The Los Angeles Cooper Do-Nuts Riot

One upon a time, a time when queers were afraid and the police, always on the take and always looking to haul the queers down to the station, those queers finally had enough and fought back. When the cops tried to arrest some drag queens, onlookers threw trash at police and forced them to retreat. The queers poured out into the streets and began rioting.

This uprising took place ten full years before Stonewall, in May of 1959. The exact date is lost to history. It took place in downtown Los Angeles, in a small three-block area between Pershing Square and Skid Row. “The Run,” as gay people called it, consisted of almost a dozen gay bars, and several small eateries and diners.

Two of those gay bars on South Main, Harry’s and the Waldorf, sat on either side of Cooper Do-Nuts, a 24-hour coffee and doughnut shop. Cooper’s was especially popular with transwomen and drag queens because Harry’s and the Waldorf routinely turned them away. They attracted too much attention from police. Cooper’s was also popular with butch lesbians, hustlers and other non-conformists. That May night, two Los Angeles police officers entered Cooper’s and demanded patrons show their IDs. This was a common practice. If an individual’s gender presentation didn’t match their ID, that person was taken to jail.

.The officers arrested two drag queens, two male sex workers and a gay man, and tried to stuff all five of them into the back of the police car. The detainees protested, and onlookers began throwing coffee, cups and trash at police. The detainees escaped and the police to flee in their car. People then begin rioting in the streets. Police backup arrive, block the street for the rest of the night and make several arrests.

Novelist John Rechy was one of those initially arrested. He gave it a brief mention in his 1963 novel City of Night. This riot predated Stonewall by a decade, It may have been one of the first LGBT uprisings in the U.S. In 2006, Rechy warned against ignoring pre-Stonewall uprisings like it:

But pride and courage were not born at Stonewall, although even the few history books that attempt to document our long but largely unrecorded struggles place the birthplace of defiance there and then. In doing so, they divide our resistance into two steadfast periods, “pre-Stonewall” and “post-Stonewall,” the former judged as repressive, the latter extolled as liberated.

Over-emphasis on that single event distorts our history and renders as lesser other acts of equal — and even greater — courage, when circumstances of the time of occurrence are considered.

On the Timeline:

May 1959: LGBT people riot at Cooper Do-Nuts in Los Angeles.


Headlines for May 1959: Sir Winston Churchill travels to Washington for a private visit with his old friend, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Three-week long Foreign Ministers conference in Geneva ends with the Soviets and the West no closer to resolving the West Berlin stalemate. The daily deathbed vigil conducted by American newspapers ends on May 24 when former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles dies of cancer. After three members of the Little Rock school board walk out, the remaining three members, all segregationists, vote to fire 44 teachers who had supported integration. Three weeks later, Little Rock voters approve a recall against the three segregationists. Eddie Fisher marries Elizabeth Taylor just three hours after his divorce from Debbie Reynolds is finalized.

On the radio: “Come Softly To Me” by the Fleetwoods, “Kansas City” by Wilbert Harrison,  “The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez, “Sorry (I Ran All the Way Home)” by the Impalas, “Pink Shoe Laces” by Dodie Stevens, “Guitar Boogie Shuffle” by the Virtues, “A Teenager In Love” by Dion and the Belmonts,  “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton, “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” by Elvis Presley, “Tell Him No” by Travis and Bob, “Venus” by Frankie Avalon, “Turn Me Loose” by Fabian.

Currently at the Paramount, next to Pershing Square: The Naked Venus. “A French girl joins an American nudist Colony. Recommended for Adults.”

On television: Gunsmoke (CBS), Wagon Train (NBC), Have Gun, Will Travel (CBS), The Rifleman (ABC), The Danny Thomas Show (CBS), Maverick (ABC), Tales of Wells Fargo (NBC), The Real McCoys(ABC), I’ve Got a Secret (CBS), The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (ABC), Father Knows Best (CBS), The Red Skelton Show (CBS), Perry Mason (CBS).

New York Times best sellers: Fiction: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Exodus by Leon Uris,  The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Non-fiction: Mine Enemy Grows Older by Alexander King, Only in America by Harry Golden, What We Must Know About Communism by Harry and Bonaro Overstreet, The Status Seekers by Vance Packard.