1969 Stonewall uprising against police repression: ‘All hell broke loose!’ in “Lavender & Red,” Part 67
Originally published June 26, 2006, this column was part of Leslie Feinberg’s series on the connections between LGBTQ2S and socialist history. The 120-part “Lavender & Red,” which appeared in Workers World from 2004 to 2008, is available for free download at workers.org/book/lavender-red/.
No recording device captured the roar or ferocity of the crowd outside the Stonewall bar, enraged by the police raid and the physical brutality and sexual and gender humiliation that was interwoven into the state repression.
However, the militancy and determination of those who fought back that night — June 28, 1969 — is recalled in the words of the top cop who led the raid, Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine: “I had been in combat situations, [but] there was never any time that I felt more scared than then.”
Pine had written the U.S. Army’s manual for hand-to-hand combat in World War II and was in a mine explosion at the Battle of the Bulge.
By many accounts, the Black, Latinx and white youth, many of them homeless and/or gender-defiant — including Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Zazu Nova and Jackie Hormona — fought fiercely that night.
And small wonder. These were the bodies and lives most often scarred by police terror and torture. While everyone fought bravely, historian David Carter wrote that “the preponderance of witnesses who are both the most credible and who witnessed significant amounts of the action agree that the most marginal groups of the gay community fought the hardest — and therefore risked the most — on this and the following nights.” (“Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution”)
Many in the [multigender,] multinational, multigenerational crowd of hundreds amassed outside the bar began to hurl their pocket change, shouting, “Here’s your payoff!” — referring to the common practice of payoffs between bar owners, many times tied to organized crime, and the police.
The police showed signs of panic as they were hit with a hail of flying projectiles. They retreated toward the Stonewall Inn, the club they had just emptied out in the raid. One cop near the doorway was reportedly hit in the eye with a thrown object, and was visibly bloodied. The police, wrote Village Voice journalist Howard Smith, who was at the scene, “are all suddenly furious.” Three of the cops rushed the crowd to try to back them away.
But the crowd would not be pushed back. The streets outside the club belonged to the people, and they could feel it. They could see the cops were scared, too. One participant, Tom, observed, “A few plainclothesmen were surveying the crowd, obviously panicked.” Ronnie Di Brienza stressed in an article in the East Village Other: “During the height of the action, you could see the fear and disbelief on the faces of the pigs.”
A beer can struck Deputy Inspector Charles Smythe in the head. Smythe, who had also been in World War II combat, later said, “I was still shaking an hour later. Believe me, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Pine reached out from the doorway of the bar and reportedly grabbed the first person he could lay his hands on, folk singer Dave Van Ronk, and pulled him inside the bar. Van Ronk later explained that the cops accused him of throwing the beer can. They held him down, punched him hard and kicked him. They left him handcuffed on the floor of the bar.
Pine came outside to evaluate the relationship of forces. He told the other cops: “Let’s get inside. Lock ourselves inside; it’s safer.” Voice reporter Howard Smith went inside the Stonewall with the 10 members of the police raiding squad. They barricaded the doors with overturned tables.
And then, Pine remembered, “All hell broke loose.”
Smith reported, “The exit left no cops on the street, and almost by signal the crowd erupted into cobblestone and bottle heaving.”
Voice journalist Lucian Truscott said he had climbed atop a garbage can to watch the action and he almost toppled when two men yanked it out from under him and heaved it at the bar’s west window.
Participant Morty Manford emphasized: “And it escalated. A few more rocks went and then somebody from inside the bar opened the door and stuck a gun out. Their arm was reaching out with a gun telling people to stay back. And then withdrew the gun, closed the door and went back inside.”
Yet even the threat of being shot did not stop the crowd. Historian David Carter summed up descriptions by participants of what happened next: “A general assault now began on the Stonewall Inn using anything and everything the crowd inside could get its hands on: garbage, garbage cans, pieces of glass, fire, bricks, cobblestones, and an improvised battering ram were all used to attack the police holed up inside the Stonewall Inn.”
Someone, or more than one person, reportedly cut the electric and phone lines, so the police were inside without the ability to call for backup.
According to accounts compiled by historian Martin Duberman: “The cops then found a fire hose, wedged it into a crack in the door, and directed the spray out at the crowd, thinking that would certainly scatter it. But the stream was weak and the crowd howled derisively, while inside the cops starting slipping on the wet floor.”
In his later Voice coverage, stinking of bigotry, Smith wrote that from the inside of the Stonewall, “The sound filtering in [didn’t] suggest dancing f——s any more; it sound[ed] like a powerful rage bent on vendetta.”
Smith said he heard “the shattering of windows, followed by what we imagine to be bricks pounding on the door, voices yelling. The floor shudders at each blow.”
The crowd outside roared “Gay power!” and “We want freedom!”
Pine described: “Now they really in earnest started to come after us. We covered everything [but] whatever we could find to put up against the windows and the doors didn’t last very long. They began to batter this down and made some holes.” The window — which the owners had reinforced with plywood and two-by-fours — was smashed and the barricaded door was swung open.
Smith peeked out a hole in the splintered plywood, and he thought it seemed that those massed outside were thousands-strong.
In anticipation of the angry crowd rushing in, the cops drew their weapons; one cop picked up a nearby baseball bat. One cop reportedly vowed, “We’ll shoot the first m——-f——r that comes through the door.”
But it was an arm that came through the shards of the plywood covering the window. Then the scent of lighter fluid, the fiery tip of a lit match, and flames ignited inside the bar.