In the early hours of 28 June 1969, a routine police raid on the
Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, precipitated what is
now known as the momentous birth of the gay rights movement.
A hangout for lesbians, gays, drag queens, trans people, and
queers, the Stonewall Inn was home to many of society's
marginalised outcasts. "Criminals" they were called by society.
This raid was nothing out of the ordinary; the New York City
police habitually raided gay bars, harassing customers, destroying
clubs' equipment and beating and arresting transvestites.
But this time, the punters fought back. Lesbians and gays and drag
queens united to hurl bottles, bricks and anything else in reach at
stunned police officers, who responded with equal force. Windows
were shattered, garbage cans set alight, and the raid escalated
into a full scale riot. Riots continued over the next few nights,
with more and more protestors arriving to take a stand.
Sylvia Rivera reportedly remembered thinking, "You've been
treating us like shit all these years? Uh-huh. Now it's our
The events at the Stonewall Inn over those days are now remembered
and widely celebrated. Many of us owe our civil rights to those
riots - without them, we might have had to wait a lot longer for
our freedom to love who we want.
So was the violence worth it? Was it justified?
The famous 20th century French writer and philosopher Jean Paul
Satre once said, "Terrorism is a terrible weapon, but the oppressed
poor have no others."
In the case of Stonewall, the violence was the voice of the
oppressed. It was the voice of angry, victimised, marginalised and
outcast queers finally speaking up, and fighting for their right to
be heard and recognised as equal, by a society which had rejected
So, now that the dust has settled on the more recent London riots,
how will history choose to see them?
The city lamented, sensationalised and hypothesized for all of a
week, then swiftly swept away the debris and scurried back to
'normal life' as fast as it could manage. Seen as an embarrassment,
a humiliation, a stain on the righteous face of London, we're all
too eager to put it down to a freak surge of violence and
criminality by mindless thugs.
Sadly this is a gross fallacy. The notion that this is a fair,
just and egalitarian society, with adequate social mobility and
welfare is not entirely true. We've just ignored the voices that
are screaming outside the margins of our society.
We ignore the homeless, the poor, the addicts, the prisoners, the
immigrants, the single parents - the most vulnerable people in
society. We expel them from our city centres to attract business
and tourism. We dismiss their social status as a result of
improvidence or fecklessness, and their language as ignorant,
uneducated, or incomprehensible "patois" (David Starkey on Jamaican
immigrants) - something beneath the middle class "norm".
In short, we have put a lid on the "oppressed poor" in this
country; when we're not ignoring them, we label them "chavs" (see
Owen Jones' excellent book 'Chavs: The Demonization Of The Working
Class'), disparage, condemn and ridicule them, and exclude them
from what we see as proper civil society.
In this light, the London riots are symptomatic of wider social,
economic and political problems which we are not addressing. The
violence is partly the voice of marginalised and outcast people in
this country, that have been festering, ignored, for years and
This is not a justification of violence, but rather, a plea that
we start acknowledging the causes and context of it.
The middle class myth has been altered forever; unless we address
the underlying issues, we have no hope of a return to 'normal life'
- and nor do we have the right. Now we have seen these voices
exist, it's our responsibility to do something - at the very least,
stop simply ignoring vast swathes of society.
0nly time can tell, but let's hope that, like Stonewall, many
years from now, we'll look back on these riots as an instigator for
change and the passage to a fairer and more equal society.