WITNESSES to the historic Stonewall Riots have recounted the chaotic scenes that unfolded during several days of unrest in New York City in 1969, laying the foundations for what is now known as the LGBTQ rights movement.
In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the police conducted one of their frequent raids on the Stonewall Inn, a gay club located in the heart of the Greenwich Village, and arrested more than a dozen revelers.
However, rather than running in fear or submitting to the officers’ show of brute force, swarms of angry patrons and activists gathered outside the bar and fought back against the police, chanting “gay power” and “gay pride.”
The skirmish lasted long into the night and sparked several more protests outside the bar in the days that followed.
Those protests are often credited as a flashpoint for LGBTQ rights in the US, and the first-ever Pride parade was held in New York in 1970 to mark the one-year anniversary of the riots.
The US Sun visited The Stonewall Inn on Friday ahead of the city’s annual Pride parade on Sunday and spoke with an 83-year-old bartender known only as Tree, who had been inside the now-iconic bar when the unrest first erupted.
“On the day of the rebellion I was 30 years old and I was on the dance floor, doing the Lindy Hop when we heard screaming coming from near the bar,” Tree said, standing out front of Stonewall.
“Then we heard a drag queen friend of mine – her name was Gypsy – call out, ‘Leave me alone, my husband’s a cop!’
“That’s when we knew it was another raid, but little did we know at that moment it was going to be the raid of all raids.”
THE STONEWALL RIOT
Back in 1969, New York was notorious for its strict enforcement of anti-gay laws that made it risky for gay people to congregate or be seen together in public.
Such laws also made it illegal to sell gay patrons alcohol, to display homosexuality in public, or for two gay people even to dance together.
Under the guise of New York State’s liquor laws that barred “disorderly” premises, the State Liquor Authority and the New York Police Department often raided bars that catered to gay patrons, the majority of which were owned by one of New York’s five main mob families.
Stonewall Inn was purchased by Tony “Fat Tony” Lauria, a member of the Genovese family, in 1966 and transformed from a restaurant into a gay bar and nightclub.
To ensure the police turned a blind eye to the ongoing inside Stonewall, the mafia paid off the NYPD in bribes, with Lauria reportedly paying New York’s Sixth Precinct an estimated $1,200 per week.
Still, raids would take place, but typically police would let the bars know ahead of time and do them in the early afternoon when few customers were present so, and so that the bar had enough time to resume operations by night.
However, no such heads-up was apparently issued for the NYPD’s raid of Stonewall in the early hours of June 28, 1969.
Armed with a warrant, police entered the bar wielding batons, roughing up patrons, and arrested at least 13 people.
But apparently fed up with constant police harassment and discrimination in wider society, instead of running away, angry patrons and onlookers in the surrounding neighborhood gathered in anger outside of the bar, jeering at the cops.
Standing outside among the crowd was 22-year-old aspiring journalist Lucian Truscott IV, who happened upon the scene while walking to the nearby Lion’s Head Bar.
Then a freelance reporter for The Village Voice, Lucian told The US Sun how he watched as police bundled a number of Stonewall patrons into the back of a paddy wagon, angering the crowd.
“Then they brought out a drag queen, who we later found out was Silvia Rivera, and she was kind of vamping and posing, putting on a show for the crowd as police tried to get her into this paddy wagon,” Lucian said.
“Everyone was cheering, and then a cop shoved her really hard in the back with a nightstick. She turned around and cussed at him, told him to knock it off, and the cop really grabbed her and started manhandling her.
“Well the crowd really didn’t like that and everyone started throwing things.
“First it was just pennies, people were reaching into their pockets and throwing coins at the police, but then small stones started flying and all of a sudden great big paving slabs from a nearby construction site were being hurled at Stonewall, breaking the bar’s window.”
‘THE RAID OF ALL RAIDS’
Inside the bar, similar chaotic scenes were also in motion, with Tree remembering bottles and profanities being hurled at police.
“We saw bottles flying and the cops started throwing drugs on the floor, walking over to people saying, ‘step on out, you’re under arrest.’
“People just responded by saying, ‘F**k you’ as they were forced into the back of the police truck outside.”
When he finally jostled his way out into the street, Tree was greeted by a frenzied skirmish unfolding outside of Christopher Street Park, with the crowd rocking police cars and throwing anything they could find towards the police.
“My friend Charlie Pizano and I noticed that the lock was just hanging off the door of a paddy wagon, so Charlie [removed the lock], and the door opened, almost knocking me over.
“Everyone that was inside the car just ran,” he said.
“Two queens also ripped up a parking meter out of the ground and used it to knock the bar’s doors down.”
Tree described the riot as “a lot of fun”, but said the significance of the moment wouldn’t dawn on him and his friends until several years later.
“People always ask, ‘Were you afraid?’ I always go, ‘Hell no!’
“I never threw a rock. I never set a police car on fire … it was just a whole lot of fun.
“We had no idea that it would become this significant thing because we were so used to raids.
“We didn’t know that was going to be the raid of all raids.”
As tensions boiled over, police barricaded themselves inside of Stonewall as the crowd hurled stones and paving slaps towards the building, even setting fire to newspapers and throwing them through the bar’s shattered window, starting a small blaze.
The fire department and a riot squad eventually managed to douse the flames, rescue those trapped inside the bar, and disperse the crowd.
But the protesters returned on Saturday night as the bar reopened for business, this time with thousands of people clashing with police in support of the gay community.
In total, protests in the area lasted for five days.
Though the Stonewall Riot, or Stonewall Uprising as it’s otherwise known, was not the first demonstration of its kind, it’s regarded as the galvanizing force for LGBTQ activism.
Numerous gay rights organizations were formed in the wake of Stonewall, including the Gay Activist Alliance, the Gay Liberation Front, and the Human Rights Campaign.
On the one-year anniversary of the riots on June 28, 1970, thousands of people marched in the streets of Manhattan from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park in what was then America’s first-ever gay pride parade.
Then called the “Christopher Street Liberation Day” parade, the slogan of the event was “say it loud, gay is proud.”
The tradition has continued in the five decades since, and a Pride parade is due to take place through Manhattan again this year on Sunday, June 26.
AN ‘EARTH-SHAKING’ EXPERIENCE
On Thursday afternoon, The Stonewall Inn was already brimming with patrons shortly after opening, many of whom had traveled to New York City from around the country specifically to attend Pride.
One couple, Derek Gibson, 27, and Cole Bullock, 22, flew into the Big Apple from Missouri to visit Stonewall for the first time and soak in its history.
“Just to stand in front of this place and feel the gravity of where it all started is just … so earth-shaking, honestly,” Derek told The US Sun.
“It just gives me chills thinking about it – you just stand there and realize all the history that took place here and everything that allowed me to be myself and become who I am today.
“We’re able to get married because of everything that happened right here,” he added. “So it’s just an amazing time … I just want to absorb every bit of it.”
Cole, who had never been to New York before, added: “You can’t find a place like this where we’re from and have that some loving experience where everybody is just happy and you can be who you are when you want.
“It’s not at all like that in the Midwest, so any of it we can take back to our place to change how things are there, that’s kind of what we’re looking for.
“Being here is just like an ethereal feeling,” Cole continued. “You can just see and feel the energy.
“People here are who they want to be because they’ve been able to have that freedom and that’s really special.”
Seated nearby on a table, soaking in the atmosphere too, were Dean Boyce, 56, and Sharon Fenwick, 69, two friends from Southampton, in the UK.
The best friends, who have known each other for several decades, landed in New York on Wednesday night, unaware of the Pride celebrations scheduled for this weekend until after they arrived.
“It was a happy coincidence,” laughed Dean. “I was saying to Sharon it’s just so iconic [to be at Stonewall] because this is where it all started.
“We’re grateful that Stonewall is going, as a bar, as a charity, and everything else, because if it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t be able to live the lives we’re fortunate enough to live now.
“There are still issues,” Dean conceded, “but if it wasn’t for the things that happened here all these years ago we wouldn’t be able to be ourselves.”
In 2016, the site of the riots – Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park, and surrounding streets – were designated a national monument in recognition of the area’s contribution to gay rights.
Earlier this week, the non-profit Pride Live announced that a visitor center will also soon open next to Stonewall to honor and preserve the history of the fight for LGBTQ rights.
In a statement, Ann Marie Gothard, board president of Pride Live, said: “The opening of the Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center is a remarkable moment in the history of Stonewall.
“We honor all those who came before us, most especially the queer people fighting for equality at the Stonewall Rebellion.”
https://www.the-sun.com/news/5635522/stonewall-riots-gay-pride-lgbtq-rights-march-police/ Inside chaotic moments that triggered Stonewall Riot when cops stormed gay club for the ‘raid of all raids’