In our last episode, we had reached the final days before the morning of June 28th. We discussed how our community began to stand up and fight back. In part two we go in detail about the Stonewall riot.
We celebrate the heroes of Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Storme DeLarverie, Craig Rodwell, Fred Sargeant, and many more. We discuss why Stonewall was so different from the many other bar raids that had happened that year and in the many previous years. We speak of the emotion and terror and anger and sheer delight. The PRIDE that emerged at Stonewall. So stop waiting. Hit that play button and learn about the night that changed everything. The night our community came bursting out of the closet and into the streets!
Just a few weeks earlier, Inspector Seymour Pine of the NYPD Moral Sector received news of suspicious sales in European Bonds. He and Detective Charles Smythe began to investigate the matter which eventually lead them to Greenwich Village. The Investigators believed the bonds had been stolen by Homosexuals who were being blackmailed by the Mafia and in need of a way to covertly pay them off. The best way the detectives knew to lock down a homosexual was to catch them at a gay bar. So the raids on the Greenwich Village bars began. The Investigators were successful in shutting down several local bars such as the Snake Pit and the Sewer. And while they were met with some verbal protest, there was no other interference.
On June 23rd, Pine lead a small, uneventful raid on the Stonewall Inn which procured him several employees as well as some useful documents that would prove the Stonewall wasn’t a bottle club. This evidence would aid in getting the Inn closed down for good. While Pine was actually sympathetic to the queer community, he took his orders without question like any other police commander. His objective was to close down the gay bars, reduce the Mafia’s targets for blackmail, and thus eliminate the need for theft of bonds. And maybe even nail those who had already stolen bonds. But the part of the plan that wasn’t thought through was how these constant and incessant raids would affect the queer community.
As tensions mounted in the ensuing weeks and days leading up to the riots, Police forces only fanned the flames of anger. Lilly Law was in full effect. Lilly Law was a term coined in response to Police abuse on the LGBTQ community. The street queens devised code words to alert others of law enforcement. Lilly Law, Betty Badge and Patty Pig were the most common. This way one queen could call out to the other “Here comes Lillian” or “Lilly is on the way” without arousing Police suspicion. And in June of 1969 Lillian, Betty and Patty were on every street corner, every alleyway, and every side road, testing the patience of the strained queer community.
But with all the constant patrols and police harassment, Lilly Law couldn’t be bothered to step in a help a queer in need. Just two weeks before the riots, a group of straight vigilantes had taken axes and saws and leveled a local park known for gay cruising (the act of scouting for another homosexual and hooking up – Tinder before tinder). Because landlords were legally allowed to evict someone for being gay, and because many queer men had few other options, public parks often turned into hookup hotspots. The homophobic citizens destroyed the park, chased the hiding queers out, and beat anyone they could catch. The police sat off to the side, watching this all unfold, and doing nothing to aid the distraught gay men.
With these events fresh on everyone’s mind, the evening of June 27th carried a heavy air as the sun began to set. It had been an incredibly hot and muggy day and tensions were officially at their highest. So when Sylvia headed to Stonewall to meet Marsha for Marsha’s 25th birthday, the two women – and other patrons of the jam-packed bar – had just about had it with the Police. Yvonne Ritter, a transgender woman who was just starting to explore her gender identity and was actually ALSO celebrating a birthday (her 18th) said of the bar’s atmosphere when she arrived:
“Out of the Closets and into the streets’ was a chant I heard a lot early that night, we just weren’t going to take it anymore”.
But with a raid on the bar just a few nights before, and no word on the mafia line that another was scheduled, employees and customers alike began to relax. Soon they were drinking, dancing, and taking in the view of the go-go dancers without a care in the world. However, Pine had accounted for the Mob’s tip-off and instead had recruited plainclothes officers from other precincts outside of the Christopher Street jurisdiction. Initially, the Inspector planned to raid the Stonewall, obtain more evidence, confiscate all the liquor, and this time arrest one cross-dressing patron. His goal was to use this individual as evidence that the Stonewall was still allowing this illegal practice to go on in their establishment. This was a key point in Pine’s plan. During the pre-raid briefing, he stressed the importance of isolating suspected cross-dressers so that officers could examine them and make a proper selection. As for the rest of the bar’s patrons, they were to be released once their I.D.’s had been verified.
At around 1:30 am the morning of June 28th, nine police officers stormed the Stonewall Inn, turning on the lights and barring the door. The place turned into a frenzy as people attempted to run from the officers. Yvonne headed for the bathroom, hoping she could escape through a window. While she was of legal age to drink (the drinking age wouldn’t move to 21 until many years later), she was wearing her mother, stolen, party dress. The prospect of facing her parents in feminine attire was more terrifying to the young trans woman than the prospect of arrest.
Others in the bar, such as Marsh P. Johnson, were well versed in confrontations with the police and weren’t running from this fight. As a few officers herded the transgender individuals, drag queens, and masculine dressed lesbians into the backroom of the bar, other officers put the rest of the patrons in a single file line towards the street door. As IDs were checked and folks were released, the former Stonewall customers began to huddle outside. Waiting for their friends still stuck in the bar, and waiting to see what the police would do. The growing crowd attracted the attention of passerbyers on the busy street in the heart of Greenwich Village. Because it was so warm out, because the Village was such a vibrant night spot, and because of the many recent raids, the crowd outside the Stonewall quickly grew into a large mob of curious onlookers.
Soon the exiting patrons – now cleared by the police – began to entertain the crowd by bowing, curtseying, waving to their pretend fans, and – of course – throwing one-liners at the cops. The crowd responded with laughter and applause. But the playful mood quickly died when a police paddy wagon pulled up to the front to carry the patrons who had been arrested back to jail.
Inside the bar, Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, had had enough of the police officers demeaning comments and humiliating examinations of her body. David Carter, author of Stonewall; The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, tells in his book how Marsha finally picked up a shot glass, threw it at a mirror and cried “I’ll have my civil rights!”. Later the GAA (Gay Activist Alliance) would call this the “shot glass heard around the world”. Sylvia Rivera would later comment “You could feel the electricity going through people”. Pine and his officers were having so much trouble with the resisting drag queens and trans women that the frustrated Inspector finally threw up his hands and ordered the whole lot be taken in.
As officers began to haul arrested queens outside and into the paddy wagon, the crowd began to boo. Craig Rodwell, a large player in future gay rights activism, had been passing along the street with his boyfriend when he stopped to observe the growing unrest. “There was a feeling in the air that something was going to happen. This is different” he later said. Craig climbed up on a perch and cried out “Gay Power!”, trying to get a chant started. But the crowd was fixed on the unfolding events.
As more people began to realize the officers were arresting ALL the cross-dressers, more people became angry. And in the midst of these growing tensions, Pine was struck with the realization that he had arrested too many people to fit in his small paddy wagon. Now some prisoners would have to be held back in the Stonewall, while as many as possible were crammed into the back of the wagon. During this confusion, two Stonewall employees so-called “escaped”. Coincidentally, they happened to be mob affiliates. And Yvonne Ritter made a break for it as well. An officer caught up with her. But when the young girl pleaded with him to let her go, that it was her birthday, for some reason the officer complied.
The rest of the prisoners weren’t as lucky as Yvonne. One officer gruffly grabbed a young, butch lesbian named Storme Delarverie. Storme was a popular drag king and performer of the Jewel Box Revue. As a biracial child of a white father and a black mother, Storme grew up in the deep South – being bullied and harassed for her mixed ethnicity. Like the other patrons of the Stonewall, she was no stranger to police brutality. But she was a proud butch and she wasn’t going down without a fight. Inside the bar, officers groped Storme and her lesbian friends, manhandling and taunting them. Before receiving orders to take the women outside.
The next few scenes unfolded in a chaotic mess and which action came first we do not know. Sylvia was watching from the sidelines as the officers wrestled to get Storme into the paddy wagon. Marsha was throwing out witty barbs at the cops, and Craig and his boyfriend, Fred Sargeant, were still trying to rouse the crowd into a chant. At some point an officer yelled at Storme “I said move along F*****”. Storme refused and the officer clubbed her over the head. The crowd erupted.
Pennies flew through the air “Copper Coins for Coppers! Let’s pay them off!” People in the crowd cried. Sylvia picked up a bottle… Storme threw a punch at the officer who had clubbed her… Marsha screamed and grabbed a rock… and the crowd ignited into a fit of rage. Descending onto the policemen, rocking the paddy wagon back and forth, and slashing the tires of the cop cars. Some protestors found bricks and began to hurl them amid the dozens of bottles and pennies still crashing around the officers. Pine managed to get the paddy wagon away from the frenzied crowd with strict instructions that they were to drop the prisoners off and come straight back. Then he and the remaining officers barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall. The Inspector later said of that moment:
We didn’t have the manpower. And the manpower from the other side was coming like it was a real war. And that’s what it was, a war.
Inside the Inn, the officers huddled with their remaining prisoners. The crowd in the streets was creating a mass of chaos and while it was terrifying for the police, the queer detainees were electrified. Raymond Castro recalled:
You could hear screaming outside. A lot of noise from the protesters, and it was a good sound. It was a real good sound to know that, you know, you had a lot of people out there pulling for you.
Raymond was a Puerto Rican gay man who had only been arrested when he returned to the Stonewall – after having been released- to help ID a fellow friend. After re-entering, the cops had a change of mind and decided to detain him.
Pine ordered the door bolted to protect his small squad while they awaited the help of reinforcements. But that action further angered the mob who felt insulted that the police were now occupying their beloved Stonewall Inn. They began to throw bricks and cobblestones at the building, shattering the glass. Then a group of men uprooted a parking meter and used it to ram a large hole through the door. The crowd used this opportunity to items at the cops hiding inside. Pine used the opportunity to grab one of the protestors and drag them inside. Ironically, the protester was a straight ally who had joined in the riot after he heard the commotion on his way home. But in this moment it didn’t matter that the man was straight. The officers punched and kicked him repeatedly before putting him in handcuffs and placing him with the other prisoners.
The crowd outside continued to grow and people began to run to the pay phones to call their friends to come join. Jerry Hoose was one person who was notified with a phone call. He said of the conversation:
“I had been waiting for this to happen. I knew it was going to happen. I was the happiest person on the face of the earth. I think there were tears of joy…Everybody was angry. We were angry people. And we had a lot of reason to be angry”
The mob was reaching a deafening roar as more and more people joined the fight. Inside the Inspector was doing all he could to keep his officers from firing on the crowd. This was due more for the personal safety of the squad than for the rioters. Pine knew that the moment shots were fired it would be all over for the tiny force inside. Many of those awaiting backup were sure it was all over anyway. Village Voice reporter Howard Smith (a gay man who was shadowing Pine and copiously taking notes) said of those moments “I was sure we were gonna be killed”. Just when it seemed the cops could keep the crowd at bay no longer, the sound of Sirens pierced the air.
Busloads of the TPF (Tactical Patrol Force) arrived with helmets and billy clubs. This elite corps was specially trained in handling riots. They were well trained, calculated and brutal. The officers formed a V-shape and began to march through the crowd, wielding their clubs. This formation protected the policemen from being isolated and more easily targeted. It also allowed them to wipe out large swaths of rioters in a short amount of time. But on this night, the angry queers outsmarted the cops and rather than breaking apart (as was the intention of the formation) the protestors banded together. As they were driven back, they retreated down side streets, circling back to the rear of the formation. As soon as the officers had cleared a path, they would look back to see the rioters standing behind them.
And just to tease the already flustered cops, the protesters locked arms and formed a chorus line singing:
“We are the Village girls.
We wear our hair in curls.
We wear our dungarees,
Above our nelly knees.”
The police were humiliated and furious. They began to up their brutality in an attempt to cover up their embarrassment. One participant observed “Everybody who had beef in America had already rioted, but the fairies were not supposed to riot…. No other group had ever forced the cops to retreat before so the anger was enormous. I mean, they wanted to kill”
Somehow throughout the night, no one died. Though countless were injured, there were no fatalities. By around 4 am the streets had finally calmed. But the atmosphere and energy had changed forever. Martin Boyce, a polyamorous queer man and 19-year-old participant at Stonewall said of the following morning:
“I thought, my god, we’re going to pay so desperately for this, there was glass all over. But the next day, we didn’t pay. My father called and congratulated me. He said, what took you so long?”
Once the queer community realized the cops weren’t coming to round them all up, the Village broke out in a mini pride. There were open displays of same-sex affection. The chorus line from the night before continued their dance. People marched along yelling “Liberate Christopher Street!” and “Christopher Street belongs to the Queens!” Protests started again, and soon traffic was being blocked. The TPF was called again, and this time they brought tear gas with them.
The riots started up once more. Trash cans were overturned. More bricks and rubble were thrown at the cops. Fires were started and property was damaged. Queer individuals were clubbed by police and dragged into wagons. For the next several hours the riot continued until dying down around 3 am. Then over the following 3 days there were more protests, though they were far less violent (by the police and the demonstrators). Not surprisingly, most newspapers ignored the riot. Those that did cover them, did so briefly and homophobically.
But the community had awakened. Organizations, newspapers and activists groups sprang up overnight. The following month – on July 27th – there was an impromptu parade and ceremony organized by Brenda Howard. A proud bisexual, Jewish, queer woman and member of the kink community. Brenda, Craig, Storme, and many other LGBTQ people would later plan the first official Pride March down Christopher Street in June of 1970. Sadly, some planners worked to exclude transgender women – particularly Marsha and Sylvia – despite their huge contribution to the Stonewall Riots and the to the queer community following the riots.
Over the next 50 years, our community experienced one of the most rapidly progressive civil rights movement in history. But along the way, we left a lot of people behind and we whitewashed our history. Because of this, we are still fighting some of the same battles we fought 50 years ago. In order to properly learn from history, we must properly teach history. And only recently have we started to hear of many of our queer heroes who were pushed aside (some literally pushed aside) in order to advance a more white and heteronormative LGBT agenda. But that was not the foundation of Stonewall and the queer revolution.
The day after the Stonewall incident, the New York Mattachine Society posted signs in the neighborhood pleading with people not to riot. But as Sylvia Rivera said, “We had nothing to lose”. The patrons of Stonewall were people on their last thread of hope. People who had nowhere left to go, no more time to wait, no more patience for the daily harassment and injustice. These were people who didn’t have the privilege of waiting to see if society would climb on board. These were women of color, drag queens, transgender individuals, butch lesbians, non-binary and gender non-conforming people. These were the people who could not hide in plain sight. The only place they had to hide was the gay bars, and now the police had taken those away from them.
Abusive law enforcement’s daily taunting of queers. Crazed citizens cutting down the trees in gay parks. Bigoted and selfish politicians using the LGBTQ community as nothing more than a pawn in their political games. The mafia blackmailing and bleeding homosexuals dry. These slights one after another broke down a community that NEEDED to break down. We needed to be pushed to the brink of revolution. And we needed our queer siblings to light that flame. We needed those who understood that hiding in the closet was no longer an option. That fighting back was a necessity. And today we need an inner revolution.
An understanding that our community is comprised of more than just cisgender white gay men and lesbians. And that’s not to say we don’t appreciate the contributions of people such as Frank Kameny, and Barbara Gittins, and Harry Hays, and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons. But it is to say that we have remembered those people for over 50 years while only recently have we acknowledged the countless queer POC and none gay and lesbian people in our community. Only recently have we confronted our own racism and bigotry within our community. Our elders rioted because they imagined a different world, but have we really let it be that different? Or do we cringe when someone requests they/them pronouns? Do we roll our eyes at the Asexual who comes out? Do we get upset when we see kink representatives at Pride? Do we still contribute to bi and trans erasure? What beautiful and different world do we want?
As we enter into 50 years of pride, we challenge you to learn something new about someone new in our community. Don’t stay in your comfort zone. Be the change we all wish to see. And remember that our Pride came at a price. That while we should certainly have fun and celebrate, many of us still have siblings behind us who need our voice and our activism. So let us never forget the words that President Barack Obama stated in his 2013 inaugural address :
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
Your recommended resource are any of the ones previously mentioned, as well as David Carter’s “Stonewall; The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution”
- The Atlantic – https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/01/an-amazing-1969-account-of-the-stonewall-uprising/272467/
- StoneWall; Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights – by Ann Bausum
- A Queer History of the United States – by Michael Bronski
- Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History – by Blair Imani
- Transgender History; The Roots of Today’s Revolution – by Susan Stryker
- Timeline of Events leading up to Stonewall – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_LGBT_actions_in_the_United_States_prior_to_the_Stonewall_riots
- Timeline of New York anti-queer laws – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_history_in_New_York#1950%E2%80%931969
- Yvonne Ritter – http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_C771C1F47D7547BAAE5D3912B4AB3E77
- Storme Delarverie – http://www.epgn.com/news/national/14562-road-to-stonewall-50-storme-delarverie
- Raymond Castro – http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/stonewall-riot-police-reports/contents/interview-raymond-castro