“A Battle For the Soul Of the Gay Community” — Protesters Reject S.F. Pride’s Exclusion Of Bradley Manning

SAN FRANCISCO -- “Gays care more about Nikes and babies than they do about their own community. They used to be about human rights, now they’re about being normative.” Dennis, 25, is holding a cardboard sign that proclaims, “Bradley Manning is a queer hero.” Shortly before 7 p.m. on Tuesday night, over 100 protesters have gathered outside 30 Pearl St. where the San Francisco Pride Committee is holding its monthly meeting. “This is a battle for the soul of the gay community,” he tells me.

A few yards away, Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, is holding court. “Bradley Manning is courageous and patriotic,” he says. “Thousands more American soldiers would be in harm’s way if he hadn’t leaked those documents.” He calls on S.F. Pride to retract its earlier statement: “even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms way the lives of our men and women in uniform … will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride.”

The atmosphere is charged, electric almost, the crowd an eclectic mix of aging hippies and 20-something hipsters, their anger palpable, as they make their way into the building’s lobby, chanting “Shame Shame, Shame on Pride.” We arrive at the elevator to find that it’s been commandeered by two burly bouncer-types in black t-shirts labeled “YOJIMBO SECURITY.” They allow a handful of people to get in for the trip to the meeting room on the fourth floor, the elevator returning two or three more times before it stops.

Fifty or so protesters and a handful of journalists remain in the lobby, chanting, tweeting, texting, and waiting – over 45 minutes for an elevator that will never return. Apparently, the building has another entrance on Market St. through which meeting attendees are exiting; there is no stairway access from the Pearl St. lobby.

Then the police show up. Sergeant Shea tells us that SFPD received a call that “200 people were trying to force their way into the meeting.” He admits this doesn’t appear to be the case and asks us to be patient. We keep waiting. Eventually, Ellsberg and the other protest organizers return to report on their experiences upstairs. They were only given one minute each to speak and media personnel with cameras had been prevented from being present at the meeting.

“An open meeting without press is ridiculous,” says Ellsberg, shaking his head, slamming the SF Pride’s “bureaucratic desire for secret dealings.” He encourages us to sign an online petition calling for Bradley Manning to receive the Nobel Peace prize that’s received over 57,000 signatures.

A messenger runs in, breathless, to announce that the crowd is reassembling at the Market St. entrance, and we walk around the block. “The board is bringing shame upon the entire LGBTQ community,” one attendee tells me. “They’re escalating everything unnecessarily, this is a disaster.” We arrive to find a frazzled young man in a striped red and black shirt guarding the back stairwell against dozens of chanting protesters. “You assimilationists should be ashamed, how do you sleep at night?” screams one of them. More police show up, ascending the stairs, disappearing from view.

Sergeant Shea returns. “This isn’t a police matter,” he begins. “This is a parliamentary issue,” trying, unsuccessfully, to placate the crowd. He tells us that the meeting has been cancelled and we should leave. The protesters demand that a board member of S.F. Pride come to address them. A few moments letter, David Currie, treasurer, arrives. “Because our CEO and several board members were physically pushed and assaulted,” he says, “we decided to end the meeting,” a statement that’s met with cries of “Stop the lies.”

Soon, we’re back on Market St., the protesters with their life-sized banners of Bradley Manning creating a curious spectacle on the busy sidewalk. I spot a girl my age, her auburn hair peeking out of a red scarf, a pensive expression on her face as she takes in the scene. “I like your scarf,” I open. “Why are you here?” Giggling, she tells me her name is Caitlin and she’s an anthropology student at San Francisco State. She bites her lips as she tells me she is pleased by the turnout but disappointed by the board's reaction.

Adele, 30, a public policy activist is furious at the idea that Bradley Manning’s actions endangered soldiers. “You know what puts troops at risk? The Iraq war puts troops at risk!” she exclaims. She finds it unconscionable that S.F. Pride would issue a statement attacking Manning right before his court martial is due to begin.

“Our leaders have been moving further and further to the right,” she tells me, lamenting the political demobilization of the LGBT community. “Bradley Manning is the reason we’re not in Iraq right now – that’s big shit.”

Hamdan Azhar is a writer and data scientist in Palo Alto. His work has appeared in the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Washington Post.