On June 28, 1969, officers of the NYPD raided a small dive bar in Greenwich Village, NY. According to the police, they were there as part of a crack down on the mafia crime family that owned the nightclub. But this façade faded quickly as the police forced occupants into the restrooms and searched their underwear, arresting anyone whose clothing didn’t match the genitals they found there. Before long, the pretense was dropped entirely, and the mass arrest of LGBTQ patrons began.
As men and women were carted out to waiting paddy wagons, they covered their faces and refused to provide identifications, knowing that if their names and faces became public they would lose their jobs, be rejected by family and friends, or worse.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, one of the first major uprisings in the LGBTQ rights movement. Instead of simply running and hiding from the police on that fateful June night in 1969, the LGBTQ community of Greenwich Village came together and rallied outside the Stonewall Inn, forcing the police to retreat. After 50 years, the LGBTQ community’s relationship with government authority remains complicated.
This year, a number of U.S. and Canadian cities asked local officers not to wear their uniforms while marching in the pride parade, sparking a heated debate. To their credit, police departments in major U.S. cities have come a long way since 1969. The local PDs regularly march in pride parades, welcome and recruit openly LGBTQ officers, and some have begun appointing full-time liaisons to the LGBTQ community. However, the distrust remains, anchored in a long history of police violence against the LGBTQ community, particularly among LGBTQ people of color.
Whether to welcome the police and acknowledge their progress or keep them at arm’s-length out of respect for those in our community who have every reason to feel threatened by their presence, is a question with no easy answer. This issue is only complicated further by the fact that we are three years into the most repressive, actively anti-LGBTQ presidential administrations in American history. Just as the NYPD did 50 years ago, Donald Trump and Mike Pence have used government authority to attack LGBTQ people.
The administration has rolled back protection for transgender people in the military, transgender children in schools, LGBTQ workers, and most recently, the adopted children of LGBTQ parents. These actions only harden and deepen our community’s suspicion of those who come in the name of “public safety” clothed in government authority. Our reactions are made all the more visceral by the fact that the government has moved from targeting our nightclubs to targeting our children.
I cannot provide any easy or comforting answers to this situation, but I can say that neither side has managed to grasp the moral high ground. Those who claim that we must simply embrace the police because of the progress they’ve made often do so without acknowledging the privileged position they hold in society that has afforded them freedom from police scrutiny or the legitimate grievances of marginalized, over-policed communities.
Those who claim we must ostracize the police similarly fail to acknowledge that the progress of our police departments has been a key reason why our LGBTQ communities and spaces are safer than they were 50 years ago, and perhaps even more concerning, the “other” LGBTQ police officers doing the truly courageous work of making change from within their departments.
Rather than offering a clean answer, I will offer two lessons that I think we can learn from the Stonewall Riots. First, the police exist to protect and serve their entire community. Full stop. It is unfair to brand today’s officers because of the actions of their predecessors. But fair or not, the police bear the burden of answering and curing the distrust created by their predecessors in uniform. Theirs is a position of such awesome power, authority and trust, that we can ask no less of them. To those who are already doing this, we see you and we appreciate you.
Second, now that we have the hard-won opportunity to engage with the police, we need to do so and work hard to keep those lines of communication open, for only through engagement will we have the police force that we need. We must also be very careful not to “other” LGBTQ officers. There are few actions more courageous than seeking to make change in an environment that is culturally change-averse and sometimes even hostile to LGBTQ people. It does a disservice to these courageous people, our movement and our community to marginalize those who go into the trenches every day in the hope that their example will lead to the very change we are demanding from the police.
But if we learn nothing else from the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, let us remember that we have been here before. We march this month not simply to celebrate our community and demand our right to exist, but also to resist the oppression that we have known so many times before — 50 years ago it came wearing an NYPD badge.
Today, it comes wearing the presidential seal. Let this year’s pride parade be the biggest, the loudest and the most colorful in memory. Let it include those from all walks of life, professions, races, genders, religions and nationalities. Let it include the entirety of our community. For like our forefathers and mothers at the Stonewall Inn, we are all being called upon to resist and reject bigotry clothed in authority and power of government, and, as Stonewall teaches us, only acting together can we force it to retreat.
Michael Vargas is a business and securities lawyer and a part-time professor at Santa Clara University Law School. Vargas also chairs the American Bar Association’s committee on Business Law Education and serves on the executive board of the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, and on the boards of BAYMEC and the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce.
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