SCOTUS Night at the Movies: Stonewall Uprising & SIcko revisited

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 27, 2015)

Stonewall rioters on the night on June 28, 1969

The White House on the night of June 26, 2015

What an extraordinary week it has been for tangible progressive change. The Confederate flag came down, and the Rainbow flag went up. 6 million Americans let out a collective sigh of relief when they learned they weren’t going to lose their AHCA coverage after all. All I can say is, the nine men and women of the Supreme Court certainly earned their $4700 paychecks for this week…and a drink on me (well, some of them get a drink on me). Fuck it, I feel magnanimous. Give my man Scalia a shot of pure applesauce. On me.

However, before we get wrapped up in patting ourselves on the back for this “overnight” paradigm shift toward the light, let us not forget that such things don’t just spontaneously occur without somebody having made a sacrifice, or at the very least, raised a little fuss:

It isn’t nice to block the doorway

It isn’t nice to go to jail

There are nicer ways to do it

But the nice ways always fail

-Malvina Reynolds

In the wee hours of June 28, 1969 the NYPD raided a Mafia-owned Greenwich Village dive called the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar on Christopher Street. As one of those policemen recalls in the documentary, Stonewall Uprising, the officers were given “…no instructions except-put them out of business.”

Hard as it might be for younger readers to fathom, despite the relative headway that had occurred in the civil rights movement for other American minorities by that time, the systemic persecution of sexual minorities was still par for the course as the 60s drew to a close. There were more laws against homosexuality than you could count. The LGBT community was well-accustomed to this type of roust; the police had no reason to believe that this wouldn’t be another ho-hum roundup of law-breaking sexual deviants. This night, however, was to be different. As the policeman continues, “This time they said: We’re not going, and that’s that.”

Exactly how this spontaneous act of civil disobedience transmogrified into a game-changer in the struggle for gay rights makes for a fascinating history lesson and an absorbing film. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner take an Errol Morris approach to their subject. Participants give an intimate recount of the event and how it changed their lives, while the several nights of rioting (from initial spark to escalation and immediate aftermath) are effectively recreated using a mixture of extant film footage and photographs (of which, unfortunately, very little exists) with dramatic reenactments.

Davis and Heilbroner also take a look back at how life was for the “homophile” community (as they were referred to by the media at the time). It was, shall we say, less than idyllic. In the pre-Stonewall days, gays and lesbians were, as one interviewee says, the “twilight” people; forced into the shadows by societal disdain and authoritarian persecution. As I watched the film, I had to pinch myself as a reminder that this was happening in America, in my lifetime (you, know, that whole land of the “free” thingie).

Perhaps not so surprising are the recollections that the media wrote off the incident as an aberration; little more than a spirited melee between “Greenwich Village youths” and the cops (“Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad”, the N.Y. Sunday News headline chuckled the following day). I think this film is an important reminder that when it comes to civil rights, America is not out of the woods. Not just for the LGBT community; the incident in Charleston is a grim reminder that we’ve got lots of work to do. Stonewall might seem like ancient history, but its lessons are on today’s fresh sheet.

 Back in July of 2007, when Obamacare (or even an Obama administration) was still but a gluten-free, tree-huggin’ lib’rul socialist wish fantasy, Digby and I put up a double post on Michael Moore’s documentary, Sicko. 2007 wasn’t that long ago, but when you consider all of the jiggery pokery that “our friends across the aisle” have spewed forth to obstruct the Affordable Health Care Act, it feels like eons. And I don’t think I have to remind you how bleak and hopeless it all seemed at the time. As I wrote in my review:


Our favorite cuddly corn-fed agitprop filmmaker is back to stir up some doo-doo, spark national debate and make pinko-hatin’ ‘murcan “patriots” twitch and shout…you have likely gleaned that I am referring to documentary maestro Michael Moore’s meditation on the current state of the U.S. health care system, Sicko.

[…] The film proceeds to delve into other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most depressing of all) the compassionless bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need.

[…] Moore makes his point quite succinctly-the need for health care is a basic human need. It should never hinge on economic, political or ideological factors. As one of his astute interviewees observes, it is a right, not a privilege.

 Here was some of Digby’s take; as usual, she nails it on the sociopolitical angle:

sicko is a surprisingly affecting movie, with its cast of people who you cannot look at and say they are dirty hippies, or losers or people who should have known better. They are regular Americans- hard working people who had the bad luck to get sick. And the amazing thing is that they were almost all insured. (The stories of the uninsured are so horrific that you almost have to laugh at the idea that our system could be considered superior to the worst third world country by anyone)

This movie is perhaps the opening salvo in a new movement for guaranteed national health care. I hope so. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are a variety of health care systems out there that work better than ours does for less money. All we have to do is be willing to set aside our misplaced pride and admit that this isn’t working and we need to do something about it. There are experiments all over the globe with universal care — we can pick among them and find something that’s right for us. Even business is getting ready to jump on board because these costs are starting to kill them too.

Absolutely goddam right…we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, yet we got it rolling (well, at least Obamacare is a start in the right direction). And hopefully, the SCOTUS decision will force the obstructionists to pack up their tire spikes and go home for good.

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