Chanting, “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” Occupy Wall Street (OWS) occupied Pride for several hours on June 24, as hundreds of thousands viewed or joined the 43rd annual march to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots.
Roughly 75 people were in the OWS contingent as it entered the march at 37th Street and Fifth Avenue, but it grew to about 100 as others joined along Fifth Avenue as the march headed to the West Village.
The annual event is produced by Heritage of Pride (HOP) and marks the riots that are seen as having launched the modern gay rights movement. While HOP has secured significant sponsors in the past, some of this year’s sponsors, including the Coca-Cola Company, Wells Fargo, and Citibank, have led to some complaining that the parade’s spirit has been diluted by the corporate floats and advertising.
With drums and a saxophone, OWS set its own pace heading down Fifth Avenue, which led to some apparent frustration on the part of HOP marshals, who kept urging the group to move along. OWS was determined to send its own message in its own time. The contingent’s members paused at Chase and Bank of America branches to denounce the banks for their involvement in the nation’s mortgage crisis and resulting foreclosures.
Jennifer Maskell, an OWS member, said they had been warned by HOP that disparaging other parade participants or sponsors could get them tossed out.
“We don’t want to be ejected,” she said before the group stepped off. “Just saying Bank of America is bad for America is enough to be ejected according to Pride guidelines.”
Of the nearly 325 groups that marched in or sponsored the parade this year, about 30 were major corporations. As is true every year, the march was overwhelmingly made up of small community groups and local New York businesses and institutions. OWS’ view was that corporations sponsoring the annual event should not end any discussion of harm they may have caused.
“There are real issues here,” Maskell said. “Just saying we support Pride doesn’t absolve them of that.”
Offering a critique of some in the gay community, OWS members distributed pink dollar bills that read, in part, “Pinkdollars set the agenda, buy politics, buy assimilation, buy silence. The people have created their own queer currency to buy it back.”
While there are few of them, the large companies can create a dominating presence on Fifth Avenue. They buy huge floats and an early place in the march that guarantees they will be seen by the largest audience. Coca-Cola was this year’s presenting sponsor, and it had two floats at the front of the parade.
This year, Chris Salgardo, the president of Kiehl’s USA, a beauty products company, was a grand marshal, and the company had a large presence at the start of the parade. Salgardo has directed a significant amount of the Kiehl’s charitable giving to AIDS and gay causes. Like Kiehl’s, Delta Air Lines was a platinum sponsor and it had a sizable presence up front in the march.
As with all the groups that march in the parade, OWS was greeted with yells and applause because the crowds tend to celebrate everyone that comes down Fifth Avenue. It was also clear that many viewers specifically recognized OWS, greeting it with raised fists and cheers. At the HOP reviewing stand at 23rd Street, the announcer declared, as the group passed by, that OWS demonstrated the “rebellious spirit of Stonewall.”
In an entirely unscientific poll, Gay City News asked a selection of viewers for their opinions on the corporate sponsors. None objected.
“It’s cool,” said Liana, 19, as she stood with her friend, Ashlei, 18, on Fifth Avenue. “They’re supporting us.”
Joe, 43, was watching some of the first floats go by with a friend. He approved wholeheartedly.
“It’s a good thing because the gay population supports them, so why not give back to the community that supports them,” he said.
Other viewers were supportive, as well. Dennis, 57, is from Arizona and said he would not expect to see companies being gay-friendly there.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “It’s really taking a radical stance to say that you support gays.”
Even out gay State Senator Thomas Duane, who described himself as a “single-payer, free education cradle to grave, free mass transit” person, was pleased, though with a touch of reluctance.
“We live in a capitalist society for now,” said Duane, who represents Chelsea. “We have to celebrate progress.”
No OWS event would be complete without a police presence. As the group stepped off, a man who appeared to be a plainclothes police officer engaged a uniformed officer in conversation. The plainclothes officer then followed OWS in the street itself, but eventually took to keeping pace with the group while remaining on the sidewalk. During the entire length of the parade, he closely watched the group. He paused occasionally and appeared to be sending text messages. He took at least one picture of the contingent.
Asked for his badge number, name, and command at 8th Street and Sixth Avenue, he gave an answer that was nearly inaudible over the crowd noise, but he seemed to be saying he was just enjoying the parade. Seen again on Greenwich Street at the conclusion of the march, again in the vicinity of the OWS contingent, he declined to discuss his occupation, but did not deny he was a police officer.
The NYPD did not respond to several emails raising questions about the man's presence at the parade.