GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids Pride Festival is returning in person this Saturday for the first time since 2019. As thousands prepare for the celebration at Calder Plaza, organizers have announced a change this year involving the Grand Rapids Police Department.

Grand Rapids Police officers won’t be at Pride this year. Instead, organizers have hired their own security.

Jazz McKinney became the executive director for the Grand Rapids Pride Center in March of 2021. McKinney told News 8 the change is meant to help attendees feel safer.

“People of color and especially people of color who are LGBTQ have been telling us they’ve been having issues with police for years,” McKinney said. “We just haven’t listened or maybe didn’t feel empowered to do something about it.”

McKinney said no more police officers at the festival was a long time coming.

“People of color, including myself, have been critiquing the Pride Center for years,” McKinney said. “It just fell on deaf ears.”

This year, activists gave the center an ultimatum.

“They essentially said, ‘If you refuse to listen to us this one final time, we will no longer engage with the pride center,’” McKinney said. “And not only that, we will affect your standing in the community.”

Organizers have hired two independent security companies to patrol the event.

“We were able to hire two LGBTQ-affiliated companies that are very well trained,” McKinney said. “A lot of them are ex-military members. Because they are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, they understand the safety concerns and why we were asking for no police at pride.”

McKinney said Pride started as a demonstration against police brutality, referencing the Stonewall riots in 1969 and other demonstrations even before that.

“It doesn’t make sense to invite the very people you are protesting to be there to protect you,” McKinney said.

News 8 reached out to GRPD for comment. A spokesperson said the department is “committed to providing a safe environment across the city and aligning police resources in a way that accomplishes that in an effective manner.”

“For all permitted special events, GRPD works with the City’s Office of Special Events and event organizers to determine safety and security needs based on a number of factors,” the spokesperson added. “Not all events need officers specifically assigned to them in addition to the regular patrol operations.”

The spokesperson said that “officers will be working the downtown area as usual and will be available for any calls for service or needs from the Pride Festival and/or its attendees.”

McKinney added that the private security companies will have a direct line to GRPD.

“If for some reason we have something happen that exceeds the security team’s capabilities, they are still able to call GRPD that is two or three minutes away from the event,” McKinney said.

The change, McKinney said, is a step toward the Pride Center representing more members of the community.

“Make it so we can truly say we’re trying to serve all LGBTQ+ people,” McKinney said. “And my philosophy is if that if I am listening to those of us that are the most silenced or the most marginalized, everybody else will naturally benefit from that. I just want to make sure anyone who walks through those doors understands that we’re there from them.”

PRIDE FESTIVAL KICKS OFF SATURDAY

The Pride Festival kicks off at Calder Plaza Saturday at noon and runs through 10 p.m. The theme is “Together Again” as the event makes its in-person return.

There will be more than 100 street vendors, live entertainment with local artists, food trucks and a beer garden. McKinney said a number of businesses and organizations across West Michigan will be there “to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community.”

Organizers said there will be a “family fun zone,” with face painting, coloring, bubbles, chalk and more.

The event is free to attend but organizers are welcoming donations to the Pride Center.

Click here for the festival’s full entertainment schedule.