This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture Read more here.
On Thursday, NYPD commissioner James P. O’Neill apologized for the force’s harassment of LGBTQ people that led to the Stonewall riots of 1969. Amid pressure from gay New York City Council speaker Corey Johnson, who pointed out in a Wednesday radio interview that the NYPD had apologized for other past offenses, O’Neill issued his statement at a Pride month safety briefing. “I think it would be irresponsible to go through World Pride month and not to speak of the events at the Stonewall Inn in June of 1969,” he said, referencing the international Pride festival coming to New York in the second half of June. “I do know what happened should not have happened. The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple.”
“The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and for that, I apologize,” he continued. “I vow to the LGBTQ community that this would never happen in the NYPD in 2019.”
The Stonewall uprising, a major inflection point in the modern LGBTQ rights movement, marks its 50th anniversary this year. On June 28, 1969, NYPD officers raided the Manhattan gay bar and frisked, assaulted, and arrested patrons, as was customary at the time. Hundreds of LGBTQ people arrived on the scene to fight back in protests and acts of physical resistance that lasted days. The riots became a galvanizing moment for gay and trans people who were sick of being expected to accept police harassment as the price of being queer or gender nonconforming in public, and they are the event that the Pride marches were originally organized to commemorate.
In recent years, O’Neill and his predecessor, Bill Bratton, have refused to apologize for the NYPD’s history of violence against LGBTQ people. When asked in June 2017 if he would “apologize for the discrimination and violence” the NYPD perpetrated during the clash at the Stonewall Inn, O’Neill said, “I think that’s been addressed already. … We’re moving forward.” A year earlier, Bratton said of such an apology, “I don’t think that’s necessary. The apology is all that’s occurred since then.” The “terrible experience” queer and trans people suffered at Stonewall ultimately begat “so much good,” he said.
O’Neill was reportedly met with applause when he reversed his stance on Thursday. But it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what his belated contrition will accomplish. The apology will certainly benefit the NYPD, which will enjoy a bump of Pride month goodwill from certain quarters. As for LGBTQ people, however, it’s unclear what a verbal apology for 50-year-old acts of homo- and transphobic violence is supposed to prove. The lesson of Stonewall is not “do not raid Mafia-run gay bars,” which is not really a pressing queer—or cop!—concern in 2019. It’s “do not systemically target, harass, and criminalize LGBTQ and otherwise marginalized communities.”
That’s a lesson the NYPD does not seem to have learned. It took activists years—until this very month—to successfully pressure the department into amending its enforcement of a section of the penal code that criminalizes loitering that may be related to sex work. Officers have been profiling trans women as sex workers under the law, using their clothing and other elements of gender presentation as justification for their arrests. This is just one example of the ways the NYPD, like law enforcement bodies around the country, continues to terrorize and punish LGBTQ people for their identities. Stonewall wasn’t remarkable because of the way the cops on the scene behaved—their physical and verbal abuse were, by all accounts, routine. The riots became historically important because of what the targets of the NYPD’s harassment did in response. To apologize for just this one act out of the NYPD’s many, ongoing acts of LGBTQ criminalization is to miss Stonewall’s entire point.
At this moment in LGBTQ history, activists are mobilizing in increasing numbers to create their own police-free Pride events and get uniformed police officers out of mainstream Pride celebrations. This movement recognizes the fact that, for many LGBTQ people, law enforcement bodies do not protect from, but rather perpetrate, discrimination and violence.
Apologizing for beating queer and trans people, arresting them for wearing the clothes of their choosing, and subjecting them to organized harassment in 1969 is not taking a stance for LGBTQ dignity in 2019. It’s an empty gesture performed far too late to make any meaningful statement on Stonewall, and a slick distraction from the ongoing state violence being perpetrated against LGBTQ people living today.