The Police, Disguised as Patrons, Attacked Queer People at the Black Cat Tavern
Before Stonewall kicked off the modern LGBT equality movement, there was the Black Cat Raid that helped kick off the kickoff. Few remember the incident, but it was a crucial moment of crisis in the emerging queer rights movement.
The Black Cat Tavern was opened in late 1966 in Los Angeles‘ Silver Lake neighborhood. It was known to be a hangout for queer people, which was dangerous at the time: police routinely arrested gays for gathering together, even in private, and in some parts of the country it was illegal to sell drinks to gay people.
Sealed with a Kiss: New Year’s Eve at the Black Cat Tavern
On New Year’s Eve 1966, Los Angeles Police Department officers snuck into the club in plain clothes and hung out there as the party got underway. They waited until midnight, and then a large police force descended on the bar and began beating the patrons.
What touched off the violence? The police were waiting for men to kiss at the stroke of midnight. Once they saw that visible display of homosexuality, they felt justified in attacking the Black Cat’s patrons. California laws at the time made it illegal for men to kiss in public, or to dress in drag.
The violence spilled over into a neighboring bar, where more people were beaten. It wasn’t uncommon for police to inflict physical violence in queer spaces, but this time, something was different.
The Black Cat Raid Counter-Protest
The patrons organized a counter-protest that drew hundreds of people in February of 1967. It was the work of a fledgling group called PRIDE, which wanted to protest what they described as “police lawlessness.”
At Sunset and Hyperion, the protests were met by a large battalion of armed police officers — a defiant display of force against the protests. Though the protest was peaceful, two men were arrested for kissing each other and forced to register as sex offenders.
The Aftermath of the Black Cat Raid
There were several important impacts following the protest: first, a successful fundraising effort to defray the legal costs incurred during the raid; second, the founding of the Metropolitan Community Church; and third, the formation of the newspaper known as The Advocate. Still in existence today, The Advocate was for many years the most high-profile source of LGBT community news and information.
So why did Stonewall become an icon of the movement while the Black Cat Raid and protests — which took place more than two years beforehand — did not? You might as well ask the same question about other large LGBT protest actions of the time: there was also the New Year’s Raid in San Francisco of 1965, and the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966.
It’s hard to say why Stonewall became the most important milestone, but perhaps the Summer of Love had something to do with it. Stonewall came right at the start of one of the most tumultuous seasons in American history, when culture wars were splashed all over mass media. Stonewall might’ve come at just the right moment for the entire country to pay attention, and for queer people everywhere to feel empowered to take action.
But there’s no question that the movement needed smaller explosions of power in the lead-up to Stonewall — and the Black Cat Raid and subsequent riots were among the most important.