Leslie Feinberg’s 120-part series on connections between LGBTQ and socialist history, “Lavender & Red,” appeared in Workers World newspaper from 2004 to 2008, and is available for free download at workers.org/book/lavender-red.
A number of accounts of the confrontation between cops and the crowd outside the Stonewall Bar mark the prolonged struggle between police and a cross-dressed butch lesbian as a qualitative turning point. According to Village Voice journalist Howard Smith, “It was at that moment that the scene became explosive.”
Smith wrote that the crowd roared: “Police brutality! Pigs!”
Gino, a Puerto Rican construction worker, joining in the shouts of “Let her go! Leave her alone!” reportedly dislodged a loose cobblestone and heaved it across Christopher Street. Eyewitness Steve Yates remembered, “It landed on the trunk of a police car with a terrible screech, ‘scaring the shit’ out of a policeman who was standing next to the car.”
According to Stonewall employee Harry Beard, one or more people in the crowd were able to slash all four tires on the police cruiser with the butch lesbian prisoner inside.
Raymond “Ray” Castro, a Puerto Rican baker, recalled how he fought his own arrest. “At that point I started pushing back and wound up with two plainclothes police pushing me. The next thing I know, there’s two plainclothes cops and two uniformed police in the melee. I was knocked to the ground by one of their billy clubs, [which,] put between my legs, tripped me. At that point the handcuffs got put on me, and they had a [police] wagon right in front of the entrance to the Stonewall. When I got shoved up to the door of the [police] wagon, I had two policemen on each side of me. I didn’t quite go willingly into the [police] wagon. I didn’t want to be arrested. Even though I was handcuffed, I jumped up and [put] one foot on the right side of the door and one foot on the left of the door. I sprung up like a jumping jack and pushed backwards, knocking the police down to the ground, almost against the wall of the Stonewall. Well, they finally dragged me into the [police] wagon.”
Tom, a participant, remembered Ray battling against arrest. “A couple more were thrown into the van. We joined in with some who wanted to storm the van, free those inside, then turn over the van. But nobody was yet prepared for that kind of action. Then a scuffle at the door. One guy refused to be put into the van. Five or six cops guarding the van tried to subdue him with little success. Several guys tried to help free him. Unguarded, three or four of those in the van appeared then quickly disappeared into the crowd. This was all anyone needed.”
As police hurriedly tried to load other prisoners into the police wagon, one 18-year-old participant saw “a leg in nylons and sporting a high heel shoot out of the back of the [police] wagon into the chest of a cop, throwing him backward. Another queen then opened the door on the side of the wagon and jumped out. The cops chased and caught her, but Blond Frankie [who worked the door at the Stonewall] quickly managed to engineer another escape from the car; several queens successfully made their way out with him and were swallowed up in the crowd.” (Duberman,“Stonewall”)
Michael Fader reported seeing the cops “leave the van unattended — the doors were open, so they left. That raised the emotional level, the excitement of them getting away.”
The multinational crowd of hundreds massed around the police was made up of those brave enough and angry enough at oppression to be drawn to a confrontation with the police.
Stonewall combatant Sylvia Rivera stressed a very important point about the rebellion that ensued. Rivera was a Venezuelan and Puerto Rican transgender youth who had lived homeless on the streets of Manhattan since she was 10 years old. Before her death, she stressed the role in the rebellion of the homeless gay/trans street youth — Black, Latinx and white and gender-defiant — who could not afford the Stonewall door admission charge or the overpriced, watered-down drinks. The vest-pocket park across the street from the bar was their home. (Personal interview, 1997)
Rivera emphasized that at the moment of ignition of the rebellion, “It was street gay people from the Village out front — homeless people who lived in the park in Sheridan Square outside the bar — and then drag queens behind them and everybody behind us.” (Feinberg, “Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue”)
Danny Garvin described how police tried to push back those gathered around them. This allowed the crowd to make an important discovery: a big stack of new bricks at a Seventh Avenue South construction site. Garvin explained, “They would come at us with nightsticks, and we would have to disperse onto Seventh Avenue, where the people were able to see the bricks.”
Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, who led the raid, ordered police to drive off quickly with prisoners in the police wagon and three cop cruisers and “just drop them off at the Sixth Precinct and hurry back.”
People in the crowd around the police wagon began beating on its sides, demanding to know the names of those imprisoned inside. According to Voice reporter Lucian Truscott, “A cry went up to push the [police] wagon over, but it drove away before anything could happen.”
The slashed tires of one or more of the vehicles slowed down the police exit. According to accounts compiled by David Carter: “The crowd, however, was beyond being intimidated by mere sirens and the caravan had to push slowly through the furious protesters, who, enraged, pounded on the police vehicles. Danny Garvin recalls the noise as ‘people would run over, grab the [police] wagon, and start shaking — ba-boom! ba-boom!!’”
Martin Duberman reported, “One queen mashed an officer with her heel, knocked him down, grabbed his handcuff keys, freed herself, and passed the keys to another queen behind her.”
Inspector Pine was left with eight plainclothes detectives and one uniformed cop, all surrounded by an enraged crowd. Those among the hundreds who surrounded police threw their precious pocket change in a hard hail, shouting, “Dirty copper!” and “Here’s your payoff!”
They hurled bottles, cans, bricks, a damaged fire hydrant and dog excrement at police. A youth named Timmy reportedly heaved a wire-mesh garbage can, which shattered the Stonewall’s plate-glass window, which was reinforced with plywood.
Cries of “Gay power!” and “Let’s get ‘em” articulated the detonation of mass rage.
There was nowhere for the police to retreat except back into the Stonewall — the very bar they had raided.