Community members & Bradley Manning supporters attempt to access SF Pride’s monthly meeting being held on the fourth floor of this building (Creative Commons licensed photo by Steve Rhodes)

The San Francisco Pride Committee held a meeting on Tuesday night. It was their monthly meeting and the Board of Directors was well aware that there would be individuals from the community that would be attending to express their outrage at the Board’s decision to not allow Pfc. Bradley Manning to be honored as a Grand Marshal at this year’s Pride parade. However, the meeting was held in a small conference room and members of the public and press were kept out of the meeting.

Chief Operating Officer Earl Plante told KTVU that the meeting was held to “really listen to the community, share their concerns and try to move forward in a proactive way.” That is public relations gobbledygook. He also alleged that since the decision “Threats have been made to board members and volunteers. That was why access to the meeting was limited.”

No evidence to substantiate this allegation has been made public by Pride. Nobody attending the meeting was informed by the Pride Board of any details related to “threats” and how the Board was concerned for their safety. So Plante’s statement is disingenuous and malevolent, as it functions as a ploy to destroy the credibility of supporters protesting the decision.

I spoke with four individuals, who were at the meeting. There are also accounts from the meeting online from Rainey Reitman, Bradley Manning Support Network Steering Committee member; Michael Petrelis, a gay peace and social justice activist; Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a writer, singer, songwriter and activist. What follows is a comprehensive and unabridged presentation of what happened at the meeting and how San Francisco Pride continues to make this controversy worse.

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What Led Up to the Scheduled Monthly Meeting

On April 25, Bay Area Reporter, a local LGBT newspaper, announced, “Pride’s electoral college, which is made up of former grand marshals, has selected Army Private First Class Bradley Manning as its choice for grand marshal.” That set off a backlash amongst the more militaristic LGBT groups who did not want to see San Francisco Pride honor Manning because they believe he is a “traitor.” These military groups from outside of San Francisco bombarded San Francisco Pride’s office with phone calls and emails that the Board decided, on April 26, that Pride would not honor Manning.

SF Pride President Lisa Williams and the Board of Directors put out a statement that went beyond explaining why the Board had made a “mistake” in announcing Manning would be honored. They were outright slanderous. A portion of the statement read, “Even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms [sic] way the lives of our men and women in uniform — and countless others, military and civilian alike — will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride. It is, and would be, an insult to every one, gay and straight, who has ever served in the military of this country.”

A former grand marshal serving on the electoral college, Joey Cain, who nominated Manning, revealed a timeline of events, where on Tuesday, April 23, the Bradley Manning Support Network was informed Manning was going to be a Grand Marshal, but, hours later, the person that had called, Joshua Smith, called again to inform he had not won and there would be an “audit” of the vote and he probably would lose. Cain found this to be suspicious. He spoke with Williams and shared concerns. According to Cain, Williams told him they were going to do the right thing and reinstate Manning.

The statement SF Pride put out on Friday indicated, “A staff person at SF Pride, acting under his own initiative, prematurely contacted Bradley Manning based on internal conversations within the SF Pride organization.” This suggested there was a “rogue staff person,” who was solely responsible for an “error.” That could not have been true because, as Cain pointed out, Pride would not have “sent out this list of who the Grand Marshals were without that having been approved by the Board.”

There was a demonstration outside the Pride office on Monday, April 29. One of the organizers, gay peace and social justice activist Michael Petrelis, declared, “Our message to SF Pride is that they should make Manning a Grand Marshal of this year’s Pride March and Celebration because of his brave act of whistleblowing against the military industrial complex,” and, “We are fed up with marriage and military concerns sucking the oxygen out of what used to be a queer movement and Pride March and Celebration about social justice for queers.”

More significantly, commander John Caldera of the Bob Basker Post 315 of the American Legion voted to “call for the resignation” of Williams over the decision to reject Manning. According to Gary Virginia, a former Grand Marshal and member of the “electoral college” who voted for Manning, Williams scheduled a meeting in the Pride office with Caldera because they manage a grand stand at the parade. Williams would not answer questions but was there to listen to what Caldera had to say. Caldera had two straight veterans accompany him and Virginia was in the meeting as well.

Virginia asked when the next Pride board meeting would be. Williams told him it would be Tuesday, May 7, in the room where they were sitting, and there would be a section of the meeting for public comments. He informed Williams there would be many in the community interested and they should get a larger space for the meeting. And, after the meeting, he wrote to Pride to, again, suggest that they plan to hold the meeting in a larger space to accommodate everyone interested in participating.

Virginia claims that Chief Operating Officer Earl Plante replied to him that it was too short of a notice to change where the meeting would be held. He mentioned the capacity of the room would not be big enough for the meeting and there is an LGBT community center across the street.

This refusal to hold the meeting in a larger space set the stage for a scene that would make it next to impossible to conduct a formal meeting. It was all due to Pride’s stubbornness in the face of calls from the community to allow the public to share their views on what had happened in the past weeks with the Board.

The Board Puts Out a Statement With New Excuses for Making the Decision Hours Before the Meeting

A statement from San Francisco Pride appeared on Facebook a within hours of the meeting, indicating the committee would be hearing from the community but it would not matter what they said. They were standing behind the decision to not have Pride honor Manning.

Pride’s new excuse for not being able to make Manning a Grand Marshal was based on a technicality in a rule:

The SF Pride Board recognizes and regrets the recent error in the announcement of Mr. Bradley Manning as the Electoral College’s Community Grand Marshal. The Electoral College was not the appropriate forum for his nomination. The longstanding Grand Marshal Policy provides that one community grand marshal shall be elected by an electoral college composed of Community Grand and Honorary Marshals elected or appointed since 1999. Grand Marshal/Pink Brick Policy, Sections 3.3 and 5.2.3. Under that longstanding policy, the community grand marshal upon whom the Electoral College votes is defined as “a local hero (individual) not being a celebrity.” Grand Marshal/Pink Brick Policy, Section 5.2.3.

Because Mr. Manning is not local, by definition under the Grand Marshal policy, he may not be nominated or elected by the Electoral College as its community grand marshal. The SF Pride Board determined that because the nomination and election had been conducted in the incorrect forum, the election could not be upheld as valid. Mr. Manning might rightfully qualify as a nominee for Celebrity Grand Marshal or another community grand marshal spot, but not as the Electoral College’s nominee, as a matter of longstanding, written policy. [emphasis added]

The Board of Directors proceeded to blame the “electoral college,” who “surely knew” Manning was “not a local, Bay Area community member,” who “should not have been voted on” by the “electoral college.”

A bit of an apology to Manning was also included in the statement:

Taking sides in the controversy concerning Mr. Manning’s conduct is not appropriate for the organization and falls outside its core mission. We apologize to Mr. Manning, knowing that he did not ask to be at the center of a community firestorm, and for any harsh words that may have been said about him. In the end, SF Pride recognizes that becoming embroiled in the controversy concerning the merit of Mr. Manning’s conduct was an honest mistake. However, because the Grand Marshal/Pink Brick policy precludes Mr. Manning from being nominated for, or elected as a community grand marshal by the Electoral College, SF Pride stands by his disqualification on those unequivocal policy grounds. [emphasis added]

Numerous people planning on attending the meeting read this before the meeting. They were prepared to share their views on these new claims the Board was making about the process and how the “electoral college” was at fault.

Outside of the office, as the meeting was about to begin (Creative Commons-licensed Photo by Steve Rhodes)

The Meeting Begins While the Public and Press Are Locked Out of the Office 

“They didn’t open the doors to allow anybody in until after 7,” Virginia, who attended the meeting, told Firedoglake. “The meeting was supposed to start at 7. Then, it was a mad rush to the door. People were upset and they only allowed less than 15 people” to go up to the room for the meeting.

He entered and president, Lisa Williams, was talking already about an agenda item. Virginia raised his hand and said, “Excuse me, point of order. Did you already start the meeting?” Yes, they had.

“I was locked outside of the building,” he informed the committee. Just now was his first opportunity to get in the meeting (about ten or fifteen minutes after it was to begin). Why doesn’t Pride move this to a larger space so that the more than 100 people outside who want to observe the meeting can participate?

The Board did not answer his question. They just said the meeting was happening now and it would be restarted since he had said he just got here.

Speaking Time of Members of Public Limited to One Minute

Once a few members of the public made it into the meeting space, the Board read the statement it had posted to Facebook. It then decided that members of the public would receive a minute to speak. A piece of paper would be waved at thirty seconds. At one minute, a person would yell out, “Time!” They would stifle anyone who tried to speak beyond one minute.

Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistleblower, was there to speak in support of Manning. He thought he was going to have three or four minutes to speak.

When it was his turn to comment, he addressed what he considered a key falsehood in their previous statement: the allegation he had put troops in harms’ way. He stated there was no proof that a single troop member had been harmed and the disclosure of atrocities in Iraq had convinced the Iraqi prime minister that he would not allow US forces to remain in Iraq with legal immunity. President Obama could not leave forces in a country where they could become accused of crimes and subject to prosecution so the majority of troops were ultimately withdrawn.

Virginia recalled, “I personally spoke more to the integrity of the organization and strictly to the facts and basically pointed out that the same process that was used the last few years that I’ve been a part of the [electoral] college was used and there weren’t problems.” The “statement that a handful of people are not qualified to nominate or select was unfounded.” He noted that a “smaller number” on the Board “select multiple people” to be Grand Marshals “year after year.”

The Board has a “responsibility to make sure the voting and procedures were done in accordance to any policies and that the only two communications I got from them were identical to what I’ve been getting the last two years and that was never a problem before,” Virginia added. “You need to honor the vote. If there was a problem with it, you should have spoken up when the nominations were made or when the ballot was out or before you released the data that he had won.”

“To keep changing the rules and changing the reasons for why you’re doing this continues to discredit the organization,” he concluded. He also told the Board they were “damaging the credibility of the organization and the LGBT community of San Francisco” and “casting a credibility issue on every event associated with Pride this year, including the Pride Brunch, which I co-founded and co-produce as a charity event.”

When the first group of people were finished giving their comments, they were informed, according to Ellsberg, that they would have to leave. Ellsberg said he left the “large closet” to make room for others. Virginia did not. He objected because he did not think it was fair. He had come to observe the entire meeting. He was able to remain in the room, as a writer for a local publication, not as a member of the public.

The Board did not bring any new people into the meeting.

Supporters and community members protest not being able to access the meeting (Creative Commons-licensed Photo by Steve Rhodes)

The  Board Refuses to Allow Press with Cameras into the Meeting 

Media with cameras, who were there to record video of the meeting, were informed they would be prohibited from the meeting. The prohibition meant Channel 2 News could not cover it.

The Board was confronted by members of the public, who wanted to know why the media would not be permitted in the meeting. They had a legal counsel for Pride on speaker phone. The lawyer said they’re not required to allow media in the meeting. Someone named Starchild pushed back and asked if there was anything in rules that stated media could not be present at meetings. It was found out that media with cameras could be there, but the Board would have to vote on whether to allow them into the meeting.

Starchild decided to call for a vote on whether the Board wanted to officially prohibit media from being in the room for the meeting. He kept pushing the Board to take a vote, according to Virginia. The Board would not make a motion for a vote. “In my opinion, they just railroaded through and said we’re not having the media present.”

Rainey Reitman, Bradley Manning Support Network Steering Committee member, who made it into the room for the meeting, was startled by “how resistant San Francisco Pride’s Board was to letting cameras into the room.” She recalled that Starchild had gone over to a window to shout to protesters outside that media with cameras were not going to be allowed and then he went back and sat down. The Board then instructed a private security guard from Yojimbo Protection Services, who had been hired for the meeting, to remove Stairchild.

According to Virginia, the guard placed his hand on him and Starchild said I am only here to speak and that it was his right. He sat down and the security guard left and the Board resumed the meeting.

The Board then announced soon after that it was going into “executive session” and everyone in the room would have to leave. Virginia and others exited the room and waited in a hallway area outside. They could here chanting in the building near the entrance. “Shame, Shame, Shame on Pride!” and “Public Access!” was being chanted.

SFPD arrives at the Pride office. (Creative Commons-licensed Photo by Steve Rhodes)

San Francisco Pride Calls the Police on People There Protesting Outside the Meeting

The public, who had not been able to access and participate in the meeting, was banging on doors in the stairwell. Chanting was continuing loudly. Around 8:25 pm, the security guard came up the stairs and opened the door to the meeting room and said the Board needed to call the police.

Reitman said a staff member from Pride was upset about the crowd and suggested the police be called. Ellsberg found this to be “absurd.”

The protest was nonviolent, “nothing like violence” was happening, according to Ellsberg. He “couldn’t believe” they called the police.

Somebody from Pride called the police from in the conference room. San Francisco police officers arrived. Three officers went into the meeting room. The Board then decided everyone would have to leave the office. The meeting would be rescheduled for a larger room with more security.

Now, the Board would have to send someone down the stairs to inform the public that it was over and they needed to go. The Board, according to Virginia, was “tense and nervous.” The treasurer decided to go down and Virginia offered to accompany him with a big “Grand Marshal” badge on him so people could tell he was friendly.

He told protesters the meeting was canceled. It would be rescheduled and they should hear from the treasurer. However, the treasurer did not come down to face the protesters. He remained up on an above landing in the stairwell, “half-hidden” and “with the police.” The treasurer said the meeting was canceled and it would be rescheduled and would be held in a larger room with more security. And, when the community began to shout questions for him to answer so they could know when the next meeting would be, he said he would not answer questions and the next meeting would be announced as soon as possible.

Virginia moved outside with the crowd, who wanted to hear from Ellsberg. It was overheard that what police were told when called was that there was a “riot” at the office. As one officer at the scene said, when they arrived, the officers realized there was no riot. A board meeting had been scheduled for a room that was not large enough and people just wanted to be part of the meeting.

(Creative Commons-licensed Photo by Steve Rhodes)

New Excuses from the Board

Virginia read the statement. He addressed the “rule” being referenced that makes it improper for the “electoral college” to nominate a person like Bradley Manning, who is not a “local hero.”

“The policy is not available online and it is not even told to people that if you want to review it you can request a copy,” Virginia explained. “We really did not know it existed.” He added, “They’re citing this section of this policy and then adding words to what they are stating.”

Reading a copy of the document, he said the rule they claim to be referencing actually states, “One of the community Grand Marshals shall be elected by the electoral college by mail or ballot prior to May 1 each year.” The policy says nothing about a “local hero” (individual) not being a celebrity.

It clearly indicates in the policy that “the nominee with the highest number of votes shall be elected the electoral college Community Grand Marshal,” according to Virginia. “Whether they say they’ve done an audit of the vote or not – they’ve never released numbers publicly – a key person in the organization told me over the phone directly that he indeed received the highest number of votes. So, if there was a faux pas in them not screening appropriately the validity of a nomination, then that’s a mistake Pride made. It’s their responsibility to to vet any nomination for all the Grand Marshals for the organizational Grand Marshal or celebrity.”

Joey Cain, who nominated Manning, told Firedoglake, “I was not made aware that I was violating some policy.” And, “If they knew it was some violation of policy, why did they send out a ballot with his name on it? It’s not like I sent the ballot out personally. It was sent out of their office.”

Pride had an opportunity to be transparent, inclusive and forthright about what had occurred. The meeting was a chance to heal a division that is growing because they have not only handled this situation poorly and incompetently but also displayed political cowardice in the face of blowback from groups that did not want to respect the diversity of opinion in the LGBT community.

Virginia now believes if Pride cannot make this right and tell the truth about the situation he will not be able to “in good conscience support the Pride parade and celebration and will actively pursue a boycott of it.”

He has a huge issue with the Pride Board and the Pride Staff “for not enforcing their own policies and for not having transparency about their policy and to not have their own bylaws of their organization, as a nonprofit receiving city funding and dependent on community donations,” publicly available. Their bylaws are not published. Their board meeting minutes are not available. There is no sunshine.

Reitman rejects the overture that the Board has made, where it says Manning could possibly be a Grand Marshal next year. “This is the year that he is going to court.” Now is when it matters if he is honored by Pride.

“I’ve worked with these people and expected better of them,” Cain said. I am “shocked at just how craven and manipulative” they have been. They like to talk about how they’re transparent but in this case there is “absolute opaqueness.” He is very disappointed and thinks members of the Board should be removed from their positions.

What Happens Next?

This scandal is far from over. It will continue to reverberate in the community, as a complaint has been filed with the Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination. It alleges, according to the Bay Area Reporter, Pride “violated city administrative codes, arts funding guidelines, board marshal selection policy, and board non-discrimination policy.” The complaint could be litigated in court.

Another meeting is supposedly going to be held. Whether Pride will handle it in a way that allows for more public participation and whether they will announce the date for the next meeting or leave it up to the community to find out by pressing them for information remains to be seen.

The Board could also reinstate Manning as a Grand Marshal. He did win. That would seem like the right thing to do. However, it does not appear the Pride Board of Directors is interested in what is right. But, like powerful agencies, groups or individuals the LGBT community fought in the past in struggles for dignity and equality, they are motivated by interests that sway them to make decisions in deep conflict with truth and social justice. Their continued commitment to these interests are likely to continue to influence the decisions they make and perpetuate the scandal in the community, which they have created.