There is a question I hear again and again in the lead up to Pride every year, one which drives at the rotten core of contemporary ‘gay politics’ in this country. I have heard some variant of it in bars and living rooms alike, at parties and in the street, and always in an exasperated tone. The question is this:
Why are the cops at Pride?
This concern is so inescapable that Midsumma provide a superficial response on the festival website. I confess that reading it leaves me feeling that I’ve slipped into some alternate universe where everything assumes an opposite meaning, as in a child’s story. They write, in part:
Victoria Police play an important role in the safe delivery of Pride … officers are present to monitor and deal with threats of violence [and] have a presence in the Parade itself, as allies [sic] … as part of their work and … of their internal pride for … employees who identify as LGBTQIA+.
I do not understand what these words mean. In whose world do cops foster safety? In which moments do they discourage, as opposed to dispense, violence? And by what arcane, incomprehensible definition of the word could anyone consider them ‘allies’?
When queers are kicked to the street by their tragically heterosexual families, it’s the cops who will tear down their shelters and steal their possessions. It is they who’ll raid, slap with fines and prosecute the queers who make ends meet with sex work.
When we take to the streets to protest detention camps or mining conventions or the wanton destruction of sacred trees or yet another death in custody, it is Victoria Police who’ll greet us with batons, cable ties, horses, shields and tear gas. They’ll set up a tent at Carnival one day and crack skulls the next.
It is here that white people, especially those who wear lanyards and know only the more gardened suburbs and their bourgeois aspirations, will grow uncomfortable. They’ll chime in, with a saccharine smile, that it’s ‘about adding chairs to the table, not taking them away’.
This schoolyard metaphor, of chairs and tables, shifts the ground of the matter. It implies that the great difficulty of the queer experience is exclusion and that therefore, to avoid hypocrisy, we must fraternise with absolutely anyone, no matter their actions, ethics, and politics. I think this is nonsense.
The trouble they want to obscure with this platitude is power – who has it, who uses it and against whom. It is by no means a neutral act to invite the instruments of state violence to our table. The rallying cry of police ‘inclusion’ is meant to drown out the voices of those who are made unsafe by their presence.
We have gained very little by becoming collaborators, and lost much. Some may point to the liaison officers, but I do not think this is the trump card that bureaucrats and white gays believe it is. Liaison officers are an admission that the Force remains so hostile to us that we cannot safely interact with it without intermediaries.
Indeed, this is what the evidence suggests. The combination of the words ‘police’ and ‘allies’ brings to mind the coppers who pushed Michael Maynes to suicide. I cannot help but think of the constable who unlawfully leaked photos out of the St Kilda cop shop, to say nothing of the ones that shattered Nik Dimopoulos’s shoulder.
The raid on Hares and Hyenas’ ignited discontent among queers, evoking as it did the police attacks on gay people from decades past. In fact, the assault was only a few months out from the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1994 Tasty nightclub raid, which saw hundreds of queers detained, strip-searched and brutalised.
Though, as poet Omar Sakr observed at the time, the cruelty at Hares that night was not intended for a queer but for someone marked by their nationality, religion and skin as the appropriate recipient of state sadism. When the quasi-militarised assault team kicked down that door, they were looking for a person of colour.
I do not mean to say that our rage was misguided. Instead, I think the incident points to the commonality queers share with other minoritised people. Police violence against queers is inherently tied to police violence against others, for it is the same application of brute force.
I also don’t want to be irresponsible and talk about police brutality without acknowledging the settler violence that drives it. The colonial enterprise we call Australia started with dispossession, massacres and apartheid. As Lidia Thorpe recently remarked, genocide continues, only with greater sophistication.
Police are the conduit that feeds the widening jaws of the Victorian private prison system. They are the machine that doubled Aboriginal imprisonment between 2010 to 2020. With a new for-profit ‘supermax’ on the way, it’s no wonder that their rapacious hands seize Blak children and Blak women asleep on trains.
Lazy notions of ‘inclusion’ aside, the reason why cops are at Pride is because Midsumma is afraid to lose government funding. Victoria’s law-and-order administration provides cash and, quid pro quo, they rake in social capital and camouflage for the bullies in blue.
In doing so, Midsumma excises the least well off by colluding with their oppressors, and exploits everyone else as a means to an end. Community is worn as a cloak by agents who would, if ordered, turn on them with a moment’s notice. For this service, we get a fete day and a pre-approved parade.
I do not wonder whether the Midsumma executive and board sleep soundly, as I’m sure that they do, content in the knowledge that their decisions do not harm anyone to whom they must answer. Accountability is a corporate structure in their world. Instead, I ask myself, of what do they dream?
It cannot be hands restraining their limbs, commands squealed in superiority, and final hours spent in the fluorescent light of a cell. In other words, it can’t be the violence they visit upon others by sharing our table with those who inflict it.
I can’t fathom what spirit guides their eyes when they look to the horizon. My imagination fails me, for I cannot intuit the view nor improvise the thoughts of those who say to people less free: ‘Now is not your time. You must wait while we bargain with those who stand on your neck.’
This piece was originally performed at Let Me Get Something off My Chest, produced by Sam Elkin for Midsumma Festival 2021.
Image: Julian Meehan