We burned the cop cars one by one: a review of ‘When We Rise’ by Cleve Jones

Colin Wilson reviews an inspiring memoir of decades of LGBT activism

Police cars burning outside San Francisco City Hall. Credit: Daniel Nicoletta.

Cleve Jones tells us that there were two times when the movement — the gay liberation movement, the LGBT movement — saved his life. The first moment took place in his high school library, in 1971, when he was seventeen. In a copy of Life magazine, he read about gay liberation activists and realised that he was not the only man in the world who loved other men. Soon after, he flushed away the stash of pills he had been gathering for the time when he would kill himself. Two years later, he escaped to San Francisco: as he puts it, “all of us increasingly felt that extraordinary things were about to happen for gay people and that if we stayed any longer in Phoenix we were quite likely to miss the entire adventure”.

This was a time when, “from Peru to Ireland to Greece to Czechoslovakia, the world appeared to be on the brink of revolution”. Cleve had already been part of organising a march against the Vietnam War attended by hundreds of high school students. He joined thousands of young gay people who came to San Francisco, only a few years after the Stonewall riot, to make a new life:

you had left behind your family and hometown and probably your church and your friends and everything else you had, to come to this. You didn’t have to be political or educated or even all that smart to understand that you, and we, were part of something brand new, something that had never been seen before.

Politically, the “something new” was the understanding that LGBT people were oppressed — to use a phrase from back then, that “gay people need to see themselves the way Jewish and black people see themselves.” What that meant personally for Cleve and others in the Castro, which was becoming the main gay area of San Francisco, was the creation of the world portrayed in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books. Instead of social lives centred on family or couple relationships, young men (and perhaps lesbians too, but we hear mostly about the men) developed networks of friends and “fuck buddies”. Perhaps this is simply the sense of invulnerability and the confidence to reinvent the world people have when they’re young, but there’s also something hugely joyful and utopian.

In many ways, 1970s San Francisco was far from a utopia. Between two and three thousand men were still arrested for gay sex each year, most of them entrapped by the cops. Cleve worked with Harvey Milk, who was one of the first gay elected officials in the US and who was murdered in 1978. Milk had been killed by Dan White, a former cop, who received a light sentence. A huge demo marched to City Hall and began breaking windows, and police fired tear gas into the crowd. Cops beat protesters who ran — and who then stopped running, and turned back.

They turned around and threw themselves against the cops — skinny little sissy boys and big strong dykes, downtown office workers, Castro clones, leather men and lipstick lesbians, black and brown and white… The cops ran in panic, leaving behind a long line of their cars, which, one by one, we burned.

Facing a legal investigation as a community leader, Cleve stuck to two principled positions: “I would not, under any circumstances, either apologise for the violence or identify any of the other participants.” He was not prosecuted.

Soon after this, Cleve became a Democrat Party staffer in the state capital of Sacramento, to the disappointment of his socialist friends. In the early 80s he seemed to be heading for a comfortable and mainstream life. Then AIDS began. Soon there were a thousand people dead — almost all of them from the Castro, the place to which lesbians and gay men had come from across America, where they dreamed that they would be safe. “By 1985”, Cleve writes, “almost everyone I knew was dead or dying or caring for someone who was dying.” He tested positive for HIV, and had every reason to think that soon he would be dead too. He was thirty-one.

This took, unsurprisingly, a personal toll: Cleve drank too much and his mental health was bad. He also responded by initiating the “AIDS Quilt”. Those left behind when a person died of AIDS would make a fabric panel, six feet by three, dedicated to their memory. By 1987, when 20,000 people had died, the quilt had grown to 1,920 panels. By the following year there were almost 9,000 — a testimony to the humanity of the dead, the huge size of the quilt a moving indicator of the scale of the epidemic. The quilt was displayed in Washington as half a million people marched for LGBT rights. The response of Reagan and George HW Bush was completely inadequate. And the deaths continued.

Many of those who had been there to help us with the first display were dead now. Their shoes were filled by another wave of volunteers. Then they died. That’s how we lived then. Our friends died; we made new friends; then they died. We found new friends yet again; then watched as they died. It went on and on and on.

The Aids Quilt displayed in Washington

Finally, in 1994, effective treatments became available: by 1997, the deaths had stopped. This was the second time that the movement saved Cleve’s life, when protesters fought for treatments to be made available when he was close to death from AIDS.

Cleve had been involved with unions for many years; Harvey Milk had worked with the teamsters to drive the homophobic and anti-union Coors beer company out of gay bars, and he’d worked with teaching unions to defend the right of LGBT people to teach in schools. From 2005 he worked, as he still does, for UNITE HERE, a hotel workers union. He travelled to Toronto, where hotel workers were about to take strike action during an international AIDS conference. For one thing, they were concerned about the risks they faced cleaning the rooms of people with AIDS. In fact, they weren’t at risk, but their employers had never given them any training about HIV. Working with local LGBT activists, Cleve organised training, and the hotel workers agreed that, out of solidarity with people with AIDS, they would postpone their walkout until the conference was over. Union members went into work wearing union badges and AIDS awareness ribbons. When management at one hotel suspended eighty workers for doing this, news quickly reached the conference.

Delegates from all over the world walked out to join the hotel workers’ protest march. Their suspensions were rescinded and eventually the workers got their contracts.

This book is not, then, about the kind of LGBT politics that characterises the movement today, with corporate sponsorship for prides and hypocritical statements of support from mainstream politicians. It’s a memoir by someone who can write that “I don’t think anyone in my entire family has ever crossed a picket line”, and that he has “opposed every war the US has fought during my lifetime”. The huge respect that is due to Cleve Jones doesn’t mean I agree with everything here. For example, I’m not moved, as Cleve is, by the text of the US Supreme Court’s decision in favour of equal marriage, with its assertion that “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family”. I look instead, I think, to the moment in 1970s San Francisco when a new world, both personally and politically, seemed possible.

This is also not a book of political theory. You won’t find here any analysis of the roots of LGBT oppression in capitalism, or whether we change the world through reform or revolution. Our activism does need to be guided by thoughts on such questions — but it must also involve the building of networks between fallible, vulnerable human beings, and this book is a testimony to that process. The election of Trump and the rise of racism mean that in many ways we live in grim times. But there have been grim times before, and people have found ways to support each other and continue fighting. Cleve Jones’ wonderful memoir should inspire us to take forward our struggles today.

When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, Cleve Jones (paperback £13, Kindle £7.99)