The Baltimore Riots are over. Freddie Gray is still dead, obviously. A half dozen officers have been charged in relation to the killing, but their subsequent convictions remain to be seen. The folks from Baltimore didn’t even give the justice system a chance to fail, like those in Ferguson did, they just assumed it was broken and started throwing rocks.
Hell, why not? After all, rock chucking and fire setting has been the traditional response of minority communities to an equally longstanding police tradition of targeting said communities with violence…and usually getting away with it. This tradition spans a half century at least. Not that cops weren’t killing poor black folk prior to the sixties, but it wasn’t really until the sixties that people began to respond by rioting and looting. Up until this time, somehow, being shot by the police wasn’t the black community’s biggest problem.
In the 1960s, Americans did more rioting than any other decade, four to five times more in fact, than the thirties, when people were as broke and hungry and abused as ever. In 1964, a New York police lieutenant shot and killed a fifteen year old Harlem kid in front of his friends. A shit storm ensued, on the spot, and the rioting crowd swelled to more than 4000. For four days, angry citizens threw rocks, set fires, attacked the police station and, of course, looted stores…all to no avail. The police lieutenant remained in the clear. Irregardless, similar riots occurred that year in Pennsylvania, Chicago and New Jersey, initiating a 51 year old cultural trend which has yet to have any real impact on the problem, but has retained its position as the black community’s go-to response in such matters.
Not that someone, somewhere, consciously plans these actions as a response…like I said…it’s a cultural trend. Riots tend to happen in clusters, at least with regards to cause, and the clusters typically span across a few decades. In the first couple decades of the 1900s, the thing was for a big gang of whites to get together and murder blacks. Racial attacks, like those in Tulsa and Rosewood, left hundreds dead. The other thing was for primarily white union members to violently suppress others’ opportunities for the same contracts. After the 1927 Herrin massacre, when rioting strikers looted gun stores and shot down a bunch of black strike breakers in cold blood, the focus of labor riots shifted to workers rights for a decade or so. Racial riots shifted in nature as well, decreasing in levels of violence and intensity, and for the first time, minority groups became the willing participants of melees like the Zoot Suit Riots, instead of the victims they had been in the past. Things then quieted in the fifties…the calm before the storm.
The sixties were indeed a perfect storm, a convergence of unrest so varied that the parties involved fed off one another and mustered a collective momentum not seen since the American Revolution. “There was madness in every direction,” wrote Hunter Thompson, “you could strike sparks anywhere.” For some reason, in the 1960s, a lot of Americans decided that they deserved to be treated equally and they took it to the fucking streets. If the blacks were rioting about being victimized by white cops, why shouldn’t drag queens riot too? After all, by the sixties, a black guy at least had a perceived right to walk down a sidewalk without being arrested simply for being black.
Not so for drag queens. While homosexuality in general was frowned upon and in fact legally punishable, it was sometimes hard to prove. Crossdressing, on the other hand, was also illegal and very easy to prove. During a customary raid on a gay bar, “suspicious ladies” would be led into the restroom by a female officer who would check for penises. Offenders would then be arrested. I’m not kidding…that’s the power of the American tax dollar as hard at work as ever…Stop-and-Frisk meets TSA. So on one particularly balmy 1969 New York night, the patrons of a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, decided to fight back.
After refusing to consent to a penis search, several people were arrested. As they were being led to police cars, a crowd gathered outside. Witnesses reported an arrestee pleading for bystanders to intervene. And then, after suggesting that the cops be paid off on the spot, someone threw a penny. And then another. And another. And then a rock. And then it was on. A hailstorm of foreign objects rained down on the police officers, who were forced back inside the bar for their own safety…or driven into the bar like cattle…take your pick. Outside, a surge of entitled gay rage spread throughout the crowd. Participants have expressed a collective feeling of having had enough. Things had to change, and it all had to start somewhere.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the mob had gotten to the officers cornered in the bar…your guess is as good as mine. Not that they didn’t try, mind you. Multiple accounts indicate one or more alleged drag queens ripping a parking meter out of the sidewalk and then using it, siege style, as a battering ram against the buildings entrance. Unsuccessful, they attempted another classic siege strategy, setting the building on fire. Remember, these weren’t Roman centurions. Or common street thugs. These were dudes in dresses with size twelve star-spangled pumps who’d probably never hurt anyone before in their entire lives.
And they beat the shit out of those cops. Another witness recollected a drag queen straddling a prone policeman, cowgirl style, while (s)he thrashed him mercilessly with with one of those big assed shoes. And it wasn’t just the cross dressers bashing white devil cops with their purses…though the imagery is almost too awesome not to dwell on…but the vast majority of New York’s gay community. Just as the police eventually managed to summon assistance, home phones all over Greenwich Village rung off the hook.
Shit got wild. The city had to send in their tactical riot squad to extract the officers trapped inside the Stonewall. The gays rallied enough reinforcements to sustain a full length Broadway style kick line while still managing to overturn cars, light fires and chuck rocks. I have yet to figure out what could possibly be contained within a transvestite’s purse to make it heavy enough to smash a police cruiser’s windshield.
By sunup on Saturday, the violence had stopped and the crowds had dispersed. But it didn’t last. Saturday night’s rioting was described by some as being even more intense and violent than Friday’s, although accounts vary. Nighttime clashes with police continued through the middle of the next week, and then the fighting was over. The gays went back to their lives and the police went back to oppressing them. It wasn’t long before Inspector Seymore Pine was raiding gay bars again, despite the fact he’d barely escaped the Stonewall Inn alive.
But while laws hadn’t changed, attitudes had. The gay community found that in order to riot about their right to be gay, they had to come out of the closet into the light of police cruisers and paddy wagons set ablaze. I’m a clinical sociopath – I know what masks and closets feel like – and I also know how liberating it feels to let your nature shine in the bright light of a fire you intentionally set. It feels fucking good. And for the gays, it took, so as the fires went out and the day broke, they discovered the sun feels even better.
New York City saw it’s first gay publications and the community began to associate on another level, that of activism. The conflagrations, it seemed, hadn’t gone out entirely, but had activated secondary fires in the hearts and minds of the homosexual collective. By the next June, they organized a march in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots. News had spread, it seemed, as had the metaphorical flames, and marches were held in a number of U.S. cities. It’s 2015, and this month, they’ll be marching again. Betcha didn’t know that’s where Pride parades came from, did you?
The black community just had their latest parade as well. It was in Baltimore this time, but instead of commemorating the beginning of a rather successful movement, or even the previous riots in Baltimore, it was just the same old noise. From Harlem to Watts, L.A. In 1992, Ferguson, Baltimore…nothing changes but the names. The significance of the community’s rage against the institution, however justified, is ultimately lost in the lawlessness that inevitably takes control, so much so that when Bill O’Reilly pointed out how dem colored folk need to do some policing of themselves, he kind of had a point.
The gays understood this. For them, Stonewall was nothing more than a rallying point, a catalyst that drew the community together and brought the issues out into the light. When the fires went out and the sun rose, they began to organize, and then to move forward. I dare say that the effectiveness of the gay rights movement has far surpassed that of the civil rights movement. A big part of this, I think, is a level of cohesiveness that the black community has never attained. Close they’ve come, but never enough so for a cigar.
I’ve always framed the civil rights movement through the Martin vs. Malcolm paradigm…that is…non-violent resistance vs. resistance by any means necessary. Both have their place, both are useful, even necessary…but they can’t work independently of one another. Non-violence means nothing if one has never experienced violence just as violence itself loses significance when there is no foreseeable hope of peace. Resistance is a school of thought unto itself and in order to be successful it must be inclusive of all approaches. The very notion of a Martin vs. Malcolm paradigm demonstrates an internal conflict which dooms the movement from its inception and therein lies the lack of cohesiveness.
Before Stonewall, the gay rights movement was, well, still in the closet. Associations like Mattachine and the Daughters of Bilitis were established in the fifties and advocated for the rights of gays, but encouraged members to assimilate into straight society. Their strategy was to gain ground by convincing the mass culture that they were no different. A Mattachine march on the White House went unnoticed, in fact, because it was just a dozen or so dudes in suits walking up and down the sidewalk. A couple of years after Stonewall, there were over a thousand, and everyone noticed them.
Frank Kameny, the MLK of the gay rights movement, was critical of the Stonewall riots, as well as the sudden outing and publicization afterward. He later regretted his initial opinion, however, when he realized that even with his twenty years of work, it wasn’t until after Stonewall that he was able to garner the necessary public support to be the first openly gay candidate on a Congressional ballot. Kameny and the old schoolers had indeed assimilated, but it was not within the culture which they had expected. It suddenly became apparent that they didn’t have nearly as much in common with mainstream white America as they did with a handful of rock chunking transvestites.
For the last century and a half, black people have faced the same dilemma, at least with regards to their identity and position within America’s social food chain. The Martins preach assimilation and love while the Malcolms demand resistance against oppression. Both sides pretend to want to understand one another and work together…but ultimately, the push and pull they exert prevents any sort of unified black identity from ever really emerging. And identity is what it’s really all about, in the end.
“Ya wanna know how we screwed up in the beginning,” asked hip hop activist KRS-ONE in his song Higher Level. “We accepted our oppressor’s religion.”
It’s an excellent point. Why in the world, I wonder, would a people with a history of being enslaved subscribe to the very religion used to morally justify the wrongs inflicted upon them? When an imprisoned Paul met a runaway slave names Onesimus, he instructed the man to return to his master. When he decided this didn’t make him a big enough asshole, he wrote his Letter to the Ephesians, wherein chapter 6 admonishes slaves to be obedient to their masters as to their Lord Jesus Christ. Really now, Paul, really now.
So for me, with an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard to take a guy like Martin Luther King seriously. It’s even harder to stomach Baltimore mega church pastor Jamal Bryant, who, throughout the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, urged the community to calm down, drop the stones, stop setting fires and looting items that corporate white insurance companies would ultimately be paying for…to settle down and be, well, good ol’ friendly American negroes.
How would Stonewall have turned out if that one drag queen suddenly dropped the parking meter and proclaimed: “Settle down boys and girls, and remember that these policemen have rights too…now get on home now…and let these nice boys go back to institutionally molesting our entire culture!”
See what I mean?
So by the time the Baltimore riots were winding down, the black community was getting two barrels of advice to settle down and straighten up. Besides Bryant’s calls for nonviolent protest and peace, local gang leaders joined in as well, yep, the same guys who make the cops trigger happy and scared to begin with. The big question is, should the black community be listening to either party? Are religious leaders who propagate the same religion used to justify slavery thinking in terms of what is best for the people? Something tells me that Jamal Bryant, in his casual business attire, his downhome southern preacher affect and his 7500 strong flock of income producing sheep, has very little in common with those marginalized and murdered by the police culture. And as for the gang leaders, they are at least as bad, if not worse, than the nightstick toting police who beat their asses. Neither non-violent passive resistance, nor the white Jesus, nor black tar heroin will correct what is wrong.
But you can’t tell that shit to America, black or white. Americans are too busy singing praises of Baltimore’s own dragon lady and house nigga extraordinaire, Toya Graham. Graham claimed international fame after attacking her brick lobbing 16 year old son in front of news cameras. I’m sure you’ve seen it…it’s all over youtube. What really struck me was the public’s reaction, as well as that of local government, which was overwhelmingly positive. In any other context, a mother shown on live TV to be striking her teenaged son on or around his head while screaming profanity at him would be labeled a child abuser and likely prosecuted. It suddenly becomes acceptable however, and even praiseworthy in this situation. But the kid wasn’t looting or stealing or selling drugs or even back talking his mom…he was chunking rocks with his friends, all in support of one particular friend whom he claimed had been beaten by policemen.
Of course, Graham was praised by everyone from those old wrinkled bags on the View to Baltimore’s own police commissioner. “Good job Toya,” they all seem to say. “Way to use violence to instill the values of assimilation, submission and tolerance of abuse into the next generation.” Her pastor, none other than the aforementioned Jamal Bryant, also spoke warmly of her actions, as did the ghost of MLK.
The ghost of another “Milk,” on the other hand, probably sees it a little differently. Harvey Milk (first openly gay politician in office…and the first of such to be assassinated…and the second cause of the second series of flamboyantly gay riots) came out of the Stonewall era. He wasn’t militant or violent and he wasn’t nationalistically homosexual. What he was, was part of a very small demographic of American people who decided they weren’t going to fucking take it in the ass anymore, metaphorically speaking at least.
This demographic, though small, included a wide range of differences…from men who like men, to women who like women, to drag queens and whatever the hell you call women with mustaches and workboots, pretty much everything 1969 America regarded as sexually deviant, except perhaps the pedophiles and dudes who like to screw wet tree stumps. The diversity of the movement didn’t stop there either; differences based on race and ethnicity, socioeconomics, the same shit we all argue about-these differences were deemed secondary and sidelined in favor of the larger picture. And to show for it, they have a strong movement that has only gained in momentum. And they also have the Pride parades, their equivalent of the American Independence Day.
It’s hard to say if that is a reality the black community will ever be able to attain, but my magic eight ball says they won’t. The situation has been as it is for too long and the people involved, sadly, are trapped-unable to stop snapping at the bait. A free meal from a burning CVS is no different from the false hope offered by Jamal Bryant and his hoes and his precious white Jesus…one way tickets on a train with no real destination in sight, that is, save the mirage of equality and the fallacious notion that our country is built upon it.
And ain’t that just the awful, bloody truth of it all?