Queer, Interrupted

In February, the San Francisco Police Department released their contribution to the It Gets Better phenomenon.

Watch it here.
In it, SFPD officers tell their life stories, cry, celebrate their jobs, and offer words of encouragement to queer youth. Each officer speaks of the painful silence of closeted life, suicidal tendencies overcome, the excitement of coming out, and final deliverance into a rewarding career as a police officer. The officers each assure us that it gets better, if we are only patient enough. Then they urge queer youth to call on them for help, insisting that until it gets better, SFPD will be there. Having survived the daily misery of growing up a fag in a conservative Midwestern farm town, I get sick watching these police officers attempt to identify with the pains of queer youth. Even revisiting the video, I’m confronted by an enemy who offers sympathy and solidarity to people who’ve struggled against police in similar ways.

The specific insult of this video, besides the fact that it comes after a year of street confrontations between queers and social rebels and the SFPD,

See here and here.
is that it tries to erase the central fact of queer history: that queer history is visible only because of a constellation of revolts in which queer bodies fought police control. So not only was the video released amid low intensity warfare between social rebels and the police department and thus must be understood as a part of SFPD’s strategy to retain control in an unruly city, but the figure of the queer cop pleading to suicidal youth to simply wait out the violence of the queer-hostile social order that the cop upholds is a negating obscenity. It does violence to the traditions of the queer struggle for life and against ­policing.

In May 1959, street queens and hustlers at Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles responded to police harassment by throwing donuts and rioting against the officers who came for their weekly arrest. Again in 1966, rioting erupted when SFPD tried assaulting queers at Compton’s Cafeteria. Most famous are the Stonewall Riots, where a routine police raid on a gay bar in Manhattan ignited full-blown rioting when a bull dyke resisted arrest and street queens began throwing rocks and bottles at NYPD officers. For the nights that followed, thousands of queers flooded the streets to fight the police and dance in mockery of their inability to reassert order. The most violent instance of queer riot occurred 10 years later in 1979 following the murder of Harvey Milk; queers in San Francisco attacked symbols of the justice system, smashing City Hall and setting a dozen SFPD cars on fire. It was one of the US’s largest social disturbances until the Rodney King riots a decade later.

Each of these incidents, which are hailed as milestones of queer history, were specific attacks against police institutions that had previously patrolled the outlines of queer identity. Cooper’s Donuts, Compton’s Cafeteria, Stonewall, White Nights: each names a moment where the routine police violence against queer bodies was interrupted with riotous force. From an account of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot:

One weekend in August of 1966  Compton’s, a 24-hour cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood was buzzing with its usual late-night crowd of drag queens, hustlers, slummers, cruisers, runaway teens and neighborhood regulars. The restaurant’s management became annoyed by a noisy young crowd of queens at one table who seemed to be spending a lot of time without spending a lot of money, and it called the police to roust them. A surly police officer, accustomed to manhandling Compton’s ­clientele with impunity, grabbed the arm of one of the queens and tried to drag her away. She unexpectedly threw her coffee in his face, however, and a melee erupted: Plates, trays, cups and silverware flew through the air at the startled police who ran outside and called for backup. The customers turned over the tables, smashed the plate-glass windows and poured onto the streets. When the police reinforcements arrived, street fighting broke out all throughout the Compton’s vicinity. Drag queens beat the police with their heavy purses and kicked them with their high-heeled shoes. A police car was vandalized, a newspaper box was burnt to the ground and general havoc was raised all throughout the ­Tenderloin.

Mary Nardini Gang, Towards the Queerest Insurrection

Such was the reaction to what were commonplace incursions by the police into queer life. These riots are so remarkable because they interrupt the scarcely broken continuum of police violence against queers, which continues to this day. Despite years of progressive activism and legislative reform, police still raid gay clubs, exploit and arrest street-based sex workers, imprison those who defend themselves against transphobic attacks, and turn a blind eye toward the pile of queer bodies that grows ever skyward. In defense of order (legal or gendered) they continue to beat, Taze, imprison, rape, and shoot us with impunity. Only against this daily violence can we read the history of queer insurrection and recognize its current potential.

The period between Stonewall and the onset of the HIV crisis, sometimes referred to as an instance of sexual liberation, is best understood as the sustained interruption of police logic within a specific space and time. After winning battles with police in the street, queers then subtracted buildings and public spaces from their roles within capitalism to repurpose them as zones of ceaseless pleasure and experimentation with freedom. Some who survived the crisis that followed describe what happened during that period as being entirely outside  our contemporary sexual-political logic. They describe the feverish ways in which, in defiance of all policing, untold numbers of bodies discovered how to be together in previously unthinkable ways.

In criticizing policing and positing queerness as its undoing, however, we would be tragically limited if we focused solely on uniformed officers of police departments. While they are obviously the living and breathing apparatuses of institutional policing, there are also those police who are all the more sinister for being less apparent. Specifically, two police apparatuses: the queer basher and the peace police.

I’m all too familiar with the queer basher. He populates my most painful memories and formative moments of my youth. He stands guard over the hallways of my high school and rigorously evaluates every aspect of my presentation. The queer basher enforces the laws of gender and sexuality. As with any lawman, he is equipped with the threat of justifiable violence and the means to carry it out. He is the antagonist in all narratives of queer youth. We are promised that the basher will wither away if only we wait, and yet it does not get better. To break through such naiveté, it is crucial to acknowledge that the queer basher does not disappear and cannot be reformed: He must be combated as an ­apparatus.

It is in this capacity that the project of bashing back takes on meaning. While I’ve experienced queerness through countless instances of policing at the hands of bashers, the rare moments of freedom I’ve known have been in actively bashing back.

Each instance of violence against the queer basher is the slightest point of interruption of his logic. A collective example of this force of interruption is the Bash Back! march at the 2009 protests against the G20 in Pittsburgh. While black-clad and tiara-wearing queers were smashing the windows of police stations and attacking banks, a would-be queer basher attempted to assert order by puffing his chest and calling the rioters faggots. They responded in kind by macing and kicking him to the ground. Such a chaotic moment hints toward what a sustained antipolicing project might look like.

The so-called peace police must also be understood through this same logic. Motivated by discourses of democracy and dogmatic nonviolence, they join with the uniformed police in attempting to maintain peace and order. While they make their allegiance to the uniformed police explicit, they also draw power from their complicity with the queer basher. They often commit the only violence at these protests, targeting people laying hands on private property, and invariably hurling homophobic epithets as well.

The Bash Back! tendency cites the tradition of queer antipolicing in the present. As chronicled in the recent anthology Queer Ultraviolence

Bash Back! was one name for the informal network of queer anarchists active primarily in the Pacific Northwest and Midwestern U.S. Emerging in 2007, the group stood apart from already existing insurrectionary anarchist and radical queer milieus in being both explicitly queer and anti-police. Participants in the extended Bash Back! network claimed numerous attacks against enemies of all stripes: churches, politicians, assimilationists, businesses, but especially the police. Notable anti-police attacks include the sabotage of Memphis Police vehicles and the harassment of a MPD officer believed to have murdered a trans woman named Duanna Johnson, sabotage of a CPD cruiser after police broke up an illegal queer party in Chicago, more police vehicles attacked in Chicago in vengeance for the murder of yet another young trans woman, the trashing of a police station in Pittsburgh during the 2009 G20 summit, vandalism at a precinct in New York City, and a now-ritualized street-party-turned-riot in Seattle called Queers Fucking Queers. But more than specific actions and attacks, Bash Back! developed a culture of queerness that refused constraint and policing as a daily practice. Bash Back! crews acquired and distributed free self-defense implements to queers, put on self-defense training, confronted queer bashers, organized emergency response networks in neighborhoods, threw underground parties, and occupied ­houses to be used as shelters for runaway queer youth.

The belief that we’ve left certain brutalities to previous generations is a cornerstone of progressive ideology. This view of history allows one to recognize the importance of antipolice rioting generations ago and to argue the form is now unnecessary. Contemporary queer activists appreciate the Stonewall rioters specifically because of their faith that they themselves will never need to take on such a project. The liberal and radical readings of queer history fail together as progressive narratives because they jointly assert that it in fact gets better. The radicals, in concert with the assimilated queers and the SFPD, tell us that if we have faith in the future, the miseries of the present can be eroded through righteous action. Even those who critique the social order continue to serve it through their belief that it can somehow take on a better form. The belief in the possible redemption of this society is simultaneously the ideological justification for all the police measures that ensure its reproduction. This redemption, as if a force of nature, unfolds before us with the passing of time.

Redemption is not to be found in the unfolding of capitalist time, but instead in its forceful interruption. Against the dogma that it gets better, we have to understand that queerness was not built on a linear progression through adversity, but was fought for against a progression which would have eliminated it. To start again, without mythical origin stories or promises of collective liberation, is to orient our queerness toward the here and now. This attention to the here-and-now is primarily an evaluation of the misery of capital and the police operations that sustain it, but also an appreciation of the ways in which each moment is loaded with the explosive potential to revolt against misery’s reproduction. If we feel a connection to the explosions of queerness through history, it is not because our time is built on those foundations; rather they were violent interruptions of the continuum in which we’re trapped—moments that we wish to cite in our own conflict against ­policing.

Queerness is the name of our combat with policing in the here-and-now, but also of what binds us to a tradition of combat and interruption. Through this dialectic between queerness and policing we can then begin to materially understand exactly what the half-critique of assimilation grasps at. Assimilation is not a departure from the liberating progression of history, it’s the reassertion of the police order which progressive teleology guarantees. Assimilation is the constant return to the police. It is the closure of these moments of queer interruption. If this is our standard of queerness, those assimilated subjects must be understood as not queer at all, because they are fully subsumed within the function of the police. This is the context which exposes It Gets Better as utterly absurd: The police who solicit our patience to wait for it to get better are structurally bound to the police who ensure that it never will.