One night in 1969, a movement caught hold & has never let go

One night in 1969, a movement caught hold & has never let go
The Stonewall Inn Photo: Michael Knaapen
Every community has its stories. We retell them to remind ourselves of our origins, to note our progress, and to recommit ourselves to each other. We are too wise to believe that one instant in one place in history made manifest our movement for equality. But we can look to the events of June 27-28, 1969 as a moment of tremendous significance — as a moment when the odds were long against us and we fought back anyway; as a spark — not the first, not the only, but nevertheless a spark — which grew into a blaze to burn unjust laws and light the way toward progress. Let us recall the Stonewall Riots.

In 1969, the Stonewall Inn was an unlikely place for revolution. Located in the heart of a blue-collar neighborhood called the West Village near the meatpacking district of lower Manhattan, it was a frequent haunt of lower-income LGBT people as well as drag queens, hustlers, drug addicts, and drug dealers. Across the street, Christopher Park was a cruising spot and home to many LGBT youth.

The mafia owned and operated the Stonewall as cheaply as possible, preferring tubs of stagnant water to sinks with running water behind the bar, stealing rather than purchasing liquor, and adding water to stretch the booze. One expense they did not spare was bribe money paid to local police to prevent raids, or at least guarantee advance warning. That was a comfort to patrons who felt somewhat protected from the humiliating and potentially life-ruining raids of police followed by the publication of photos and names in the paper the next day.

In the summer of 1969, the NYPD morals division was informed that gangsters had managed to blackmail high-profile gay men to defraud the government. They were told that the blackmail transactions were conducted at bars in New York City, and the Stonewall Inn was identified as one such bar.

Acting on this tip, the NYPD planned a raid based on intelligence that the bar was operating without a license and watering down its liquor. Those tips indicated that local police were likely in collusion with the mafia, so the morals division did not inform the 6th precinct of the raid until the very last minute.

Seymour Pine, who had fought at the Battle of the Bulge and literally wrote the book on hand-to-hand combat for the US Army, had been a distinguished military man and was now a distinguished police officer. As Deputy Inspector, he was selected to lead the raid on the Stonewall. He had a twofold reputation essential to the assignment: incorruptibility and vehement contempt for the mafia.

His objective was to ensure that the Stonewall Inn never reopened its doors – he would not only confiscate contraband and arrest the staff (all mafia), but would destroy the bar.

June 27th, 1969, was a hot Friday night. Turnout at the Stonewall was high. Some present that night recalled being emotional after the death and funeral of gay icon Judy Garland. They had discovered some remote sense of community in their collective mourning. Historians argue about the funeral’s significance, but there is no doubt that some people present were emotionally raw before the night began. Others argue that the burgeoning sense of community played a significant part as well.

Undercover officers entered the Stonewall in advance of the raid to identify the mafia employees. At 1:20am, at the height of the evening and without any tip-off to the owners, police approached the entrance and shouted, “Police! We’re taking the place.” There was a moment of chaos, but many of the Stonewall clientele were familiar with the drill, and the police were not shy about enforcing it.

Employees were gathered into a back room. Anyone believed to be in violation of the law mandating that people wear at least three articles of clothing conforming to their legal gender – mainly trans and drag customers and lesbians wearing so-called masculine clothing like pants – were taken to a corner to be questioned or physically inspected.

All other customers were herded into lines, instructed to get ID ready, and ushered toward the entrance where officers would check ID before booting them out. Anyone found without ID would be corralled into an adjoining room for arrest later.

This Night Was Different

The atmosphere was uncharacteristically tense, according to both police and civilian accounts. Typically, raids inspired fear in the bar-goers. Most would be checked for ID and tossed out into the street to walk home alone and ashamed, and they weren’t about to push back when cops harassed them for fear of a more public and costly shaming.

But that night was different. Patrons did not stand quietly in line like usual. Many rebuked the police, questioning and challenging them. When police got physical, patrons pushed back. The drag queens, trans, and lesbian clients – the ones in “inappropriate” clothing – refused to be examined.

The Stonewall clientele were sick and tired of being pushed around, and they expressed it – for the first time, and together.

To move things along, Deputy Inspector Pine instructed the officers to arrest them all and gather them with the employees. He urged his officers to clear the bar quickly.

As ID’s were checked and handed back and those patrons were ushered out of the Stonewall, they did not head homeward in shame. They stood outside in the street.

Some were waiting for their friends. Others were simply curious. Still more were angry, and their anger kept them planted where they were. In a short time, as the bar was cleared, a large crowd had formed. The commotion attracted the attention of customers in neighboring bars, passersby, and especially the youth crowd across the street. Some people in the crowd ran to tell their friends and drag more queer people to see the action unfold.

The crowd looked on as the police escorted the arrested customers and staff to a waiting paddy wagon and patrol car. The mafia employees were brought out first. They were greeted with boos and hisses and catcalls from the crowd. When the drag queens were brought out, they did campy routines and strutted and sassed, and the crowd went wild. The atmosphere was still tense, but for the most part the queer response remained nonviolent.

Agitation Turns to Action

That changed when resistant customers were dragged to the paddy wagons. Many reports indicate that one lesbian customer in particular fought the police with all her strength: she fought from the bar to the patrol car, forced them back to the bar, and back again to the vehicle before she was finally physically lifted into it and detained. Either she or another woman in the crowd shouted “Do something!” The crowd replied with shouts of disapproval at the police, calling them names and demanding their rights.

In a very short time, the shouting escalated in hostility and aggression. Small projectiles – coins and bottles mostly – were thrown at the police. When Deputy Inspector Pine feared the crowd might tip the paddy wagon and cars over, he sent them back to the precinct headquarters to drop the prisoners and return immediately.

The hostility ebbed for a moment after the vehicles departed but quickly returned. Pine and the other police were pushing back against the crowd, charging into them to scatter and scare them. When one of the officers’ eyes was struck, Pine grabbed the person whom he believed to be the perpetrator and dragged him into the bar. The man was handcuffed to a radiator. Outnumbered and afraid of increasing violence, the police fled into the bar and closed and barricaded the door.

Outside the Stonewall, the crowd erupted in fury. The homeless youth from Christopher Park were particularly agitated and began throwing larger projectiles and burning debris. Others threw cobblestones. They stopped cars in the street and rocked them. A parking meter was torn out of the ground and turned into a battering ram.

Police Panic

Inside the Stonewall, police were unable to connect to the department and began to panic. Pine was afraid for his and his officers’ lives. They used the fire extinguisher to put out the fires the burning debris caused. They snuck one of the small female officers out of a vent to run for help. Guns were held at the ready.

Just when the crowd was about to burst through the door, two fire trucks arrived, followed shortly by police backup including another paddy wagon. They parted the crowd. The officers inside the Stonewall escorted their remaining prisoners to the newly arrived vehicles. The prisoners fought, and the crowd continued to shout, fight, and throw things at the police.

As the paddy wagon was almost loaded and ready to leave, the Tactical Patrol Force arrived. Known as the riot police, the TPF were equipped with helmets, massive shields, tear gas, and heavy clubs. The fire trucks turned their hoses on the crowd. Patrolmen, TPF agents, firefighters did their best to clear the streets.

A New Sense of Community

Despite the incredible show of force by the police, the queer community persisted. They fought the police. They mocked them with songs and kick-lines. Witnesses lingered until dawn. The next night, another crowd formed outside the Stonewall; again the TPF were called in to disperse it. Groups formed and were dispersed for nearly a week.

Stonewall is not a creation myth; we did not begin at Stonewall. And it was certainly not our apotheosis; we did not reach some transcendent place and evaporate into the ether. During the years of nights between that one and this, we have savored many victories, mourned many lives, and shared many moments. But that night was the first time many of us understood we were an “us” at all.

As Allen Ginsberg said, “They’ve lost that wounded look,” and we lost that look together at Stonewall.

This article first ran on Bilerico.

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