The Movement Threw the First Brick at Stonewall

Some people find me kind of theatrically pessimistic or doomsaying. (No clue how they got that idea.) I do have a lot of optimistic feelings about the future, but in politics in particular I am constantly confronted with a basic problem: change in the favor of the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized requires solidarity across difference, but the political ideologies associated with pursuing that change have become obsessed with emphasizing the differences instead of the solidarity. All the left has is people power. But that can’t work if you insist some people are more important than others.

For years now there has been a percolating argument about the beginnings of the Stonewall riot. (I’m sorry, we are meant to say “uprising” now, because all we have is semantics.) Who threw the first brick, everybody wants to know? I have heard about Stonewall since I was a child, and yet I never heard a word about this “controversy” for the first 35 or so years of my life. It just never would have occurred to me to wonder. But people have become very, very invested in this question, and now fight constantly about the issue. In particular, many now insist that a Black trans woman started the action. When I say insist, I mean it: this is not a question on which some people will broach disagreement. As in so many things on the left these days, people frequently will insist on this point without evidence and act like those asking for some are committing a crime. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I believe that the people who say Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick are wrong. I have no idea, and I don’t care.

From the most old-school parts of my leftist heart: it doesn’t fucking matter who individually threw the first brick. It doesn’t matter. That fixation on individualism is contrary to everything we are meant to stand for. The whole point of this style of politics is to recognize that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one - including the need for recognition. “Not me, us,” remember? Stonewall was a triumph of the movement. It was a victory for collective action, not individual heroism. The fixation on dividing up the praise fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of solidarity and its preeminence in left culture.

The most basic vocabulary of progressives has become bent towards the needs of the individual, and many people seem to feel that the elementary job of politics is to make people feel like they’re prioritized. In fact the elementary job is to actually improve their lives in material terms. But now it’s essential that some people are “centered,” whatever the fuck that means, and if you’re centering some people you are necessarily telling others that they are marginal. I’m not saying that we don’t have special responsibility to marginalized groups, or that we shouldn’t focus particular attention on oppressions of race or gender. We do and we should. But the whole point, for about two hundred years, has always been to show how those problems interlock and interact, how injustice against one group of vulnerable people is in fact the same injustice that afflicts us all, and that none of us get free unless all of us do. All of that is gone. All that remains is the worship of the particular, to put it as neutrally as I can. And I cannot articulate a scenario in which liberation against the forces of establishment power (capital, militarism, domination) can win under those terms.

The term BIPOC exists particularly to stress the distance between different types of people of color, and insists that some are a higher priority; acronyms like LGBTQQIP2SAA1 and AANHPI get longer and longer, because lord knows the last thing we’d want to do is share an identity category with people who are somewhat dissimilar from us. People mistake their Tinder bio for politics and vice versa. The list of sexual identities and orientations gets more ludicrous by the day. My identity makes me different. My trauma makes me different. I am disabled, but not in the same way as you are; you may be Black, but you’re light-skinned and thus can’t share my pain, or my cause. I have no interest in weighing in on the legitimacy of these divisions in and of themselves. If they’re useful in therapy or sociological research or online hobby communities, fine. Self-identify however you would like, and take your own trauma and problems seriously. But those things cannot be the basis of a political movement. Current trends have resulted in an utterly fractured progressive landscape, and it’s a disaster - no movement, only competing claims to having the greatest need. The basis of left-wing organizing is the statement “I am just like you.”

Consider that Stonewall argument again. Breakdowns of the individual identities within the LGBTQ population are tricky, but most estimates put the total population within this group at around 5%. How could it possibly make any strategic sense for the groups within the broader community to constantly divide themselves into smaller and smaller chunks? In a representative democracy? But this seems to be the only thing that gets some “activists” out of bed in the morning, asserting their moral superiority over some other group that is itself within the vast tent of “marginalized.” Cisgendered gay men have been written out of the movement by a lot of other LGBTQ activists; sure, as a political class gay men have money, numbers, and organization, but hey. The important thing is to be a social club first. This attitude is ruinous. Listen: almost everyone is politically motivated by self-interest. They will do what they can to help others, but they coalesce together into a movement when they recognize that they share the same interests as their neighbors. That’s not Ayn Rand talking; it’s common sense and a basic assumption of centuries of left-wing and progressive thinkers and leaders. It’s also a necessity. The right has money, organization, a structural advantage in the makeup of our system, and a large media apparatus. Progressive people can’t afford to be divided. They just can’t. But it’s baked into the culture now.

As with all things on the left, this is all a symptom of powerlessness: when you can’t actually achieve real change, all you can give people is attention.

I constantly get asked questions of political identity, and in particular if mine has changed. I am specifically asked a lot about supposedly being a left contrarian and whether I am “post-left.” I don’t have the fucking slightest idea what that could mean, post-left. I’m the same guy I was at 16, at 22, at 28, at 35: a leftist, a socialist, a Marxist. That is to say, a collectivist, which is the beating heart of left-wing thought and always has been. I don’t care that liberals and their enablers have decided that the goal of politics is to be defined rather than to take power. I still believe in the basic principles of solidarity, liberation, compassion, egalitarianism, and a future beyond capitalism. I’ll go down with this ship. I’m not post-anything. What’s now called the left or liberalism went post- when it abandoned the commitment to equality and brotherhood for the pursuit of an ideology of vanity.

Perhaps this is too cute, but the irony is that a single brick can never build a solid foundation. Only a lot of bricks can do that. But it’s hard to believe that the people in today’s “movement” would ever consent to being just one brick among many.

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Though you likely think I am mocking here, in fact this is a real acronym that some people in corporate activism use.