Let’s not Lessen the Impact of History Lessons
This week I’ve been reminded of how quickly we forget.
After the death of writer and activist Larry Kramer on May 27, my social media was flooded with eulogies from white, gay men praising him for his work bringing HIV/AIDS issues to the forefront of public discourse, often through in-your-face methods that forced a reluctant audience to acknowledge what was happening to a group of people they didn’t want to care about.
At the same time, I saw a lot of these same folks posting dismissive and angry things about the protests currently going on around the country surrounding the multitude of issues faced by black people in America. Specifically, they condemned any acts of violent resistance. “If you can’t get people to listen to your message by presenting it peacefully, maybe there’s something wrong with your message,” one wrote.
As we enter what is now widely-recognized as Pride month all around the world, I would like to remind everyone—but particularly my white, gay brothers—that without some rock-throwing on the part of our queer family, many of whom were neither white nor male, we would not be where we are today. Stonewall was not exactly a peaceful march involving some chanting and sign-waving. The 1979 White Night riots in San Francisco, following the lenient sentencing for Harvey Milk’s murderer, are called riots for a reason.
In both cases, the result was meaningful changes to the way LGBTQ people were treated. Most of us know that Stonewall ushered in the modern gay rights movement. Fewer are familiar with the White Night riots, which were the culmination of long-simmering tensions between the police and San Francisco’s gay community and which resulted in both the election of gay-supportive mayor Dianne Feinstein and immediate changes in the way law enforcement dealt with the queer community.
Yes, you might still be thinking, but the looting. This is something that comes up repeatedly in finger-waving social media posts. But this is a distraction from the real point. For one thing, we don’t know exactly who is doing the looting. A growing amount of evidence suggests that it isn’t the protestors but those seeking to discredit them and their message. And no one is denying that there will always be people who take advantage of chaos to cause unrelated trouble.
Regardless of the who and the why of the looting, it pales in comparison to the frustration levels that need to be reached before a group of people explode. And that is what we need to be looking at. The protests are not simply a tantrum like, say, the way mostly-white, mostly-male, mostly-straight groups have set cars on fire and looted local businesses simply because a favorite sports team lost a game. These are the result of every other peaceable means of trying to get people to pay attention being disregarded.
Black people are criticized when they march. They’re criticized when they kneel. They’re criticized when they use award acceptance speeches to remind us of their experiences and our failings as a society. They’re repeatedly told to “let the system work,” even when that system fails them repeatedly and when the very organizations they’re told to trust to protect them are the ones responsible, again and again and again, for their deaths and continued oppression.
Exactly how long, I asked a couple of the people posting about how black people ought to go about demanding justice, should the black community keep getting knocked down, keep getting told to wait, keep watching one another die, before they started throwing things?
None of them answered me. I wish they had. I really want to hear from some of these people how long they think a group—any group—that has tried every way possible to get the world to listen to them and repeatedly been ignored should patiently wait for things to change.
Because the queer people involved in Stonewall stopped waiting and fought back, things changed. Because the queer people involved in the White Nights riots broke windows, set city hall on fire, and violently resisted the police when they retaliated, things changed.
Not because people heard their message and changed their minds, but because the protestors forced them to change. Black people in this country have been fighting much longer and much harder, with far less result. Is it any wonder they’ve had enough?
And yet, we keep telling them to be patient, to be peaceful, to hope that those of us who are responsible for what has happened and what continues to happen to them magically changes. Why? Is it because we really believe that violence is never the answer? Or is it because we’re afraid that things really will change and we’ll have to change with them?
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com