Blog of Rights

Progress

By Robert Nakatani, LGBT Project at 10:57am

On February 19, 1956, the sheriff of San Mateo County, just south of San Francisco, forced his way through a crowd of patrons in a bar called Hazel’s, owned by Hazel Nickola, jumped on the bar and shouted, "This is a raid!" His deputies then hauled off 87 men to jail, charging them with being "lewd and dissolute" persons and committing acts "outraging public decency." The sheriff later explained that "the purpose of the raid was to make it very clear to these people that we won’t put up with this sort of thing." The infamously homophobic Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC) revoked Nickola’s liquor license, a decision upheld by the courts in an appeal assisted by the ACLU.

A decade later, the LAPD raided five gay bars over a two-week period, beginning with the Black Cat in LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood. At midnight, January 1, 1967, the Black Cat was filled with New Year’s Eve revelers. Balloons fell from the ceiling as the Rhythm Queens, a trio of African-American women, sang a rock version of "Auld Lang Syne." Patrons exchanged New Years’ kisses, which spurred 12 undercover cops inside the club to call on their uniformed colleagues outside.

The police forced their way into the bar, swinging billy clubs, injuring celebrants, and destroying furnishings. Sixteen patrons and employees were arrested and forced to lie face down on the sidewalk. The cops chased patrons down the street to the New Faces bar, where they knocked down the bar owner and beat two of the bartenders unconscious. One of them was hospitalized with a ruptured spleen and then charged with assault on an officer. The ramifications? A jury found six of the arrested guilty of "lewd conduct" because they had been seen kissing other men on the lips.

This June, agents of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) led half a dozen police officers in a raid of the Rainbow Lounge, a new gay bar in Fort Worth. It was supposed to have been a routine liquor license inspection but quickly turned into a police riot, with officers using excessive force and one patron suffering a severe head injury while in TABC custody. The raid led to numerous protest rallies by the local LGBT community.

The ramifications? On August 28th, TABC announced that it had fired two of its agents and their immediate supervisor and had disciplined two other supervisors, and was changing several policies, including issuing new guidelines for its agents on how and when to use force and stepping up internal diversity trainings.

This is progress. Slow, sure, but significant nonetheless.

The information about the early bar raids in California was provided by Stan Yogi from his new book, Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragettes, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California, co-authored by Elaine Elinson. For additional information about this comprehensive and superb historical work, go to http://www.heydaybooks.com/upcoming/wherever-theres-a-fight-how-ru.html.

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