A Story of Queer Riot

by Joni Cohen + Sophie Monk

9 July 2017

Joe Piette/Flickr

On June 27th, 1969, what began as a routine police raid of the Greenwich village gay bars on a sultry summer evening, ended in a historic upheaval in the course of queer liberation: the Stonewall riots, the first Pride.

The story of Stonewall continues to circulate among queer communities as a counter-narrative to the steady defanging of Pride’s radical beginnings and a reminder of what we are fighting for and against. Our re-telling seeks to re-articulate Stonewall not purely as a spontaneous reaction to the conditions of queer life in 1969, but as a tactic of political antagonism proper to both its historical moment and ours today. Our aim is release Stonewall from the annals of history where it often seems confined as a story that we can pick up periodically and discard at will. Nor do we wish to remember Stonewall as a hallowed moment of unapologetic mutiny that gave way to a more rational and publically amenable Pride, thus fulfilling its liberatory project. Instead, we understand Stonewall as a riot that is still unravelling today, and in doing so, we centre the first-hand accounts of its heroes and legends, drawing on Sylvia Riviera’s detailed speech on the night’s events.

The raids

As Sylvia details, the raid that immediately triggered the Stonewall riots was part of a volley of similar busts executed by a specialised police squad ominously named the Public Moral Squad. Their objectives were simple: to carry out wave upon wave of assault against deviants, perverts and freaks, what we now understand as lesbians, gays and transgender people (not necessarily respectively).

The political situation, though never specifically named as such, was something akin to the war on drugs, or the war on terror in the way that laws were mobilised against marginalised communities in a campaign of police violence. The police were empowered by a set of laws, some of which directly criminalised the queer community others. The first and most obvious: the criminalisation of homosexuality. This particular law was not so convenient for the war that was being waged, since it hinged upon factors that were difficult to prove. The second, however, was the Three-Piece Rule, which stipulated three or more items of gender-specific clothing to match the coercively assigned/state-recognised gender of individual queers. This law empowered the cops to carry out bodily inspections of genitalia, and gave them the right to arrest anyone found with the wrong genital-clothing combination. The third law was concerned with the alcohol licensing of particular establishments, enabling the police to target not just individuals, but the institutions and businesses that offered spaces of sanctuary to the most marginalised and criminalised within these communities. At this point, many of the bars in Greenwich village were run directly by the mafia, which allowed the police to attack queers under the guise of combatting organised crime. Finally, the illegal trading of sex and drugs, also attached to these communities, became a way-in for the police to justify extreme violence against the bars’ patrons.

These raids became so commonplace at the time, that a certain culture of routine had emerged. The lights would go on, dancing would cease. The bartender would scrape together as much cash as possible from the till to be hidden, in full knowledge that whatever takings from the night would soon become the bounty of the police officers, there to collect their payoff.

“Faggots over here, dykes over here, freaks over there,” was the familiar refrain, barked by the commanding officers on scene, immediately stratifying, according to their own categories, a gorgeous, messy assemblage of queers from disparate experiences and identity groups, who only moments before had been drinking and dancing rapturously inside the club, shedding the violence of their daily lives within the relative shelter provided by bars like The Stonewall Inn. The usual procedure would commence. Individuals would be scanned for any sign of gender variance, ID cards consulted. Public, intentionally humiliating genital checks would be carried out in plain view. Those found to be in violation of gender laws were cuffed. On any other night, the patrons would have dispersed into the cafes and other bars nearby, while their arrested peers were taken outside into the police van, driven to the station and beaten, raped and humiliated with impunity. But this was not that night.

Maybe it was because Judy Garland had just committed suicide, Sylvia scoffs, maybe it was just muggy and warm, and the crowd especially cranky – more likely, it was that all state-driven violence against communities has its thresholds, its tipping points, beyond which the usual rituals and routines are no longer bearable – that instead of dispersing, the crowds collected on the pavement opposite the bar. The exact content of the whispers that milled among the bar’s patrons have been lost to history, but what we do know, is that as the police headed out of the bar with a parade of cuffed and beaten down gender-variant people and made for the vans, patrons began flinging the change from their pockets and handbags at them, yelling, “Here’s your fucking payoff, you pigs!”

The precise spark, stone, brick, whatever you want to call it, that shifted the night in the direction of insurrection, has been contested ever the more hotly as the history of Stonewall has become canonised and continually re-written in a way that often consciously effaces the raced and gendered dynamics at play within the violence of state-sponsored queer-misia in the 1960s. When we tell the story of an insurrection, perhaps the point is not to look for a split-second, the instigating moment, the first brick and whose precise hand it was flung from, but to look instead for the ways in which a crowd, or mob, collaboratively turns to arms, with the swelling of a collective anger, and emergence of a front line.

The hail of metal and angry shouts clattering against the pigs drove them back into the safety of the club itself, which was then padlocked with the cops inside. Sylvia, not knowing what one was, was handed a lit Molotov cocktail, and told to throw before it exploded. She recounts proudly that she obliged, amending that it was not the first thrown that night, but the second. Crucially, at the core of this upwelling of confrontation stood two women of colour, herself, Latina, and friend and comrade, Marsha P. Johnson, Black, both of them of trans experience. These were the people who were only begrudgingly included in the first organisations of this struggle precisely because they “were gung-ho… were the front liners. We wouldn’t take no shit from nobody. We had nothing to lose.”

Police were barricaded inside, the queers outside, on the street. This spatial switch shows the upheaval of power in this clash. For these glorious hours, the sanctuary of the bar was no longer needed. The streets belonged to the queers. The police, in a rare and beautiful carnivalesque inversion, suddenly became those who required sanctuary. Just like the queers, moments before, they were cut off from the rest of the world and their allies. The phone lines were cut, no backup was coming. The cops found themselves on the wrong side of a brick, of a barricade, of a wall, of history. Terrified of the mighty throng outside, the order was given to shoot if the door was broken down. A parking metre was uprooted and used as a makeshift battering ram. The arrested were not about to be left inside at the hands of the cops.

Queer riot

Stonewall was a riot, and the riot is the form of antagonism proper to those who are surplus to requirement. Whereas traditionally, the domain of the strike has been the workplace, the site of production, the riot instead takes place in the street, both residential and commercial marketplaces, the sites of social reproduction and circulation of capital. Joshua Clover has theorised that the riot is the form of class struggle not around the value of labour, but the value of life and its ability to reproduce itself. This is precisely why it emerges as rebellion against conditions of surplusness and inability to survive. It is the mode of struggle adopted by those who hold no semblance of leverage, but their own corporeal power to smash, burn, loot, gather and bash back with equal to surpassing force against tides of state violence.

In the context of legislative and social persecution in 1969 North America, where our story is set, queer life could only exist at the margins of the capitalist economy. If any legal work could be found for queers at this time, it was usually marked by precarity and only made possible by complex tactics of disguise, never really secure from the possibility of discovery and consequent ostracisation. For this reason, paid and legal work was rarely stable or long-term, and queers were left with little choice but to find means of survival within criminalised sections of the economy. Chief among these would be drug dealing and sex work. Housing conditions similarly ranged from precarious tenancies under slumlords to squatting and homelessness. The threat of eviction, simply for being queer, was a constant possibility, further complicating the conditions of informal work. For example, sex work had to be sought in dangerous and heavily policed streets to avoid landlords becoming aware of queer tenants’ participation in shadow economies.

These precarities of housing and work – produced by persecution – therefore exacerbated one other in a positive feedback loop, materially instantiating queerness as lived economic realities ranging from precarious to surplus. It was greatly preferred that queers simply did not exist at all. This sheds light on the significance of the throwing of coins at the police that began the Stonewall riot. It was an act that exposed the extent to which, in those conditions of persecution, money offered little to no abatement to these conditions of suffering. The possibilties of gaining any significant amount of wealth was completely foreclosed and the little money they had could do little for them. The coins dug out of pockets were worth more to them as projectiles, as weapons, than they were as the source of their next meal.

It follows then, that when one’s means of survival exist outside activities central to the workings of society, that alternative modes of antagonism must be found. Whereas the efficacy of the strike hinges upon the making visible of one’s value by withholding it, populations that are surplus to the production of value simply lack access to this kind of political leverage. When society would like nothing more than for queers to withdraw themselves from existence, value cannot be made visible by withdrawal; instead, value must be enforced through confrontation.

Since Stonewall, the Pride movement has had its milestones and victories, which have since been undone by economic crisis and neoliberalisation programmes, as precarity has increased for the general population. These include The Sexual Offences Act 1967 which decriminalised homosexuality in England and the decriminalisation acts that followed in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the USA in the early 1980s, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage across the Global North. These laws supposedly enshrine the rights of queers to exist and thrive, however it is obvious how limited and disciplinary their purpose so often is.

The victories that have been won are largely the preserve of “homosexuality,” used as a catch-all for all modes of queer life, though evidently failing to dissolve the impediments to survival faced by marginalised queers. Most politicians and institutions that trot out the empty and worn phrases of LGBTQIA acceptance trail off in their understanding and sentiment by the letter ‘B’. Trans people still exist in relative surplusness. Rates of unemployment, homelessness and suicide are vastly higher in the trans community than in the queer community as a whole. What provisions and protections there are for trans people are begrudgingly given, and subject to requirements of behaviour, gender narrative and expression that trans people must conform to in order to survive.

If we assess the net material gains of the queer liberation movement since Stonewall, we see an improvement operating upon a scale. The precarity of queer life has been decreased but this gain has been unevenly distributed across the multiple intersections of the queer population. There has not, however, been a difference in kind achieved; queers do not share the same possibility of a safe and secure life that straight and cis people do. For many queers, the surplusness and precarity of the 1960s is still close enough to be comprehended. If this weren’t true, then the story of Stonewall would not continue resonate with us; we would not still be waiting for the riots to come.

The riot form is not an aberration in the course of queer liberation, nor a violent spasm that we must struggle to reconcile with liberal sensibilities. It is a political tactic that still belongs to our communities today; it is still proper to the current material conditions of many of communities, and increasingly so. As neoliberalism continues to capitalise upon dispossession and austerity, the gains of the Pride movement are being steadily eroded. Those of us who are not cushioned by a white-cis-gay assimilation are left vulnerable to the rise of the far right in both the streets and halls of government. As we write, we live in a state governed by a coalition of open queer- and trans-misics. The course of queer liberation does not take place on a linear axis of progress, and we are seeing counter-liberatory movements take power. The time of a resurgence of queer rioting is not far off. If not now, then soon.

Pride or shame?

The fires of the first Pride blazed for hours over the course of that summer night and the next. Our question now: do they still blaze for us? If the first Pride was an opening of the door, out into the street, out into a position of jubilant power, a kicking away of the ladder of sanctuary, what is Pride today? There are some for whom that fire no longer burns, no longer needs to burn. We speak here mainly of the white, male gay community, supremely assimilated, represented wholly in the cohort of corporate floats that now sail down the pre-planned, welcomely policed avenues of Barclays-sponsored Gay Pride. For the rest of us, queer and trans women and non-binary people, especially those of colour and those with precarious immigration status (or none at all), the occupation of the streets was lost and we have had no choice but to retreat back to our sanctuaries, now dwindling in number at the hands of gentrification, once again. The door was flung open, only to be closed.

Pride, now, must primarily be a fight for the rights of the queers and trans people of colour and migrant communities that were so unforgivably left behind by historical liberation movements. The fact that Pride no longer speaks for us is evident in the interventions that we have seen in the past month alone. In the cities of the Global North in which Pride has become an exercise in  self-congratulatory corporate pinkwashing and gatekeeping, the tables are beginning to turn, and we are seeing a resurgence of a confrontational politics. In London, over the past few years, alternative Prides have sprung up in the form of Queer Picnic, a QTIPOC-organised space for whom Pride does not speak. Only yesterday, however, we saw Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants wrestling to the front of the Pride in London march, intervening in the river of pinkwash with a wall of rainbow-coloured smoke. This is a group that has demonstrated its dedication to defending queer migrants and migrants in general, in its successful blockage of a mass deportation and its mobilisation against the EDL’s co-option of the Orlando massacre for Islamo-misic ends, in Manchester last month. In New York, Minneapolis and Seattle, among other US cities, we have seen action taken against the white supremacy of Pride, with queers of colour putting their bodies in the way of Pride marches, chanting “No Justice No Pride.” In our own city, Sheffield, the police have been expressly banned from participating in Pride as police, heralding the beginning of a recovery of Pride’s history, while opening up the possibility of genuinely radical and antagonistic Prides in the Global North.

Though these interventions, at the present moment, are largely symbolic and discursive, they crucially take the form of a material blocking of the flows of pinkwashed and white supremacist capital and racist border policy. This article is not a cynical commentary on our failures, but a recognition of the trajectory towards a liberated Pride that has already begun. The tactics of the riot form are already being harnessed in the field of queer struggle, to arrest the flow of Pride’s descent away from the riot. A riot within a former riot. Stonewall was a riot to be proud of, and it is only through recovering that history of queer rioting that Pride can become something to be proud of once more.

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