Free Chelsea Manning float rolling in a sea of queers at Queerbomb

The OccuQueers and CODEPINK represented Chelsea Manning at Austin’s Queerbomb.

This post has been updated to accurately reflect Chelsea Manning’s gender identity.

After the well-publicized cowardice of San Francisco’s Pride in the face of pressure to drop support for Chelsea Manning and with her trial beginning this week, several Austin queers and allies wanted to act in support.

Austin’s “official” Pride event (with heavy corporate sponsorship and organized by the Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce) takes place in September. For the fourth time, independent activists honored Pride Month with Queerbomb, a rally and street march last Saturday. Thanks to the Occupy Austin OccuQueers and CODE PINK Austin, Manning was well-represented.

A Queerbomb volunteer provided us with a wheeled platform and helped the first stage of float-making, which was the creation of a frame made from chicken-wire and egg-carton material in the shape of an oversized human torso and head. On Saturday, more of the OccuQueers gathered in my back yard to cover the frame in paper maché and then paint it. We were assisted by one of Occupy Austin’s talented artists, the same woman who helped us create and deploy the Fuck Hyatt banner for Pride 2012.

Joined by the Austin Audio Co-Op and their famous “Party Wagon” (#OATX’s mobile sound system), we arrived just in time for the parade, which was forced to leave early. As we took the Austin streets under police escort, many cheered for the Manning float. We were soon joined by representatives of CODE PINK Austin and the Manning Support Network. Many queers and spectators asked for more information, and we offered fliers and answers in return. Along one part of the route, a few spectators joined our “Free Manning” chants.

Since almost every time I’ve posted about Manning to Facebook I’ve attracted trolls (including repeated disruptive attempts by a known past or present Obama For America employee), it was disappointing but not surprising that our real life efforts attracted one too. As we rolled down Sixth Street, Austin’s night club district, a lithe blond woman aggressively approached a marcher who carried a large Manning banner. The situation became tense as she shouted “Manning should rot in hell!” but the pressure of a fast-moving parade and the intervention of many other supporters kept things from escalating further.

Overall the action was a success, bringing increased awareness of Manning’s case. At the end of the night when I parked the Manning float and took a rest on a bench at a nearby coffee shop, it was fun to watch people stop to pose with him for photos as they left Queerbomb.

Trouble Ahead for Queerbomb?

Dancers surround Austin Audio Co-Op's lighted Party Wagon Sound System and the Manning Float.

Dancers surround Austin Audio Co-Op’s lighted Party Wagon sound system and the Manning Float. But Pine Street Station’s owner threatened to call the cops on this party!

By some accounts, Queerbomb had a difficult year. In the weeks and months leading up to the event, activists in the community were openly expressing that the city seemed to be putting increased pressure on the event by requiring that they pay for more expensive permits and police presence.

Culture Map Austin has a slideshow and report on the event, where they quote Queerbomb’s mission:

Queerbomb was created in direct reaction to Austin Pride, the ‘official’ Pride celebration in town. The statement on Queerbomb’s Indiegogo fundraising profile explains that this alternate endeavor is meant to be a, ‘radical celebration during the month of Pride to honor the courageousness of the Stonewall riots and to challenge the corporate heteronormative structures of Gay Pride celebrations within our community and around the globe.’

The official stance is that this year marked increase cooperation with police:

The rally that preceded the parade suffered the only minor set back of the evening. Paul Soileau, one of the Queerbomb organizers, explained that this was the first year that Queerbomb worked with the city to ensure police escorts and a secured parade route. This put the rally and the parade start time on a strict schedule, which was running behind. With six speakers from various inclusive Austin organizations on the docket, only Jordan Kimmell, a Round Rock Gay Straight Alliance queer youth member, was able to speak.

On the ground it seemed like more pressure to conform, to this queer. The march left thirty minutes early and felt extremely rushed, with little of the street dancing that was seen in other years. Though spirits were high, especially thanks to the music of the Minor Mishap Marching Band, the atmosphere was different — and a sharp contrast to the treatment of the corporate-sponsored “official” Pride where Austin Police officers march!

When we returned to Pine Street Station, the club rented as a start and end point of the parade, the Austin Audio Co-Op created a thriving dance party outside — until the owner of the club threatened to call the cops on us! An apologetic Queerbomb volunteer told us we could take the party to the end of the street, where almost no one saw us until they left.

I’m sympathetic with Queerbomb’s desire to create a “radical” alternative to “Corporate Pride” while also offering a family-friendly atmosphere open to all. If we set out to have an event that is a real expression of the anarchic power of Stonewall, are we content with ending up with just another permitted parade? It seems to me that if Austin’s queer community wants to maintain an alternative, open event we have some hard choices ahead — including when and how much we collaborate with the city and its enforcers.

OccuQueers Manning Float in the Streets with CODE PINK Austin

OccuQueers Manning Float in the Streets with CODE PINK Austin at last Saturday’s Queerbomb.

More: Queerbomb 2013 photos from the Austin Chronicle and Jeremy (Flickr’s Jerester 1010)

Photo credits: Top photo, Jeremy (Jerester 1010 on Flickr), used with permission. All others by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved.