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