Not quite Stonewall: 40 years later the cops haven’t changed, but we have

Posted September 15, 2009

“Hey, Red Dog: Bored with Grandmothers?” Those words, scribbled with marker on a makeshift sign, lingered above a crowd mostly confused by their meaning. Who was Red Dog and what grandmother? In other communities in Atlanta, away from the gentrifying “gayborhoods” of Midtown, that sign could probably escape any need for clarification. This wasn’t southwest Atlanta, though. The rally was gathered behind a leather gay bar, the crowd predominately middle-aged gay white men.

The circumstances behind the rally shouldn’t have been a shock to the attendees. Nights before, officers of the Atlanta Police Department, with participation from the particularly brutal Red Dog Narcotics Unit, entered The Atlanta Eagle bar, apparently tipped off by complaints ranging from drug use to public or solicited sex. Around 62 patrons and staff were forced on the ground for an hour, many handcuffed, and searched by cops freely uttering homophobic and racist remarks.

Unfortunately for the APD, no weapons or drugs were found on anybody, forcing them to resort to Plan B – confiscating IDs and running a background check for potential outstanding warrants. Here, also, the APD struck out, so the patrol cars and paddy wagons left mostly empty, with the exception of The Eagle’s staff, who were arrested for only wearing underwear. The officers charged the employees with unlicensed stripping (it was “underwear” night at the bar, but the act of actually stripping seems like a desperate stretch by the APD).

Luckily, a reporter from Atlanta Progressive News was on scene to break the story, and by afternoon time the next day many Atlanta area queers (at least in the limited demographic world of facebook) opened up various internet accounts to find some sort of reference to the raid and growing outrage. It was Stonewall all over again, many cried. The national publication The Advocate ran the story alongside constant coverage from Atlanta’s smaller news outlets (the major Atlanta paper, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, was skittish), and solidarity actions in Atlanta were quickly planned, the largest being the rally behind the bar that was attended by hundreds.

For many of us, especially queer radicals, the story and immediate growing reaction was full of promise. This could be a chance to realize a queer agenda beyond marriage, and one that could help build unity between the queer community and other communities that traditionally face police brutality (in Atlanta, those communities are overwhelmingly black and poor). It would also be a chance to build unity, or at least secure an acknowledgment, to those within the queer community to which these events aren’t at all shocking but rather routine – queers of color, transgendered people (particularly homeless), even men in the leather scene.

Those that do not look like, or share the vision of, the gay movers and shakers who attend the banquets of The Human Rights Campaign or Georgia Equality (both, not surprisingly, missing from the rally.) Those queers whose reality more closely parallels straight black men indiscriminately stopped, searched and even shot unarmed by officers of the APD and their most uncontrollable unit, Red Dog, than the reality of gays rushing out of an expensive Midtown townhouse to catch the neighborhood association meeting and help decide how many more “undesirable” crime committing elements should be removed to help make the neighborhood safer and more profitable for its white newcomers.

The story had a lot of other political promise, as well. Atlanta’s electoral atmosphere leading up to November’s elections has basically boiled down to two things – “I love the cops and can bring more into the city” and “I love the cops and can bring even more than your more.” Public safety is on everyone’s lips. The grandmother the sign at the rally was referring to, Kathryn Johnston – a 92 year old woman gunned down by Red Dog Narcotic Unit cops several years ago – was all but forgotten by white Atlanta as publications and neighborhood groups rushed to secure more cops – now – at any price. Ironically, the man at the head of this movement of white panic, Kyle Keyser, is gay, and was the only mayoral candidate to address the crowd at the rally, shedding his usual rhetoric of more cops with little oversight – instead timidly asking for answers from the force for this one event.

The raid on The Eagle suddenly became a useful tool, not only to funnel a new, angry crowd into a movement for police accountability but also to put local political candidates in a position where they may have to condemn police conduct instead of lavishing praise on the force and promising hundreds more on our streets if they’re elected. Considering the growing influence of mostly white, middle-class gay Atlanta from gentrifying neighborhoods, local candidates may find themselves in a bit of a dilemma: condemn the raid and risk having an anti-police quote used by candidates competing for the frenzied, pro-police, white middle/upper class Atlanta voters? Or stay as neutral as possible on the subject and risk the fury of gay voters?

Hopes for an unleashed queer fury, not quite Stonewall but not quite HRC, were quickly dimmed by the organizers of the rally, however. Messages were sent out on facebook reminding potential attendees that this was not a protest against the APD – in which we supposedly have queer allies – but rather one in support of gay establishments. Any suggestion that the protest actually happen at the police department was scuttled. People spread solidarity messages around facebook, referencing how similar this felt to being gay in ’69 rather than black in ’09. This shouldn’t happen to us, this hasn’t happened to us lately.

An eery, subtle message being relayed through many such expressions was on display more explicitly by signs at the rally – how dare you treat us like THEM. Signs that kept asking the PD why they would target The Eagle rather than gangs, drug-pushers and muggers. “Who made this call?”, one sign asked, placing The Eagle on one side of a seesaw and various street crimes piled up on the other. “We’re law-abiding citizens,” many said, and I never thought I’d see this again.

Where are we looking that we don’t see it, exactly? Not in the overcrowded jails of the APD, where arrests are brought in mass after a Red Dog Unit raid or traffic block. We’re not looking, apparently, in the face of Tramaine Miller and hundreds like him, shot unarmed by Atlanta cops throughout the years with little protest or rallies. In the signs of the rally that asked for an apology, the speakers who assured the crowds most cops are good and this is an oddity, all who came out once this year and maybe once in a decade to ask why this happened and how do we get answers to this one event the message was unintentionally, unknowingly chilling – this doesn’t happen all the time.

But it does, and will continue to. The question now is what sort of reaction should the Atlanta queer community have? Should it be one that seeks answers to one event, maybe even forces some empty political statements and press release apology? Should it be a movement to solely stand in solidarity with gay establishments? Or should we consider longer term accountability for cops, not just when they attack our community but when they attack all, and work towards strengthening the Citizen Review Board and fighting for any oversight and justice we can for the Atlanta PD? Should we consider that sign, referencing Kathryn Johnston, almost out of place at the rally – “Hey Red Dog: Bored with (African-American) Grandmothers?” Perhaps in that sign there was an ability to make a connection and more wisdom than any commentary from the self-appointed, bourgeois heads of gay advocacy and their white, middle-class allies can actualize.


One response to “Not quite Stonewall: 40 years later the cops haven’t changed, but we have”

  1. R Avatar

    In events such as these, it’s important to remember what brought us to this point. The raid at The Eagle is not an isolated incident – it fits into a much larger narrative. To understand policing and safety, we should look at some of the roots of the problem. The present global crisis of capitalism continues to generate massive job loss, wage cuts, homelessness, and poverty, on top of that which already existed. The desperation of the period has led to all sorts of responses, good, unfortunate, and ugly: the election of Barack Obama on a mandate of “change,” hard-fought collective struggles by everyday people for recovery and aid, an uptick in property crime from people hit hardest by the meltdown, and a frightening resurgence of the white supremacist and anti-feminist right wing.

    What does the future hold for us? Economically, many agree that any “recovery” we get will be a jobless one–in other words, the profits of the wealthy will skyrocket once again but masses of workers will remain under- or unemployed. The CEOs and hedge fund managers (many of whom bankrolled Obama’s “change” message) insist that any solution to the crisis that threatens their bottom line is unrealistic and gladly welcome superficial “solutions” to people’s desperation. These include scapegoating of immigrants, stopping “big government,” and fighting so-called “crime waves.” Conveniently, there are profits to be made in avoiding fairer distribution of wealth, building prisons and detention centers, and distracting frustrated people from the bosses’ criminal role in precipitating the crisis.

    In Atlanta, just as much a stronghold of Southern “liberalism” as it is one of racial injustice and inequality, new groups have cropped up to demand more police on the streets and “tougher” reactions to perceived crime. One of these, Atlantans Together Against Crime (or ATAC, pronounced “attack”), has garnered significant attention and praise from corporate media and appears to have been instrumental in steering candidates seeking office in this election cycle to promises of police and more police. These demands, held in common with the vigilante right and the corporate elite, have devastating results. Not only do issues of police accountability get placed on the back burner or totally ignored, but people historically targeted by police (people of color, LGBT and non-gender-conforming people–in other words, most Atlantans) are faced with even more severe repression.

    We’re not just dealing with dramatic examples of police abuse, though there are many in recent memory…Kathryn Johnston, the 92-year old Black woman fired at 39 times and killed by the APD Red Dog unit and framed for marijuana possession, Troy Davis convicted for killing a Savannah cop in 1991 on coerced witness testimony and no material evidence, Jamarcus Usher killed by an ATAC member in a “shoot first and ask questions later” perceived robbery, or the completely unjustified raid of the Eagle bar by the Red Dog unit in 2009. Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The stories of hundreds of people of color arrested through 287g (a new Cobb and Gwinett County police requirement to check the papers of suspected immigrants), the stories of thousands of opportunity-seeking immigrants detained, deported, and torn from their families, the stories of transgendered people caught in Midtown “sex work” stings, the stories of Black communities across Atlanta terrorized by APD and their notoriously brutal Red Dog unti, and so many others, remain submerged.

    As long as we think that the “bad apples” are the problem and not institutionalized and routine discrimination, there will be no way of winning real police accountability in any context. Only recognition of the scope of the problem, appeals to solidarity–not divisiveness, and steadfast organizing across communities will build a movement capable of winning more police accountability. Furthermore, we argue that there are inherent inequalities and injustice in our current system that will have to be corrected to ultimately have a large scale impact on safety in our communities. Struggles for living wages, affordable housing, employment and many basic human necessities will have to be fought to ensure real safety rather than state-sponsored violence and mass incarceration.

    While we know it’s not the ultimate solution, we believe one important reform that we can demand immediately is a strong, effective Citizen Review Board. Created after the death of Kathryn Johnston, it has since been stripped of any real ability to investigate complaints filed against the Atlanta Police Department. Facing evasiveness, refusals and even lawsuits from police officers, the Citizen Review Board is better serving a false perception of police accountability in Atlanta rather than operating as an institution that can be used to bring transparency and safety. Rallying around the Citizen Review Board–rather than simply requesting an apology–is the best way to get answers to what happened at The Eagle and what happens daily in Atlanta at the hands of police. We also must reject promises from local political candidates to fill the streets with more police as a response to the frustrations of relatively privileged Atlantans.

    Repression and Resistance:
    A Short Atlanta Timeline
    Summer 2005 “Operation Meth Merchant” kicks off, targeting South Asian immigrants.
    April 17, 2006 Gov. Purdue signs SB 529 assault on immigrant communities.
    May 1st, 2006 70,000 immigrants march in Atlanta.
    November 11, 2006 92 year-old Kathryn Johnston shot to death and framed by Atlanta Police Department Red Dog unit officers; City Council soon creates ordinance for a Citizen Review Board to oversee the APD.
    December 19, 2008 Pierre George, unarmed, shot to death by an APD officer.
    January 2009 Atlantans Together Against Crime (ATAC) created to call for more police on our streets.
    January 14, 2009-Jamarcus Usher shot to death, without any proof of intent to commit crime by ATAC supporter Dave Stanley.
    May 5, 2009 Tremaine Miller, unarmed, shot in the face by APD officer while visiting aunt.
    June 6, 2009 City Council orders APD to comply with Citizen Review Board requests for documents of questionable shootings. Local group BLOCS instrumental.
    July 7, 2009 Police union sues the Atlanta Citizen Review Board to prevent the transfer of documents.
    August 17, 2009 US Supreme Court, after many impressive local and nation-wide protests, orders a federal district court in Georgia to consider and rule on Troy Davis’ claim of innocence.
    September 10, 2009 APD Red Dog unit raids local gay bar, the Eagle, harassing patrons and arresting employees on
    September, 2009 Hundreds of LGBTQ people and allies rally on multiple occasions against Eagle raid.

    Local Resources:
    Building Locally to Organize for Community Safety (BLOCS)
    Organizing for police accountability and a stronger CRB. (
    Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR)
    Organizing for immigrants’ rights and against 287g. (
    Southern Center for Human Rights
    Legal resource for those marginalized in “justice” system. (
    Atlanta Citizen’s Review Board (
    Jobs with Justice Atlanta
    Fighting for workers’ rights and racial justice. (