40 years ago: the story of Stonewall

28 June 2009

40 years ago this weekend the Stonewall Riots, widely regarded as the beginning of ‘gay liberation’, took place in Greenwich Village, New York City. The riots were the first time that gay people had stood up against enforced oppression. Riots of bar frequented by gay people were commonplace. The story is a fascinating one, which I have summarised here.

“The Stonewall Inn catered to an assortment of patrons, but it was known to be popular with the most marginalized people in the gay community: transvestites, effeminate young men, hustlers, and homeless youth. Police raids on gay bars were routine in the 1960s, but officers quickly lost control of the situation at the Stonewall Inn, and attracted a crowd that was incited to riot. Tensions between New York City police and gay residents of Greenwich Village erupted into more protests the next evening, and again several nights later.”

At 1.20am plain clothes and uniformed police officers raided the Stonewall Inn. About 200 people were in the Inn at that time. The raid did not go as planned. Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification, and have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any men dressed as women would be arrested. Those dressed as women that night refused to go with the officers. Men in line began to refuse to produce their identification. The police decided to take everyone present to the police station but had to wait for transport. Those who were not arrested were released from the front door, but they did not leave quickly as usual. Instead, they stopped outside and a crowd began to grow and watch. Within minutes, between 100 and 150 people had congregated outside, some after they were released from inside the Stonewall, and some after noticing the police cars and the crowd. There were scuffles, arrests, pushing and violence (it was reported that the most feminine boys were the most badly beaten) with aggression from gay people who were reacting to arrest.

We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration…. Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us…. All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.

But aggression spread and more police called to rescue those trapped inside the Stonewall by crods outside: “I had been in enough riots to know the fun was over…. The cops were totally humiliated. This never, ever happened. They were angrier than I guess they had ever been, because everybody else had rioted … but the fairies were not supposed to riot … no group had ever forced cops to retreat before, so the anger was just enormous…” Police started arresting the crowd on the streets, but the crowd faught back: “All I could see about who was fighting was that it was transvestites and they were fighting furiously”. They formed dance ‘kick lines’ against police who continued to hit them.

The next night rioting again errupted in Christopher Street. Some people from the night before who had returned to the badly damaged Stonewall Inn, and many more. The crowd filled Christopher Street and surrounding blocks. They surrounded buses and cars, harassing the occupants unless they either admitted they were gay or indicated their support for the demonstrators. As on the previous evening, fires were started in garbage cans throughout the neighborhood. More than a hundred police were present and at 2.00am the Tactical Police Force (deployed the previous night to free officers trapped in the Stonewall Inn) returned. Dance ‘kick lines’ and police chases continued throughout the night, and the crowd fought against arrest (witnesses noted it was usually the most effeminate boys again who were arrested).

Disturbances continued over the following days, and American Independance Day on 4th July was a chance for gay people to show out in force (as in previous years picketting Independence Hall in Philadelphia, for instance). Christopher Street Day, which started on the first anniversary of the riots in 1970 have led to Pride marches and Pride Parades around the world in years since.

Gay rights here in the UK have undergone a different course. We haven’t had a Stonewall, but there have been watersheds in gay rights, most recently the introduction of Civil Partnerships. London’s Pride Parade is next Saturday.

But it’s not a time to be complacent: homophobia is still rife, particularly in schools, and homophobic crime in Northern Ireland is “rife” according to recent reports. Poland is one of the worst European countries for inequality and pride marches in Moscow are met with violent protest by police. Stonewall was a watershed, an international one, but was the start of a long process whic, 40 years later, should not wain.

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Michael Jackson: Death, Talent, News and Public Grief

27 June 2009

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So, the sad news of Michael Jackson’s death has been leading the news for a couple of days now. It was even the 8.10 story on yesterday’s Today programme on Radio 4. Whether it’s comparison’s to Diana on news that Dr Who was with Jasckson when he died, it’s been wall to wall coverage, 24 hours a day. Which is the crux of the problem with 24-hour news (Sky, BBC News 24 and the like). Because they’re constant, they need to find news. So the uncertainty and unknowing leads to useless news stories where nothing has happened.

For Many MJ’s death is one of those collective experiences – “the only thing real that’s ever happened to them” as Justin Bond put it about young people and 9/11. The collective experiences is about the desire for the big event touching many people, something the collective can relate to as a collective, something we can all feel, talk about, something (anything?) to emotionalise about: a desire arguably enhanced the absence of religion in peoples lives and a dispersed global community (rather spatially-confined ‘real’ communities and collectives).

Stereotypist’s cartoon of the day yesterday, maybe unexpectedly, was fabulously apt:

famous

There are two things I have read that really stick in my mind over the last day. The first, arguing that no, MJ is not the new Diana (although I did ponder yesterday whether that would make Farah Fawcett Mother Teresa, dying in the shadow of a more media-circussed star):

One of the interesting twists to the multiplicity of media now available 24 hours a day, coupled with the diminished importance of religion in most people’s lives, the idea of A Big Event, one that you know everyone is thinking about, everyone is talking about, something that will bring a sense of community, is more desirable than ever. The death of Diana remains the most obvious example: some of the emotion behind the world’s mourning was undoubtedly genuine, but it’s impossible not to suspect that the excitement at just being part of a collective moment exacerbated it beyond any reasonable limits. The growth of the 24-hour news culture and the explosion of the gossip magazine industry, both of which require either constant change or, more commonly, heightened emotion, has only rendered this even more apparent, as the national media hysteria over Jade Goody’s death made all too clear.

Michael Jackson was a hugely talented individual – even more, dare one say it, than Diana. He also led an unquestionably sad and damaged life. But his death shows up, even more clearly than Goody’s did, that the desire for collective emotion leads only to false emotion.

Now, I have never been the biggest MJ fan, but I cannot deny that he was one of the best and most influential musicians of my generation – his global stardom like no other musician I could think of. The second, therefore, because i couldn’t finish off without saying anything about the man himself, is from a surreal visit to the Houses of Parliament and conversation between Jackson and Lord Janner:

Lord Janner: “Jackson turned to me. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘I want your help. We need a new national day. There’s days for everything, from caravans to helping the blind and the deaf. But there’s no day when parents are told to hug their children and to say to them: “I love you”. My parents never did that to me’. That was very touching. It explained just about everything that afflicted him.”

“He hadn’t had an easy life but he was a quite remarkable man”


The Lilyest Hobo

18 June 2009

This is an amazing mashup of Lily Allen and the theme tune from The Littlest Hobo (despite the mildly disturbing nature of what Lily’s saying to a dog, if you actually know what Lilly’s song is about!)…

(with thanks to @adebradley)


Official Letter

17 June 2009

So June has been a busy time for me. The world of Strategic Planning (town planning) in London is swift moving, relatively, and I have been busy doing lots of talking, listening, finding-out and writing. I have spent a lot of time writing official letters. It’s a time-consuming and complicated business.

However, following my tweets today I happened to stumble across a link to this (slightly rude, beware) letter which is, apparently, real. If only my official letters could be be as exciting as this!

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It reads (click image to open full size):

My Dear Reggie,

In these dark days man tends to look for little shafts of light from Heaven. My days are probably darker than yours, and I need, my God I do, all the light I can get. But I am a decent fellow, and I do not want to be mean about what little brightness is shed upon me from time to time. So I propose to share with you a tiny flash that has illuminated my sombre life, and tell you that God has given me a new Turkish colleague whose card tells me he is called Mustapha Kunt.

We all feel like that, Reggie, now and then, especially when Spring is upon upon us, but few of us would care to put it on our cards. It takes a Turk to do that.

Sir Archibald Clerk Kerr
H.M. Ambassador, Moscow


Rainy Days and Mondays…

8 June 2009

…always get me down, The Carpenters used to sing. I am not sure that’s what Channel 4 were thinking about when they commissioned their latest sculpture I saw outside their offices on Horseferry Road today, Monday.

The impressive sculpture, replicating the Channel’s idents, featuring a “you couldn’t tell from a different angle it’s a digit” gigantic Number 4’s, is made up entirely of umbrellas.

DSC00069

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I did see that today’s Sun (or possibly Mirror) headline could have better referred today to Rainy Days and Mondays, being “countbrown” (referring to Gordon Brown’s expected relatively limited time left as Prime Minister. However I was disappointed that, especially after the European elections caused a further crisis for the PM they didn’t go the whole hog and recall Europe’s “The FINAL Countbrown”!

I cannot write much about politics these days, but couldn’t pass by the fact that not only did the Centre Right increase their control over the European Parliament, but also that the British National Part got two seats from the UK. The blogospehere’s now alive with shock, but perhaps we are the more politically enlightened who express our opinions online. And much has been blamed, particularly the Proportional Representation system which gives more ability for smaller parties to get into parliaments than the traditional British “First Past the Post” system. But the BNP seats say a lot about the attitude of the British public, increasing dissatisfaction of the white working class and, in some ways, are a successful result of a democratic system, albeit one where people have been so dissatisfied with Politics that they are apathetic to voting.

Proportional Representation also gave the Greens an increase in their UK vote, and gave two seats to the BNP. (An interesting aside: some countries (mostly smaller European countries) split their vote nationally, rather than by region. If the UK vote was split nationally it would look like this). But, whatever you think of them, it shows how the system can work for the smaller parties. The next task is re-enfranchising people with politics so they vote.


European Election Day

4 June 2009

This morning I left home and went to work via my local polling station
in order to vote in the European elections. There are no local elections
this year. I hadn’t had a single European focused leaflet through the
door from any of the main parties. The Lib Dems sent something but it
was only focused on them cutting council tax: perhaps they forgot that
it’s European and not local elections here.

I did get leaflets from the greens, christians, socialists, christians
and an independent. The first leaflet I got, however, was from the BNP.
Now I cannot go into the detail of who I voted for, or why, but I did
change the habit of my voting life.

Of course people have rather varied feelings about the European
parliament, but one thing is clear: there are things we need to work
together on. We live in a globalised world with global problems and
often tense relationships, we cannot always stand alone. Tomorrow, it
seems to have been forgotten in the UK, is World Environment Day:
there’s a great example of where we need to work together and, if we are
to get anywhere in tackling climate change, it perhaps cannot always be
by voluntary global discourse. And, we shouldn’t forget, it is only 60
years ago that the second world war started in Europe. As my old German
friend’s father used to say, if we’re talking at least we’re not
fighting.

Importantly, I did vote, and urge everyone who can to do so, regardless
of who for. Apathy is, although arguably more understandable than normal
right now, one of the biggest risks to democracy. Even if you cannot
stand to vote for anyone it’s better to go to the polling station and
spoil your paper to register disapproval over apathy.


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