Monday Poem: We Don’t Call it a Riot

A table art by Riffat Chaudhry

That summer was an oven on self-clean—
beyond hot. The cops raided clubs for weeks.
Huddled, frightened men and men and women

and women and human and human held
at the end of a nightstick in contempt,
being held in the arms of a lover

in a brick-faced bar on Christopher Street
the night they’d had enough of this treatment.
We don’t call it a riot. No. Riot,

noun: violent disturbance of the peace
by a crowd. Like the peace of gathering
with your friends and family in a home

away from home, the peace of the jukebox
playing Let the Sun Shine, a trusted friend
behind the bar mixing you a cocktail,

of dancing free and uninhibited
when the crowds march in to bash down the door,
bash in your skull, bash-bash open the peace

hard-fought-won so you can be standing here,
unafraid for the first time in your life,
perhaps, and not the family who threw

you out on the street, not the government
who threw your card to the draft, not the men
and women who threw slurs at you walking

down that same street, not the church who threw fire
and brimstone proclamations, nor these thugs
marching heavy-booted with their badges

and balled fists can take it away from you.
Each brick of this place is home, each bottle
is nourishment. Fingers close around them

reflexively. And given fight or flight,
when you’ve always picked the latter—and where
has that ever gotten you, anyway?—

fingers close around bricks and bottles, words
of defiance bubble up to your lips
from somewhere deep in the boiling cauldron

of your belly, you find the voice to say
No. We don’t call this a riot. Call this
being cornered and lashing out. Call this

being pushed to the brink. Past it. Call this
resisting systematic oppression.
Call this a rubber band stretched to snapping.

Call this a blessing that I can stand here
fifty-five years later unmolested
and read you this beneath a flag flying

my colors—all of our colors. No one
can wrest a rainbow from the sky. Call this
a memorial for everyone

whose sacrifice has gifted us the life
and freedom to stand here, proud, and call this
what it really is. It’s not a riot—

it’s rebellion. And it’s not finished
until we can all stand here, together,
hand holding hand, and simply call it love.

–by Chad Frame
for the Stonewall Inn, New York, 1969

Chad Frame: “This month marks the 55th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Earlier this week, I was invited to read a poem at my county’s pride flag raising ceremony, and I felt the need to write something to commemorate the occasion. I live in a small town in suburban Pennsylvania, and growing up here as a gay man, I never thought I’d see the day when an event like this would be held, let alone be invited to participate. But when I was sent the prepared remarks of the Commissioners beforehand, and saw that there were repeated references to the ‘Stonewall Riots,’ I knew I needed to address it, even if it ruffled some bureaucratic feathers. Veterans of Stonewall have repeatedly stated that they prefer the term ‘uprising’ or ‘rebellion.’ And so, at the end of the ceremony, when it was my turn to speak, I read this poem. And later, when the local news reported on the event, they used the right terms. Every education and breakthrough is a victory, no matter how small.” (web)

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