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Castro protest expresses solidarity with Black Lives Matter

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Drag performer Afrika America emceed Ready to Listen, an event in the Castro Friday, June 5, to address anti-black racism in the LGBT community. A rally in Jane Warner Plaza occurred at the conclusion of a march from San Francisco City Hall early Friday evening. Photo: John Ferrannini
Drag performer Afrika America emceed Ready to Listen, an event in the Castro Friday, June 5, to address anti-black racism in the LGBT community. A rally in Jane Warner Plaza occurred at the conclusion of a march from San Francisco City Hall early Friday evening. Photo: John Ferrannini  

Hundreds of people marched to the Castro district the evening of June 5 to call attention to discrimination that black people face in the LGBTQ community.

Once demonstrators arrived at Jane Warner Plaza — at the intersection of Castro and Market streets, where historic protests have been held for decades — they saw performances and speeches from black LGBT artists and drag performers standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

On their way to the Castro, protesters chanted the name of George Floyd. It was Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police May 25 that sparked nationwide protests against police violence on a scale not seen in the United States in decades.

Floyd, a black man, was killed when white former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. Three other officers, all since fired, watched. This week, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison upgraded the charges against Chauvin to second-degree murder and charged the other ex-officers with aiding and abetting murder.

"I'm here for Black Lives Matter, and I hope this isn't misconstrued, but that's a step for equality for all of us, for all people regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation," Stephen Fambro said as he marched up Market Street. "You can't celebrate Pride without protest."

Tatiana Balaba, a black woman, said she was marching for the safety of those she cares about.

"I'm out here for my family's right to exist and live in this community," she said.

Balaba was marching with Akshay Ramaswamy, who added: "Enough is enough. It's time for a change."

The Jane Warner Plaza event was emceed by drag artist Afrika America, who said that using the phrase "all lives matter" as a response to the insistence that "black lives matter" misses the point.

"All lives do matter," Afrika America said. "But right now, we are talking about black lives."

Afrika America asked the crowd to thank the San Francisco police officers who showed up to the protest, and who on this occasion did not respond to criticism with violence.

"That's the way it's supposed to be," Afrika America said. "They're supposed to protect and serve."

Afrika America thanked allies who were not black who showed up, but said that San Francisco's LGBT community has a long way to go.

"When people ask 'how are you doing?' I tell people that 'I'm physically fine, but mentally exhausted,'" Afrika America said. "I know people say San Francisco is such a nice place — so fabulous, there must not be racism. Lies. Is it as bad as Jackson, Mississippi, or Jacksonville, Florida? Not necessarily, but it should be better."

Afrika America said that racism against the black community often comes not just from white people, but also from black people, too, and other people of color.

A recent example of allyship gone wrong, Afrika America said, could be seen in a Facebook discussion about "Darth Karen" — a white woman, Amy Cooper, who threatened to call the police on a gay black man named Christian Cooper who was birdwatching in Manhattan's Central Park the same day that Floyd was killed.

Amy Cooper (no relation to Christian) called 911 on Christian Cooper — saying he was "an African American man threatening my life" — after he asked her to leash her dog while he was birdwatching. Local rules state that a dog has to be leashed while in the Ramble, the part of Central Park both were located at the time of the incident.

Afrika America said that in the Facebook discussion, people seemed more worried about the state of Amy Cooper's dog.

"I commented: 'People, can we stop talking about the damn dog and instead talk about how this white woman weaponized language about a black man?' If you're going to be an ally: focus," Afrika America said.

Afrika America encouraged police who see injustice and misconduct to speak up.

"Everyone has a job here," Afrika America said. "We all have jobs and in those jobs, you want to be the best you can be. And, you have other responsibilities beyond that job; so when you see injustice, it's your responsibility to stand the fuck up and talk about it."

The next speaker, named Sacred, wore a shirt that said "Dear Police: I am a White Woman."

Sacred said that the shirt was meant to convey the message that "we, as black people, deserve the same attention and respect that a white woman would get when she calls the police."

Sacred asked non-black people to try to understand the struggle of being black in America without condescension and explaining problems away.

"Please don't gaslight your black friends," Sacred said. "There's more to this than this bulge. Don't open your mouth for black dick if you can't open it for black issues. If we're honest with you, just take it, because we have to bite our tongues every single day."

Sacred was one of at least two speakers who discussed Castro property owner Les Natali, who owns bars and eateries in the LGBT neighborhood.

"It's ironic we're in the Castro," Sacred said. "There are many businesses just a block away owned by Les Natali: Badlands, Toad Hall, Hamburger Mary's. Don't give them your money. Shut them down. ... If you spend your money there, you don't give a fuck about me."

A 2004 report by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission found that Badlands was discriminating against African Americans, but the findings were never official because the HRC executive director at the time did not sign off on the staff report. Natali and the complainants eventually reached a confidential settlement.

Natali later opened Toad Hall on the site of what had been the Pendulum, a bar that catered to black LGBTs.

In an email Saturday morning, Natali wrote that the allegations "were found without merit and were dropped."

"We welcome people of all races and all colors and we probably have the largest, most diverse clientele of any bar in the Castro," he added.

The protesters sang "Happy Birthday" silently to Breonna Taylor, who would have been 27 years old June 5. Taylor was shot eight times in her bed and killed March 13 by police in Louisville, Kentucky when officers executed a no-knock warrant. According to reports, police were looking for a man who did not live there.

Taylor was an emergency medical technician.

"A frontline worker killed in this COVID-19 pandemic is gone," Afrika America said. "It's not right."

Afrika America also paid tribute to former President Barack Obama, questioning why people were yearning for former presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush when they presided over the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman appeared at the event and spoke with the B.A.R.

"I think it's beautiful," Mandelman said. "I think it reflects the massive outpouring in the LGBT community of a national outpouring of revolution over the death of George Floyd and all that represents."

Mandelman said he was supportive of police reform legislation being discussed by his fellow supervisors.

District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, along with District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney and District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton, announced a Right to Protest Safely Act on Friday afternoon. If codified, it would ban the use of rubber bullets, flash bangs, tear gas, and military equipment as crowd control strategies during protests.

Another measure, introduced by Walton, would ban the hiring of police who have previous records of serious misconduct.

"I haven't heard anything I wouldn't support," Mandelman said. "They have discussed legislation about codifying existing policy about not hiring police with bad records. [Police] Chief [William] Scott is committed to that work, and the mayor [London Breed] is committed to that work, and I'm grateful we have had relative peace in San Francisco."

Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence joined Mandelman in viewing the event.

"This is absolutely beautiful to see," Sister Roma said. "I'm so hopeful to see LGBT people for black lives. It's long overdue to talk about these issues in our own community. They are uncomfortable, but this is important."

The event was organized by Tommy Trujillo and Cee Freedman, who is organizer of Mocaa Black Gay Night in the Castro, Mandelman said.

The San Francisco Police Department did not give a crowd estimate for this event.

Updated, 6/6/20: This article was updated to include comment from Mr. Natali.

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