News clipping of ACLU News in the top right. Crowd to the right holding a banner that reads, "Stonewall was a riot"

Exploring the ACLU News Archive: The Intersection of Pride and Police Abuse of Power

Jun 28, 2021
Sarah Hopkins

Pride began as a protest against police brutality. Fifty-two years ago today, transgender women of color led an uprising against the New York Police Department following its violent raid of the Stonewall Inn. According to journalist Dick Leitsch, who has been identified as one of the first to report on the events at Stonewall after witnessing them first-hand, the uprising came on the heels of police raids of various LGBTQ+ clubs and bars in New York’s West Village, in what appeared to be an organized effort to shut them all down.

Leitsch wrote that there was something about the NYPD’s targeting of Stonewall in particular that struck a chord in the community and propelled the rebellion: “The ‘drags’ and the ‘queens,’ two groups which would find a chilly reception or a barred door at most of the other gay bars and clubs, formed the ‘regulars’ at the Stonewall. To a large extent, the club was for them…. ‘drags’ and ‘queens’ had no place but the Stonewall….”

In other words, according to Leitsch, the club was the most “tolerant and broadminded gay place in town.” It served to protect people from the streets, “or from getting arrested as vagrants.”

The Stonewall resistance, now remembered as a galvanizing force for LGBTQ+ activism and Pride celebrations across the U.S., illuminated the shocking license with which police officers could oppress and inflict violence upon people in the LGBTQ+ community. But that authority was not unique to the NYPD. Across the U.S., the sweeping authority of vagrancy, loitering, and “suspicious persons” laws gave police departments nearly unlimited power to brutalize and criminalize people. This had destructive consequences for LGBTQ+ communities, including here in Northern California.

The ACLU News archive documents the ways in which the police weaponized vagrancy laws against marginalized communities, and the ways in which the ACLU fought back through legal advocacy and representation. Like any good historical record, it also drives home the ways in which the past is not past: it is still with us in the form of laws and policies that continue to drive the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people, and especially transgender women of color.

Weaponizing the Law

American legal scholars have identified vagrancy laws as a colonial import from 16th-century England, where they were used to enforce “social order” and repress those deemed unworthy of a place in the highest levels of social hierarchy. Such laws allowed agents of government to harass, arrest, imprison, and enslave people for petty offenses.

In the U.S., during the Reconstruction era and onward, petty offense arrests took the form of vagrancy and loitering arrests, which police departments across the country used to target poor people and people of color. During the social and cultural upheavals of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, police departments’ reliance on vagrancy and loitering laws became increasingly exposed as, in the words of one 1963 ACLU News article, “a form of harassment for persons a police officer does not like.” The vague wording and broad scope of those laws gave police nearly unfettered discretion.

Vagrancy charges are so frequently cited in the ACLU News as a form of police harassment that they take on verb form: “to vag,” as in, “He was vagged.” In article after article, we see the various ways that local police employed such charges to devastating effect.

In 1947, for example, a drunk San Francisco police officer assaulted a Black man and then charged him with vagrancy after he reported the assault to the police department. In 1954, police in the city of Richmond conducted an illegal sweep in a North Richmond neighborhood and arrested 43 Black people under spurious charges of vagrancy. A couple of years later, and a decade before Stonewall, local police officers employed similar raid-and-roundup tactics to target a gay bar in the San Francisco Bay Area. The vagrancy law was their key tool of persecution.

Hazel's Inn

On February 19, 1956, 35 police officers raided Hazel’s Inn, a gay bar in San Mateo County, south of San Francisco. They arrested 87 people and charged them with vagrancy. According to the ACLU News, Sheriff Earl Whitmore “shouldered his way through some 200 persons in the one large room, jumped up on the bar and shouted: ‘This is a raid!’”

Sheriff Whitmore apparently made his intentions very clear to the local papers, announcing that he wanted to send a message of intolerance: “The purpose of the raid was to make it very clear to these people that we won’t put up with this sort of thing.”

“As far as can be ascertained,” wrote the ACLU News writer, “none of the patrons of the tavern were misbehaving or breaking any laws when the arrests occurred. The complaint seems to be that these men were making the tavern a ‘hang-out.’ Of course, there is no law against that, so long as their activity was lawful.”

The ACLU of Northern California launched an investigation and represented 30 of the defendants, who entered not-guilty pleas on charges of “violating the vagrancy law in being lewd and dissolute persons and committing acts outraging public decency.” ACLU NorCal was able to clear 27 defendants of the charges and represented the remaining three at trial. But the jury found two of the defendants, Randolph Wallace and Frederick Aykens, guilty of “lewd and dissolute” behavior. The judge imposed heavy fines and ordered them banished from San Mateo County for two years. One of the defendants, Harland Martinez, was acquitted.

The San Francisco Deputy District Attorney who prosecuted the arrestees is said to have told the court, “Our main purpose is to stop the operation of the bar.” They succeeded; proprietor Hazel Nickola lost her liquor license. (An appellate court judge was unsympathetic to Nickola’s attempt to reinstate it, citing Sheriff Whitmore’s raid in a 1958 ruling filled with racist and homophobic fervor.)

Throughout the legal proceedings, ACLU NorCal challenged the constitutionality of the vagrancy charges, arguing that their breadth and vagueness gave police a dangerous amount of power. “Vagrancy is a crime of condition, of status; one in which character is involved,” read the brief. “Can a person be arrested and found guilty of a condition, and can one ‘dissolute’ act (men dancing together) preclude that a person then has a condition of ‘dissolution’?”

The Bay Area Reporter has pointed out the similarities between the Hazel Inn case and the numerous police raids of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District in the 1960s, which targeted the transgender community. According to the Reporter, the 1966 uprising against police abuse at Compton’s Cafeteria was spontaneous in one sense: it erupted when a queen fought back against an officer who tried to drag her away. But it had also been years in the making: “The riot was a fight against police harassment and the forced poverty that transgender women faced on a daily basis for years…. It was probably not covered in the press because it did not fit the role the press had assigned them—that of passive vagrant criminals.”

Criminalization Continues

Over the years, various legal challenges whittled away at the scope and reach of vagrancy, loitering, and suspicious persons laws, including through a trio of famous Supreme Court cases in 1971 and 1972. But modern versions of those vaguely defined laws continue today, criminalizing poverty, affording police disturbing amounts of power, and contributing to the vast overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ people within the criminal legal system—to name just a few consequences.

Transgender people of color built the Pride movement and faced criminalization, reinforcing the need to rethink the laws and institutional structures that fuel mass incarceration and criminalization. The uprisings against police abuse at Stonewall, Hazel’s, and the Tenderloin, among many others, demonstrate that the law is not an objective tool applied equitably to all people. Without adequate protections against unfettered police power, agents of the law will be able to continue to perpetrate oppression and shape a society in which liberty and “justice” are only available to the privileged few.

Sarah Hopkins is a communications strategist at the ACLU of Northern California.