Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Revolutionary Of The Week

The Stonewall Gays

The United States has been, & in some ways remains, a homophobic society. As with all oppressed groups of people, acceptance, reform, & progress starts by taking a stand against discrimination.
For the gay right's movement, that stand was taken on Friday night, June 27th, 1969 in New York City. It became known as "Stonewall", or the "Stonewall Rebellion".
On Christopher Street in New York City's Greenwich Village, a multiracial group of gays usually gathered at the Stonewall Inn, a local gay bar. On the night of June 27th, 1969, police sought to shut down the bar for allegedly serving alcohol without a license. Police raids on gay bars were not uncommon around this time. Patrons of gay bars were often subjected to fines for "indecency", & often found their names published in the local newspapers as a result.
New York City Mayor John Lindsay was smack dab in the middle of a difficult election & the Stonewall Inn seemed like a good place for a high profile law & order style photo-op. But, oh, he had no idea how high profile it was going to get!
At around 1:20 in the morning, later than usual raid time- which increased the chances of intoxicted patrons- 8 First Precinct NYC officers entered the bar. Just one of the cops had a uniform on. The police started to make arrests.
But the police had no idea that another routine discriminatory raid on a gay bar would turn the way it did, but a riot began to unsue.
To this date, no one is sure exactly how the riot began. One story is that a drag queen took a swing at a police officer after being prodded by his nightstick. Others say that it was a lesbian who struggled with a cop as he tried to get her through the crowd to his police car that started the resistance. One dramatic account was that a large Stonewaller threw a metal garbage can filled with empty bottles of liquor through a police car window. Whatever story you prefer, what happened next is told the same.
The patrons of Stonewall attacked the 8 cops, driving them back into the bar, where they sought safety, ironically. The angry crowd grew, as they laid seige on the bar.
Eyewitness accounts say that the gays clearly had the upper hand. As NYPD reinforcements arrived, the gay rioters they could actually catch & load into police cars & vans, escaped when an 18 year old drag queen ran out of a police van, into the chest of an officer, throwing him to the ground. Another drag queen opened the door on the side of the van & jumped out, with several other drag queens following right behind.
With gay youths screaming into the faces of the officers, kicking them, throwing whatever objects they could find at them- the scene grew chaotic.
In no time, the crowd grew to an estimated 2,000, against a police force of around 400! The police were stunned & frightened by the gay crowd's unexpected fury.
Police Deputy Inspector Pine said, " I had been in combat situations, but there was never any time that I felt more scared than then."
With the police holed up inside the Stonewall, the crowd had total control of the streets. The gay crowd gathered reinforcements as well, calling in radical leftists, more than ready to help beat back the police.
Someone broke the front window to the Stonewall, followed by a dose of lighter fluid. The one cop in uniform, Gil Weisman, was hit in the eye with glass. The police fear then turned into fury. 3 of the cops ran out of the front door, & started screaming threats at the crowd. This only inflamed the situation, & the cops were pelted with bottles & Deputy Inspector Charles Smyth was hit in the head. Infuriated, Smyth reached into the crowd & pulled someone out, then dragged him by the hair inside the Stonewall.
Ironically, the prisoner was the well known, & straight, folk singer Dave Van Ronk. He had been at another bar down the street & came out to see what all the commotion was about. The singer was punched while several cops held him down. On the verge of passing out, the police then handcuffed Van Ronk & arrested him.
A reporter from the Village Voice, Howard Smith, retreated inside the bar & later wrote, " The sound filtering in didn't suggest dancing faggots anymore, it sounded like a powerful rage bent on vendetta."
The Stonewall burst into flames from another dosing of lighter fluid, & at around 2:55 am emergency signals sent out by the police inside sent a Tactical Patrol Force on its way.
Having arrived in full riot gear, they managed to get the rioters to slowly retreat. But they weren't prepared for the crowds re-formation to their rear. The angry crowd repeated this several times & when the police turned around they found themselves face to face with a chorus line of angry, mocking queens, arms clasped, kicking their heels Rockettes-style, & singing!!!
Although very witty & quite hilarious, the counterpoint to the cops's brute force seemed to piss off the police even more. The police were beating a young man when the angry crowd surged in, snatched him away & prevented the cops from reclaiming him.
In the end, 4 police officers were badly injured, 13 people were arrested & the riot ended around 3:35 am.
This event not only proved that gays & lesbians are a force to be reckoned with, but it energized the gay right's movement & by 1987 was able to mobilize 600,000 people to march on Washington D.C., demanding equality.
NYC Mayor Lindsay certainly had his phot-op, but it was not what he had bargained for!