|Gay demonstrators confront New York City riot police on the second night of the Stonewall Rebellion.|
Note: Adapted from a post on this date in 2010.
On the night of June 27, 1969 something snapped when New York City Police made one of their regular raids on a Gay bar. Instead of meekly submitting to arrest, patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village bar operated by the Mafia and patronized by the most marginalized of folks—homeless street kid hustlers, drag queens, and butch dikes began resisting when police started to arrest them.
The raid was conducted by a small team of detectives, uniformed officers and police women led by Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine of the Public Morals Squad.
For some reason patrons refused to follow the familiar procedure of such raids—allowing restroom inspections of individuals in women’s clothing to determine if they were men and providing identification upon request. Dumfounded by resistance, police called for backup and paddy wagons. There was some scuffling inside.
Meanwhile some patrons who had been released were joined by passersby outside the bar. The crowd quickly swelled. Taunts and jeers were exchanged between the police and crowd. The crowd began to interfere as drag queens were led to the wagons. When a lesbian made several unsuccessful attempts to escape, she was beaten and cried out to the crowd, “Why don't you guys do something?”
That ignited the crowd which began pelting police with beer cans, coins, and rubble from a nearby construction sight. They attacked the wagons, freeing some of those arrested. Police retreated into the bar and barricaded themselves. They grabbed some members of the crowd as they went, including folk singer Dave Van Ronk who had been playing at a nearby club and came out to investigate the ruckus, and Howard Smith, a writer for the Village Voice.
Observers reported that the most aggressive members of the crowd were the young street kids. They used uprooted parking meters as a ram to try and break down the doors of the bar and crashed through the plywood covered windows. When they got in police drew their pistols and threatened to shoot while rioters used lighter fluid to start a fire.
The Fire Department responded as the crowd outside grew to hundreds. The Tactical Police Force (TPF) arrived in riot gear to rescue the besieged officers in the saloon. They formed a phalanx and moved up the street being blocked and taunted by an impromptu kick line of drag queens and “sissies.”
Rioters and police played a brand of violent tag around the narrow streets of the Village until after 4 AM. The riots were front page news.
They were not over. The next night even larger crowds gathered in front of the building and fighting continued. Despite heavy rain there were sporadic eruptions the next two nights.
Meanwhile the gay community, which had been largely unorganized except for the small Mattachine Society which advocated a campaign to educate the public that Homosexuals were “normal,” began to meet and debate tactics. Thousands of fliers were printed for a Wednesday march.
The original rebellion, which had been entirely spontaneous, was already laying the groundwork for a new, open and defiant Gay movement. Taking cues from the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement, which were also confronting authorities with a new militancy, and taking advantage of the traditional anti-establishment radicalism of the Village, the beginning of a new movement was taking place.
On Wednesday the Village Voice—the most liberal paper in New York, carried a harshly critical piece on the riots describing participants as “forces of faggotry.” Angry demonstrators descended on the Voice offices that night and threatened to burn them down. Other violent confrontations erupted in the neighborhood as police tried to stop marchers, this time for the first time carrying signs and “making demands.”
That was the last night of disturbances, but things changed quickly over the next year. Two new militant Gay organizations emerged in New York, the Gay Liberation Front, which allied itself with the broader radical movement, and the Gay Activists Alliance which advocated a focused campaign demanding an end to police harassment and for broader rights for Gays.
Similar or allied groups sprang up in major cities and college towns across the country. New Yorkers founded three new newspapers, Gay, Come Out!, and Gay Power which soon had press runs to 20-2500. Again, similar publications were founded across the country.
On June 28, 1970 the anniversary of what was now being called the Stonewall Rebellion was marked by Christopher Street Liberation Day and a 51 block march from the Village to Central Park with thousands of marchers filling the streets. Marches were also held in Chicago and Los Angeles.
These became the Gay Pride Marches that have become annual events across the country. There was a huge march Sunday in Chicago. An indication of how accepted and mainstream Gay rights have become, at least in big cities, is that there were official floats sponsored by the city’s sports teams. Politicians galore and all of the major media turn out to court the potent Gay vote and consumer demographic. But there were still loads drag queens and all of the high camp fun that the carnival-like parades have become known for.
It was also the very first Gay Pride Parade for my granddaughter Caitlin, who is not afraid of coming out. Her proud mom Heather was there at her side. Good for both of them. Wish I could have been there, too.
But I hope in all of the celebrations, the roots in the struggle for simple human respect fought out on the streets of Greenwich Village were not forgotten.