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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 hard.”

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 quickly emptied.

“Liberate the bar!” the crowd roared as youth battered open the barricaded door to the Stonewall Inn with an uprooted parking meter.

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 literally.”

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.

Crowd wouldn’t disperse

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.”

Pine 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.”

Eyewitness Marle Becker concurred. “All I could see about who was fighting was that it was the transvestites and they were fighting furiously.”

Two bus loads of Tactical Patrol Force riot squads, trained to brutally break up anti-Vietnam War protests, arrived on the scene.

Participant John 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 run.” (“Stonewall”)

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 violence.

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.”

It wasn’t just the trash cans that were still smoldering. The rebellion was not over. Not by a long shot.

Next: ‘Liberate Christopher Street!’

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