What are the Black Cat Protests?
On February 11, 1967, the first documented LGBTQ+ civil rights demonstration against police brutality in the nation took place at a small tavern named the Black Cat in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Hundreds of members of the LGBTQ+ community as well as known activist organizations such as PRIDE and SCCHR came together for a demonstration to peacefully protest the rampant police brutality and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.
The demonstration was, more specifically, in response to a police raid that occurred the previous New Year's Eve. Eight undercover police officers barged into a gay bar just as many of the patrons were sharing their New Year's kiss and violently tore apart couples and beat men, ultimately resulting in a total of fourteen arrests. This historic and monumental demonstration of gay rights activists took place nearly two years prior to the well-known Stonewall Riots and is seen by many as the spark that ignited the LGBTQ civil rights movement.
Battle in the Courts
The Black Cat constantly faced harassment from the police, who tried to do everything in their power to shut down and punish those who chose to gather there, which was, unsurprisingly, many gay males.
The San Francisco Police Department worked closely with the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission to use its power against the bar despite the recent repeal of prior prohibition laws. With increased crowds of gay community members flocking to the bar at night, the police took this opportunity to charge the owner with a variety of crimes, including “keeping a disorderly conduct” and “illegal and immoral acts,” which resulted in the bar getting their liquor license voided, meaning the bar could no longer legally distribute alcohol to patrons.
The court case appealing this ruling, Stouman vs. Riley (Stouman being the bar owner), made its way to the California Supreme Court. This court case marked one of the first official wins for LGBTQ+ rights in the court system. The judge ruled that the Black Cat’s liquor license was suspended under inadequate circumstances. The ruling confirmed that the fact that the bar served as a common gathering place for gay individuals was not a good enough cause to suspend their license. This ruling was one of the first rulings seen to protect LGBTQ+ rights.
Fighting the System
Following this ruling, California passed a constitutional amendment forming the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which used its broad powers to again shut down the Black Cat bar as well as many other prominently gay establishments for being a “resort for sexual perverts.”
A new case was once again brought to the California Supreme Court, which upheld its previous protections for gay bars and ruled the law used to get them to shut down as unconstitutional. Despite the ruling in favor of gay establishments, it was not a complete victory since even though gay individuals could gather legally, they could not touch physically in any way, or else it would be criminalized.
Another battle in court involved 6 out of the 14 men who were arrested who were forced to register as sex offenders after kissing on New Year's Eve while the police raid occurred. The lawyer of these men used their sexual orientation to demand equal protection of rights under the 14th Amendment. This is the first time that sexual orientation was argued as a characteristic protected by the 14th Amendment.
The Black Cat Protests preceded the well-known Stonewall riots by approximately two years. It is remembered today as one of the very first demonstrations from the LGBTQ community demanding equal rights and fair treatment in light of the ongoing police harassment.
Branson-Potts, H. (2017, February 8). Before Stonewall, there was the Black Cat; LGBTQ leaders to mark 50th anniversary of protests at Silver Lake. Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-silver-lake-black-cat-lgbtq-20170208-story.html
Dominguez, Laura. (2017, February 11). LGBTQ Activism Started Here: L.A. and the Black Cat Protests of 1967. KCET. https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/the-black-cat-harbinger-of-lgbtq-civil-rights
Wikipedia Contributors. (2021, December 1). Black Cat Tavern. Wikipedia; Wikimedia