Following the death of George Floyd on May 25, America has begun the third week of protests and riots. Protestors are demanding justice for Floyd and the countless other lives lost at the hands of police brutality.
The rioting, looting and protesting began on May 26, the day after Floyd’s death, at the site where he was pinned to the ground -while officer Derek Chauvin and three other officers knelt on this neck. For eight minutes and 45 seconds Floyd begged for his life until he was unconscious.
George Floyd’s death is just one of many. Ahmaud Arbery was lynched by a white supremacist father and son, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her bed in the middle of the night during a police raid and Tony McDade, a 38-year-old black trans man was gunned down by police just two days after Floyd’s death. McDade is twelfth transgender person to be killed by police in America in 2020. These names accompany countless others who have been killed by police and racism.
For many Black and Indigenous People of Colour, the death of George Floyd; the pain, grief, anger and fear it brought to see, on video, another innocent life callously taken brought folks to a boiling point. For many white people, it was a harrowing wake up call to begin unpacking our compliance within a system that was designed for our benefit, to recognise and begin to take responsibility for the ignorance so many of us have plead around the issue of race; whether in the US or on our home soil.
But while white people begin to understand the breadth of systemic racism at their own pace, People of Colour are literally fighting for their lives, and our plea of ignorance or worse, apathy is no longer a viable excuse.
Riot as the language of the unheard
As thousands across the globe march to fight for justice, the conversation around doing so is dicey in a global pandemic. When rioting and looting is involved, it becomes loaded. For People of Colour, the binary they have been allocated is an impossible space to navigate peacefully when their voices and actions have been oppressed and weaponised for centuries.
Journalist and Reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones addresses the riots taking place in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, in an interview for the New York Times Daily podcast, she explains: “The truth is that we know Americans pay attention to violence. Had there been no fires, had there been no looting, no physical confrontations with the police, these stories of police protests right now would have garnered maybe a few minutes on the local news cycle, but we wouldn’t see the wall-to-wall coverage that we’re seeing every day.”
The impossible instances that Black Americans are essentially forced into creates an arduous dichotomy to navigate, and plays to the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ rhetoric. The system is designed against PoC and oppresses their voices daily, but when a revolt is necessary and people are pushed to breaking point, they are placed into the binary stereotype of a “violent” community that has been perpetrated by white supremacists and police for centuries. Hannah-Jones adds that “It’s that that quote-unquote violence is going to be used as an excuse not to sympathise with Black struggle".
Riot as the pillar of Stonewall
While you may be against the riots that are taking place in the US right now, and don’t understand the gravity behind these actions, I urge you to remember this same month in 1969. Five decades ago, a police raid against LGBTQ+ folks took place at the Stonewall Inn, New York City. On June 28, 1969, police stormed the popular queer bar, Stonewall Inn. They became violent with patrons for freely expressing themselves.
Stormé DeLarverie, a biracial butch lesbian was amongst those arrested and was brutalised when stating that her handcuffs were too tight. She allegedly threw the first punch after being attacked. When the violence perpetrated by the police that morning broke out, it was clear to bystanders that the only way to fight violence was with violence, and so an uprising began.
The Stonewall riots which took place as a rebellion following the raid, lasted for six days and were led by Black and Brown trans and queer folks who put their bodies on the line for the equality and liberation of the LGBTQ+ community. Riots, looting and violent acts against the police took place. Among these front liners, were Marsha P. Johnson - a black trans woman who many queers today know as a hero - and her equally notorious fellow activist, Sylvia Rivera, a Latina-American trans woman and founder of the Gay Liberation Front. These were the women who quote “threw the first shot glass” when the Stonewall riots began and led what is now known as one of the largest gay liberation movements in history.
Riot as a reminder
The uprising that Stonewall was, and the change that followed when it came to queer recognition was undoubtedly propelled forward by Black and Brown LGBTQ+ folks willing to risk their lives at the hands of police brutality for LGBTQ+ individuals everywhere. For those that don't understand the reason behind rioting, this is a reminder. This is a reminder that without Stormé DeLarverie, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and countless others, the LGBTQI+ community would not have the freedom and rights we do today.
This is a reminder that Black and Brown LGBTQ+ folks have always had our backs, and it’s time we start doing the work to effectively have theirs.
It is a reminder of where we started, and the protection of that history will mean nothing if we cannot protect those who are making it now in turn. It is a reminder that as white people, namely white queer people, we must protect Black and Brown lives at the intersections of oppression and beyond as they have protected ours throughout history.
In a piece for the Los Angeles Times, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes “I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer… So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive.”.
To be clear: we are not applauding the use of "violence" or looting, but it needs to be known that when people’s lives and safety are placed of lower value than property, and voices of the oppressed are silenced over and over again, people will find a way to make themselves heard.
In the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones, "Violence is when an agent of the state kneels on a man's neck until all of the life is leached out of his body. Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence. To use the same language to describe those two things is not moral".
During the month of June, the year after the Stonewall riots took place, the Pride parade we know today was born. To this day, Pride serves as a yearly, triumphant response of life to a world that wants us to assimilate. Today, Pride is celebrated throughout all of June globally. We must remember and acknowledge that Pride and racial justice are not mutually exclusive. Let us learn from Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie. Let us learn from the change that can be made if enough people stand together against injustice and fight for freedom, and that these pivotal events prove what we know to be true.
In the sage words of Indigenous artist, activist and academic, Lilla Watson “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”. We not only need to be doing better, by signing and donating and posting, but we need to put our bodies and voices on the line as Black and Brown LGBTQ+ folks did for us at Stonewall and continue to do today. We need to be having nuanced conversations with other white folks and be nuanced enough to know that we may not always get it right, and hold each other accountable when that’s the case. Pride month this year may feel different, but its roots are grounded in revolution and rioting, whether or not the term has negative connotations. In the words of Marsha P. Johnson herself: "no pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.".