How San Francisco’s Dyke March Turned into a Protest

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As someone who hasn’t been single in a long time, I was really looking forward to taking a Saturday off, grabbing my dog and celebrating Dyke March in Dolores Park with 40,000 potential new dates (and probably another 10,000 former dates—but hey, them’s the breaks). The forecast was good, the marriage was legal and I had the weekend off. It turns out though, despite the countrywide LGBTQ celebrations on the heels of the SCOTUS decision, San Francisco’s pride festivities were for many less festive and more activist than in recent years. And for me, as a documentarian, that meant trading the dog and a six pack for my camera and some extra batteries to join my filmmaking partner, Susie Smith, on the streets.

parkphotos by Lauren Tabak

In case you haven’t heard what’s happening in San Francisco, the city is undergoing yet another major cultural shift due to the ongoing tech boom, and many long-term residents are being driven from their homes by skyrocketing real estate prices. As a result, San Francisco (and in particular the historically Latino/lesbian/queer/artist Mission District) is seeing the ousting of a significant number of much-loved businesses and cultural centers including Esta Noche, Cell Space and The Lexington Club

The Lexington Club was the only lesbian/queer bar within city limits before it served its last drink on April, 30th 2015. Its closure after an 18-year run signified a tipping point in the community, and propelled a lot less politically active folks (myself included) into action. Susie and I created the Lexington Club Archival Project just after Lila Thirkield announced she was selling the bar last October. Our mission was to document the sights and sounds of the Lex while it was still open, but also to investigate what it means to lose these spaces, which is at this point a national if not global trend. Perhaps as a result of such closures, combined with the housing crisis, when the Dyke March announced their usual route would be changing, no longer passing the Women’s Building or the old Amelia’s (formerly a dyke bar), a group of experienced organizers created the Take Back The Dyke March to protest (among other things) the systematic displacement of dyke and trans communities.

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Initially, rumors spread that the change was due to complaints from an upscale 18th Street eatery. That doesn’t appear to be the reason, or at least no one is admitting to it—the official Dyke March website has a statement that blames the logistics of turning around a sound truck in a busy intersection.

Joey “Cupcake” Stevenson, one of the organizers of the TBTDM—or “connector of dots” as she prefers—noted, “If a truck needs moving, dykes can move a truck. We might have become less politicized recently but we are an incredibly competent community. We will never know for sure why the route was changed, but it felt a terrible oversight to not pass the Women’s Building and bid farewell to The Elbo Room (formerly Amelia’s).”

Despite being told by “a lot of seasoned organizers that it would never work,” Joey says the march “was flawless.” Joey originally estimated a turnout of 2,000, but when they got to the Castro to meet up with the official march, she turned and looked down the four blocks behind her. “[I saw] the queer anarcho pink and black flag just turning the corner from Valencia, and it occurred to me that we were many thousands more.” Joey said. “I was like, ‘Holy shit.’” 

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When TBTDM protesters crossed a police barrier, some received high-fives by officers.

I want to name the privilege that a diverse crowd of people with many white faces has when encountering the police,” said Sondra Solovay, an attorney and Legal Observer. “No one shot, no one beaten, no news stories framing the action as looting or rioting or terrorism. Police were respectful overall. No one died. Black lives matter. Compare. Contrast. Act.

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Things took a turn, however, after a mixed (white/POC/men/women/trans) group of maybe 50 or 60 gathered in front of the former site of the Lexington Club. Susie had arrived on the scene at around 6:30 and began filming; I got there around 7.  The gathering originally began as a family-friendly, peaceful, impromptu dance party cordoned off by folding chairs and the pink and black anarcho queer flag on one side of 19th St and a tricycle with a sound system on the other. (It was not organized by Take Back The Dyke March, though it included participants.) 

IMG_4219photo by Jamon Franklin

When the police showed up an hour or so later with at least six motorbikes and two paddy wagons, things quickly deteriorated. Billy clubs came out, beer bottles went flying and Lil Boosie’s “Fuck The Police” came blaring from the sound system as some participants shouted along with the chorus. A few onlookers hurled insults at the police while others chanted “We remember Alex Nieto.” A number of participants made attempts to de-escalate the situation. All-in-all, it was not a unified action.

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Things started getting really chaotic around this time, but in reviewing our footage it looks like there was a bit of a tug-of-war with the pink and black flag, a women got thrown to the ground, handcuffed and tossed in a paddy wagon, and immediately after a bystander was also arrested. The bystander, a male POC, recounted his story to me in an email:

On Saturday I was having dinner with a group of friends down the street from the club. I got out of the restaurant to get some fresh air and I noticed the police presence down the street. As a concerned citizen I approached the crowd and watched a women being slammed onto the ground by SFPD as they handcuffed her and dragged her into the van. I pointed out that they were using excessive force and that slamming her was very unnecessary. I was then grabbed by my arm, pinned by the police car, and then they put me down onto the ground as they too handcuffed me. I stated repeatedly that I was not resisting and kept asking why I am being detained. They refused to provide me with badge numbers or business cards when requested and kept ignoring me. When I got to the station for booking they said I was being arrested for public intoxication but on the notice to appear form it shows that I am being charged with 148(a)(1)PC Resisting Arrest and 243(b)PC Assault on a P.O.

Ultimately it seemed like the police decided it was best to de-escalate and leave.  The music came back on, more people came out from homes and businesses to join the dance party, and a delighted toddler resumed her game of parachute with the black and pink flag.

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Eventually, the woman who had been arrested returned with bandaged hands and an ice pack for her head. I haven’t heard whether or not the police returned that night—I packed up the camera when we lost the light and headed home to my favorite date of all, Louis, who rattled his food bowl as I walked up the stairs to let me know I was late for dinner.

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This article includes additional reporting from Susie Smith.