The Center for Grassroots Oversight

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Profile: Sara Pursley

Sara Pursley was a participant or observer in the following events:

An impromptu rally on New York City’s Fifth Avenue to mourn and protest the recent murder of a gay college student in Wyoming, Matthew Shepard (see October 9, 1998 and After), ends with at least 96 arrests and several injuries after demonstrators face off with police in riot gear and on horseback. No one is seriously injured during the confrontation, which features several short charges by police officers wielding billy clubs and plunging their horses into the crowd. Rally organizers did not secure a permit to march from the city. Over 4,000 people attend the march, billed as a “political funeral” to protest Shepard’s murder. The rally turns confrontational after police refuse to allow the marchers to take to the street. Organizers and marchers will accuse the police of overreacting, and say that the rally would have remained peaceful had they been allowed to complete their march. “The police refused to negotiate with us,” says organizer Sara Pursley. “The police refused even to talk to us. And by doing so, they created far more havoc in the city than we had ever planned to create.” She calls the police response “cruel and brutal.” Police say that the marchers endangered public safety by walking in the street. Police Commissioner Patrick Kelleher says of the police response: “They had a right to gather. But once they left the sidewalk, they were endangering the motorists, they were endangering the pedestrians. And we were forced to make arrests.” Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who usually takes a hardline stance against civil disturbances, says he understands the marchers’ feelings. “It’s a very worthy cause,” he says. “I can understand why they are so outraged and upset.” However, Giuliani supports the police response. Organizers later say they were surprised to see how many people joined in the rally. Pursley later says she and the other organizers expected 500 people at best. (Collins 10/20/1998; Kifner 10/21/1998) The New York Times editorial board is highly critical of the police response. Marchers should have secured a permit, the editors say in an op-ed, but the police response was excessive. (New York Times 10/21/1998)


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