Change isn’t easy — but the San Francisco Police Department is ready to give it a try.
Monday night, roughly 53 years after San Francisco police transphobia and violence spurred the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, SF police command staff will sit in front of members if the LGBTQ community at Glide Memorial with a single goal.
Billed as a “reflection and reconciliation” session, San Francisco police hope it will be a first step in rebuilding trust with marginalized communities.
“We have to start somewhere,” said Alex U. Inn, a drag king and musical performer who has been at the forefront of the resistance in San Francisco’s Pride Parade, and a frequent police critic.
U. Inn even hotly critiqued police just this year, for their arrest of LGBTQ activists which many described as overly violent. Flipping the script, U. Inn starred in a short video promoting the reconciliation event in a hope to jump-start a conversation.
“We are not going to resolve the disdain that people have for the SFPD and especially in light of what happened at this year’s Pride” right away, U. Inn said. “So it’s a start.”
Even the video U. Inn stars in acknowledges this disdain, with members of the LGBTQ community pointing out San Francisco police history of raiding gay bars and harassing transgender people for wearing dresses, which used to be against San Francisco law.
Two of the event’s organizers, Commander Teresa Ewins, who is the highest-ranking member of the LGTBQ community in SFPD, and Pastor Megan Rohrer, a trailblazing transgender Lutheran pastor and SFPD chaplain, acknowledged this history.
Friday, they told me they don’t want the community to hold back.
“It’s bringing a community together that needs to be heard. There’s a lot of mistrust of law enforcement and there are definite reasons why. Monday is a start of hopefully a new relationship,” Ewins said. “I don’t shy away from the conversation.”
That’s true even in her own department.
To ready for Monday’s real talk, I asked Ewins to speak frankly about her own experiences in SFPD. While the department isn’t busting windows of gay bars indiscriminately, as they did decades ago, there’s still some fumbling in the dark.
Rising through the ranks as an out lesbian, she fields questions from her comrades in blue often. “Some officers’ children just came out. Or they’re asking, ‘why is a person gay?’ How did those feelings shape my life, where it is today?”
The racist and homophobic text messages exchanged by San Francisco police that were revealed in 2015 also uncovered an ugliness that she had to contend with.
“That was difficult,” she told me. The department has since instituted technology to review officers texts and has “many ways” it can detect that type of behavior. “It was a rather big surprise for me, when I found out about it, to be honest with you. The thing that came to mind was, how does this happen?”
Ewins has also learned a lot from Pastor Rohrer, who has studied the history of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, among other similar incidents in San Francisco’s LGBTQ history.
Conversation is important, Rohrer said, because it can steer history.
“People don’t know that some of the laws that effected the Compton Cafeteria riot changed very quickly after because people didn’t take those as stopping points,” Rohrer said. “They continued the conversation.”
That doesn’t mean the police won’t stumble in trying to initiate that conversation.
Aria Sa’id, executive director of the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District, isn’t too happy with the police rollout of the reconciliation event. There were some crossed wires, with the police claiming they reached out to members of the district, and Sa’id saying they never reached out to her personally — a particularly egregious oversight considering they’re tying their event to the Compton’s Cafeteria riot anniversary.
Whatever happened, it isn’t a good first step, she said. And besides the stumble, she feels “listening” is moot at this point; SFPD needs to act.
“I have some words,” she started.
Firstly, police should reduce their presence at the SF Pride parade, and apologize for their handling of protests this year. “We weren’t just resisting, we were resisting the police” themselves, she said.
She also thinks talk about SFPD’s homophobic past being in, well, the past, is premature.
Many of San Francisco’s homeless youth are kids fleeing far-flung homes where they were rejected for their LGTBQ identities, Sa’id said, and many impoverished homeless people in the Tenderloin are transgender or gay.
“Trans people are affected by the criminalization of poverty,” Sa’id said. “Police tell people in tents to pack up and go. Sit and lie is still a law.”
So sure, the police aren’t beating wealthy gay people in bars anymore, she said — instead, they’re catching up homeless LGTBQ people in sidewalk tent sweeps.
James Lin, senior director of mission and spirituality at Glide, agreed with some of Sa’id’s points.
“The police were doing sweeps in the sixties and they’re doing sweeps now, in San Francisco,” Lin said. “I’m from a generation that can still remember going to establishments that had windows all boarded up because they operated in an environment where things like holding hands in a same-sex couple were punishable.”
It’s not that far back. It’s not history. It’s living memory.
But after Compton’s Cafeteria riots, Glide Memorial played a leading role in moving the community forward. Glide’s leaders helped form Vanguard, a queer youth organization whose youth members were rioters in Compton’s.
So that anger? Lin understands it. And embraces it.
Hard feelings are welcome on Monday night. In fact, that’s pretty much the point of it.
“Bring it all. Bring the anger. But bring the love. Bring the love you have for your people, and the people you know need you at this moment,” Lin said. “It would not be a good event if it were an easy night. It can only be a good event if there was enough difficulty for us to work through something.”
Lin had a point.
“If it’s easy, then, why do it?”
The reconciliation event will be held Monday, August 26, 2019 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at GLIDE’s Sanctuary room (2nd floor) at 330 Ellis Street (please use the Taylor Street entrance).
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.