The hidden wellbeing issues underlying the Pride and policing debate

How do we bridge the chasm between those who want a visible police presence at Pride events and those who do not? Sam Hope proposes that those with power need to listen harder.

Many marginalised voices from the LGBTQ+ community have for some time been calling on the police not to march at Pride events. This year, members of the Nottinghamshire Pride committee, in discussion with some LGBTQ+ police representatives, arrived at what seemed like a reasonable compromise. The suggestion was for marching (off-duty) police to wear, instead of uniform, their police LGBTQ+ Support Network tee-shirts. This would demonstrate sensitivity to the communities who feel more intimidated and frightened than safe seeing a big uniformed presence.

Unfortunately, the police ignored this request and marched in their uniforms. What’s more, the language targeted at those who protested this after the event was problematic – they were told they were “excluding people” but nobody was being excluded. There were even claims the police were being “bullied”.

Feeling forced

People with power can often control the way a story gets told. When someone marginalised says “we don’t want the police as an organisation in the march”, it often gets inaccurately interpreted as “we don’t want individuals who work for the police marching at Pride”. It seems there is wilful erasure of the real issue; many feel frightened by a block of uniformed police in the march, or a strong organisational presence from the police, and this is often due to the trauma of previous experiences.

This has nothing to do with excluding individual LGBTQ+ police officers from Pride, even if anyone had the power to do that, which clearly they do not.

The issue is one of sensitivity. If a marginalised person says “my community still feels afraid of the police – there is work to do before we feel trust”, the response from police is often unhelpful.  Instead of a gentle working with those communities at their own pace and on their own terms, those communities can feel imposed upon and forced into accepting a uniformed police presence within what should be a community-centred event. This has the potential to exacerbate any trauma people may be feeling about the police.

Feeling safe and comfortable with police in the UK is a privilege. BAME people, sex workers, people with mental health conditions and autism, disabled people, homeless people, working class people from certain areas, and still many LGBTQ+ people, can have reason to be fearful of the police, having experienced negative interactions with them.

And yet it is difficult for more privileged LGBTQ+ people to hear this. They wrongly believe that police prejudice, harassment and brutality is a thing of the past, or something that happens in other countries, but not here in the UK. Sadly, instead of making sure all voices are heard equally, more privileged LGBTQ+ people often ally with the police against the marginalised voices.

Communities can feel imposed upon and forced into accepting a uniformed police presence within what should be a community-centred event

Power imbalances and how they play out

The people who silence these fears often misuse the language of oppression. Oppression is about a person’s life or safety being undervalued in society at large. When a police officer falls in the line of duty, they are humanised by the press. The person responsible is held accountable. In fact, killing police is often seen as far worse than killing anyone else.

This is not true for the marginalised communities that fear the police. We say “Black Lives Matter”, for instance, because sadly, many need reminding of this in a way they do not for other groups. There is plenty of evidence that black lives simply do not matter as much to many people – to the mainstream press, for instance, or to UK society at large.

In the past month, 3 black men have died following police contact, and the response from society towards the death of Rashan Charles has been indifferent at best, accusatory at worst. History shows us that justice is non-existent in these cases. 1500 deaths following police contact have led to precisely zero convictions.

So, the justice scales are dramatically tipped in favour of the police. People may like to believe this is because the police are always in the right, and anyone they harm automatically in the wrong. But we know power corrupts, and lack of accountability can lead to abuses. When the police do get it wrong, as with Hillsborough, the establishment and the press work hard to vilify the victims and thwart justice. Hillsborough is a good example (by no means isolated) of how the power is tipped in favour of the police getting their own version of events established.

Even though, as a homeless young person, I did witness police prejudice, harassment and unfair treatment, as a middle-aged, white, middle class person, it would be easy for me now to feel secure enough to forget what that is like.

We know that people of colour are still much more likely to be convicted for the same offences than white people, and we know that the BAME communities of this country protest over and over again about mistreatment from the police, but that their concerns are often minimised or ignored. I have witnessed police bias myself, here in Nottingham. I see video evidence, and hear stories regularly. The reports are so frequent and widespread, the video evidence so plentiful, we should believe what marginalised people are telling us.

This is about many inequalities, not just race

Given The Queerness is focusing on mental health this month, it is important to speak up for another minority that experiences disproportionate police brutality, and that is people with poor mental health. More and more, the police are being used to intervene when people have mental health crises. I have personally witnessed incidents and heard many more reported, where the police escalated or dealt inappropriately or roughly with a person in need of care.

Half of deaths in custody are of people suffering mental ill health, with studies suggesting the police are ill-equipped or trained to deal with mental health and that the common practice of detaining people in jail contravenes guidelines.

If you are one of the many LGBTQ+ people with mental health difficulties, and have had a traumatising experience with the police, the very last thing you want to see when you are out celebrating your right to be yourself is a sea of police uniforms. That could trigger a severe trauma reaction.

People in a mental health crisis do not always act safely or appropriately, and they are tricky to deal with. But this is the problem – our prisons are full of people with poor mental health and this is an expensive and inappropriate way to respond to a medical and/or social issue. Appropriately trained mental health workers, skilled in gentleness, in de-escalating a crisis, in positively supporting mental health, can do much more good and less harm. These skills are not easy, but they are important, and they often are not the main strengths of people trained to use control and force to manage a situation.

This is why, in videos of police confronting marginalised groups, we often see a civilian or a bystander using de-escalation tactics, and the police winding themselves and their target up. When someone is mentally ill and also marginalised in other ways – black, trans, queer, or a sex worker – for instance  the police have been known to show even less empathy for their distress, and a greater amount of hostility and rough-handling. Add in the authoritarian position of many in the police, which comes with an expectation of submission and obedience, and there is a recipe for things to go badly wrong.

If you are one of the many LGBTQ+ people with mental health difficulties, and have had a traumatising experience with the police, the very last thing you want to see when you are out celebrating your right to be yourself is a sea of police uniforms.

This is about an institution, not individual police

The issues we are discussing are not about individual officers. But a uniform, a banner or a recruitment stall represents the whole organisation, an organisation that is still a symbol of fear for many of society’s most vulnerable people.

Increasingly, the police and people with the privilege of feeling comfortable with the police, are the ones dictating how LGBTQ+ organising is done, and this further marginalises certain communities from LGBTQ+ organising. The issue over police and Pride is a prime example of this. Instead of being able to hear how marginalised people feel about the police as an institution, requests for understanding are met with anger and rejection.

The police are currently being used as a tool to hold society together in a way that many feel is expensive, ineffective, and anti-social, as alternative, more pro-social models in Portugal and The Netherlands demonstrate. There, it is understood that much of what we in the UK see as criminality stems from health and social welfare issues.

Here, minority and marginalised communities are under heavy (and expensive) police control but often lack the more useful funding for grass-roots community building projects. Meanwhile, criminal abuses occurring in the higher echelons of society do not seem to be policed as strenuously, if at all. This leaves many feeling that the institution of the police is not there to serve them or their community.

Many would like to see a society that leans more on community-building and support, and less on population control and carceral punishment in overflowing, privatised prisons. Trans people need to be protected from hate crime, for instance, but money spent on education, press reform, and full civil rights will go much further than money spent on punishing individual cases of violence, which are often manifestations of complex community tensions at street level. The media and politicians, who incite hate and prejudice, are rarely, if ever, held accountable, and that does not look like justice to many. Hate crime agendas also quite often pit one neglected minority community against another, stirring people to take frustrations out on their neighbours rather than turn their attention to deeper social injustices.

Instead of being able to hear how marginalised people feel about the police as an institution, requests for understanding are met with anger and rejection.

None of this means that we do not want kind and understanding people to turn to for help if we are the victims of hate crime, and work done with the police to make them more LGBTQ+ friendly is not wasted, but it is a surface remedy that does not go nearly deep enough.

Shifting our focus

Too often, being “the good LGBTQ+ person” means pandering to power instead of challenging it. The more marginalised a person is, the more polite, quiet, and grateful they are expected to be, and the less able to put a foot down and say “this isn’t good enough”. Having power has the benefits of being able to call the shots, and to throw your weight around, even with lethal consequences, and get away with it. Not having power means the slightest show of legitimate anger can have you pushed out further into the margins, or made unsafe. This is not a psychologically or socially healthy position to be in; it is immensely precarious.

The responses to Notts Pride are typical of the silencing reactions to any expressions of concern from minorities about policing. The “poor police” are cast as victims of “hate” for being asked to wear tee-shirts, while the violence, harassment and terror some marginalised communities experience is dismissed, ignored, minimised or erased by blaming.

“You should learn to be more loving”, I hear from fellow middle-class white people who are out of touch with the experiences of some people in the UK. They mean, of course, that if people show the police “love” they will be treated better. Of course, that is not really love, but submission. Meanwhile, nobody is saying to the police “if you act with more love, your job will be easier”, although arguably, that is true. In an unequal society, a good measure of who has the power is how much they are excused for showing anger, or how much they are blamed for it.

What if we flipped this on its head, and expected those with the power to show more love? Why not channel love towards the people who need it most? We have the choice to focus on the welfare of the people living in fear, who are frequently neglected and marginalised by society, and by mainstream LGBTQ+ organising.

Follow Sam on Twitter (@Sam_R_Hope)

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