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Celebration, resistance collide at San Francisco’s 49th annual Pride parade

Motorcycles revved up, sending the crowd of hundreds of thousands into a frenzy. Sabine Balden sat on her bike, ready to ride, dressed in clothes that matched her fire-red hair. As Dykes on Bikes honked and roared down Market Street, followed by leather-clad gay men on motorcycles, San Francisco’s 49th Pride parade officially kicked off.

Sabine, a retired San Francisco firefighter said:

“I’m always excited being cheered by half a million people.”

Sabine has been a long-time parade participant and chaired the contingent of Dykes on Bikes for 10 years, back when it went by a different name. It was once called Women’s Motorcycle Contingent, she said, a more inclusive name used to attract more women motorcycle riders to join the parade.

Aaron Levy-Wolins/SFBay Sabine Balden, 56, a retired San Francisco firefighter, leans on her motorcycle before the 49th San Francisco Pride parade on Sunday, June 30, 2019. Balden participated in the Fire Fighters club of the Dykes on Bikes contingent; she was a former chairperson of the organization when it was called the Women’s Motorcycle Contingent.

The gray, cloudy sky subsided as the sun came out, and a blue hue took its place. On the ground, rainbows flooded the streets on flags, costumes and painted on faces.

A cacophony of clicking could be heard as photographers, inside and outside of the barricades, fired away at the colorful spectacle.

Social justice groups made their way down Market Street. Cries and chants flooded the usual hustle-and-bustle of the Financial District amid the roar of the ever-watching, dancing and screaming crowd.

The people cheered as homegrown politicians arrived in cars and on floats. Gov. Gavin Newsom made history as the first sitting governor of the state to attend a Pride celebration. Presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) made an appearance and was backed by the governor, who wore a T-shirt with her first name in rainbow letters.

A surprised crowd applauded when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made her way down the route in an open car flanked by her family, waving a rainbow-flecked gavel.

Aaron Levy-Wolins/SFBay US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) waves to the crowd during the 49th San Francisco Pride parade on Sunday, June 30, 2019.

One woman, Ann Lou, stood with her husband and children and waved as the contingents passed by. She said she appreciated the atmosphere and environment while her 11-year-old daughter Gabby awed at the costumes.

Lou said:

“I like that everyone’s happy and free to be themselves.”

Commotion and emotion rang in the air among the colorful splendor of Pride with a few small demonstrations held to protest some of the participating corporations. Google came under fire earlier this month when its child company, YouTube, elected not to take down a video by right-wing commentator Steven Crowder, who used homophobic and racist language against gay Latino Vox journalist Carlos Maza. 

A group of Google employees submitted a petition to the SF Pride Board of Directors, asking that the company be banned from marching in the parade. While the board denied the request, it did allow Google employees to march as part of the resistance contingent, according to a statement released by employees. 

SF Pride Executive Director George F. Ridgely, Jr. said the board listened to the community as well as the company.

According to Ridgely, the decision to include Google in the festivities was:

“[B]ased on the history of Google’s support of the community and the work they had done in the past and their commitment to tackling this problem moving forward.”

Aaron Levy-Wolins/SFBay Google employees protest inaction by the company regarding an incident of homophobic and racist language in a YouTube video during the 49th San Francisco Pride parade on Sunday, June 30, 2019.

According to The Verge, in an internal statement made to employees, Google said its workers could protest the company’s actions, provided they do so without taking part in the tech corporation’s contingent. 

A large handful of Google employees marched in the resistance contingent but were unwilling to talk to media outlets. Briefly, one unidentified employee told SFBay:

“I don’t think any of us are speaking on the record; we’re afraid of harassment.”

Maxie Bee, 27, a Trader Joe’s crew member, helped form a separate small demonstration against Google and other large corporations. She said she and her friends were frustrated to see a big increase in corporate contingents and fewer local community organizations marching, calling it:

“[A] day for corporations to show how progressive they are.”

Carrying homemade signs, her six-person group slipped into the parade route and marched directly alongside the Google contingent. They danced, bobbing up and down, and displayed their protest material to the crowd. Many attendees in the audience behind the barricades yelled and whooped in approval.

Aaron Levy-Wolins/SFBay Parade marchers behind the Asian and Pacific Islander Equality of Northern California (APIENC) contingent during the 49th San Francisco Pride parade on Sunday, June 30, 2019. APIENC, selected as the 2019 SF Pride community grand marshall, mostly comprises young queer and trans people – and it marched to remove police from Pride because the youth does not believe the police keep their communities safe.

Nina Marie Larson, 30, held a sign that read:

“Hosting hate speech is violence.”

Bee said the group was:

“[B]asically trying to raise awareness that there is no real place for corporatism to be taking over Pride.”

Bee added:

“The focus should really be on people.”

Former Levi Strauss President and CEO Bob Hass offered a different view.  He talked about how during the AIDS epidemic corporations would stigmatize and exclude gay employees or anyone standing in solidarity with gay workers, given little available knowledge about the condition or how HIV was spread.

Levi Strauss was the first prominent company to address issues related to HIV and AIDS, Haas said:

“That was the start of a 30-plus-year journey that has made all of us better human beings…[and] there has been a lot of learning, a lot of pain, a lot of loss for comrades who we cared deeply about…”

Hass said he was proud to wear clothing from the company’s Pride collection and of the company’s longtime support for the LGBTQ community.

In 2018, Bee said she protested alone by carrying a sign next to the Amazon contingent. She said she was physically removed from the parade by police after she refused to leave when Amazon contingent marchers asked her to.

Bee said:

“A lot of us are just members of the community who want the conversation to continue.”

A number of community members felt uncomfortable seeing a heavy police presence at the parade. Although officers wore patches on their shoulders encased in a rainbow border, some groups did not appreciate them walking as part of the parade.

Police officers and members of the queer community have long had altercations and struggles as part of a past that once equated being LGBTQ with mental illness. Few establishments would welcome openly-queer people and police would often raid gay bars.

Bee, a transgender woman, mentioned that the first Pride events were acts of resistance by queer people fighting police officers, citing the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in The City and the Stonewall Inn riot in New York City.

Sammie Ablaza Wills, Director of Asian Pacific Islander Equality of Northern Califorina – also known as APIENC – which was elected as the community Grand Marshall, said:

“[T]he issues that were present 50 years ago like police brutality are still so present.”

Aaron Levy-Wolins/SFBay An SF Police officer displays the SFPD Pride patch during the 49th San Francisco Pride parade on Sunday, June 30, 2019.

Wills, who refers to themselves as genderqueer said:

“Just because there are police at Pride, we need to ask the question, ‘Who is actually keeping us safe?’”

Wills continued:

“When we were in the 80s, when folks were dying of HIV and AIDS, was it the government – was it the state keeping us safe?”

“It was our own people keeping us safe.”

Wills explained that many people in queer, and especially in black and brown queer communities, still do not feel safe around officers or trust the police to keep them safe.

During the parade, Wills sat silently in an open car raising a fist in solidarity with other queer people and against the police presence. Behind the vehicle walked a group of APIENC members who carried a banner that read:

“Police out of Pride.”

The festive day was spiked with beauty as well as struggle, an atmosphere aptly fitting for the 2019 theme:

“Generations of Resistance.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistakenly described the 2019 San Francisco Pride parade as the 47th annual. The text has since been corrected for accuracy.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that APIENC Director Sammie Ablaza Wills’ last name was “Willis.” The text has since been corrected for accuracy.

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