folks. Police think that when we criticize them that they are under attack. I think it comes from ignorance."
Lyles is quick to add that more police at an event doesn't read as "a sigh of relief" for many members of the LGBTQ community.
Between some of the in-the-community conversation about police presence at the vigil and a recent LGBTQ community meeting with the police, both in June, the LGBTQ community is grappling with its relationship with law enforcement. They worry that police, operating from a misunderstanding of the community, are likely to target or harass residents, especially trans people. Within the city's LGBTQ community, there is also concern that many white gay men and lesbians are not inclined to focus on police-community relations as a priority, that they are more interested in appeasement.
In early June, the Baltimore Police hosted an LGBT Community Meeting at Chase Brexton Health Services. Led by Sgt. Kevin Bailey, the department's LGBT liaison, its goal was to open up a conversation between the police and the LGBTQ community with a specific aim of facilitating the reporting of crimes for LGBTQ victims.
Sgt. Bailey, who is gay and took this position earlier in the year, was earnest in his desire to create real, positive improvements in the relationship between the city's LGBTQ community and the department, but most of the 20 or so people in attendance have been working toward the same goal for a long time—and they made it clear that they had seen it all before.
After introductions, a trans woman named Whitney ("like Houston") told Bailey police harassment is frequent for trans women.
"Me being a trans woman of color, I've experienced a lot of stigma, especially in the Charles Village area," Whitney said. "Sometimes when I'm walking down the street, I'm stopped by police officers because they automatically assume that everyone who is trans in that community is out there for one purpose." Police assume anybody who is trans is a sex worker, she explained.
Whitney also said that officers often don't understand preferred pronouns or willfully disregard them.
Bailey said officer training was going on now to teach police more about pronoun usage. So far, about 200 of the department's more than 2,200 officers have been trained, he said. Even without new policy and procedures, officers can already be subject to punishment if they are disrespectful to citizens, he added. He urged Whitney to file a complaint with the police whenever things like that happen.
"We are trying to get officers to step out of their box and understand someone else's box," Bailey said.
"The thing is, it's basically common sense," someone else at the meeting said. "If you explain 'this is how I'm addressed' to you and they still continue to do it then that's—they're out of line."
Bailey again stressed that they should fill out a complaint form.
"You have to continue the whole process," Bailey said. "The detectives need you to follow through so that way we can effectively make some change."
Then, Lyles asked, "What if it's not safe for that person to follow through with that request?"
"It's one thing to say, 'OK, you've got to keep on following through,' but if you're the person and you're continuing to be harassed or you feel like if you follow through that your safety is in danger, you're not going to follow through," he said. "I hear that we need to hold folks accountable…but what if our community doesn't feel safe?"
Monica Yorkman, a trans advocate and founder and director of Sistas of the "T," said that a lot of the suggestion made during the meeting—for example, more officer training and inviting police to some LGBTQ events—have already been discussed.
"Some of this sounds like some things that we did before because last year we talked about training," she said. "We had talked about developing training using some of those things. I don't know whatever happened to it, and we had looked at some people who were competent trainers so I don't know what happened to that information."
"Also," Yorkman added, "the Trans Alliance invited the last commissioner out three times… and when we had our second march there were a whole fleet of police officers who were very supportive to us, so we already have the necessary relationships. We don't have to reinvent the wheel."
Lyles interjected again.
"So I think that the piece that's missing for me is that all of the training and education is here—what's lacking for me is a healthy intention from the police department," he said. "Is there a strategic direction or actual goal? What does the police department want to do with the LGBT community? We can continue to talk about trainings and events, but if you all don't take it seriously, then it'll be all for nothing. Instead of asking what we can do, I'm really looking at the police department and thinking what can you do."
For example, Lyles said, if officers are punished, what happens to them? Do they face serious repercussions or just a slap on the wrist?
"For us, this is violence, this is our lives," Lyles said. "For you this is just another training you have to sit through," he added.
"Here's the thing about it," Yorkman said. "[Police] do look at us as something less than human. They don't realize that there's an instructor in the room, there's some business owners in the room, and there's some people who are adding to the economy and the prosperity of this city and so when they disrespect us, they disrespect their own city."
For an event like Pride to go on at all, even if Orlando wasn't hovering around in the back of everybody's minds, organizers have to walk a line between safety and making sure people feel comfortable. Adding more police alienates some in the LGBTQ community even as it makes others feel secure. So, Lyles is sensitive to the concerns over public safety as well as its limits.
He adds that planning security for Pride is challenging because it takes place in the middle of the city—there isn't exactly a perimeter, nor would a perimeter be desirable: "Even if we have barricades going up and down Charles Street, folks can skip into our footprint at any time."
BPD Media Relations Chief T.J. Smith writes in an email to City Paper: "We have safety plans in place as we always do for large scale events in the city. Of course with recent events, there is an expectation of a heightened sense of security, something that we are aware of and will provide."
Smith added that immediately after Orlando "the BPD began reaching out to the LGBTQ community, to include citizens and businesses. We opened an opportunity to conduct security checks for businesses." Smith also pointed to Bailey, the LGBTQ officer liaison, whose full-time position was created earlier this year.
Lyles has been appreciative of Bailey's efforts.
"Sgt. Bailey has been very diligent in following up with me, keeping up with me, he does a really great job about liaising between us and Baltimore City police," he said. "Even if he is limited in what he can do. He has offered unwavering support as much as he can. All of us are little people in the system."
When Lyles speaks to the police, he tries to "word things in such a way that they understand," he said. "For many people in our community, police don't make them feel safe."