Stonewall 1969: Fighting in the streets
Lavender & red, part 68
Published Jul 6, 2006 9:59 PM
Stonewall participant Martin Boyce recalled,
“All of a sudden the whole street now had had it, and windows started
cracking and people attacked cars and moved cars back and forth, but let the
straight people out, who were in terror, really, but nobody hurt them, ever.
It’s amazing how controlled the rage was, even though it was so
The police trapped inside the Stonewall Inn couldn’t
call for backup. Top cop Sey mour Pine, who led the raid on the Stonewall, later
said: “Every time we tried to use the [police portable] radio to call for
assistance, a message came back, ‘Dis regard that call.’ Somebody
else apparently had our frequency in the crowd, and so we couldn’t get a
message through. The phone lines apparently were cut, because we couldn’t
use the phone.”
Bob Kohler saw people carefully pouring liquid,
apparently gasoline, into empty soda pop bottles.
Pine later described how
anxious he and the other cops were as these homemade firebombs started landing
in the bar. “There were bottles that came in exploded with some kind of
flame, and we were able to put those out with the fire hose that we had. We were
very worried because we didn’t know how long we could put these Molotov
cocktails out, because they were gasoline and all we had was water. They
didn’t have the kind of fire extinguishers that would put out a fuel
fire.” (David Carter, “Stonewall”)
The fire extinguisher
“Liberate the bar!” the crowd roared as youth
battered open the barricaded door to the Stonewall Inn with an uprooted parking
Edmund White wrote: “The door is broken down, and the kids,
as though working to a prior plan, systematically dump refuse from waste cans
onto the wall, squirt it with lighter fluid, and ignite it. Huge flashes of
flame and billows of smoke.”
Morty Manford witnessed: “People
took a garbage can, one of those wire mesh cans, and set it on fire and threw
the burning garbage into the premises. The area that was set afire is where the
coat room was. That night the closet was set on fire both symbolically and
Cop Pine said: “We’re inside and the fires
are coming in and we’re putting them out—all the time we’re
dodging the bricks that they were throwing in—and then they crashed with
this parking meter.” Pine actually said he debated shooting at people in
the crowd, but wasn’t sure it would stop them.
When a hand came
through the splintered plywood that was covering one of the windows and sprayed
lighter fluid and ignited it with a match, Pine later said, he aimed his gun and
was ready to shoot.
At that moment, however, fire truck sirens screamed
down Christopher Street. Police cars from more than one precinct began
screeching up from all directions.
Dave Van Ronk, who had been taken as a hostage-prisoner by
police holed up in the Stonewall, explained that as cops took him outside in
handcuffs, “From what I saw, that mob was not cowed. It would have taken
something to get them to disperse. They were loaded for bear.”
said: “Fights erupted with the trans vestites who wouldn’t go into
the patrol wagon. Some [transgenders] who hadn’t even been in the
Stonewall came over and started a fight with our guys.”
Marle Becker concurred. “All I could see about who was fighting was that
it was the transvestites and they were fighting furiously.”
loads of Tactical Patrol Force riot squads, trained to brutally break up
anti-Vietnam War protests, arrived on the scene.
O’Brien observed that “when they tried to clear the streets is when
people resented it, ‘cause it came down to: ‘Whose streets are
these? They are our streets.’” He described an additional layer of
resistance: Many people—gay and nongaythat they just couldn’t move
out of the way of police because it was too crowded. “A lot of them knew
that they were interfering with the cops,” he said.
Efforts to block
the narrow, one-way street to impede police included overturning a car in front
of the Stonewall.
Based on eyewitness accounts that night, historian
Martin Duberman summarized the TPF assault. “Wearing helmets with visors,
carrying assorted wea pons, including billy clubs and tear gas, its two dozen
members all seemed massively proportioned. They were a formidable sight as,
linked arm in arm, they came up Chris topher Street in a wedge formation that
resembled (by design) a Roman legion. In their path, the rioters slowly
retreated, but—contrary to police expectations—did not break and
The crowd slowly backed up to avoid
being clubbed, and then suddenly dissolved as individuals raced around the
block, regrouped behind the TPF squad and threw debris at the troopers. Again
and again the TPF broke up the crowd only to find people defiantly appearing
behind them, taunting them and hurling bricks and bottles. The angry crowd set
fire to trash cans and broke windows.
Bob Kohler recalled that the street
youths “were constantly getting over on the TPF. The TPF would chase
somebody this way, then the kids would start something behind them so that
attention would be taken, and then the TPF would come [the other] way, and then
more kids would start something behind them. So the TPF were constantly off
guard. It was keeping them on the run constantly.”
Others, who did
not directly take part in the fighting, kept pace alongside the action. Tommy
Lanigan-Schmidt explained: “I myself was more part of like a mob that was
waving in and out like the ocean. I was part of a mob that had a kind of deep
identity and was acting as one force.”
The police took a terrible
toll on anyone they could get their hands on—particularly those who were
male-bodied and feminine. Many were badly bashed and bloodied. One person
required 10 stitches in the knee after being clubbed. Another teen ager lost two
fingers. Four cops reportedly beat up a young trans person until she bled from
her ears, nose and mouth. Sylvia Rivera, though not injured, said she had so
much of other people’s blood splashed on her during the fray that she
later went to the piers to change into fresh clothing.
Yet the crowd still
resisted, any way they could, even faced with such organized police
When the TPF grabbed and began severely beating up one youth,
described as a feminine male, angry members of the crowd rushed forward and
rescued the person.
Someone smashed a concrete block on a parked police
car—with cops inside of it. Another person hit a member of the police
brass sitting inside his vehicle with a bag of soggy garbage.
As two cops
chased about 100 people down Waverly Place, the crowd suddenly realized they
outnumbered the police 50 to one—and lit off after the two officers, who
panicked and fled.
That night, police arrested and booked 13 people, seven
of them workers from the Stonewall Inn. They faced charges ranging from
harassment to resisting arrest to disorderly conduct.
Near dawn, the
streets seemed quiet. Kohler remembered: “We were sitting across the
street [from the Stonewall] at the park, and you would see smoldering [garbage]
baskets and the street was broken glass. The Stonewall window was smashed, and
there were cops all standing around like storm troopers. You’d look a
block away and you could see trash cans still smoldering.”
wasn’t just the trash cans that were still smoldering. The rebellion was
not over. Not by a long shot.
Next: ‘Liberate Christopher
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