Black Lives & White Nights: How our struggles connect
Last week, I was scheduled to appear on MSNBC at 10pm EST as part of their coverage of the Supreme Court's marriage equality arguments. 10pm was also the time the first curfew in Baltimore was set to go into effect, which led the network to postpone their marriage equality coverage in order to focus on the events unfolding in Maryland following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. When some friends and supporters realized that MSNBC had shifted its attention, they took to social media to express their disappointment. While I appreciate the fierce commitment so many have to marriage equality, it made me worry that too many fail to see how our own struggle for equality and the events in Baltimore relate—or worse, how some in their judgment of Baltimore’s riots seem to have forgotten the similar violence surrounding the LGBT movement’s early demonstrations. That most cities celebrate Pride towards the end of June is not a coincidence. It marks the anniversary of one of our own uprisings: the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Every year, we commemorate the nights when LGBT New Yorkers refused to continue submitting to government sanctioned brutality and discrimination. Rioting was not our first instinct, but we’d turned to the police for protection and received the opposite, we’d turned to our legislatures and courts but were given no relief. So we fought back, threw bricks, destroyed property, and sent the message that we would no longer suffer their cruelty in silence. And Stonewall was by no means the only LGBT uprising, nor was it the most violent.
The Compton Cafeteria Riot: in 1966, patrons at a restaurant popular with transgender people fought back against police brutality and arbitrary arrests. In the ensuing violence, which drew other members of the LGBT community, a police car was destroyed, a newsstand was burned, and the cafeteria was left in ruins. This didn’t mark the end of trans harassment by cops, but it marked a turning point.
The Snake Pit Riot: continued city-sanctioned discrimination after Stonewall resulted in this riot in New York in 1970. A police raid of the Snake Pit Bar ended with the blood of police and patrons staining the streets, and 167 arrests. This riot fanned the flames that helped spur on the very first Gay Pride Parade three months later.
The White Night Riot: when Dan White, the former policeman who assassinated Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone, was let off with only a manslaughter sentence in 1979, more than 5000 people descended on City Hall demanding justice. By the end of the night, a dozen police cars were in flames along with 8 other vehicles, protestors were using stolen tear gas against the police, and 60 officers were injured along with 140 protestors. The next day, LGBT leadership refused to apologize, and the next elections saw a surge in gay and pro-gay city officials.
In my eyes, the parallels between the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 70s and the black rights movement of a century ago and today are undeniable. Then, LGBT lives didn't matter in the eyes of those with power. Today, black lives still don't matter to far too many in power. We have each appealed to the powers that be for protection only to have those protections denied, and we have each then turned to the streets to shed light on our struggles. Now, I would hope LGBT people might resist the blindness of myopia and support our brothers and sisters in other oppressed communities. And not only because there are members of the LGBT community within the black community, but because if we pay attention to our history and care about our future, it becomes clear we are fighting the same fight for a more just and equal society for everyone—no matter who you love, or the color of your skin.