Anti-gay protesters trolled the Atlanta Pride parade on Sunday, amping up their usual chants by delaying the parade under police escort and creating one of the most volatile confrontations seen at the event.
About two-dozen protesters gathered at the intersection of 10th and Peachtree streets before the 1 p.m. start of the parade. The group was again led by street preacher Ruben Israel, whose followers shouted anti-gay slurs, harassed parade attendees and tried to shame companies taking part from the same spot last year.
They worked the same antics on Sunday, taunting parade participants, supporters and a crowded HRC Atlanta brunch across the street at Empire State South. But the situation turned volatile when a group of about 10 protesters, led by Israel, broke from the larger group and walked west on 10th Street toward Piedmont Park.
As the parade neared on Peachtree, Israel and his band of anti-gays entered 10th Street and walked in the closed street east to Peachtree. The parade was halted a few blocks away as Atlanta police officers responded by escorting the protesters along the middle of 10th Street, while dozens of officers – including the agency's special violent crime APEX Unit – emerged from the periphery of the parade route to block the intersection and stand in front of the parade crowd. Police motorcycle units also arrived to help cordon off the intersection.
Police directed the protesters back to the sidewalk as the situation grew more tense as the returning protesters mixed with LGBT people there to watch the parade. During the confrontation, the Pansy Patrol arrived to block the vulgar signs of the protesters, as they've done during past parades. As the parade was allowed to continue, Dykes on Bikes, Lostboys Motorcycle Group and Chrome Bones stopped at the intersection and drowned out the protesters with the rev of their engines.
As protesters clashed with LGBT people, police officers moved to separate the groups and talked with Israel and the Pansy Patrol to deescalate the situation. Later during the parade, Angel Action Network stopped in front of the protesters and blocked their signs to cheers from the crowd.
In 2014, parade participants reacted to the protesters and comedian Lea DeLaria gave them the finger. This year, parade participants shouted them down, twerked in their direction and some, like gay jocks from the Atlanta Rainbow Trout, delivered the finger.
But the clash as the parade opened was the most volatile seen in recent years. Atlanta Police said there was nothing the agency could do to prevent it or keep the protesters from interrupting the parade. In fact, officers escorted the protesters while the parade was stopped.
"Officers escorted the protesters to lessen the chance of a confrontation between protesters, counter protesters and observers," Elizabeth Espy, public affairs director for Atlanta police, told Project Q. "Citizens have the right to protest. We as law enforcement professionals are tasked with keeping everyone safe while ensuring they are able to participate in their First Amendment rights."
When pressed to clarify if that means protesters can interrupt any public event, Espy said "yes."
"First Amendment rights trump city law. We can't stop people from protesting but we tried to keep them contained and prevent any altercations between groups," Espy said.
Yet throughout the parade, motorcycle officers with lights and sirens activated routinely buzzed close by parade observers who crowded the streets. Espy said officers kept observers – thought not the group of renegade protesters – out of the parade's path.
"Observers are prohibited from taking the street because the parade is ongoing. By keeping the observers out of the street, we can keep the parade participants moving so that we can open up the streets as soon as possible to lessen the impact on the surrounding community," Espy said.
A spokesperson for Mayor Kasim Reed, when asked about the protesters using a bullhorn and a speaker along with stepping into the street and stalling the parade, pointed to a section of city code that spells out prohibited conduct. The city ordinance prohibits anyone from attempting to keep a person from viewing, hearing or meaningfully participating in a "permitted public property event" like the Atlanta Pride parade. The ordinance leaves enforcement to Atlanta police, who are empowered to warn against the prohibited conduct and then arrest anyone violating it.
We also reached out to Atlanta Pride organizers to ask about protesters interrupting the parade, why they are allowed so close to the route and the response to the protesters by Atlanta police. The story will be updated if they respond.
UPDATE | Jamie Fergerson, Atlanta Pride executive director, said she and Pride officials are discussing the incident with their attorney and Atlanta police. "We are working with law enforcement and our own council to understand why it was allowed as we do not believe that another group should have been allowed to march through our permitted parade area after the streets were closed," Fergerson said.