Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Stonewall v. Ferguson: Different Eras, Outcomes


In the wake of nationwide demonstrations protesting controversial grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo. and New York, a provocative piece ran on the Bilerico Project website titled “Gays Condemning Riots: The Greatest of Hypocrisies”.

The melee outside the Stonewall Inn in June 1969
The guest blogger who authored the article, Matt Comer, editor of QNotes, a Charlotte, NC-based LGBT newspaper, saw a parallel in the riots that accompanied the Ferguson protests and the Stonewall Inn uprising and asserted, “Some gays are hypocrites: They condemn the rioting in the aftermath of extreme miscarriages of justice for black people, all the while ignoring the fact they gather once a year to openly celebrate and commemorate a riot—a violent outburst that served as the so-called birth of their movement.”
I have some issues with the premise. True, there are gays who oppose what is occurring in Ferguson and New York and in other cities around the country as do people in the non-gay population.  Nonetheless, I am reasonably confident that far more LGBT folks have stepped forward in support of the protesters.  We see the failure of justice continue to plague African-Americans combined with the strained relations blacks as well as LGBT folks historically have endured with local police departments.  There is a natural alliance here. 

Moreover, LGBT organizations and individuals have not only empathized with the protesters with public statements, they have joined hands in the marches, which have been, except for Ferguson, non-violent and restrained considering the level of injustice that has sickened so many.
I also contest the notion that gays celebrate and commemorate the Stonewall uprisings every year.  They are supposed to be doing that, but ask any LGBT millennial (and I dare say even older) if they are even aware of Stonewall or understand its significance.  Clearly, some do; I’m equally sure, however, most either do not or simply don’t care. 

In the early years following Stonewall, there was that energy to create social and political change as people gathered to mark that eventful June uprising with signs, speeches and rallies.  Today, not so much.  Pride is more about where celebrants can openly drink, who will be the entertainment and how organizations can profit from the event.  You never hear a political or rallying speech anymore though so much more work needs to be done. The historical value is rapidly being lost.
I agree with Comer that there are some similarities between Stonewall and Ferguson though he cites the acts of violence as the main reason.  In my view, the common thread is the fact that the participants were fed up with a cumulative effect of unjust police actions and disparate treatment gays and blacks have received. Yet there are differences. 

By most reliable accounts, Stonewall occurred as a result of two factors: bar patrons were angered by the constant police raiding of their “home” and also they had been appalled by the Mafia-run operation of the bar that included pricey, watered-down bootlegged liquor and unsanitary conditions within the establishment. The violence on that early June 28 early morning escalated at Stonewall when a lesbian was being roughed up by the police on the way to the paddy wagon and either she or someone else shouted, “Do something!” 
"Whatever coverage was offered on Stonewall, it appeared to have marginalized the demonstrators, demeaned them and used stereotypes to perpetuate the narrative."

African-Americans in Ferguson have had tense relationships with the police for a long time.  It boiled over when Michael Brown, 18 and unarmed, was gunned down on a Ferguson street by a policeman.  Residents and supporters were hoping that a grand jury would indict the officer, Darren Wilson, for committing a crime and there at least would be justice in the tragedy. 

The grand jury did not indict him and that’s when anger spilled out on the streets.  Although the testimony was murky and often contradictory, my impression was that the prosecutor did not want to see an indictment handed down or he wouldn’t have allowed Wilson to present his side of the story—an unconventional but not unprecedented tactic in the grand jury system.
Another dissimilarity between Stonewall and Ferguson was that Stonewall did not occur as a result of a death.  In fact, there were only minor injuries reported, mostly sustained by police personnel.  Ferguson, as we know, was sparked by the killing of Brown.

With Stonewall, there was no social media to fuel any uprisings.  They occurred mainly from word-of-mouth, and it certainly didn’t attract any national attention or protests until the one-year commemorative march in 1970. 
Local newspapers gave it little “ink” at the time—tiny articles buried among the other news of the day in the New York Times.   Demonstrations were commonplace in New York during that era because of the Vietnam War.  Therefore, Stonewall was merely a blip on the screen. The New York Daily News, the city’s tabloid that dwelled on the sensational, did run a front page article several days later with the headline, “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad.” 

That’s another distinction between the two episodes.  With Ferguson, other than conservative news outlets, most of the media has been rather supportive of the demonstrators except when TV footage focused on the looting and burning.  The media today generally understands, at least, why this is occurring.  Whatever coverage was offered on Stonewall, it appeared to have marginalized the demonstrators, demeaned them and used stereotypes to perpetuate the narrative.
Unquestionably, the largest difference between the two events is race.  In Stonewall, the uprising bar patrons were from multiple races.  Race was never the storyline.  In Ferguson, the opposite is true. 

Race has become again a big part of a national conversation and debate.  The response in Ferguson, New York and elsewhere brought to the forefront dubious police tactics in dealing with African-Americans, the prevailing mistrust, as well as obvious flaws in our justice system.  Hopefully, it will spark reform in these areas.
That will be Ferguson’s legacy.  We are realizing Stonewall’s legacy today.

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