Riots and Rights: The Lessons of Stonewall in the Modern Day

By Niko Skaperdas

With the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arburry, and George Floyd, protests have broken out calling for justice for the victims of police brutality, police reform, and tangible action to improve the lives and status of black Americans through policy and police reform. As Scholar Simon Hall states, “A model of patriotic dissent has emerged in which activists have sought to narrow the gap between America’s lofty promise of liberty and justice for all and the actual experience of oppressed peoples…” (Hall). Only this statement was aimed at the Gay Rights movement, originating from the mid-twentieth century, not the modern day Black Lives Matter movement. These communities were and continue to be exhausted from the mistreatment by law enforcement and the lack of tangible policy protecting them. Many similarities can be drawn between the Gay Rights movement and the modern day Black Lives Matter movement (Hall 2010). 

Americans have taken to the streets to protest the killings of George Floyd, Ahmed Arburry, Breonna Taylor, in a similar fashion to the protests held for Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Rodney King in 1992. Much like the 1992 protests, 2020 has seen the escalation to riots in major American cities. Frustrations and anger toward the police have boiled over as tear gas, rubber bullets, and the brutal militarization of law enforcement were sent at Americans utilizing the first amendment’s right to protest. Little support has come from the executive branch in Washington DC as Donald Trump tweeted out “…when the looting starts, the shooting starts”.  

What is often forgotten is the long history of rioting in America and its connection to civil rights (Daks 2020). 

From the Boston Tea Party to Stonewall itself, riots have historically been the catalyst for change in American social ideology. Stonewall has historically been credited with being the foundation of the gay rights movement but a deeper look into Stonewall reveals a striking similarity with the modern Black Lives Matter movement. These riots and/or protests both were not spurred by a singular event, they were a boiling over point for two highly marginalized communities who were consistently victims of oppressive legislation and police brutality (Martin Duberman).

Kevin Mumford in his article “Lessons of Stonewall Fifty Years Later” cites stonewall as an important, widely publicized moment in queer history, therefore it was more of a uniting moment in history. Mumford writes how stonewall expanded the idea of the queer community to encompass the entire nation, “More so than local activism or the proliferation of bars, I believe that this expanding queer public space continues to bind LGBT lives across the nation”. (Mumford 2019)

Scholars Martin Duberman and Andrew Kopkind see the riots at stonewall were a reaction to years of homophobic and transphobic policy that suffocated queer individuals, expressed in their 1993 randition of the event “The Night They Raided Stonewall”. They speak to how women were required to wear at least three articles of feminine clothing and how it was a crime to be caught intimately with a member of the same sex acccording to Section 887(7) of the New York Criminal Conduct Code. Stonewall existed in a network of underground queer spaces, pioneered by the ball scene of New York. On June 28, 1969 in the early morning when the police entered the bar and began arresting patrons for their gender expression, anger grew in the crowd. These patrons were forced to heels, were thrown from the queens in the paddy wagon, and a mob that was forming outside of the bar evolved into a riot. The police were forced inside of the bar as patrons began breaking glass and throwing molotov cocktails. The violence escalated from and stretched through the following five days until July 3, 1969 (Duberman 1993). 

The Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 are similar to the Stonewall riots in the fact that they are a response to decades of mistreatment by law enforcement. The movement grew as a new generation of black Americans and allies continued to witness mistreatment of the black community within police precincts. According to researcher Russel Rickford, the movement is technologically savvy and millennial based, tending to vote democratic in local and federal elections. 2020 sees the movement to be more aggressive and widespread than previously, as protests spread across major American cities, several of which turning to riots. Like Stonewall, these protests and riots represent the point of frustration the black community has been forced to, with peaceful means not working to create lasting policy and reform (Rickford 2017).

George Floyd, who has become the face of the movement after his murder was filmed in May of 2020, was not the sole reason for these protests and riots. He, along with Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arburry, Trayvon Martin, and Rodney King were victims of a system that disproportionately harms black Americans. Their murders were the catalyst, the point of exhaustion that could no longer be tolerated by the black community (Berman 2020). 

Stonewall did not become a riot because queer people were kicked out of their favorite bar. Stonewall became a riot due to years of mistreatment of the queer community by law enforcement. Squad cars in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Minneapolis are not burning because of the death of one man. Squad cars are burning because, sadly, George Floyd is one name on a list of one thousand unarmed black americans killed by the police every year, according to the Washington Post. Reports from CNN tell of police attacking peaceful protesters, inciting riots. The social contract has been broken in the eyes of scholar Russel Rickford, as the police are not seen as public servants and protectors, but as antagonistic enforcers (Macaya 2020). 

Riots may be disturbing. Looting of department stores may be disturbing. But merchandise can be replaced by the large corporations who sell them. A human life can never be replaced. Violence is never and never was the intention of any protest, whether for gay rights or Black Lives Matter. Violence comes as a response to years of mistreatment. Stonewall is seen as a heroic moment in queer history but at the time was seen as a violent, disproportionate response. History has shown that in the moment, riots are terrifying to those outside of the marginalized community, but are remembered as landmark moments of progress in the American Consciousness. Only time will tell how Black Lives Matter is remembered but it exists in the “Great American Tradition” of riots against an oppressive system. 

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