Collective Memory of Police Surveillance?

While doing dissertation research, I came across an op-ed in The Advocate, criticizing the elimination of some protections against police surveillance (see here). The piece was written by a lawyer from the National Center for Lesbian Rights and argued that LGBT people should be opposed to an agreement between San Francisco police and the FBI that bypassed some of the civilian protections against police abuse in San Francisco. These protections, the op-ed pointed out, were first championed by Harvey Milk to help protect LGBT people against rampant police abuses. The FBI-police agreement might particularly harm Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim people, but these communities include LGBT people. The LGBT community should remember its own history of police abuse and be vigilant against police infringement on anybody’s liberties.

This op-ed contrasted wildly with the continuing saga of events in my own neighborhood. Last summer, following some isolated violence in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood, a group calling itself “Take Back Boystown” formed. This group attributed the violence to the increased presence of queer youth of color in Boystown. Many of these youth come to Boystown from the South side of Chicago and other parts of the city, because they feel safer in Boystown and local organizations in Boystown offer services to support these youth. Having no where else to go, these youth often congregate on the sidewalks and in parking lots. “Take Back Boystown” describes the youth as menacing and intimidating, claiming they do not belong in the neighborhood. This group has called for increased police patrols in Boystown, to help clear the parking lots and sidewalks and keep residents safe. Most recently, the Northalsted Business Association (a business association for businesses in Boystown) responded to this pressure by hiring private security guards, a move applauded by Take Back Boystown.

As I kept thinking about these examples, I focused on how differently they seemed to define the boundaries of the LGBT community. The poor homeless youth despised by some in Boystown are clearly drawn into the expansive understanding of community suggested in the op-ed by NCLR. To suggest that we need to “take back” Boystown excludes these youth from the community. And so I was thinking about intersectionality, asking what does this tell us about processes of secondary marginalization (Cohen 1999). And these two examples do raise a lot of important questions about how intersectionality does or does not work. But a lot of queer bloggers in Chicago have already roundly criticized much of what Take Back Boystown has done (here and here for examples). So then what I want to talk about is how these examples explicitly and implicitly mobilize very different understandings of the past.

The Stonewall Riots of June, 1969 are typically commemorated as the beginning of the modern LGBT movement (Armstrong and Crage 2006 discuss why Stonewall is commemorated instead of other, earlier events). In these riots, queer people fought back against the frequent police raids on gay bars in New York City. Activists in San Francisco similarly fought back against police harassment and bar raids, including at Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966 (Armstrong and Crage discuss some of these events). The work done by Harvey Milk, celebrated in the NCLR op-ed, was in response to this history of police violence. Modern Gay Pride Parades are the continuation of the early commemorations of Stonewall. But while the early marches celebrated the willingness of LGBT people to fight back against the police and the state, today’s parades are often organized in conjunction with and depend upon the police.

How did we get here? And how do our commemoration practices matter to how we think about the present-day problems facing LGBTQ people? Various scholars and activists have compared the LGBT community to ethnic minorities, suggesting that unlike ethnic minorities, LGBT people cannot count on learning about “their” past from their families (e.g., Epstein 1987 for an academic discussion, here for a recent example from the blogosphere). But it’s too easy to just say that NCLR is remembering a history that Take Back Boystown forgets. Collective memory scholars describe how we actively construct past memories and attribute meaning to them. Both groups, then, are engaged in a present-day process of constructing the past.

Eviatar Zerubavel (1997) describes how we construct a set of interpretive schemata as we make sense of past events. These schemata define different types of events and include their various characteristics. We use these schemata as we construct memories of the past. “Police violence” and “protester riots” invoke different understandings of the same events, influencing how we think about their meaning.

So then one way of thinking about this difference between the events in San Francisco and Chicago is to ask how these groups invoke different schemata and how this influences their conclusions. The development of hate crime legislation is particularly important to describing these different schemata. Hate crime laws institutionalize a way of thinking about anti-LGBT violence as located outside the state. LGBT advocates used narratives of anti-LGBT violence in arguing for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in hate crime laws (Jenness and Grattet 2004). In the process, these advocates simultaneously obscured how the police target marginalized people, including queer people (Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock 2011). They forgot the history of anti-LGBT police violence. While the Tack Back Boystown group did not directly describe the violence as “hate crimes,” these laws almost surely provided a model. Following the hate crimes script, Take Back emphasized how LGBT people were unsafe, how they were victimized. The violence was not directly described as based on hate, but the idea of outsiders coming into the community was emphasized.

This insight points to the importance of thinking about how we choose schemata as we construct the past. Different assumptions about the role of the police follow from the different schemata we might employ. The different schemata used by NCLR and Take Back Boystown have critical implications for how we describe the boundaries of the queer community, how we describe the problem, and how we think about solutions. Even while remembering the same set of events, by using different schemata, different groups can draw very different meaning from those events. The hate crime schemata demands clear “victims” and “aggressors,” walling the LGBT community off from others. The “police surveillance” script instead connects LGBT people to other communities targeted by police practices.

But perhaps an even more interesting insight comes when we think about the social construction of past time periods. While we may think about the past in terms of different time periods or eras, past events do not really draw these sorts of clear lines (Zerubavel 2003). Instead, we socially construct the meaning of the past, defining when one era ends and another begins (id.). We tend to assume that events in an era “belong” together. An event at the end of one era may be very close in time to an event at the beginning of the next era, but we classify them as separate.

What does this mean for how we think about LGBT history? In his book, The World Turned, historian John D’Emilio writes that in the 1990s “A group of people long considered a moral menace and an issue previously deemed unmentionable in public discourse were transformed into a matter of human rights, discussed in every institution of American society . . . During the 1990s, the world seemed finally to turn and take notice of the gay people in its midst” (2002). Hate crimes legislation was one piece of this broader change.

And so today, for many young LGBT people, the relevant history is the past decade. Sure, the state repressed LGBT people. But that was in the past. Not today. Not now. And so that past is lost as a point of comparison. It’s in a different era. Surely “Take Back” does not refer to taking back the early days of pride parades in Chicago, when very small numbers marched through present-day Boystown. When few LGBT friendly businesses existed. When LGBT people avoided contact with the police. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the iconic rainbow pillars were installed on Halsted Street, down the main through-fare of present-day Boystown. So then “Take Back” refers to a much more recent past. It uses a narrative of a past when LGBT nightlife thrived, out in the open, on the streets, carefree and celebratory. The possibility of anti-LGBT police violence does not exist in this narrative. That was then, this is now.

The NCLR op-ed refuses this periodization of the past. It says sure, things are better for some LGBT people. But we still face problems of police surveillance, of police intimidation. We still need to be vigilant. The NCLR op-ed doesn’t only draw a distant historical lesson. It describes the past as part of the same era as the present, it connects events together. The NCLR op-ed says even if police raids of gay bars and police surveillance of (some) LGBT people are not common anymore, we are not past the era where we have to be concerned with police practices in relationship to the lives and security of LGBT people.

Divergent understandings of police protection are not only about how we understand the relationship between LGBT people and the police today. They are also about how we understand the past. Both of these examples are rooted in longer histories, in longer practices of commemoration. To really understand these divergent responses, we would have to study how these groups have told different narratives of the past over time, and how they have used those narratives of the past to construct themselves in the present.


Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Suzanna M. Crage. 2006. “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth.” American Sociological Review 71(5): 724-51.

Cohen, Cathy J. 1999. The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

D’Emilio, John. 2002. The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Epstein, Steven. 1987. “Gay Politics, Ethnic Identity: The Limits of Social Constructionism.” Socialist Review 93/94:9-56.

Jenness, Valerie, and Ryken Grattet. 2004. Making Hate a Crime: From Social Movement to Law Enforcement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Mogul, Joey L., Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock. 2011. Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1997. Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 2003. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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3 Responses to Collective Memory of Police Surveillance?

  1. drgrzanka says:

    You’ve done some great thinking here, Josh. I can’t recommend Christina Hanhardt’s work to you enough, though. She’s been exploring these issues through a historical frame in her work on the construction of “safe space” in NYC (Greenwich Village, specifically) pre- and post-Stonewall. Good luck with your diss!

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