“Sydney’s gay community is rightly hurt and angry. Police should not march in this year’s Mardi Gras.” So said the Sydney Morning Herald editorial on 25 February. By the end of the day, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras board had uninvited the police from marching in Saturday’s parade. By 28 February, they had invited them back, albeit wearing T-shirts with a police logo instead of their uniforms.

The hurt and anger to which the Herald editorial referred arose from the domestic violence-fuelled murders of a Sydney gay couple, Jesse Baird and Luke Davies. Beau Lamarre-Condon, a gay police officer, has been charged with the murders. He allegedly used his police gun.

The only positive to come out of this horrendous crime is that it has re-raised the argument about whether the police should march in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras at all. Not because an individual cop turns out to be a homicidal stalker, but because they are the police, and not everyone has forgotten their repressive role in society, past and present.

The police have been part of Mardi Gras for 26 years. In that time they have committed, as an institution, egregious crimes against every oppressed group in society. Lamarre-Condon himself was photographed marching in the police contingent at Mardi Gras in 2020. That was the year he was also filmed repeatedly tasering an Indigenous man in the face, neck and chest. He was later cleared by an “internal investigation” in what is standard procedure for police caught enacting violence on and off the job.

The Mardi Gras board didn’t seem to think this—or the other ongoing crimes of the police force—was a good enough reason to question the cops’ participation.

So why this time? Timing played a role. News of the murders came to light ten days before Mardi Gras, and only two months after the police’s refusal to even apologise when an inquiry into LGBTI hate crimes criticised them in December for being “indifferent, negligent, dismissive or hostile” to the investigation. More importantly, while much grief ensued for the victims, there was also from many an angry reaction against the cops in general.

The NSW police commissioner Karen Webb understood what was at stake. She needed to draw a line between the “one bad apple” and the force as a whole. How else to explain that on 24 February she suddenly remembered to apologise for the four decades of LGBTI hate crimes that the police had previously ignored?

The Mardi Gras board decided to make a gesture to assuage popular anger at the police. Yet what has eventuated is meaningless. The logic of “inclusion” based on identity (“don’t you realise there are LGBTI police officers?”) won the day and the cops were back in. When it came down to it, even a one-off absence of the police from the parade raised too many awkward questions. Most importantly, why was this repressive force ever part of an event that had started with a police riot against protesters for LGBTI rights?

The police should never have been invited in the first place.

Mardi Gras at its 1978 origin was a protest in solidarity with the gay liberation movement in the United States. It took place on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots of 1969 that initiated that movement. The first Mardi Gras and the campaign to drop the charges against protesters that followed it gave an enormous boost to LGBTI radicalism and mass mobilisation in Australia.

Yet twenty years later, in 1998, Mardi Gras had been so transformed that the cops were invited to participate in an event that had once chanted: “Stop police attacks on gays, women and Blacks!”.

Had the police changed their spots? Or had Mardi Gras? 

Did, perhaps, the police get let into the parade in 1998 because they made a nice apology in 1997 for the beatings and arrests that they inflicted on the original Mardi Gras protesters in 1978? Nothing like it. That insincere utterance only came in 2016, after they’d already been polluting the parade with their presence for eighteen years (and three years after they physically attacked several gay men on the night of Mardi Gras 2013—something else that failed to move the Mardi Gras board to un-invite them).

The police force is a violent, right-wing institution that plays no role in protecting oppressed people, and an enormous role in holding up structures of oppression and injustice. Police brutality is defended by and entrenched in the entire institution.

What has changed is Mardi Gras’ “management”. Having the police march in the parade is just one sign of what a conservative corporate entity Mardi Gras has become. 

While Marxists, socialists, anarchists and other radicals established Mardi Gras, its nature did not go uncontested. By 1980, the key debate was between those fighting to retain Mardi Gras as a political protest and those (including gay business owners) who wanted to make it a celebration of “our lifestyle”. That the date of the march was shifted in 1981 from the chilly climes of the winter Stonewall anniversary in June to the tourism-friendly warmth of late summer should tell you who won.

Mardi Gras was no longer organised by the radical activists of the Gay Solidarity Group but by a specific Gay Mardi Gras Task Group, the forerunner of today’s board of directors of what is now a registered charity and company with a multi-million-dollar turnover. The parade itself is a huge tourism event from which major profits are made, many of them by the organisation’s corporate backers such as Qantas. Political floats are rare. The 78ers float is now limited to 100 participants—apparently subject to the same numerical restriction as the police who bashed and arrested us throughout 1978.

The only positive about today’s Mardi Gras is that the crowds of people of all genders and sexualities that come to view it—hundreds of thousands lining the parade route, and millions online—remind us of the effect that radical mass campaigns for LGBTI rights, from Mardi Gras to marriage equality, have had on popular attitudes.

The police, on the other hand, have resisted every advance. Normalising this repressive force by including them in the Mardi Gras has not improved them one bit. Instead, it has whitewashed their true nature.

Diane Fieldes is a 78er who marched in the “drop the charges” rally on 27 August 1978 at which more than 100 people were arrested.