Before Stonewall: The Black Cat Riots of Los Angeles
Forty-three years ago today, at 1:20 a.m., the New York Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn, the most important gay club in New York. Led by drag queens and egged on by bystanders, the patrons rebelled and turned Stonewall into the iconic movement of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender resistance.
But just over two years earlier, a police raid on the Los Angeles club, the Black Cat, also turned into riots and days of protests. Likewise, Los Angeles had featured the first ever gay rights march and the first ever organization to apply the word PRIDE (here standing for Personal Rights in Defense and Education) to LGBT rights. Why was Stonewall a catalyst that the Black Cat never was? The answers are instructive for anyone wanting to organize for change.
First and foremost, the aftermath of the Stonewall rebellion was accompanied by organizations with the explicit goal of organizing anniversaries for the riots. Christopher Street Liberation Day was celebrated on June 28, 1970, with a 51 block parade from Christopher Street to Central Park. The rebellion itself sparked organization of the Gay Liberation Front, who used the explicit rhetoric of leftist militantism to carry forward the defiant spirit of those who fought back on June 28 and the following nights where the Greenwich Village community took to the streets. While PRIDE organized protests for a week after the Black Cat raids, and passed out over 3,000 flyers, the riot failed to become the catalyzing moment that Stonewall had been in New York.
Part of that may have also been the feeling of victory — the Stonewall Rebellion was unquestionably more successful in fighting back the repressive police presence than the Black Cat riots had been, where 16 were arrested and the police brutally beat anyone who resisted. While the conduct was outrageous, it’s always easier to celebrate a moment of victorious rebellion than painful martyrdom. Where Stonewall could be used to represent the righteousness of fighting back, the Black Cat was closer to the reality for most raids on gay bars at the time, and didn’t have the same narrative of transcendent justice through popular resistance.
Stonewall also had more coherent media coverage. The office of the Village Voice — who initially covered gay liberation and the Stonewall riots negatively — was right across from the bar, and one of its writers was barricaded inside with the police. All three major daily papers in New York ran the riots on their covers, above the fold, and activists were quick to seize on media coverage as a way of giving the story legs, including the Gay Liberation Front’s use of “zaps,” where they would use ambush and gotcha questions at press conferences to force politicians to publicly affirm LGBT rights.
Conversely, the Los Angeles Times barely bothered to cover the Black Cat riots, or the raids on the Wilmington bar, The Patch, where the flamboyant proprietor Lee Glaze organized a march to the Harbor Division station of the Los Angeles Police Department and inundated the officers with flowers until the arrested men were released or bailed out. Both of the protests were covered by the Los Angeles Advocate (later just The Advocate), as well as ONE and Tangents, which were older “homophile” newsletters. The LGBT community in Los Angeles was used to the LA Times reactionary coverage, and some even welcomed the lack of attention, since it was almost inevitably negative. However, part of the success of Stonewall was bringing in a broader community of sympathetic allies who magnified the popular support for LGBT rights. The Black Cat raids did have one long-lasting effect on LGBT culture — they turned the newsletter of PRIDE into The Advocate, the preeminent LGBT magazine in the country.
New York also had one big advantage over Los Angeles as the catalyst of gay liberation — geography. Where Greenwich Village was a tight, connected community in which LGBT people mingled with bohemians and artists and built common bonds, the sprawling Los Angeles scene made organizing difficult. Most of the participants in the Stonewall rebellion lived in the neighborhood, and were able to return night after night to keep the momentum going. In Los Angeles, most of the patrons of the Black Cat had driven in, and weren’t as interested in returning to participate in ongoing protests. Further, there was a degree of East Coast snobbery that pervaded descriptions of West Coast activism for years, with New York LGBT activists complaining that LA protests had to be scheduled in the evening because “it was a challenge to be political and to stay tan, too.” West Coast activism was treated as less serious than the work being done in the East.
That chauvinism was mostly one way — California readily adopted the Gay Liberation Front messaging and tactics within months after Stonewall. And California was also ready to embrace new directions. While the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, early homophile groups, had both started in California before spreading east, they were seen as tame and conservative, and not undeservedly. The Mattachine Society had embraced a position of non-confrontation, and even Richard Mitch, publisher of The Advocate, refused to be seen at LGBT events. Both ONE and Tangents were compromised by infighting, and the Gay Liberation Front was a welcome shift for West Coast LGBT activists.
When we remember Stonewall today, we should remember not just the bravery of the rebellion, but also the political skill and dedication that followed, the embrace of media attention, the importance of community, and that sometimes being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference.