Queer Activists Demand Inclusivity at Oakland Juneteenth Rally

Protesters at a Juneteenth rally in Oakland on Friday demanded that queer and transgender voices be included in the speaking lineup. (Courthouse News photo / Nicholas Iovino)

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A Juneteenth rally against police brutality and racism organized by a dockworkers union in Oakland, California, Friday morphed into a contentious debate about inclusivity after queer and transgender protesters accused organizers of excluding marginalized voices.

Thousands of people joined members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, in a march from the Port of Oakland to City Hall Friday. The dockworkers walked off the job and shut down the second largest port on the West Coast to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

After marching to the plaza outside Oakland City Hall and introducing a series of mostly black male speakers, a small but boisterous group began interrupting the event, inquiring with a megaphone “where are the black women” and “where are the black trans people.”

Organizers including Trent Willis, president of ILWU Local 10, politely asked the interjectors to stop interrupting speakers, a response some interpreted as trying to silence marginalized voices. Willis and organizers said it was about showing respect for people who had signed up to speak and were waiting their turn.

As people in the crowd began to support escalating calls to let queer and transgender people speak up, event organizers passed the microphone to Christian Washington, a black person who identifies as gender nonbinary.

“We got on the megaphone and said, ‘Where are the black trans people and black queer people,’ and you told us to be quiet,” Washington said.

Willis responded that the event was meant to be inclusive. He said members of the queer and transgender community should have reached out to the union when it was organizing the event. Washington strongly objected to that premise.

“For you to say queer and transgender people should have reached out to you when you were organizing, you should have reached out to us,” Washington said.

Christian Washington, left, a gender nonbinary person, debates with ILWU President Trent Willis, during a Juneteenth rally in Oakland. (Courthouse News photo / Nicholas Iovino)

Léoh Hailu-Ghermay, a black person who identifies as gender nonbinary, said members of the queer and trans community have been showing up to call for justice for black people who have been shot and killed by police. Hailu-Ghermay said the black queer community needs black men to start showing up for them.

“White supremacy and patriarchy go hand in hand,” Hailu-Ghermay said.

Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights group, reports at least 15 transgender and gender non-conforming people have been shot dead or killed in acts of violence so far this year. The group notes the number is likely higher because killings of transgender and nonbinary people often go unreported or misreported.

Two days after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, Tony McDade, a 38-year-old black transgender man, was shot and killed by a Tallahassee police officer in Florida. Before the shooting, Dade allegedly stabbed a person he had accused of attacking him one day earlier.

Police in Liberty Township, Ohio, found the dead body of Rhia Milton, a 25-year-old transgender woman, on June 9. Police say she was shot and killed during a robbery. Philadelphia Police also found the dismembered body of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a 27-year-old transgender woman, floating in the Schuylkill River on Monday.

“Black trans people are dying at disproportionate rates,” Hailu-Ghermay said at the Oakland protest Friday.

Sibel Guner, a 30-year-old woman from South Berkeley who attended the Juneteenth rally, said she thinks queer and transgender black people should have been included as speakers, but she also understands it was a grassroots-organized event that put out an open call for anyone to participate.

“It’s worth acknowledging that the biggest disruption was when a man was speaking about the death of a family member,” Guner said. “That they talked over a person telling a story of violence was sad for me.”

That person was Keith Shanklin, a dockworker and ILWU member, who was sharing the story of his nephew, Gary King Jr., who died in an encounter with an Oakland police officer in 2008. 

Oakland Police Sgt. Patrick Gonzalez reportedly stopped King outside a market in North Oakland because he matched the description of a suspect. The officer grabbed King, who pulled away, then tackled him to the ground, fired a Taser at him as he ran away and shot him in the back, killing him. The officer, Sergeant Patrick Gonzalez, was cleared of misconduct by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office and faced no disciplinary action.

“It drives me nuts how they continue to make black life disposable,” Shanklin said in an interview after the rally.

Shanklin said he found it very disrespectful that people were shouting, arguing and interrupting him as he shared the story of his nephew’s death. He said organizers put a lot of work into setting up the event, renting sound equipment and working out logistics for the massive march and demonstration.

He said the union never intended to exclude members of the queer and transgender community.

“When you organize, you reach out to everyone, not just one piece of the puzzle,” Shanklin said. “If they got lost in our outreach, it’s not because we tried to exclude them.”

Shanklin said his group plans to hold discussion with members of the queer and transgender community next week to discuss how members of the coalition against racism and police violence can unify, work together and better understand each other.

In nearby San Francisco Friday night, activists toppled statues of Ulysses S. Grant, Francis Scott Key and Spanish missionary Junipero Serra after the city removed a statue of Christopher Columbus that had become a target for anti-racism protestors. Critics say those figures either owned slaves or played roles in supporting slavery and the oppression of indigenous people. 

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