STONEWALL 1969—SECOND NIGHT:
‘Liberate Christopher Street!’
Lavender & red, part 69
Published Jul 24, 2006 11:19 PM
Thousands of gay men and lesbians—many
of whom identified as queens and butches—returned to the West Village on
Saturday evening, the night after battles with the police and tactical forces at
the Stonewall Inn. It was the hottest June 28 on record in New York’s
history, in more ways than one.
Stonewall bar owners tried to lure many
back inside the club. But the crowd outside shouted, “Gay power,”
“Equality for homosexuals” and “We want freedom now!”
Demon strators squared off with police outside the bar. Their chants,
“Christopher Street belongs to the queens!” and “Liber ate
Christopher Street,” made it clear that this was an offensive stage of the
struggle—in the streets.
The night of protest drew street youth and
some heterosexual activists from various left-wing political currents. Gay
author Edmund White described how straight Black youth “put their arms
around me and [said] we’re comrades.”
One middle-aged white
woman, in the West Village with her husband, reportedly reprimanded a cop,
shouting at him that he should be ashamed: “Don’t you know that
these people have no place to go, and need places like that bar?” She and
her husband were later that night part of a crowd being chased by club wielding
Participant Craig Rodwell described how the thousands who
were drawn to the Village filled the sidewalks from Chris topher to 10th St. and
all around the Sher idan Square park and Seventh Avenue. When the crowd
overflowed the sidewalks and poured into the streets, the call went out to block
traffic on Chris topher at Greenwich Avenue.
When drivers disrespected
the crowd, their cars got rocked back and forth and demonstrators laid siege to
a bus whose driver angrily honked his horn at them. Activists formed a human
chain across the busy street.
One cab driver turned into the crowd,
apparently unintentionally, but those gathered did not realize at first that it
was accidental. As they rocked the cab, the passengers looked so frightened and
the driver seemed to be having a heart attack, so some activists joined arms to
protect the taxi and helped it back out of the street. The driver later
died—the only fatal casualty of the Stonewall Rebellion.
St., demonstrators briefly stop ped a procession of cars with a wedding party.
“We have the right to marry, too!” activists shouted. Members of the
wedding party angrily threatened to call the cops on protesters. “The
police are already here!” activists laughed bitterly, before letting the
wedding group proceed.
Led by those with least to lose
led the battles? Who made up much of the ranks? The nationality, gender
expression and economic class of combatants at that stage of the uprising were
well described in an otherwise offensive description by Dr. Howard Brown. As
chief health officer of New York City during the Lindsay administration,
Brown—a rather closeted gay man—had described his horror when he had
toured the Tombs, a city prison. “Almost all the men in the crowded cells
were demonstrably effeminate. I could not identify with them.” He
doesn’t say it, but of course many of the prisoners were [email protected] and Black,
impoverished whites, and street youth.
Drawn to the June 28 protest by the
roar he could hear from his apartment, he said he found that the Stonewall
protesters “were like the homosexuals I had seen in the Tombs—most
of them obviously poor, most of them the sort of limp-wristed, shabby or gaudy
gays that send a shiver of dread down the spines of homosexuals who hope to pass
as straight. I could not have felt more remote from them.” He added that
the composition of the crowd brought to mind “every civil rights struggle
I had ever witnessed or participated in.”
The women caged in the
nearby House of Detention sure identified with those rebelling below. The
women’s “House of D” was, at that time, situated at the heart
of Christopher St. and Greenwich Ave. When Stonewall ignited,
prisoners—many of them Black and Latina, and many, many of them lesbian
and transgender—set toilet paper on fire and dropped it from the turrets
to support the uprising on the streets below.
Eyewitness Chris Babick
described, “That whole week the women were screaming, cheering us on.
… The whole jail, it seemed like, was alive with people, with activity,
because the streets were alive with activity. Everything
On the streets, as police
grew increasingly aggressive towards activists, one youth hurled garbage can
lids like Frisbees at cops. Fires burned from trash containers up and down the
Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, a Black transgender
gay street survivor who later co-founded STAR—Street Transves tite Action
Revolutionaries—reportedly climbed a lamppost in order to drop a heavy
object that shattered a police car windshield.
At Waverly and
Christopher, a crowd surrounded cops in a car and smashed its hood with a
concrete block, pounded the car with their fists and climbed up on it.
sack of garbage with coffee grounds thrown through the window of yet another
police vehicle smacked an official in the face. The crowd knocked the red light
off the roof of the car and rocked the vehicle, trying to overturn it.
Sixth Precinct couldn’t subdue the crowd, even with help from the Fourth,
Fifth and Ninth. So for the second night, the feared Tactical Police Force (TPF)
sent about 150 of its crack riot troops into the West Village at about 2:15 a.m.
The crowd tossed beer cans at the TPF and cops in defiance.
at demonstrators, vic iously beating people at random. How ever, when two cops
used their nightsticks on one youth’s face, genitals and stomach, a
high-pitched voice from the crowd shouted, “Save our sister!”
Then, Stonewall participant Dick Leitsch recalled, “Fifty or more
homosexuals who would have to be described as ‘nelly,’ rushed the
cops and took the boy back into the crowd.” And, he added, they
“formed a solid front and refused to let the cops into the crowd to regain
their prisoner, letting the cops hit them with their sticks, rather than let
For the second night in a row, TPF troops formed
solid phalanxes and moved slowly down the streets to break up the demonstration.
At Christopher and Wav erly, a group of gay men described as very, very feminine
formed a defiant chorus line and mocked the riot cops with bawdy choruses of
“We are the Stonewall Girls, we wear our hair in curls.” As the TPF
moved slowly towards them, the youth waited until the last possible moment to
stop singing and disappear. Minutes later they appeared behind the TPF troops,
taunting them with a new chorus line.
Leitsch remarked, in the language of
the day, about the leadership, participation, and bravery of the feminine,
male-bodied combatants. “It was an interesting sidelight on the
demonstrations that those usually put down as ‘sissies’ or
‘swishes’ showed the most courage and sense during the action.
… The most striking feature of the rioting was that it was led, and
featured as participants, ‘queens.’”
“It was the
‘queens’ who scored the points and proved that they were not going
to tolerate any more harassment or abuse. … Their bravery and daring saved
many people from being hurt,” he noted.
Police continued to brutally
battle to retake small areas of the West Village. But the crowd would not be
subdued, sometimes turning the tables by chasing the cops down the
At 3 a.m., when all the gay bars emptied out, the protest swelled
with fresh forces. Demonstrators were able to take over the IND subway station
at Sixth Ave. and Waverly for about half an hour before cops retook the
By about 4 a.m., cops withdrew and the streets appeared quiet.
But the uprising was still not over.
Eyewitness quotes from sources
compiled by David Carter (“Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay
Revolution,” St. Martin’s Press) and Martin Duberman
Email: [email protected]
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