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SF Pride 2016: the Whistleblowers and the Lockdown

Sunday, June 26, 2016.  It was a nice sunny day for a parade, and the BART train was packed brim full on the way to San Francisco.  Not even standing room for everyone.  Many passengers were left behind on platforms to wait for the next train, presumably also loaded beyond capacity.

Getting off at the Embarcadero subway station, I made my way up the crowded stairway to the street level, wondering if I’d have to pass through one or more police checkpoints.  I’d heard that because of the recent mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Florida, this year’s SF Pride event was going to be conducted under a police lockdown.  But no, to my pleasant surprise, there weren’t any checkpoints, and without excessive difficulty, I walked to Spear Street, where the Chelsea Manning contingent had assembled and was moving towards the beginning of the parade route.

Pvt. Chelsea Manning is the U.S. Army whistleblower who leaked the “Collateral Murder” video of a U.S. helicopter machine-gunning journalists and several other civilians in Iraq.  You can watch the video here.  The episode is seen through the gun sights of the shooters, and the soundtrack includes their dialogue.  You hear them discussing it, congratulating each other, and even laughing about it afterwards.  For releasing this video and other embarrassing material, Pvt. Manning was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison.

This is the 4th year of this contingent; it’s organized by the Chelsea Manning Support Network and Courage to Resist, with the support of numerous community groups.  Eighty to a hundred people marched this year, including Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers.  Ellsberg is now 85, slightly frail, and rode most of the parade route in a vehicle, occasionally stepping out of the car to march and also shake hands with us and exchange a few words of conversation.

The parade route was the usual one: it took us up Market Street and ended near the Civic Center.  All along the way, the sidewalks were packed with spectators, some cheering, some waving at us, and many just looking, possibly wondering who Chelsea Manning was.  So a good many people who’d perhaps never heard of her before, now have heard of her.  Chelsea, formerly Bradley, is a transgender person.

We marched with banners and placards bearing Chelsea’s photo and reading “Free Whistleblower Chelsea Manning,” and at the same time beating drums and chanting:

“Free, free, Chelsea Manning!”

“Free, free, Chelsea Manning!”

Eventually we reached the Civic Center, where the parade ended.  Our contingent dispersed, and I went to see the festival, the numerous booths and music shows which cover a large, multi-block area.  But it seemed to be fenced off, so I continued on for a block or two, up to Polk Street where a huge crowd of people seemed to be entering.

More and more people gathered behind me, and I soon found myself in the midst of a large crowd that didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Polk Street is fairly wide, and it was packed solid from curb to curb with hundreds or perhaps thousands of people, tall office buildings rising on either side, boxing us in.  Somewhere up ahead there seemed to be a gated entrance where we would have to go through metal detectors and bag checks.  So this was the lockdown area I’d heard about, which was to be protected as a precaution against terrorist attack.

What a hassle! Did I even want to go through this?  Yes, I definitely should, if only to see what it was like.  So I waited in this huge crowd that hardly seemed to move.  And I continued to wait, jotting things in notebook as I stood there.  I’d joined this line at 1:58 p.m.  At 2:11 I made another notation: “Still in line.”   Then it was 2:20 p.m. “Still in line,” I wrote yet again, though of course I wasn’t in anything even vaguely resembling a line, just part of a huge, huge, very huge amorphous mass of people that was very slowly moving in a northerly direction up Polk Street towards a distant checkpoint.

This was supposed to be a precaution against a terrorist, a gunman such as the one who’d cut down 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.  A strange precaution, it seemed to me.  Although rampaging gunmen are rare, they do actually exist, and nowhere could a well-armed nutcase have found a better target than this huge gathering right here on Polk Street — thanks to the work of the security professionals who’d set this thing up.  What was to stop some blood-thirsty killer armed with automatic weapons to come in behind us from Market Street and just start blasting away?  Or what if a suicide bomber were to work his way to the middle of this crowd, then detonate.

Silly paranoid thoughts, I reminded myself.  This was San Francisco, not Baghdad.  But if I was being silly, what about the security experts who created this situation? They seemed to be taking this terrorism stuff very seriously, though they didn’t seem to understand that when they’re trying to protect people from an attack, the worst thing they can do is to bunch thousands of us into a tight corral where we become a totally vulnerable target.

It shouldn’t take four years of Marine Corps training to see that.  It’s common sense!  I wondered if people around me were having similar thoughts, feeling trapped like fish in a barrel.  No way of telling. Nobody seemed to be talking much.  Loud music poured in from the festival, making conversation nearly impossible over the din.

2:26 p.m.  I was at last getting close to the checkpoint up ahead.  It consisted of multiple entrances where security personnel were checking purses and backpacks. A few minutes later, I was finally at the gate.  I stepped through a metal detector while a rent-a-cop looked in my backpack, and apparently not finding any banned objects (their list of prohibited items even included glass bottles), they let me through.  The time was now 2:32 p.m.  I’d stood in that line for exactly thirty-four minutes.

Once inside the festival area, I managed to leave the disturbing fantasies behind and soon got over the disagreeable experience.  Music shows and a lot more was going on, including people in colorful costumes, and some in no costumes at all.  Despite the lockdown it was a good festival — gay and straight people were together, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.  It was pretty much the same as last year and the year before, perhaps slightly fewer people, but despite everything a very large turnout.

SF Pride is a festival of tolerance, but what about the gates, the fences, the checkpoints?  It’s hard to believe that anyone really thinks a determined madman would be stopped by a fence, especially one that enclosed only part of the event.  The tens of thousands of spectators along the parade route weren’t included, nor were the passengers in the crowded BART cars, nor those assembled in many other places.  It was like locking the barn door while leaving most of the horses outside in the field.  But there’s really no practical way to enclose everyone, and even if there were, it still wouldn’t guarantee our safety.

Let’s think about the social, cultural and political context in which this is taking place.  U.S. drone strikes and other U.S. military actions around the world are killing people en masse.  A gory example can be seen in the “Collateral Murder” video released by Pvt. Chelsea Manning. The army didn’t jail the killers, the helicopter gun crew.  It was whistleblower Manning who went to prison.  We live in a culture of institutionalized mass murder, a society run by war criminals.  In this atmosphere it’s difficult to reign in freelancers.

So what was the purpose of that lockdown at SF Pride?  The real purpose, I mean.  Obviously not public safety.  Considering that the SF Pride event is sponsored by numerous major corporations, basically the same ones that fund political candidates, my best guess is that this was another exercise in promoting and advancing the police state: a supposed need for lockdowns, gated events, and random checkpoints.

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