After disruptions to two LGBTQ pride events over the weekend — the arrest of a group of extremists who allegedly planned to riot near a Pride event in Idaho and the interruption of a “Drag Queen Story Hour” in the Bay Area — organizers of similar events this June say they are on edge as Pride Month continues.
"I think it should be a stark reminder this is probably not the last time we are going to see something like this," said Katie Carter, the CEO of Pride Foundation, an LGBTQ philanthropic organization that focuses on the northwestern U.S. "Our community needs to be on the hypervigilant side of safety."
In Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, police detained 31 men near a Pride in the Park event on Saturday, all of them members of a white nationalist group called Patriot Front. Most had traveled to Idaho from other states, authorities said, and the group was outfitted with riot shields, shin guards and at least one smoke grenade.
"They came to riot downtown," said the city's police chief, Lee White, at a Saturday press conference. Each man has been charged with conspiracy to riot, a misdemeanor.
Meanwhile, sheriffs in Alameda County, Calif., are investigating a possible hate crime after a Saturday book reading for preschoolers at a public library in the Bay Area, hosted by a drag queen, was interrupted by a group of men possibly affiliated with the Proud Boys, one of whom wore a T-shirt that read "kill your local pedophile" with an image of an assault-style rifle.
Safety is now top of mind for Pride organizers
The weekend's events have refocused organizers' attention on safety and "will bring that conversation to the top of the agenda," said Donald Williamson, the executive director for the Boise Pride Festival.
In Boise, Williamson said, organizers have been working with Boise police since March to prepare safety plans for the festival, which is scheduled for September. "We will be prepared to scale up any security concerns that we have as new information comes in," he said.
While public events of all kinds generally require safety plans to address issues including crowd management, emergency exits and first aid, LGBTQ pride events have long required more forethought about safety concerns, organizers say.
"I've never been to a Pride festival anywhere that didn't have counterprotesters," said the Pride Foundation's Carter. "It happens at every single Pride event, whether it's just somebody yelling slurs as they walk by, or whether it's something hyper-organized like what we saw in Idaho."
The threats to Coeur d'Alene's small-scale Pride in the Park had swirled so intensely that its organizers decided to form a safety committee this year, a first for the festival.
The rhetoric grew in the days leading up to the event, said Jessica Mahuron, outreach director at the North Idaho Pride Alliance, in an interview with NPR. "Our organization has been sent numerous hate messages by phone, email, social media. It's been pretty constant and a challenging situation," she said.
Law enforcement, too, had stepped up presence. "Any time you have an event like this, there's opposing groups who decide to make some threats. We were taking each of those threats — not only on its face, but we take them seriously, even though some of them appear to be just anonymous internet stuff," the Coeur d'Alene police chief said Monday.
Organizers of Pride events in large cities are concerned as well
Concerns about safety are not limited to small cities or conservative areas. Organizers of Pride events of all sizes and locations say their concerns have grown in recent years about disruptive actions designed to shut down events entirely.
"We have to look out for people who want to hurt us, people who want to make a statement," said Krystal Marx, the executive director of Seattle Pride.
Her organization's marquee parade, set for June 26, is in many ways the opposite of Coeur d'Alene's modest Pride in the Park: About 15,000 people have registered to march in the parade through Seattle's downtown and attendance is expected to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Still, Marx said she and her fellow parade organizers followed the Coeur d'Alene news "very closely." Seattle Pride has contracted with a private security company to provide about 80 security officers at the parade alongside Seattle police officers.
"We're used to having a lot of far-right groups target us because of the 'wokeness' or progressive nature of the city," Marx said, mentioning the names of groups that have appeared at Seattle LGBTQ events in the past: the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
Pride has its roots in the violence at Stonewall
LGBTQ communities are no strangers to threats of violence, organizers said. In interviews with NPR, several evoked the June 2016 shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando where 49 people were killed.
And Pride Month itself was born out of threats to the safety of LGBTQ people at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, where a police bust in June 1969 boiled over into days-long protests. Today's Pride parades and events each June are a tribute to Stonewall.
This weekend's incidents in Idaho and California have come after months of ramped-up rhetoric about "grooming" and anti-trans legislation by conservatives. "There is a real attack on our community and a real intentionality to try to vilify LGBTQ people again," said Carter.
None of the organizers NPR spoke to said they have considered canceling or scaling back events. Instead, they agreed, the threats are a reminder of the continued need for Pride events.
Even after the arrests in Coeur d'Alene, the North Idaho Pride Alliance declared Pride in the Park a success. "That was by far the biggest Pride event that has ever taken place here in Coeur d'Alene," Mahuron told NPR. "We stood up — in our way — to the bullies. But we did it by bringing people together in love and kindness."
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