Central PA's LGBT News Source

How far should one go?

Anatomy of a civil rights demonstration


If all US citizens have the right to free speech, then what are their responsibilities when expressing themselves?

Answers to this question are at the crossroads of understanding what took place June 11 on the steps of the State Capitol in Harrisburg.

On June 11, 90 cities including Harrisburg held Equality marches and/or rallies reaffirming gains made in recent years with LGBT civil rights.

In promoting the events, organizers nationwide felt renewed efforts were necessary. They cited advances made under former President Barack Obama's administration, mostly through Executive Order, that have been reversed under President Donald Trump.

Harrisburg’s rally and march was organized under the auspices of the region’s LGBT Community Center that until June 30 was administered by executive director Louie Marven. In a planned move, he is now affiliated with The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, also based in Harrisburg operating under the umbrella of the PA Coalition Against Rape.

The center’s event permit issued by the Capitol Police included the Capitol steps and immediately adjacent areas like the sidewalk leading up to the steps at Third and State Streets.

Harrisburg’s event drew about 100 people – gay people, allies, and others.

Observing the rally
Across the street from the Capitol steps were two young men who had attended a Catholic Mass at nearby St. Patrick's Cathedral. One held a Bible in his hand open to a page which referred to homosexuality as an abomination. The other young man said, "I wish the government would stay out of everyone's private life. I don't care who you love."

Several people held up a banner from the Harrisburg Socialist Party. One of them was from Harrisburg. At least one was from Philadelphia.

Passersby in cars tooted horns and waved in support of the rally.

Also attending the event was a man with a protest sign boasting a message that was not in sync with the rally’s mission. His sign was anti-immigrant, called for gay “Moslems” to “get” more Pulse shootings. Muslim individuals addressed the event in solidarity with gay issues. Rally day crowd chatter indicated some attendees “thought” he had participated in Harrisburg anti-Muslim protest one day prior to the Equality rally.

Anatomy of the crowd
Attendees do not “register” at public events like this rally and march, so it is difficult to determine with any specificity who’s actually there and for what reason.

Attendees and speakers also reflected what is called “Intersectional” representation, a popular word to describe, for example, when LGBT and Muslim or other groups come together at the “intersections” of their lives. The word also means that speakers address issues as they effect real people. They recognize that some lesbians are also immigrants. Or that some gay men are also people of color, often abbreviated as POC in blogs and social media postings. In other words, in a world of identity politics an individual often has multiple identities. These multiple identities meet at the “intersections” of social justice and public policy making.

Mood of the crowd
At one point during the rally, while he stood near the corner of State and Third Streets, an area not included in the rally permit, his ‘Pulse massacre’ sign was grabbed away from him by an unidentified attendee who dropped it in a nearby ally. Eventually, the protestor recovered his sign.

Add this to the sequence of events: One week before the June 11 Equality March, a local student known to some rally attendees had committed suicide. Some attendees were grieving.

Got all that?
Now readers have all the actors on the public stage of free speech in Harrisburg June 11, all on or near the State Capitol steps. Given the backstory - fears of turn-backs on LGBT civil rights, a suicide, and a mixed crowd with no credible way to determine who was there or why, it’s fair to say emotions were at peak levels.

Then came this –
After rescuing his sign from an ally, the ‘Pulse’ protestor entered into the rally’s ‘permitted’ area. There he mingled with ralliers and eventually tussled with Cassidy. There are three videos of their interaction. Two videos went viral. The YouTube video had 718 views at press time. The Facebook video became ‘unavailable’. A third video is the Capitol Police security tape.

Go to TheCentralVoice.com for links to videos.

The two online videos show Cassidy taking the anti-gay protestor’s sign from him. “We wanted to negate his message,” Cassidy said. “Then he put his sign in front of me. I tried to take it from him, and he knocked me to the ground, I was bleeding from my ear, I'm still nervous,” Cassidy told Central Voice about an hour after the incident.

Cassidy tells Central Voice that they (Cassidy chooses to be identified by the pronouns they and them) and her friend Tony thought the protestor’s sign “was promoting violence,” Cassidy said.

“We went to stand with the other people who were around him (the protestor),” Tony said.

Asked what they (Cassidy) would have done if the protestor tried to take Cassidy’s flag away from them, Cassidy said,” If he had tried to take my flag I would have tried to take it back. I would not have pushed him. The push “was uncalled for” Tony added, “We were all trying to negate his message peacefully.”

Tony explained that the group surrounding the protestor offered to discuss differences over coffee at a nearby coffee house. “He refused,” Tony said, who surmised that the protestor thought they invitation was to go into the street. “We clarified that we meant discussion over coffee,” Tony explained.

At one point, Anthony, from Lebanon, said he intervened by telling the protestor “This is not a safe spot for you. You are outnumbered.” He says, “I respect everyone's opinion but he was not safe. That was my concern.”

“When so many people I know cannot be themselves, and I’m a gay man myself, we’ve all been through so much bullying and harassment, myself included, well, I wasn’t going to let the protestor harass anyone or be harassed,” Anthony said.

Accounts of the incident differ
“I know six or seven people, young people, who if they came out, would be beaten and thrown out of their house,” he says.

Social media chatter about the incident referred to 'punches' – allegedly delivered from the sign carrier to Cassidy – that are either not captured or not visible or did not occur since punches cannot be seen on the two publicly available videos.

The ‘punches’ are also not visible on the official Capitol Police tape, according to Heidi Notario, VP of the LGBT Center, who following the incident organized and attended a meeting with the Capitol Police. Marven and the center’s youth programs director Lindsey Lughes also attended the meeting.

Social media descriptions of the incident used words like 'unconscious' to describe Cassidy. Notario confirmed that an EMT was called to the scene by the Capitol Police to examine Cassidy. There was no ambulance called. Within hours of the incident, blog RagingChickenPress.com referred to 'charges pending' against the ‘Pulse’ sign carrier. “That could not have been known at the time it was posted,” explained Notario.

If there’s a sequence of events frothing over with drama, this is it.

Notario wanted to dial down emotions, thus her arranging a meeting with Capitol Police.

"It was a very positive meeting, Notario tells Central Voice.

One significant outcome was a realization by both parties that as many times as the center or other LGBT groups have received permits to gather on the Capitol steps, neither side really ‘knew' each other.

"We realized that we were going to be back in the future. We needed to have a dialogue with the Capitol Police," Notario said.

Understanding each other and how a permit and its rights and responsibilities work is paramount to safe events which preserve everyone's First Amendment rights.

For example, the center group learned:
• That since the center was the organization holding the event permit they could have requested the ‘Pulse’ sign man leave of officially designated rally area. He could have been asked to convene across the street.
• It is not an infringement of free speech to ask an unaffiliated individual or group who has entered a ‘permitted’ area of an event to leave the permitted area. Capitol Police, according to Notario, had no idea on the day of the event who was who, except that the center held the permit.

Moving forward
"We're working with Silent Witness to hold trainings on how to peacefully demonstrate," Notario explained. Silent Witness is a local group that has historically provided safe barrier protections between LGBT and anti-gay groups. They are a regular presence at regional Pride and other events where disparate opinions may be expressed. The ‘umbrella’ people try to insure all parties present have safe space to express their views without putting each other in any physical danger.

Notario concluded that as a result of the incident and the meeting, Capitol Police “didn't see us before and, after the meeting, I feel like they know who we are.”