It only took a moment for 10 protesters to step off the curb, into the path of the Stonewall Columbus annual pride parade. And only another moment for the attending police officers to react. A confusing whirlwind left them maced. Four were detained, one of whom was later nearly felonized.
But, it also thrust them into Columbus civil rights history.
A year of criminal charges, press coverage, and tumult within the LGBTQ+ community would ensue. The fallout from the way Stonewall Columbus handled, or to some, failed to protect, the “Black Pride 4,” would lead to a resignation and a retirement from the leadership of the longtime community organization that produces the city’s massive Pride celebration.
From that protest and arrests sprang a grassroots movement that spread like wildfire in the ensuing months, birthing a new movement for queer and trans people of color in Columbus.
Today, Wripley Bennet, Kendall Denton, Ashley Braxton, and DeAndre Miles stand as the faces to the fight for visibility in the capital city. While Columbus as a whole has been celebrating Pride as a monolith of progress, the city’s LGBTQ+ citizens of color have long felt sidelined in the increasingly corporate and policed celebration downtown.
Their protest, performed in black t-shirts, silent mouths symbolically taped shut, arms linked, had a multi-pronged aim.
They wanted seven minutes of silence in observance of the unprosecuted shooting death of public school employee Philando Castile by a Minnesota police officer, the ongoing problem of police brutality toward people of color, and the recognition of the lack of equality of people of color within the LGBTQ+ community. Columbus police officers responded with mace and riot-control tactics.
The goal was to disrupt business as usual and interrupt the parade.
The result was a booming call to change that has now reverberated throughout the city—and created a new way to celebrate pride in Columbus, Ohio.
The intense marginalization of people of color within the already marginalized LGBTQ+ community was no surprise to people living their daily lives at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. As early as 2010, attempts had been made by various organizations to center the voices of people of color in the context of one of the country’s largest pride celebrations. This resulted in Columbus Urban Pride, which was integrated into the larger event. Despite their best efforts, this movement fizzled out around 2016. This happened to be the year Ariana Steele arrived in Columbus. An academician and activist, Steele saw no organizations dedicated to the visibility of queer and trans people of color upon their arrival from Chicago (by way of Seattle). Steele, along with several friends, decided to band together and start their own. They co-founded Black Queer Intersectional Columbus (BQIC), a community organization committed to lifting up the voices of queer and trans people of color.
And now, as a direct response to their feelings of exclusion from the larger pride celebration, and community as a whole, they’ve started Community Pride, their answer to what they feel is a celebration unmoored from their mission by corporate whitewashing—one that has become increasingly dominated by the image of cis-gender, white, middle class, gay and lesbian couples.
Community Pride is a celebration of the lives, and a recognition of the struggles, of queer and trans people of color. It accepts no corporate sponsorships. No police will be hired or welcomed. Security will be provided by black- and trans-owned private local security firms. A series of events without a centralized location, the initiative seeks to center the voices of those who have been marginalized exponentially.
Some say the splitting off comes at the detriment of the greater LGBTQ+ community, fracturing solidarity and splitting resources. Others say that the fissure has always existed, perpetuated by an increasingly corporate establishment, at the risk and loss of black lives.
Many sides agree on one thing: the LGBTQ+ community in Columbus will never be the same.
One year later, (614) was given a chance to sit down with Ariana Steele, Co-founder of BQIC & Community Pride Director, in the weeks leading up to the first annual Community Pride, and discuss the events of last year, the fallout, and the growth of a new movement in the public eye of the capital city.
One of the first criticisms the Black Pride 4 faced was the approach of the protest. Do you think things would have gone differently if they had notified the parade organizers of their intentions and actions?
Things would definitely have gone differently because it wouldn’t have been an interruption. I don’t think it would have been so traumatic. Pretty much immediately after, the first things that Pride organizers were saying were, You should have told us. You need to get a permit to be a part of the parade … It would have been different and more palatable in some ways, but also not as visible publicly. Part of protest is interrupting business as usual, which is what gets on national news and local news.
The headlines across the country weren’t just a result of the Black Pride Four’s actions, but a catalyst for them. Columbus Division of Police have long been embattled with activists, as well as the Department of Justice relating to their use of force, especially in interactions with people of color. A 1999 investigation by the DOJ resulted in a federal lawsuit demanding changes in training for Columbus officers, as well as investigations into formal citizen complaints against them. The Fraternal Order of Police was able to fight the DOJ demands, and renegotiate.
I know that the Columbus Division of Police is a big suitcase to unpack, but what are some things that you would like to see changed?
[The CDP] were able to sue the Department of Justice in order to not implement the changes that they were told to implement. As shown by that example, they have a lot of power. They have been able to push for things to not change. I don’t know what can really be done for the police. There’s a lot wrong. Columbus Police Department is number one in the country for killing black people.
Unfortunately, this grim fact checks out, statistically. According to mappingpoliceviolence.org, which uses data sets from the U.S. Census Bureau, police killing statistics from police reports, and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, 76 percent of CDP homicides from 2013 to 2017 were of black people, despite black people making up only 27 percent of the population of the city. Columbus leads the nation proportionally in the homicides of black citizens by police officers
Community Pride has been using the hashtag #PickaPride. Some people think that is divisive to the [LGBTQ+] community. What is your reaction to that?
When people say that we are dividing a community, I think those are often people who didn’t realize that there [were] already divisions in the community. There’s a difference between creating divisions, and calling attention to divisions that were already there. That’s what we’re doing. A lot of people who are coming to Community Pride haven’t been to Stonewall Pride for years because they didn’t feel safe there, or they didn’t feel accurately represented by them. So saying “#pickapride”—to me that’s just clear that there is a difference in how we’re executing this.
How do you feel about people who want to go to both?
Ideally, we want people to not go to Stonewall’s, and to come to Community Pride. But we also recognize that groups like Human Rights Campaign need to get signatures, need to get people signed up to vote …. they’re going to be at both. In that case, it makes sense to me because you just need more people to make that political change. Individuals who want to go to both … it’s at that point not really something that matters to me, because I’m happy that people want to support Community Pride and are curious about it. Whether or not they’re going to Stonewall’s Pride as individuals isn’t that important when it comes down to it—because by being in support of Community Pride, they are uplifting this grassroots movement.
Is unity among people of the LGBTQ+ community of all colors an eventual goal? Can you see a future combining again?
I think the way for that to happen would be if larger organizations and the community as a whole recognize that there are currently these divides, and a lot of these divides are because people of color are not being put to the forefront. When we operate under an idea that “we’re just working for people in general, or for the everyday queer person,” a lot of people generally think of the everyday queer person as a white, cis man, or woman who is gay or lesbian. And that leaves out a lot of people who really need help. [People] who are dealing with homelessness, being forced into sex work. When we don’t focus on the most marginalized in our communities, in this case focusing on trans people of color, especially in the queer community, then it leaves this division. It’ll keep going. So if at some point the greater LGBTQ+ community could focus on the most marginalized, then I think that would allow us to all work together.
Beyond that, what is the ultimate goal?
I don’t know if we’ll ever be done. If we are able to create a network or a location or something that will serve queer and trans people of color, and help them get the services that they need, get them housing, food … I think that would be a really good step in the right direction. Post Community Pride, we’re going to work on emergency housing for LGBTQ+ use, because there is no resource for that in Columbus and it’s something that really needs to be changed. While [Community Pride] was birthed out of this division between Stonewall Pride, and those who are against Stonewall Pride, in a sense; I want to think of it now as not an anti-Pride, but just a Pride that is explicitly and intentionally for the whole LGBTQ+ community. By being [that,] we are also focusing on and centering people of color. I want it to be more positive and uplifting.
Steele knows firsthand that language has power. Power to identify or hide oneself from others. Power to help or harm. Power to disrupt. As the vehicle of communication, language can drive a cause forward. And so when it comes to Community Pride, Stonewall Columbus, and police brutality, we as a community must have a conversation, and we must keep talking. And when it comes to the evolving story of queer and trans people of color—a statistically small group of people who face an astronomical rate of discrimination and violence in Columbus, and around the world—that is when we must listen.
BQIC’s Columbus Community Pride will consist of a series of events throughout the month of June, culminating in the Community Pride Festival, held at Mayme Moore Park (240 Martin Luther King Blvd.) 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. All ages are welcome to enjoy performances and visual art by queer and trans artists of color, a community resource fair, outdoor activities for children, PoC-owned food trucks, and more. For more, visit columbuscommunitypride.org.