Cancelling Pride events due to security threats deals a blow to the LGBTQI community. Across the democratic world, approaches to policing Pride vary remarkably, and security concerns are sometimes used to obstruct Pride celebrations by conservative officials. But there is also good practice.
Last weekend, Oslo Pride was cancelled hours before the start after “clear advice and recommendation from the police
”, following the shooting on Friday to Saturday night which targeted two bars, including one gay club. Police announced on Saturday that they were investigating the attacks as an act of terrorism, and the level of threat was raised from 3 (moderate) to 5 (extraordinary threat situation). While the cancellation was an extraordinary measure, Oslo Pride organisers promised
that “[w]e will soon be proud and visible again”.
When it comes to Pride security, the job of the police – or state, more broadly – is to ensure the safety and security of participants and bystanders, minimising harm to people and damage to property. In democratic societies, governments typically promise to enable citizens to exercise fundamental rights, including freedom of assembly and expression. This commitment is crucial for minorities and people advocating on potentially controversial issues, such as LGBTQI rights or abortion. When states fail to protect peaceful gatherings, they risk violation of international laws, such as the European convention on human rights.
The protection of such gatherings has only become a greater concern in recent times, as anti-LGBTQI rhetoric and public violence have increased in the Global North. In Europe, activists observed
“a crackdown on democracy and civil society,” not only in Poland
. In the US
, right-wing media and the Republican party have actively encouraged violence against the community
. More anti-LGBTQI legislation has been raised in the US last year than ever before, targeting trans youth in particular
In this context, safety and security during peaceful gatherings are of utmost importance. At LGBTQI events, such as Pride, there is always the threat that anti-gender and politically motivated extremists might mobilise against the celebrations. State security services should assess the risks and tailor crime prevention strategies to fit the needs, bearing in mind that the priority should be to allow citizens to exercise their legal rights.
Balancing freedom of assembly and security risks
Where risk levels are low, a discreet police presence should normally suffice. If intelligence detects a crime-related plot, a swift operation ahead of the gathering may disrupt the attack. In some cases, enhanced security measures, such as weapons checks
or even the engagement of riot police may help neutralise the threat and ensure the peaceful nature of the event. The cancellation of the march – as happened in Oslo – should be a last resort, since it means that the primary goal of allowing citizens to exercise their rights is not achieved. Cancellations are only justified where less drastic options are insufficient to ensure security, despite the best efforts of the state. In any case, security strategies should be consulted with Pride organisers, who should liaise between the community and the state.
In practice, Pride events in Europe have often been inadequately protected, or, in some cases, pre-emptively banned due to “security concerns".
Between 2018 and 2019, several towns in Poland
attempted to ban equality marches citing the elevated risk for people and property. For example, the mayor of Kielce banned the event
based on the advice of the local police chief, who warned of a “high probability” of disturbances by “right-wing and conservative groups, including pseudo football fans”. The police had not conducted a detailed threat analysis – the advice was based on media reports and experiences from other towns where LGBTQI events were met with counter-demonstrations.
All the equality march bans were immediately struck down by the courts as unconstitutional
. Ripping the argumentation of city officials to pieces, judges pointed out that freedom of assembly and the peaceful nature of gatherings should be ensured whenever possible and the decisions to ban public events should not be taken lightly. They argued that police advice must not rely on anecdotal data but be based on specific threat assessments.
As a result of court decisions overturning the bans, the marches did take place, often meeting with protests led by right-wing, religious and anti-gender groups. In most cases, the police were able to provide adequate protection. For example, in Lublin, police used water cannons and tear gas
to control counter-demonstrators during the equality march in 2019. 38 persons were detained for attempting to disrupt the march, including a married couple who brought an improvised explosive device to the gathering. Last year, the Lublin equality march was held without major problems.
In Georgia, the government promised to provide protection for a silent 20 minute LGBTQI flash mob in Tbilisi on 17 May 2013. Reports suggested that large numbers of counter-demonstrators, mobilised by clergy and right-wing NGOs, should be expected. Despite the warnings, the police were unarmed, with insufficient numbers and no riot control equipment. When a few dozen activists arrived at Rustaveli Avenue where the event was meant to be held, they were met with a violent crowd of tens of thousands. The mob broke through the police cordon and attacked the LGBTQI gathering. Some participants hid in police buses, while others scattered and were chased around town for the rest of the day.
In a judgement issued in 2021, the European Court of Human Rights
slammed the Georgian government for failing to provide adequate protection during a peaceful gathering of LGBTQI people. According to the court, “the authorities had had to have been aware in advance of the risks associated with the event. The counter-demonstrators had made their intentions clear beforehand, and the Government’s argument that the high turnout had been unexpected was not convincing”. The court further said that “[s]uch failure to take effective measures had been compounded by evidence of official connivance, and even active participation in individual acts of prejudice”.
In recent years, all Tbilisi Pride events lacked adequate police protection and continued to be violently disrupted, even leading to the death of a journalist
on 5 July 2021.
There is also good practice. In the US
, the Pride gathering in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, was targeted by the neo-fascist Patriotic Front: 31 individuals were arrested for conspiracy to riot
, allowing the Pride participants to continue celebrating unmolested. The North Idaho Pride Alliance issued a statement saying “We are deeply grateful to law enforcement agencies who were present and professionally responded throughout the day to keep our community safe.”
In East and Southeast Europe, LGBTQI events are usually controversial and require large numbers of police to separate Pride participants from violent crowds. But in North Macedonia
, the police have taken a different approach. During Skopje Pride events in 2019 and 2021, the police blocked access to key areas in the town centre for radical groups that could threaten the peaceful gathering. The police forces were mobilised but not visible and the participants of the LGBTQI parade were not cordoned off. While there were reports of political hate speech
, public officials, including the president and government ministers, participated in Pride events, sending a message of support to the community. Due to good police work and cooperation with Skopje Pride organisers, the events were held safely.
From a security and human rights perspective, the goal of police presence during Pride events is to ensure public safety while allowing LGBTQI people to exercise their freedoms. Only on rare occasions, where the risk assessment indicates a high level of threat which cannot be mitigated, should authorities ask for the events to be cancelled.
Compared to the “pre-emptive” bans of equality marches in Poland or the continued failures of the Georgian government to protect Tbilisi Pride events, Norway has a good tradition of ensuring peaceful, undisturbed Pride events. While drastic, the decision by Pride organisers to cancel the event on Saturday seems justified, given the elevated risk level and stretched police resources after the nocturnal anti-terror operation.
Critically, activists in Oslo – including visitors from Georgia and Poland – did not give in to fear. On Saturday, a spontaneous LGBTQI gathering marched
through Oslo chanting “[w]e’re queer, we’re here, we won’t disappear”. Flowers and candles were laid near one of the bars where the shootings happened.
Written with contributions by Nathaniël Kunkeler.
This blog was originally posted on Right Now!, the blog of the Centre for Research of Extremist at University of Oslo (C-Rex).