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Historic protest at Los Angeles’ The Black Cat helped launch gay civil rights movement

These activists are protesting in early 1967 at the Black Cat tavern in Silver Lake in response to Los Angeles police brutality against gay people.

These activists are protesting in early 1967 at the Black Cat tavern in Silver Lake in response to Los Angeles police brutality against gay people. Photo: ONE Archives at USC Libraries.

SILVER LAKE –  It was shortly after midnight Jan.1, 1967.

The revelers at The Black Cat tavern in Silver Lake rang in the new year with undercover Los Angeles police officers brutalizing the patrons and arresting them.

VIOLENT POLICE RAIDS

As balloons dropped from the ceiling at midnight to mark the New Year, undercover Los Angeles Police Department officers, who were among the crowd and waiting to pounce, ripped holiday decorations from the wall, beat and arrested 14 people.

Violent police raids on queer bars in Los Angeles and in cities across the United States were common in 1960s gay America, but this time the gays fought back. On Feb. 11, 1967, more than 200 people peacefully picketed at the Black Cat while heavily armed policed watched them. They demanded an end to the department’s harassment and brutality against gay people. The police refused to stop its vicious campaign against gay citizens, but the activists did make history — The Black Cat was the site of one the nation’s first organized LGBTQ protests. This landmark demonstration — along with numerous others in Los Angeles, San Francisco and across the country in the mid-1960s — helped launch the gay civil rights movement.

A plaque outside the building says the event is the nation’s first LGBTQ demonstration, but the claim is erroneous, as historians have pointed to earlier organized homophile demonstrations, including a protest at the White House in 1965 and annual July 4th protests at Independence Hall in Philadelphia from 1965 to 1969.” 

GAY NEWSLETTER

However, the protest at the Black Cat, which closed in 2011 and re-opened in 2012 as a restaurant, galvanized Richard Mitch, partner Bill Rau, Aristide Laurent and Sam Allen.

They took over the newsletter of a local gay rights organization called P.R.I.D.E. (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) and turned it into a small newsmagazine, which they renamed The Los Angeles Advocate. The first issue was dated September 1967.

It eventually was renamed The Advocate.

HISTORIC CULTURAL MONUMENT

In 2008, the building that once housed the Black Cat (the famous smiling black cat face sign still graces the location) was declared by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission a historic cultural monument.

 

 

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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