The New York Police Department rocked the LGBTQ community last month when it apologized for beating trans people, gay people and others in the historic Stonewall riot 50 years ago.
“The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple,” NYPD commissioner James P. O’Neill said at the beginning of June. “The action and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive and for that, I apologize.”
It’s a powerful statement. Should the San Francisco Police Department follow suit?
That’s the contention of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, whose leadership this weekend called for San Francisco police and its commission to apologize for clubbing, beating, and in some cases unlawfully arresting activists in actions around the AIDS crisis and in the White Night and Compton’s Cafeteria riots.
On Monday, the Milk Club also called for an investigation into the police arrest of two protesters at the San Francisco Pride Parade, which it painted as far too violent.
Those protesters blocked the Pride parade to call for police to be barred from the march. Instead, one trans person protesting was injured in SFPD’s arrest, and hospitalized. An officer was also injured in the scuffle, according to SFPD.
“The irony of SFPD committing acts of brutality against peaceful protesters of the Resistance Contingent at the San Francisco Pride Parade on the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall is not lost on us,” the Milk Club wrote. “It warrants outrage and swift recourse.”
Already two sitting San Francisco police commissioners and one past president have said they agree with the Milk Club on the first point, at least — SFPD should make amends for its history.
San Francisco police may not be pulling gay people out of Castro bars and beating them indiscriminately anymore, but the club argues that wearing rainbow patches and making financial donations aren’t the same as a good old fashioned apology.
Three actions in particular deserve a historical reckoning, the club said: the ACT UP Castro Sweep in 1989, the White Night Riot in 1979 and the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966.
“Change is possible and necessary, and we acknowledge the progress that the SFPD has made in recent decades to distance itself from this harmful legacy,” the Milk Club’s executive board wrote in a statement to SFPD.
“However,” they added, “an essential step in continuing this progress is a collective acknowledgment of this history and the mistrust and fear the police instilled in our communities, particularly among queer and trans people of color.”
Milk is a local political club that’s key in local San Francisco ballot races and candidate elections. It has courted and bolstered current and past members of the Board of Supervisors, with an eye to the interests of the LGBTQ community.
San Francisco police, for their part, aren’t ready to issue a formal apology quite yet.
When I reached out for comment, however, they sent a long list of initiatives they’ve taken to better their relationship with the LGBTQ community. They include 25 years of training on LGBT issues; issuing Department General Order 5.22 mandating “appropriate, respectful interaction” with the transgender, gender-variant and non-binary community; LGBTQ-targeted recruitment; an immersion course for SFPD recruits to contact LGBTQ leaders, and far more efforts than I could fully detail here (seriously, SFPD could write a book).
“We are committed to serving San Francisco’s LGBTQ community and fostering a safe, respectful environment for everyone in our city,” said police spokesperson David Stevenson, in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our dialogue with LGBT community members to hear their concerns and address both historic and ongoing issues between law enforcement and the people of San Francisco.”
While the Milk Club acknowledged many of those changes, it’s SFPD’s dark past the club’s leadership wishes them to atone for. Some sitting police commissioners agreed.
“I support an investigation and an apology to reconcile inappropriate past practices,” Police Commissioner Petra DeJesus told me.
Commissioner John Hamasaki said “a crucial part of the Department’s reform efforts requires acknowledging the mistakes and injustices of the past. The department and the commission should both acknowledge and apologize for the historical discrimination and abuse that the LGBTQ community has suffered and ensure that its leadership, policies and procedures protect all vulnerable communities moving forward.”
Police Commission President Robert Hirsch declined to express his personal views on whether the commission, or the department, should apologize. But he said the department is “preparing to address this inquiry,” suggesting an apology is perhaps on the way.
In the meantime, former police commission president and District Attorney candidate Suzy Loftus also agreed SFPD should reckon with its history.
“The ghosts of the past are still here in our city today,” she told me. “Apologizing demonstrates a willingness to own the harm caused and creates space to rebuild trust with those impacted.”
This past weekend San Francisco police proudly marched with Pride, wearing rainbow-emblazoned SFPD patches, the sale of which raised nearly $15,000. The department will donate the money to the nonprofit Larkin Street Youth Services, which serves homeless youth, many of whom identify as LGBTQ.
But only decades ago, in the living memory of much of our city’s community, San Francisco police didn’t hand checks to people who were gay, trans or queer — they battered them.
In the White Night riots in 1979, officers taped over their badges so they couldn’t be identified as they beat gay protesters furious that former supervisor (and ex-cop) Dan White was handed a lenient sentence for killing Harvey Milk and George Moscone. San Francisco cops raised more than $100,000 for White’s defense, it was reported.
San Franciscans fought back, burning cop cars and breaking City Hall windows.
Tom Ammiano, a former Assembly member and a contemporary of Milk, was there, though he didn’t catch the worst of it, he told me. “There was so much utter anger at the police over their tactics. It was about the murders of course, and the light sentence, but it was also about them raiding gay bars,” Ammiano said, which used to be a common practice.
Ammiano recalled, “they just pulled gay men, not part of the riot, and beat the shit out of them.”
The most recent of those protests, by the group ACT UP on October 6, 1989, was also marked for its unnecessary brutality. It was meant to be standard San Francisco rabble rousing for a dire cause, with marchers in the Castro district clamoring for more to be done to save lives in the AIDS epidemic.
Instead of allowing protesters to exercise their free speech rights, however, police quickly started cracking heads. Laura Thomas, a past co-president of the Milk Club, was one of the protesters there that day.
“SFPD declared martial law in the Castro, arrested dozens of people and hit people with police batons,” Thomas recalled. She was later a plaintiff in a successful lawsuit against San Francisco police for their extreme handling of that peaceful action.
“An apology certainly isn’t enough to make up for the damage caused, but it would go a long way towards enabling all of us to repair the damage, to move forward and heal,” Thomas told me.
Some of that effort toward healing started long ago. Lea Militello, a retired SFPD commander and an out lesbian, was among the department’s first LGBTQ community liaisons. She joined the force in 1981 and began as a liaison during the ACT UP protests.
“I was around for ACT UP, and I absolutely admire ACT UP,” she told me Monday. “Without ACT UP, our country would not have gotten change regarding the AIDS crisis in our country. It’s because of them that that happened.”
She remembered that after those protests police held many “debriefings.” They tried to learn from their mistakes.
“I could not be prouder of our police department, and where it has grown,” she said. “The department today is very different than the department it was way back when. It’s grown because it’s gotten more diverse in the general ranks, and more diverse in the upper ranks.”
Thomas, the ACT UP protester, disagreed on exactly how SFPD learned their lessons. It’s agitators who call for change — much like the Milk Club is now — who help push the department towards social justice, she said.
“One of the reasons SFPD has and uses different crowd control methods now than they used to is because they’ve been forced to by class action lawsuits,” she said. Those lawsuits were and are “led by a lot of badass, nonprofit civil rights lawyers who pushed SFPD to adopt policies more protective of people exercising their first amendment rights.”
Change, she said, only comes when you demand it.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.