Before Stonewall, There Was The Cooper’s Donuts And Compton’s Cafeteria Riots

One night in May 1959, the cops showed up to check IDs and arrest some queers:

Two cops entered the donut shop that night, ostensibly checking ID, and arbitrarily picked up two hustlers, two queens, and a young man just cruising and led them out. As the cops packed the back of the squad car, one of the men objected, shouting that the car was illegally crowded. While the two cops switched around to force him in, the others scattered out of the car.

From the donut shop, everyone poured out. The crowd was fed up with the police harassment and on this night they fought back, hurling donuts, coffee cups and trash at the police. The police, facing this barrage of [pastries] and porcelain, fled into their car calling for backup.

Soon, the street was bustling with disobedience. People spilled out in to the streets, dancing on cars, lighting fires, and generally reeking havoc. The police return with backup and a number of rioters are beaten and arrested. They also closed the street off for a day.

The Cooper’s Donut riot often gets confused with the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot some years later: There were similar political circumstances leading up both riots. And like Cooper’s, Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district was a popular all-night hangout for trans people (called “hair fairies” at the time), hustlers and assorted sexual renegades.

And both stories involve coffee cups.

In August 1966, a cafeteria worker called the police when some transgender customers at Compton’s became unruly. When a police officer attempted to arrest one trans woman, she threw a cup of hot coffee in his face. Within moments, dishes were broken, furniture was thrown, the restaurant’s windows were smashed and a nearby newsstand was burned down.

Trans people, hustlers and disenfranchised gay locals picketed the cafeteria the following night, when the restaurant’s windows were smashed again. Unlike the Stonewall riots, the situation at Compton’s was somewhat organized—many picketers were members of militant queer groups like the Street Orphans and Vanguard.

Also, the city’s response was quite different from the reaction in New York: A network of social, mental and medical support services was established, followed in 1968 by the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, overseen by a member of the SFPD.  Directors Victor Silverman and Susan Stryker’s recount the historic two-day incident in their 2005 film, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (above).


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