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From Stonewall 1969 to Black Lives Matter 2020: How technology ignites change

US Customs and Border Patrol agents flew unmanned aerial vehicles over crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters in at least 15 cities in June. According to government officials, the feds were just keeping an eye on the situation.

Despite the fact these were Predator drones – the same kind the US used to assassinate a foreign general earlier this year – the mission was strictly surveillance. The drones were reportedly unarmed.

Officials say the drones carried no onboard facial recognition software, but nearly 300 hours of film was streamed to ICE agents and other CBP personnel during the operation. Despite it being unconstitutional to film protesters, there’s nothing to stop the government from running this footage through facial recognition software now or in the future. This is normal. You might even say it’s routine.

This is what the Patriot Act, subsequent pro-surveillance legislation by both Democrats and Republicans, and three years of the Trump administration have earned the US. Most citizens don’t think twice about being recorded by the government in public. In fact, many welcome it.

Under normal circumstances, most US citizens don’t have to worry about being caught in the illegal act of simply existing, so the average person shrugs off government surveillance. That hasn’t always been the case.

In June of 1969 it was illegal in every state except Illinois for a person to be queer. This included not just gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, but cross-dressers and drag queens as well. Basically, if the police could catch you dressing or acting queer they could arrest you. Through the use of corrupt, illegal policing tactics including entrapment and wire-tapping, the police “cracked down” on homosexuality throughout the 1950s and 1960s with relatively little oversight and almost no public push-back.

In New York, this proved lucrative for both the NYPD and the Mafia. The cops solicited bribes from affluent or popular queers, often catching them through entrapment. The punishment for these crimes seldom went further than a month in jail and, perhaps, a modest fine. But the real damage came in the form of social banishment.

Police departments made a habit of printing the full names, phone numbers, and addresses of those caught and arrested for homosexuality and other “crimes against nature” in local newspapers and bulletins.

This made it impossible for many of those arrested to resume or begin their professional lives. Not only was being queer illegal, it was also considered a dangerous mental illness. Whether gay, trans, or simply a straight person who enjoyed wearing clothes that challenged social gender constructs, anyone under the queer umbrella was considered a sexual deviant.

In the 1960s and the decades prior, these so-called deviants were subjected to chemical interventions, castration, sterilization, shock therapy, and sometimes even lobotomies. Among the more popular treatments for those deemed homosexuals was aversion therapy. Those accused of being queer would be forced to watch gay pornography while being subjected to violent shocks or other forms of physical harm. The reasoning was that the “offender” would associate homosexuality with pain and discomfort and thus be cured of their queerness.

Most people either didn’t know or didn’t care, and the queer people of yesterday had very few methods of organizing. That began to change in the 1960s as televisions and telephones transitioned from high-end luxury tech to everyday household objects. Much like personal computers and portable music players would later during the 1980s.

With a phone in more homes than ever in 1969, the general population could connect over distance in real-time, for the first time. The world became a lot bigger for marginalized people.

TVs had become mainstream by then as well, and closeted queers would catch a glimpse of freedom on the evening news when reporters talked about places where “homosexuals” congregated. And, thanks to the popularity of government propaganda films in the US, they knew exactly where to find those places.

These propaganda films had a two-fold benefit for the queer community. First, it let queers know they weren’t alone. The government warned that homosexuals were everywhere, they could be anyone! For many queers, this was the first time they realized there were other people out there like them.

The second benefit: these ridiculous films often repeated the names of cities, districts, and neighborhoods where deviants were known to congregate. Rather than scare people away from these queer-zones, crowds of disenfranchised “criminals,” whose only crime was being queer, flocked to places like Greenwich Village in New York.

But being queer was still illegal. So queers moved underground and indoors. Gay bars of the time weren’t fabulous like they are today. They were non-descript places that charged a cover and had to be very selective about who they allowed in. The Stonewall Inn was one of these places.

Credit: Wikimedia