The night I was ready to riot was in the spring of 1979 in Chicago. Chicago’s “finest” had been on the move for weeks, having fun attacking the gay community.
Gay clubs were harassed regularly, almost one a week. Cops would storm in and close the place, arresting patrons on various trumped-up charges. I remember watching out the back window of the car as we drove past one club and saw patrons being dragged out in handcuffs and thrown into paddy wagons. The police were having their jollies.
The police commander, who actually was named Joseph McCarthy, tried to justify the raids and seriously claimed the only reason one victim had a concussion was “he ran into a lamp post.”
In Boy’s Town, a meeting was called to discuss how the community would respond to the incessant harassment. I think the meeting was at the Unitarian Church on Berry Street, a short walk from my apartment.
It had been an awful year for the community. Anita Bryant and her bigoted campaign were at its peak. A few months earlier, Harvey Milk had been assassinated by anti-gay, ex-cop Dan White.
We gathered to talk, to strategize, and to make decisions about how to fight back. It’s one thing to be attacked, but quite another to be attacked by law enforcement — the very people you are supposed to trust to protect you when your rights are violated.
In San Francisco, the trial of White had ended and the jury was in deliberations. No one knew how long that would take, but it was on all our minds.
The church was packed with people — so packed that one bench actually collapsed under the strain.
Incident after incident of police harassment was mentioned, people were angry. I was angry.
The door burst open and someone ran in yelling, “Gays are rioting in San Francisco!”
My first thought that night was, “Hell, yes! Let’s go!”
When police questioned Dan White, they were sympathetic and friendly. They went easy on him. That night, the jury felt sorry for White, as if he were the victim, giving him a slap-on-the-wrist sentence — proof that the “law and order” crowd is quite selective as to who has to obey the law and who doesn’t — the “doesn’t” appears to be cops.
That is what we saw in Chicago; cops attacking and harassing people doing nothing wrong — they merely existed.
An angry spontaneous crowd of thousands of San Franciscans marched on City Hall and set police cars alight. Of course, cops rioted as well, as they had time after time before. When cops do it, they don’t call them riots. Police stormed into the peaceful Castro, San Francisco’s gay neighborhood, 2.5 miles away from the riots, and started beating patrons of The Elephant Walk, a quiet bar/restaurant at 500 Castro Street.
Cops stormed in and smashed windows, mirrors, glasses and the heads of patrons. They destroyed the place, anything they could break, they broke. Whom do you call when the cops are the criminals?
Yes, I was ready to riot. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, I had seen “a long train of abuses and usurpations” by police against the gay community and I was ready to burn some police cars myself.
In Chicago, calmer voices prevailed, we didn’t riot, but I wanted to. I really wanted to.
I can understand the riots in Baltimore or Ferguson, just as I understand the White Night Riots. I understand, not condone.
What other options are politicians giving the black community? Soothing words don’t solve the problem of police harassment and violence. We have to face the fact America’s police are out of control. They kill needlessly; they are prepared for war against the public, not for service to the public. They drive our streets in armored tanks and surplus military vehicles. They act more like an occupying army, than people sent to “serve and protect.”
In most developed countries, police killing civilians is rare. In many places, they are unarmed. They learn how to de-escalate situations, as the four vacationing Swedish officers recently did on the New York subway. American police are too ready to taser, scream, kick, assault, bash and kill.
I’m a white man of a certain age, white enough and old enough that I should be safe around cops. I don’t feel safe, not anymore. I feel my risks escalate any time a police officer is near.
If this is how I feel, then how do African Americans feel? How do young black men feel? I think I know.
Whether the black community acknowledges it or not, Democrats left them hanging. When it comes to this conflict, they cave in to government employee unions — and that includes police and prison guard unions. They offer African Americans nice words and empty promises. But, in the end, politicians cater to those unions, building more prisons for young black men and funding more expansions of SWAT teams and paramilitary police units.
When a long train of police abuse against the African-American community is ignored, when one killer cop after another is exonerated by fellow cops — regardless of testimony from many witnesses, when video tapes regularly show officers engaging in acts of terrorism and lying about it afterward, and when they get away with it, what else is left but rioting?
It shouldn’t be that way, but I fear it is. I fear police and politicians left victims of this harassment with no other options.
I do think something will eventually be done, but what scares me is politicians won’t respond without more Fergusons, more Baltimores, and many more victims. Sadly, that is the nature of politics — wait until crisis is unavoidable before acting.