Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Tensions with Park Police Marks Pride in the City

These tensions between Pride in the City and the National Parks Service seem almost routine as indicated in an article I wrote for EDGE Publications late yesterday. Pride in the City remains New York's premiere Black gay pride celebration. Thousands of Black gay men from across the Five Boroughs and even the country gather in Brooklyn and Queens each August for the four-day festival. There remains bad blood between both organizations. Former People of Color in Crisis Executive Director Gary English's allegations against the NPS remain serious. New York City Council Member Letitia James argues, however, this groups and others in Kings County must enhance their power and sphere of influence. This task is easier said than done but one can quickly conclude it is necessary in the hopes of preventing further tensions in the future.

Less than a week after more than 2,000 black gay men from across the country attended Pride in the City’s annual Jacob Riis Beach party in the Rockaways, organizers once again blasted the National Park Service for alleged restrictions they placed on the event, which is held at the national park named for the turn-of-the-century photographic crusader against slum conditions on the Lower East Side.

PITC spokesperson Keith Forest told EDGE that NPS, which oversees the popular beach as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, which extends through the Rockaways into Jamaica Bay, abruptly banned tents on the strand for HIV testing and other exhibits. He added that officials mandated cooler searches to prevent alcohol consumption on the beach.

Former People of Color in Crisis Executive Director Gary English confirmed these allegations. He alleged that NPS officials had issued a permit which limited attendance to only 1,500 people--way fewer than would show up or were anticipated. English further alleged that Park authorities used dogs to prevent urination in the bushes due to the lack of adequate restrooms on the beach.

He concluded this alleged harassment amounts to discrimination. English further speculated it stems from previous tensions between organizers and the NPS.

"All of this is driven by homophobia and racism," English said. "There was not one complaint from neighbors. There was not one complaint from beach goers. People have gotten along together."

The Brooklyn-based People of Color in Crisis, which fights HIV among black men who have sex with men, organizes the four-day annual festival. It is held around the city at various clubs, bars, parks and other venues across Kings County (Brooklyn) and the Rockaways (on the southeastern edge of Queens). This controversy is the latest in a series of clashes between English and PITC organizers, on the one side, and the NPS on the other.

Lisa Eckert, superintendent for the Jamaica Bay Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area, notified POCC in a letter less than a week before last August’s beach party that NPS officials had denied their permit application. She cited failures to limit attendees to 1,500 and to remove trash from the beach in addition to boardwalk obstruction and other violations in her agency’s decision.

’This is harassment,’ said an organizer of the Park Service. ’This is a reprisal.’"A [Special Use Permit] resulted in the violation of a number of NPS policies and conditions that were stipulated in the event SUP," Eckert wrote at the time.

English vehemently denied these allegations. He also refused to relocate tents to an adjacent field and limit attendance to less than 200 people as Eckert requested in her letter. Queens Congressman and potential 2009 New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, New York City Council Member Letitia James, a Democrat who represents Fort Greene (a neighborhood popular with black gay men), the New York Civil Liberties Union, and other local politicians and activists quickly intervened on behalf of POCC.

NPS officials eventually bowed to the pressure and allowed the party to take place as planned. Eckert was unavailable for comment as of deadline.

English, on the other hand, said NPS officials retaliated after PITC successfully challenged last year’s permit denial. "This is harassment from last year because we won and we stood up against them and made them back down," he said. "This is a reprisal."

James acknowledged the ongoing tension between PITC and the NPS in an interview with EDGE earlier this week. She said neither she nor her staff received complaints from PITC organizers or attendees. James concluded, however, that this latest controversy highlights the need for POCC and other groups to expand their work and influence.

"They have to get more political and recognize their own strength," she said. "It should not be limited to an event at a beach party but it should be extended to lobby on behalf of the needs that are unique to the black gay community."

English further concluded that U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton [D-N.Y.] and other politicians can do more to prevent what he described as future harassment. "They can stop this," he said. "They have the power to stop this."

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