Fight the Right

With the surprising election of real estate mogul Donald Trump as America’s 45th president, progressives can expect to see the loss or erosion of many of their hard-fought gains, including civil rights for LGBT people, voting rights for African Americans, reproductive rights for women and economic opportunities for the poor.

A friend recently lamented that it seems pointless to protest in the face of the electoral shift that delivered all three branches of the federal government to the GOP. It does seem that we face fierce headwinds in the battle for economic, social and political progress.

But it’s important that progressive voices continue to be heard. As human rights activist Elie Wiesel said, “There may be a time when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Into the Streets

We’ve been here before. In the 1980 presidential election, American voters chose former California Governor Ronald Reagan, who ran on a far-right platform that included, among other things, the introduction of supply-side economic policies. Progressives responded by organizing large protests across the country, especially at fundraising events attended by the new president.

Progressives stage massive demonstrations against Reagan’s policies in the early 1980s.
Progressives stage massive demonstrations against Reagan’s policies in the early 1980s.

I covered one such protest in Los Angeles in the summer of 1982 for Gay Community News. A month after the story was published, the newspaper’s Boston office was destroyed in an arson fire set by members of the city’s police department. The right has a long track record of resorting to violence to silence progressive voices.

Here’s the text of my story, which is preserved in the special collections of the Snell Library at Northeastern University.

‘Homos and Liberals and Losers’

5 Jun 1982. LOS ANGELES — Several hundred gays and lesbians joined a broad-based coalition of nearly 10,000 demonstrators on Tuesday, May 25, outside the Century Plaza Hotel to protest President Reagan’s economic, foreign and domestic policies.

The protest was organized by a newly-formed group called the Federation for Progress to coincide with Reagan’s appearance at a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for the Republican Party inside the hotel. More than $1.1 million was raised at the dinner.

The demonstration outside was one of the largest protest rallies in Los Angeles since June 23, 1967, when 10,000 anti-war demonstrators marched outside the same hotel where then-President Lyndon Johnson was addressing a fundraiser for the Democratic Party. At that protest, more than 50 people were arrested and 30 were injured in clashes with police.

But Tuesday’s rally was peaceful as the 300 police officers guarding the hotel, many on horseback, kept their distance from the crowd.

Ron and Nancy Reagan at the Century Plaza Hotel. Photo: AP.
Ron and Nancy Reagan at the Century Plaza Hotel. Photo: AP.

Violence nearly broke out late in the evening, when a small band of Bible-waving fundamentalists verbally scrapped with the protesters. When the fundamentalists began chanting “God bless Reagan, God bless Haig, God bless the CIA,” scores of protesters surrounded them and a shouting match ensued.

The demonstrators screamed “fascist pigs” and “racists.” The fundamentalists responded by yelling, “You’re nothing but homos and liberals and losers.”

Crowd monitors from the Federation for Progress formed a human barrier between the two groups to prevent violence as police looked on, some with their batons in hand.

Radical Faeries Sing

The most visible contingent of gays and lesbians was a group of a dozen “radical faeries” joined by several lesbians, who sang, danced and formed a “faerie circle” in the midst of the throng of demonstrators. They were well received and cheered on by others in the crowd.

Long-time gay activist Harry Hay, founder of the faerie movement, had this message for Reagan: “Come out here and join our celebration of life. Give up all the things you stand for and move in our direction instead. Take a lesson from us. After all, as we’ve been telling everyone all day, heteros chant, but faeries sing.”

Among the many speakers at the demonstration was Ivy Bottini, a member of the Gay and Lesbian Police Task Force. “There is an illness in this land which takes the form of poverty, unemployment and discrimination against women, minorities and lesbians and gays,” she said. “But for the first time at a rally such as this (in Los Angeles), the lesbian and gay community is being officially represented.”

Bottini criticized the Reagan administration for doing little about the immunological diseases which have stricken hundreds of gays and asked the protesters to help put pressure on the government to begin research.

She pledged that the gay and lesbian community would continue to stand with other progressives in fighting Reagan’s policies. “We have been with you throughout history, in all the social movements, except that we have been in the closet,” Bottini explained. “But we are not in the closet any more. We are with you openly, hundreds of thousands of people.”