After the death of George Floyd on 25 May, thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality and to demand equal rights for the black community. Not surprisingly, the world has split into two, with an overwhelming number of people shunning the protests as a futile and an unnecessarily violent act. It seems like a vast majority of people believe that protests are not the way to achieve your goals and more peaceful alternatives should be chosen.
While there is no surefire way to prove whether or not protests are effective, if we look back to our past, we can safely say that no historical milestone was achieved by politely requesting or knocking on doors and asking people to stop oppressing the minority. Women gained the right to vote through the suffragette movement, and slaves were freed because they didn’t sit back and wait for a few white people to speak up for them. But since this is the month of June, it will be more appropriate to address this issue through the Stonewall Riots.
Every year, in June, different countries around the world share a common view — thousands of people on the streets carry flags and banners, participate in parades, marches, festivals, and dance parties. The month of June, known as Pride Month, is the time for LGBTQ+ communities around the world to commemorate their history, to promote and recognise themselves as a social group, and to celebrate queer self-acceptance, legal rights, achievements, and pride.
How did LGBTQ+ communities around the world gain the freedom and rights that they have been denied for decades? You guessed it — by protesting. Although it would be unfair to pinpoint only one moment of history as the prime cause of their achievements because queer folks have been fighting for their rights from long before Stonewall, we can still say that the riots at Stonewall were a turning point in history, the moment when the oppressed turned to their oppressors and refused to tolerate injustice any longer.
But what did happen at Stonewall, you may be wondering. Stonewall was an inn located in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York. It was converted into a gay bar, one of many, in 1966. The ’60s in America were not kind to their gay citizens. Military officials and professors were fired if they were thought to be homosexual. People walking through the streets were constantly being arrested for cross-dressing, for not following gender norms, or for even “acting like a homosexual.”
The FBI kept a list of homosexual people for blackmailing purposes. The American Psychological Association (APA) declared homosexuality a mental disorder, which allowed medical professionals to apply electroshock therapy to gay individuals. The mayor of New York City allowed the police to raid places that welcome LGBTQ+ people and use the flimsiest excuses to arrest them.
Stonewall had various methods to protect its customers, such as having lookouts to warn them of the arrival of the police so that the customers could “act more heterosexual” to prevent arrest. But you can only go so far with such precautions, and on 28 June, 1969, the owners of Stonewall failed to receive a warning.
The police raided the bar and harassed the customers — groped the women and demanded that the transvestites go with them so that the police could check their genitals. Many of them were dragged outside the bar to be arrested. By then, a large number of people had gathered outside Stonewall Inn.
We may wonder what the future of the LGBTQ+ community would have been like if things had gone smoothly for the police. But they hadn’t — the wagons that were to carry the arrestees were late to arrive, and as the crowd gathered, it became harder for them to ignore the injustice in front of them.
They pressed back against the police, screamed their protests, and hurled bricks while chanting “Gay Power!” Many people tossed coins at the policemen to mock their taking of bribes, danced and sang to mock the police officers, and when the wagons arrived, they were flipped over by the mob.
The police barricaded themselves inside Stonewall Inn, which was promptly set on fire by the protestors. The riots continued the next day, and the people demanded equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community. These protests, which lasted six days, sparked the formation of the Gay Liberation Front, the first group to publicly advocate for equal gay rights.
The first gay Pride Parade was held on the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and in 2016, the Stonewall Inn was made a national monument by President Barack Obama — the first national monument to celebrate gay history.
It can be agreed upon that the riots that broke out in 1969 were not a singular event, but the result of decades of oppression and hatred that LGBTQ+ people had faced and endured all over the world. The events at Stonewall provide room for speculation about the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It shows how deeply ingrained systemic racism and homophobia are in the police force, for police brutality is as prevalent as ever.
Over half a century has passed since the Stonewall Riots, where people had fought against the police for harassing the minority, and yet we continue to see the police arresting and abusing black men for minor offences while letting white criminals walk free.
The world has changed in many ways since 1969. Protests now are different from protests back then, and the police are more powerful and more armed than before, but so are we. The entire world can now watch the events going on in the USA and show their support for the BLM movement.
While we cannot say for certain whether the protests will bear fruit, history lies as evidence that change cannot come if oppressors do not hear the voices of the oppressed, and the protests need to go on until a change is issued — not just as long as BLM is trending on social media.
If you are against the protests because you do not condone violence, ask yourself: Would you rather be docile and oppressed, or violent and free?
Nadira Tasnim is a Harry Potter obsessed math-nerd who loves watching psychology videos in her free time.