Thousands attend Wilton Manors Stonewall Festival amid heightened security

WILTON MANORS, Fla. (WSVN) — Tens of thousands of people descended on Wilton Manors to celebrate LGBTQ pride, Saturday, and the festivities, held almost a week after the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, proved to be both euphoric and solemn.

Police expected between 20,000 to 30,000 to come join in the fun at the annual Wilton Manors Stonewall Festival and Parade, one of the city’s biggest gay pride events.

But the parade also featured a somber moment as participants carried white signs with the names of the 49 people fatally gunned down at Pulse Nightclub, early Sunday. “That was a very, very spiritual moment,” said parade-goer Robert Mason.

The words “Orlando” and “Pulse” were easily noticed from start to finish as participants chanted, “Love always wins.”

Attendee David Smith tied a rainbow flag with the victims’ names to his body. “Every time I got to someone that was, like, 19 or 20, I just kind of lost it,” he said. “I had to wait, go back.”

But even though the sadness was palpable, parade-goers told 7News they felt a need to show up to celebrate their community and answer hate with love. “I think people felt, ‘You know what? I’m going. Whoever wants to do something bad, you don’t scare me,'” said attendee Michael O’Reilly. “I’m here. We’re here.”

This year’s heavier police presence was a welcome sight for some parade-goers. “I love watching them go up and down the street. I can feel it right here,” said Greg Yeager as he pointed to his heart.

A Wilton Manors Police spokesperson said several other agencies joined them so they could provide parade-goers with a safe space. “You’ll see Coral Springs, Broward Sheriff’s Office, Fort Lauderdale Police Department, Miami-Dade,” said Jennifer Bickhardt. “You’ll see numerous departments out. I’m sure you guys have seen them. We want everyone to feel safe.”

The colorful parade commemorates the June 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, seen as the catalyst for the modern gay rights movement.

For parade-goer John Carson, the festival was a family outing. “Everybody is just — they’re proud. They’re proud, so we had to bring our little one,” he said.

Attendees made it perfectly clear they stand in solidarity with the people of Orlando. “Spread the love,” said Frank Caputo. “That’s the message. It’s all about love today.”

Festivities are expected to last until at least 3 a.m. on Sunday. Some bars and clubs along the parade route have taken extra precautions.

At around 10 p.m., police evacuated the Wilton Drive area due to severe weather.

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