Riots and commemoration

As massive anti-racism protests erupted across the US (and the rest of the world as well) we had yet another public conversation about the value and significance of riotous actions within protests. My own social media environment is very progressive and supportive of the protests, but even there I saw some disagreement, as some folks argued that rioting was valuable and significant, and others argued that it was not a significant part of the mostly peaceful protests.

After about a week, the latter view seemed to win out, especially in light of the much more significant violence perpetrated by the police themselves. “The Police are Rioting. We Need to Talk About It” is an article title that about sums it up. At this point I feel like I’m addressing the topic too late. But there’s one argument that stuck in my head.

This one argument justified recent riots by comparing them to the Stonewall riots. In the US, June is Pride Month, which originated as a commemoration of the Stonewall riots. The Stonewall riots clearly demonstrate the potential value of violent protest. On the other hand, the history of Stonewall is heavily mythologized, and there is a danger of drawing the wrong conclusions based on fiction.

Today I’d like to discuss a scholarly article: “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth” by Elizabeth A Armstrong and Suzanna M Crage (via belowdesire, who has many other informative articles). And I do recommend reading the entire article yourself if you have the time. By examining the history we can better understand the potential–and limitations–of riots.

The history of Stonewall

The Stonewall Inn was a seedy establishment on Christopher Street, New York City. It did not have a liquor license (since liquor licenses were denied to gay bars), nor did it have running water. Its clientele included queens and homeless teens. It was raided by the police about once a month.

There was one such raid in the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, but a crowd gathered outside the inn and turned violent, forcing the police to barricade themselves inside the establishment while waiting for backup. Riots and demonstrations continued for days. It also received a lot of press, with historical accounts noting a riot on Wednesday in response to derogatory coverage in the Village Voice.

One of the people at the riots was Craig Rodwell, an established gay rights activist. Rodwell set about to create an annual event, Christopher Street Liberation Day, to commemorate the riots.  He coopted an earlier annual demonstration, the Annual Reminder, which occurred in Philadelphia. He promoted this idea to homophile organizations in other major cities, and successfully persuaded some of them to participate. Persuading other organizations to participate was not easy, and notably he failed to persuade the San Francisco organization, which had a more amicable relationship with the police and was resistant to the idea of commemorating a riot. The San Francisco organization did not join the event until 1972.

Christopher Street Liberation Day was wildly successful, and became what we now know as the Pride Parade–or rather Pride Parades, since there are many of them held across the world. Thus the Stonewall riots were cemented in our collective memory.

However, in the process of commemoration, a small distortion occurred: Stonewall wasn’t just framed as important, it was framed as the first, the one event that sparked gay liberation. What counts as the “first spark” is subjective, but it should be clear from my account that there were already established activists, organizations, and annual demonstrations before Stonewall. Indeed, there are whole cities outside of New York, whose histories we have collectively forgotten.

The reason we remember Stonewall as the origin of the movement, was precisely because it was not the origin. As Armstrong & Crage argue, the Stonewall riot was the first event to fulfill two conditions: 1) the event was considered commemorable by activists, and 2) those activists had the organizational power to create a commemorative vehicle (i.e. an annual march) and persuade others to cooperate with it.

The events we don’t remember

Armstrong & Crage spend most of their time describing four other potentially commemorable events around the same time, all involving conflict with the police. I’m not going to go through all of these, but I’ll mention that not all of them were riots.

I would like to talk a bit about the Compton Cafeteria riot, which occurred in 1966. (I recognized this event as an important plot point in Netflix’s Tales of the City.) Compton’s Cafeteria was a coffee shop in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, catering to “gay hustlers, ‘hair fairies,’ queens and street kids”. There was a police raid, but people began to throw dishes and other objects at the police. They broke all the windows of a police car, and burnt down a nearby shack. The next day people picketed the cafeteria, because it would not allow “the drags” back in.

Why don’t we remember the Compton Cafeteria riot? It seems that established activists didn’t care for rioting. As mentioned previously, San Francisco activists had a more amicable relationship with police (the reasons discussed in greater detail in the paper). But I think it’s pretty clear that the more marginalized patrons of Compton’s Cafeteria did not have such a positive relationship with the police. It seems to me that this was a failure of empathy on the part of established activists.

The Compton’s Cafeteria riots did not even make it into the homophile press until 1972. In 1972, San Francisco activists tried to link their celebration of Pride to the Compton Cafeteria riots, but this was unsuccessful.

Another incident I’d like to mention more briefly, is the Snake Pit Bar raid, which occurred in 1970 in New York, after the Stonewall riots. Although some people claimed that the incident “galvanized more heretofore quiescent gay men into gay liberation than the Stonewall raid had”, the commemoration of Stonewall was already in the works, and the Snake Pit Bar raid didn’t fit into the narrative of the Stonewall riot as uniquely important. The Snake Pit Bar raid was widely known at the time, but apparently didn’t have staying power.

The power of riots

One thing that should be clear, is that these riots were generally instigated by the most marginalized folks, including homeless people and people who would today likely be considered trans. Today we have the rallying cry, “Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick”, and though I do not believe that this specific fact is true, the general spirit is true.

However, marginalized folks were not always successful at making history. The creation of Pride marches also required there to be more privileged activists who recognized the value of riots, empathized with the rioters, and had the power to enshrine them in history.

Is “making history” the only way for riot (or demonstration, or incident) to have an impact? Did the Snake Pit Bar raid have an impact, even if we no longer remember it? Did the Compton Cafeteria riot? Perhaps they did. And yet, it seems the Stonewall riots were on another level. I do not believe an event has to be remembered to be important, but being remembered certainly helps.

I’ve always found arguments about riots and other forms of violent protest strange. I am not participating in the violence, and neither is anyone I’m likely to argue with, and none of us have the power to stop violent protestors. People talk a lot about the nonviolent protest of Martin Luther King, but to my understanding, this required an organizational apparatus that could persuade and train protestors. We don’t have one of those, so I’m not sure what we are arguing about.

But perhaps these arguments are relevant after all, because how we view these movements has a profound impact on their legacy. I believe we should have empathy for the most marginalized groups, and use what power we have on their behalf.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … this was a failure of empathy on the part of established activists.

    Or a failure to cross over economic class lines – much like the gap between Norma “Jane Roe” McCorvey and the attorneys who litigated Roe v. Wade in her name, as much discussed recently.

  2. Mara Jade says

    “I believe we should have empathy for the most marginalized groups, and use what power we have on their behalf.”
    And that’s where I’ve realized I’m really different from a lot of people on these issues. I want to help marginalized people (who aren’t shitty) and not marginalized groups. I take into account the individual and the content of the person’s character.

  3. Allison says

    One’s conclusions about riots depends upon one’s perspective.

    If you’re an academic historian, then it makes sense to ask what the effect was. “Effective” presumes there was an intended effect.

    The thing is, riots, at least of the kind we’re thinking of, are acts of despair. They happen when a bunch of people are in misery and feel helpless and irrelevant, and that nothing they do will ever make a difference. Destruction may not make things any better (they may make them worse), but at least when you destroy, you’ve done something. You’ve made some kind of a mark. In that sense, they are “effective,” regardless of the long-term effect (or lack thereof.) Because it sometimes seems like the only alternative is suicide. (But why make it so easy for your oppressors?)

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