Karen Ocamb

Why Michael Brown's Shooting Matters to the LGBT Community

Filed By Karen Ocamb | September 06, 2014 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: ACT UP, AIDS activism, LAPD, Michael Brown, police brutality

LAPD-ACT-UP.pngYou know about the Aug. 9 killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in the predominately black city of Ferguson, Missouri--but do you really care? You should. According to eyewitness accounts, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, shot at Brown as he was walking away from the officer. Brown turned around, raised his hands in the universal sign of surrender and said, "I don't have a gun. Stop shooting!" Wilson shot anyway. Brown's body was left on the street for four hours. Police stubbornly withheld information, which prompted riots and the militarization of the police response, turning Ferguson into a war zone.

(Right) The LAPD used horses and billyclubs to move the crowd at an ACT UP protest at the Century Plaza Hotel on Feb. 6, 1990 -- an event reminiscent of the overuse of force by police in Missouri

Ferguson is 29% white, 67% black with a police force of 53 people that includes only three African-Americans. FBI statistics indicate that 85% of those arrested are black. Might any be LGBT family?

"No Justice, No Peace" said the protest signs. But the old saying took on a cold, shivering meaning when St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch sided with the police. McCulloch blasted Gov. Jay Nixon taking control away from the Ferguson and St. Louis County Police departments and giving it to the Missouri State Highway Patrol and their community-policing-minded African-American captain from Ferguson who provided a brief sigh of peace and publicly apologized to the family. The intense community distrust and clashing of police and eyewitnesses accounts prompted Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a parallel FBI investigation into the killing.

Would there have been this kind of outrage had Michael Brown been gay? Probably yes, since he most likely would have been killed because of his race, rather than his sexual orientation. Young black men -- gay, bi or straight -- are endangered in America.

But make no mistake: LGBT people have deep scars from their experiences with law enforcement--most notably during the Black Cat raid in Silver Lake in 1967 and the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The LAPD was so cavalierly brutal to gays, many moved to the unincorporated area of West Hollywood to be under the less hateful Sheriff's Department. After the L.A. Riots in 1992 and the imposition of the federal consent decree, Lambda Legal's Jon Davidson organized interviews with the Christopher Commission to include stories of police brutality towards gay cops and LGBT people in their report. For instance, police officers referred to incidents involving gays as "NHI," shorthand for "No Human Involved."

The LAPD, especially members of the "God Squad," felt no compunction about beating "queers"--like ACT UP protesters--gathered across from the Century Plaza Hotel during a fundraiser with President George H.W. Bush. When night fell, Metro Squad and police on mounted horses charged into the crowd, swinging down batons and using horses to press people against the fountain wall. There were no repercussions for their out-of-policy actions. Nor was anyone held accountable for the police riot during the first night of the AB 101 demonstrations in 1991, when they ended the standoff by swarming AIDS activist Cory Roberts and chasing and beating protesters and reporters alike, including myself.

Finally LAPD Chief Daryl Gates was fired, community-policing advocate Chief Willie Williams was brought in and L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, appointed the first gay person to the Police Commission. Since then, the LAPD has made history by developing the first policy guidelines for the treatment of transgender individuals. While hate crime prosecutions are iffy, the LAPD now takes crimes against LGBT people seriously.

Black youth, however, are still too frequently killed at the hands of law enforcement, including unarmed mentally challenged Ezell Ford, 25, shot by an LAPD officer two days after Brown's shooting. And we should care about that.

Once upon a time, in the late 1960s, before we split into our own identity silos, we stood shoulder to shoulder marching against the war, against injustice and oppression wherever we saw it. We called each other "brother" and "sister" and cared about humanity, about seeking the best in us all, as one family. Might Michael Brown's murder as he was surrendering shock us into caring for each other again? If not this, then what?


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