It's not unusual to see protests and demonstrations at Creating Change, the National LGBTQ Task Force's annual gathering of progressive activists, which this year took place in Chicago from January 20 through 25.
But when more than 200 people shut down a planned reception hosted by A Wider Bridge, an LGBT Israeli group, at the conference on Friday night, tensions boiled over in a way conference organizers hadn't predicted.
The reception, titled "Beyond the Bridge: Chicago," featured leaders from Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, and was billed in the Creating Change program as a "cocktail reception recognizing and celebrating the role of Israel's LGBTQ experience as an important component of our increasingly globalized and interconnected struggle for LGBTQ equality and social justice." The Jersualem-based leaders in attendance were slated to "share their important work in a challenging environment — transcending political, ethnic, and religious boundaries to build and unite a community in pursuit of the common goal of tolerance and mutual support."
Backlash to the reception's scheduling was swift when the program was announced prior to the conference, prompting Task Force leadership to temporarily cancel the event. However, subsequent pushback on that decision resulted in the Task Force reinstating the reception for its scheduled time on Friday evening, when demonstrators descended on the space, blocking the main point of entry, and prompting the Israeli leaders to flee out a back door.
As the Windy City Times reports, the confrontation escalated quickly, with protesters carrying Palestinian flags, signs reading "No Pride in Apartheid," and chanting "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." That chant, the local LGBT outlet notes, has several interpretations, some of which are considered anti-Semitic. Hotel staff at the Hilton Chicago subsequently contacted the Chicago Police Department and threatened to shut down the entire conference if organizers couldn't calm the demonstrators.
Although no arrests were reported, there are varying accounts of physical altercations that broke out between Israeli and Jewish guests attending and hosting the reception, and the pro-Palestinean demonstrators. Those protesters, organized under the social media hashtag #CancelPinkwashing accuse A Wider Bridge of "pinkwashing," which purportedly touts Israel's pro-LGBT policies in the interest of distracting from what some see as the nation's abuse and disenfranchisement of Arab and native Palestinean residents. The collective of protesters also contends that A Wider Bridge is a Zionist organization that's set on subjugating Palestinian people.
In a statement issued Wednesday, protest organizers noted that they held a "queer, anti-Zionist Shabbat service" organized by the groups Jewish Voice for Peace—Chicago and the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel-Palestine before the protest, which occurred without incident at the same time as the official Shabbat service that appeared on the Creating Change schedule.
"Once our Shabbat service had ended we invited the community in the room to prepare for the protest and several hundred of us began marching through the Hilton from our space on the lobby level to the third floor just outside where the A Wider Bridge reception was taking place," read the statement. "We chanted various pro-Palestine, anti-Zionist, anti-racist and anti-pinkwashing critiques."
On Monday, the Task Force issued its own statement condemning anti-Semitism and "hate speech of any kind … whether it’s directed at Jewish or Muslim people." Then on Wednesday, a group of notable LGBT figures including Edie Windsor, Barney Frank, Christine Quinn, and Roberta Kaplan signed an open letter directed at the Task Force that condemned the "dangerous" and "unacceptable" actions of the protesters. Prior to both the statement from the Task Force and the open letter directed at it, Task Force executive director Rea Carey sat down exclusively with The Advocate Sunday to discuss the the protest and the future of the conference.
The Advocate: As the person at the top of the Task Force, what lessons have you and your staff come away from Creating Change 2016 learning?
Rea Carey: Well, I've certainly learned a lot. And we will continue learning from this conference, even beyond this next week. We're going to continue to engage people, and talk about how we evolve the conference.
Creating Change is a 28-year-old conference, and although it started very small, just a couple hundred people; much of the time it was about 1,200 people. We're now at 4,000 people. That's a different kind of space. And there are that many more people bringing their perspectives, their lives, their challenges, and we all need to look at how we can keep the core and the intention of what Creating Change has always been — which is a place to come together and strategize together and learn how to deal with difference.
Certainly we saw that this year. We've seen it before, but we saw it this year. And I think for us as an organization, part of our learning is even though Creating Change has been growing — and for the last couple of years it's been 3,500, 4,000 [attendees] last year and this year — how do we need to adapt in creating the conference? Because there are certain way of doing things and certain systems for doing things that worked really well for 1,200 people, and they're just not working as well as they need to be for 4,000. So that's part of our learning: we're going to go back and take a deep dive.
I have already started a review of some key areas [which are]: Inclusiveness in program content, in how we go about doing that. Safety and security, because when you have 4,000 people, it's just that much more of an issue that we need to deal with. And then the third one [is] promoting conversation and peaceful protest in a space where people hold differing views.
So in those three areas. And I hope I'm being clear. Those are going to be key for us moving forward, and we will be engaging other people in that process, in terms of other perspectives in how we can go about in improving those areas.
There are protests at Creating Change, that's been a part of Creating Change. That's expected. We protest; the Task Force engages in protest to create change. That is how we as a movement have moved forward. We do not want to stop protest, we do not want to stop free speech, we don't want to prevent people from having their ability to have voice and free speech, and we must have peaceful protests, right?
Do you believe the demonstration outside the Wider Bridge reception crossed a line into not being a peaceful protest?
Well, a number of things happened that night.
There are a number of receptions planned throughout Creating Change. We started [hosting receptions] a couple of years ago; it was like a social night. And just as context for you ... different people [and groups] want to host receptions. And then they then create their reception. We hook them up with catering folks, we ensure that we have a room available, [but the Task Force does not manage the reception's agenda].
We have never had protests like this at receptions. And we have never had this intensity of protest at Creating Change. That was different. And we had staff who worked to try to defuse what was becoming an increasingly intense situation. Without talking to us, the hotel called the police. Hotel security called police. Thankfully, it didn't get to the place where people were being arrested, to our knowledge. In fact, we talked to the police; we said, "We support [protest], don't arrest people."
Now, we have learned a lot from this, and I think we will continue to learn a lot. We're just one day out, basically. But in terms of the importance of looking at space: There was a number of receptions and a hallway that goes into the receptions. There were more people who showed up than even the protesters thought were going to show up. And it became a very crowded space, very intense, very quickly. And that created a situation that was not supportive of any dialogue. And I also want to say, there is many different experiences of what happened inside the reception and outside the reception, as there are people that went.
I am saddened and disappointed how events unfolded that night. Given that we, as an organization, both support free speech, and peaceful protest.
Is this the first time Creating Change has hosted a reception or events by pro-Israel groups at CC before?
This is the first time that A Wider Bridge has been involved in Creating Change.
But the Shabbat service, which immediately preceded the Wider Bridge reception, has been a staple at CC for a long time, right?
Yes. And a lot of religious services. We're very thankful, we have a Jewish working group, a Muslim working group, we have an entire group of faith leaders, who have been coming to CC for a long time, who have helped to create those spaces both for prayer, and for coming together on a variety of things.
And in years past, that has not created the kind of intense confrontation that occurred this week.
Correct. The faith services have not.
It's no secret that there is a lot of intensity and passion on all sides of this discussion, just as there are folks in the queer community on all sides of that. To some extent, the complaints of "pinkwashing"were not novel.
Yes, it's a long-standing conflict in the world.
Has this experience, particularly the intensity of the protest and how it escalated quickly, shifted your perspective on how you will approach these kinds of contentious issues in the future?
I've already started a review with our staff. And we're still on site, stuck here by the snowstorm, but we will continue that in the months ahead is a review of Creating Change. Not just this [protest], but we learned a lot by having 4,000 people in Chicago this week. So we will continue, as we have done in the past, to review what happened at the conference, to learn, to make adaptations that we think create the kind of gathering that serves our movement well, and we'll move forward from there.