Many of us observe Stonewall as the spark that lit the modern queer liberation movement, but it was far from the only act of brave outrage by sexual minorities fed up with police abuse. One of the earliest in the United States was the Cooper’s Do-Nuts Riot in May of 1959 — a full decade before Stonewall.
The events of the night are familiar to anyone who’s read about police attacks on queer communities. Cooper’s Do-Nuts was a late night cafe in Los Angeles, in a particularly low-income area then known as Skid Row. Frequented by gay men, sex workers, drag queens and people we would now recognize as transgender, it was a gathering place for downtown LA’s queer community.
Of course, at the time, laws were designed to prevent queer people from gathering and interacting, and police delighted in tormenting the people who gathered at the cafe. It was not uncommon for raids to occur, with police arresting whoever they found inside. Among the justification for the arrests was a law requiring a person’s gender presentation to match their ID — a requirement that anti-LGBTQ fanatics continue to push to this day.
It was a night like many others in May of 1959 when officers pushed their way into the cafe and demanded identification. Their primary victims on this night were to be two drag queens, two male sex workers and a gay man — but for whatever reason, the patrons of the shop had had enough.
John Rechy, an author targeted by the cops, resisted arrest, complaining that there wasn’t enough room in the police car for all five of them. The other customers began to object as well, pushing the police out of the cafe and pelting them with cups, food, trash and assorted debris.
The police fled, and for a short period the street swarmed with angry queer people who’d had enough. But then the cops returned with reinforcements, shutting down the street and forcing everyone to scatter. That was the end of the uprising — unlike with Stonewall, it did not continue for additional nights. And the fledging queer liberation movement didn’t have the momentum at the time to create an annual day of remembrance.
Still, that uprising sparked more. The Cooper’s Do-Nuts Riot led to a protest in 1964 at an army induction center in New York; a riot against police harassment at a dance in San Francisco in 1965; a disruption at an anti-gay coffee shop in Philadelphia in 1965; the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco in 1966; and a decade after Stonewall, the White Night Riots in 1979.
All of these actions involved a community pushing back against police brutality.
So the next time someone wonders why police might not be welcome in a Pride parade, the answer is readily available in recent history. Cops had no compunction following unjust laws to abuse queer people in the past — it’s worth wondering if they would do the same today.