UPDATE Saturday: Since I wrote this at 11:30 PM Friday, the City has changed the policy about free speech zones and will not require people to use them. More here.
I think Mayor Bill Peduto made a significant error in judgment this week regarding Pridefest by failing to disclose plans for “designated areas for protestors” aka free speech zones far enough ahead for people to make the necessary plans.
A protest zone can past Constitutional muster if it meets certain requirements. Pittsburgh has set up four zones for the weekend and protestors will be required to be restricted to those areas. This is a tactic used to varying degrees of success in other cities. I personally don’t like this idea on its face value and not as it applies to Pittsburgh. Here’s why.
Pittsburgh is in a unique situation as two very different sets of citizens have announced plans to protest Pride weekend events. There is the anti-LGBTQ religious extremists including Repent Amarillo. You remember them. And there is the actual LGBTQ group organizing a ‘Shut It Down’ protest as part of RootsPride’s response to the Delta Foundation. Shut It Down is planned for Liberty and 9th. Repent Amarillo wants unfettered access to the public streets and plans to sue the City if they are restricted.
So we now have the plausible scenario where public safety measures could seriously backfire and cause further damage to the LGBTQ community.
First, there’s the situation where anti-LGBTQ protestors are confined to the same area as LGBTQ protestors. Their mutual objections to Pride do not give them common cause. Quite the opposite. A group of LGBTQ protestors who are tired and exhausted from a week filled with pain, grief and palpable anger do not need to be *forced* to share space with haters in order to exercise their Constitutional rights to express the values lying underneath those feelings. That’s very disturbing.
According to Commander Jason Lando who is the incident commander for Pride, the police cannot legally separate protestors into groups although they can request people to segregate themselves. They can only intervene if conflict between groups of protestors presents a threat to public safety.
Second, there’s the potential for all of this to add fuel to the fire around religious liberty. Repent Amarillo has made it clear that they will sue the City for this entire plan. If there’s even the hint of their group being treated differently because of the content of their speech (aka the hate), that could take it to another entire level.
End game is that Repent Amarillo wins again when they get a nice fat settlement of your tax dollars and more footage for their promotional purposes. Plus, they get unfettered access to vulnerable QTPOC.
Pittsburgh has been planning the protest zones for months, per a comment in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Months. Granted, they were only anticipating Repent Amarillo and their kin to show up, but BUT BUT – Shut It Down was on the radar in late May. Someone in the Peduto Administration should have put two and two together to realize that communicating with the Shut It Down organizers was a smart idea.
Unfortunately, no one did. Even this past week, the Mayor’s Special Assistant (Corey Buckner) and Commander Lando were at the Tuesday “mediation” meeting and said nothing. From Tuesday evening to Friday afternoon is a long stretch of time during which *someone* could have reached out to ensure that LGBTQ citizens with legitimate concerns and Constitutional rights were in the loop in terms of their protest planning. To my knowledge, not a single elected official was at the Town Hall Meeting on Thursday night with the exception of Judge Hugh McGough. Not a single person came to hear the concerns and not a single person came to talk about public safety matters with a large group of potential protestors. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
All of those decisions are mistakes and indicate poor planning on the part of the City. That’s simply inexcusable. It was poor planning that put Ariel Lawther at risk last year, didn’t we learn? Where are all the people who were up in arms about her situation now?
I began asking the Mayor’s team, the ACLU and Delta for information on this entire scenario on May 9. I followed up on May 16 and then again on May 28. The only person who responded to me was City Council President Bruce Kraus and, eventually, Gary Van Horn. But the Mayor’s communications team just disregarded all of those email messages. So, too, did the ACLU to be completely honest.
My one hope is that since the planned Shut It Down protest takes place outside of the Pride in the Streets area, the free speech zone won’t be in effect. A group of peaceful citizens assembling at Liberty and 9th to express their deeply held convictions is absolutely legal as long as they don’t disrupt other people. That is not the same thing as paying admission to enter the venue. Now this might mean that Repent Amarillo still tries to provoke other protestors, but at least they won’t all be in a quasi-cage together.
I just find the Mayor’s choices around Pride somewhat out of character. He characterized RootsPride/ShutItDown as divisive in a quote to the Tribune-Review. He isn’t honoring the request of his close ally and colleague, City Council President Bruce Kraus or longtime supporter Billy Hileman to boycott the parade – two white gay men should carry some credibility, right? He isn’t responding to inquiries from the closest thing we have to LGBTQ media in this region (aka me) and he didn’t send anyone to a Town Hall meeting. He’s putting the City at risk for a lawsuit and he isn’t communicating with organizers who have been incredibly transparent about their plans.
I know, I know. He’s an ally. But he’s also the executive of our government and the buck stops with him. This is utterly flabergasting to me. Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe I’m just pissed off because I’ve been pointing out that the Emperor is not wearing new clothes for months. Maybe I’m spending too much time reading about RFRA laws and bakeries and victory backlash. Or maybe I just think the Mayor’s staff should not be rude to me.
I want to be very clear that when I express concerns for the safety and welfare of QTPOC and others involved with Shut It Down, I do not mean to suggest that they are weak or unable to stand up for themselves. I simply mean to acknowledge that there’s a lot of hurt in our community and that acknowledging the potential for further harm is part of our collective responsibility.
My plan is to be there Saturday and Sunday to stand in solidarity with QTPOC and my friends and neighbors. I hope to see you there as well.