I would rather live proudly on the street, in a jail, or in the ground, than lie to myself and others. I am sickened, and I am tired, from the actions – and the inactivity – of the majority of the gay people of this world.I am sickened by thousands, even millions, of the GLBT population attending Pride events who take advantage of what others do and have done. Without the sacrifices made in the beginning of the ‘Gay Movement’, there would be no Pride events today. I am frustrated by the number of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and other sexual minority members who turn to suicide. I am repulsed by the lack of outcry from the gay community by statements such as:
“Perez Hilton called me douchebag, so I had my homie shoot up a gay wedding. wasnt his, but made me feel better.” And “If you a man and your (sic) over 25 and you don’t eat pu**y just kill your self damn it, the world will be a better place. Lol.” ~ 50 Cent
“Today,1969 Stonewall riots started gay movement, ‘Gay movement’ involves putting a hand on your hip whilst pouting at someone you fancy” ~ Jimmy Carr, 28 June 2011
Does he have any idea what the Stonewall Riots were? At 1:20 in the morning on Saturday, June 28, 1969, four plainclothes policemen in dark suits, two patrol officers in uniform, and Detective Charles Smythe and Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine arrived at the Stonewall Inn’s double doors and announced “Police! We’re taking the place!” Two undercover policewomen and two undercover policemen had entered the bar earlier that evening to gather visual evidence, as the Public Morals Squad waited outside for the signal. Once inside, they called for backup from the Sixth Precinct using the bar’s pay telephone. The music was turned off and the main lights were turned on. Approximately 200 people were in the bar that night. Patrons who had never experienced a police raid were confused, but a few who realized what was happening began to run for doors and windows in the bathrooms. Police barred the doors, and confusion spread. Michael Fader remembered, “Things happened so fast you kind of got caught not knowing. All of a sudden there were police there and we were told to all get in lines and to have our identification ready to be led out of the bar.”
The raid did not go as planned. Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification, and have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any men dressed as women would be arrested. Those dressed as women that night refused to go with the officers. Men in line began to refuse to produce their identification. The police decided to take everyone present to the police station, and separated the transvestites in a room in the back of the bar. Maria Ritter, who was known as Steve to her family, recalled, “My biggest fear was that I would get arrested. My second biggest fear was that my picture would be in a newspaper or on a television report in my mother’s dress!” Both patrons and police recalled that a sense of discomfort spread very quickly, spurred by police who began to “bully” some of the lesbians by “feeling some of them up inappropriately” while frisking them.
When did you ever see a fag fight back?… Now, times were a-changin’. Tuesday night was the last night for bullshit…. Predominantly, the theme was, “this shit has got to stop!” —anonymous Stonewall riots participant.
The police were to transport the bar’s alcohol in patrol wagons. Twenty-eight cases of beer and nineteen bottles of hard liquor were seized, but the patrol wagons had not yet arrived, so patrons were required to wait in line for about 15 minutes. Those who were not arrested were released from the front door, but they did not leave quickly as usual. Instead, they stopped outside and a crowd began to grow and watch. Within minutes, between 100 and 150 people had congregated outside, some after they were released from inside the Stonewall, and some after noticing the police cars and the crowd. Although the police forcefully pushed or kicked some patrons out of the bar, some customers released by the police performed for the crowd by posing and saluting the police in an exaggerated fashion. The crowd’s applause encouraged them further: “Wrists were limp, hair was primped, and reactions to the applause were classic.”
When the first patrol wagon arrived, Inspector Pine recalled that the crowd—most of whom were homosexual—had grown to at least ten times the number of people who were arrested, and they all became very quiet. Confusion over radio communication delayed the arrival of a second wagon. The police began escorting Mafia members into the first wagon, to the cheers of the bystanders. Next, regular employees were loaded into the wagon. A bystander shouted, “Gay power!”, someone began singing “We Shall Overcome”, and the crowd reacted with amusement and general good humor mixed with “growing and intensive hostility”. An officer shoved a transvestite, who responded by hitting him on the head with her purse as the crowd began to boo. Author Edmund White, who had been passing by, recalled, “Everyone’s restless, angry, and high-spirited. No one has a slogan, no one even has an attitude, but something’s brewing.” Pennies, then beer bottles, were thrown at the wagon as a rumor spread through the crowd that patrons still inside the bar were being beaten.
A scuffle broke out when a woman in handcuffs was escorted from the door of the bar to the waiting police wagon several times. She escaped repeatedly and fought with four of the police, swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes. Described as “a typical New York butch” and “a dyke—stone butch”, she had been hit on the head by an officer with a billy club for, as one witness claimed, complaining that her handcuffs were too tight. Bystanders recalled that the woman, whose identity remains unknown, sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at bystanders and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the crowd became a mob and went “berserk”: “It was at that moment that the scene became explosive”.
The police tried to restrain some of the crowd, and knocked a few people down, which incited bystanders even more. Some of those handcuffed in the wagon escaped when police left them unattended (deliberately, according to some witnesses). As the crowd tried to overturn the police wagon, two police cars and the wagon—with a few slashed tires—left immediately, with Inspector Pine urging them to return as soon as possible. The commotion attracted more people who learned what was happening. Someone in the crowd declared that the bar had been raided because “they didn’t pay off the cops”, to which someone else yelled “Let’s pay them off!” Coins sailed through the air towards the police as the crowd shouted “Pigs!” and “Faggot cops!” Beer cans were thrown and the police lashed out, dispersing some of the crowd, who found a construction site nearby with stacks of bricks. The police, outnumbered by between 500 and 600 people, grabbed several people, including folk singer Dave Van Ronk—who had been attracted to the revolt from a bar two doors away from the Stonewall. Though Van Ronk was not gay, he had experienced police violence when he participated in antiwar demonstrations: “As far as I was concerned, anybody who’d stand against the cops was all right with me, and that’s why I stayed in…. Every time you turned around the cops were pulling some outrage or another.” Ten police officers—including two policewomen—barricaded themselves, Van Ronk, Howard Smith (a writer for The Village Voice), and several handcuffed detainees inside the Stonewall Inn for their own safety.
Multiple accounts of the riot assert that there was no pre-existing organization or apparent cause for the demonstration; what ensued was spontaneous. Michael Fader explained,
We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration…. Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us…. All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.
The only photograph taken during the first night of the riots shows the homeless youth that slept in nearby Christopher Park, scuffling with police. The Mattachine Society newsletter a month later offered its explanation of why the riots occurred: “It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering…. The Stonewall became home to these kids. When it was raided, they fought for it. That, and the fact that they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town, explains why.”
Garbage cans, garbage, bottles, rocks, and bricks were hurled at the building, breaking the windows. Witnesses attest that “flame queens”, hustlers, and gay “street kids”—the most outcast people in the gay community—were responsible for the first volley of projectiles, as well as the uprooting of a parking meter used as a battering ram on the doors of the Stonewall Inn. Sylvia Rivera, who was in full drag and had been in the Stonewall during the raid, remembered: “You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn!… It was one of the greatest moments in my life.” The mob lit garbage on fire and stuffed it through the broken windows as the police grabbed a fire hose. Because it had no water pressure, the hose was ineffective in dispersing the crowd, and seemed only to encourage them. When demonstrators broke through the windows—which had been covered by plywood by the bar owners to deter the police from raiding the bar—the police inside unholstered their pistols. The doors flew open and officers pointed their weapons at the angry crowd, threatening to shoot. The Village Voice writer Howard Smith, in the bar with the police, took a wrench from the bar and stuffed it in his pants, unsure if he might have to use it against the mob or the police. He watched someone squirt lighter fluid into the bar; as it was lit and the police took aim, sirens were heard and fire trucks arrived. The onslaught had lasted 45 minutes.
The Tactical Police Force (TPF) of the New York City Police Department arrived to free the police trapped inside the Stonewall. One officer’s eye was cut, and a few others were bruised from being struck by flying debris. Bob Kohler, who was walking his dog by the Stonewall that night, saw the TPF arrive: “I had been in enough riots to know the fun was over…. The cops were totally humiliated. This never, ever happened. They were angrier than I guess they had ever been, because everybody else had rioted … but the fairies were not supposed to riot … no group had ever forced cops to retreat before, so the anger was just enormous. I mean, they wanted to kill.” With larger numbers, police detained anyone they could and put them in patrol wagons to go to jail, though Inspector Pine recalled, “Fights erupted with the transvestites, who wouldn’t go into the patrol wagon”. His recollection was corroborated by another witness across the street who said, “All I could see about who was fighting was that it was transvestites and they were fighting furiously”.
The TPF formed a phalanx and attempted to clear the streets by marching slowly and pushing the crowd back. The mob openly mocked the police. The crowd cheered, started impromptu kick lines, and sang to the tune of The Howdy Doody Show theme song: “We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We don’t wear underwear/ We show our pubic hairs”. Lucian Truscott reported in The Village Voice: “A stagnant situation there brought on some gay tomfoolery in the form of a chorus line facing the line of helmeted and club-carrying cops. Just as the line got into a full kick routine, the TPF advanced again and cleared the crowd of screaming gay power[-]ites down Christopher to Seventh Avenue.” One participant who had been in the Stonewall during the raid recalled, “The police rushed us, and that’s when I realized this is not a good thing to do, because they got me in the back with a night stick”. Another account stated, “I just can’t ever get that one sight out of my mind. The cops with the [nightsticks] and the kick line on the other side. It was the most amazing thing…. And all the sudden that kick line, which I guess was a spoof on the machismo … I think that’s when I felt rage. Because people were getting smashed with bats. And for what? A kick line.”
Christopher Park, where many of the demonstrators met after the first night of rioting to talk about what had happened, now features a sculpture of four white figures by George Segal that commemorates the milestone.
Craig Rodwell, owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop reported watching police chase participants through the crooked streets, only to see them appear around the next corner behind the police. Members of the mob stopped cars, overturning one of them to block Christopher Street. Jack Nichols and Lige Clarke, in their column printed in Screw, declared that “massive crowds of angry protesters chased [the police] for blocks screaming, ‘Catch them!’ ”
By 4:00 in the morning the streets had nearly been cleared. Many people sat on stoops or gathered nearby in Christopher Park throughout the morning, dazed in disbelief at what had transpired. Many witnesses remembered the surreal and eerie quiet that descended upon Christopher Street, though there continued to be “electricity in the air”. One commented: “There was a certain beauty in the aftermath of the riot…. It was obvious, at least to me, that a lot of people really were gay and, you know, this was our street.” Thirteen people had been arrested. Some in the crowd were hospitalized, and four police officers were injured. Almost everything in the Stonewall Inn was broken. Inspector Pine had intended to close and dismantle the Stonewall Inn that night. Pay phones, toilets, mirrors, jukeboxes, and cigarette machines were all smashed, possibly in the riot and possibly by the police.
During the siege of the Stonewall, Craig Rodwell called The New York Times, The New York Post, and The New York Daily News to inform them what was happening. All three papers covered the riots; The New York Daily News placed coverage on the front page. News of the riot spread quickly throughout Greenwich Village, fueled by rumors that it had been organized by the Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, or triggered by “a homosexual police officer whose roommate went dancing at the Stonewall against the officer’s wishes”. All day Saturday, June 28, people came to stare at the burned and blackened Stonewall Inn. Graffiti appeared on the walls of the bar, declaring “Drag power”, “They invaded our rights”, “Support gay power”, and “Legalize gay bars”, along with accusations of police looting, and—regarding the status of the bar—”We are open”.
The next night, rioting again surrounded Christopher Street; participants remember differently which night was more frantic or violent. Many of the same people returned from the previous evening—hustlers, street youths, and “queens”—but they were joined by “police provocateurs”, curious bystanders, and even tourists. Remarkable to many was the sudden exhibition of homosexual affection in public, as described by one witness: “From going to places where you had to knock on a door and speak to someone through a peephole in order to get in. We were just out. We were in the streets.”
Thousands of people had gathered in front of the Stonewall, which had opened again, choking Christopher Street until the crowd spilled into adjoining blocks. The throng surrounded buses and cars, harassing the occupants unless they either admitted they were gay or indicated their support for the demonstrators. Sylvia Rivera saw a friend of hers jump on a nearby car trying to drive through; the crowd rocked the car back and forth, terrifying its occupants. Another of Rivera’s friends, Marsha P. Johnson, climbed a lamppost and dropped a heavy bag onto the hood of a police car, shattering the windshield. As on the previous evening, fires were started in garbage cans throughout the neighborhood. More than a hundred police were present from the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Precincts, but after 2:00 a.m. the TPF arrived again. Kick lines and police chases waxed and waned; when police captured demonstrators, whom the majority of witnesses described as “sissies” or “swishes”, the crowd surged to recapture them. Street battling ensued again until 4:00 a.m.
Beat poet and longtime Greenwich Village resident Allen Ginsberg lived on Christopher Street, and happened upon the jubilant chaos. After he learned of the riot that had occurred the previous evening, he stated, “Gay power! Isn’t that great!… It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves”, and visited the open Stonewall Inn for the first time. While walking home, he declared to Lucian Truscott, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful—they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago”.
Activity in Greenwich Village was sporadic on Monday and Tuesday, partly due to rain. Police and Village residents had a few altercations, as both groups antagonized each other. Craig Rodwell and his partner Fred Sargeant took the opportunity the morning after the first riot to print and distribute 5,000 leaflets, one of them reading: “Get the Mafia and the Cops out of Gay Bars”. The leaflets called for gays to own their own establishments, for a boycott of the Stonewall and other Mafia-owned bars, and for public pressure on the mayor’s office to investigate the “intolerable situation”.
Not everyone in the gay community considered the revolt a positive development. To many older gays and many members of the Mattachine Society that had worked throughout the 1960s to promote homosexuals as no different from heterosexuals, the display of violence and effeminate behavior was embarrassing. Randy Wicker, who had marched in the first gay picket lines before the White House in 1965, said the “screaming queens forming chorus lines and kicking went against everything that I wanted people to think about homosexuals … that we were a bunch of drag queens in the Village acting disorderly and tacky and cheap.” Others found the closing of the Stonewall Inn, termed a “sleaze joint”, as advantageous to the Village.
On Wednesday, however, The Village Voice ran reports of the riots, written by Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott, that included unflattering descriptions of the events and its participants: “forces of faggotry,” “limp wrists” and “Sunday fag follies”. A mob descended upon Christopher Street once again and threatened to burn down the offices of The Village Voice. Also in the mob of between 500 and 1,000 were other groups that had had unsuccessful confrontations with the police, and were curious how the police were defeated in this situation. Another explosive street battle took place, with injuries to demonstrators and police alike, looting in local shops, and arrests of five people. The incidents on Wednesday night lasted about an hour, and were summarized by one witness: “The word is out. Christopher Street shall be liberated. The fags have had it with oppression.”
Folks, THIS fag has had it with oppression as well. I am called to action, and hope you join me. In the words of gay-rights activist, “My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.”
I recruit you as well. Harvey spent, and gave his life for equal rights to all humans. “I cannot prevent anyone from getting angry, or mad, or frustrated. I can only hope that they’ll turn that anger and frustration and madness into something positive, so that two, three, four, five hundred will step forward, so the gay doctors will come out, the gay lawyers, the gay judges, gay bankers, gay architects … I hope that every professional gay will say ‘enough’, come forward and tell everybody, wear a sign, let the world know. Maybe that will help!” Harvey Milk, 1978.
In closing, I leave you with more quotes by Harvey Milk.
“I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for, an activist, a gay activist, becomes the target or the potential target for a person who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed with themselves.” Harvey Milk, on a tape he made to be played in the event of his assassination.
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” On 27 November 1978 he was killed by gunshot, to the head.
“The fact is that more people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than for any other single reason. That, that my friends, is true perversion..”
“All men are created equal. No matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words.”
“If I turned around every time somebody called me a faggot, I’d be walking backward – and I don’t want to walk backward.” Harvey Milk, quoted in The Chronicle.