Stonewall 1969 – second night: ‘Liberate Christopher Street!’

Stonewall Rebellion veteran Marsha P. Johnson, left, New York City Pride march, June 27, 1982.

This article by Leslie Feinberg, a lesbian transgender and Jewish communist and a managing editor of Workers World, was first  published July 24, 2006, as part 69 of the series “Lavender and Red.” The 10th anniversary of comrade Leslie’s death will be marked on Nov. 15. 

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!” Demonstrators squared off with police outside the bar. Their chants, “Christopher Street belongs to the queens!” and “Liberate 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 riot police. 

Participant Craig Rodwell described how the thousands who were drawn to the Village filled the sidewalks from Christopher Street to 10th Street and all around the Sheridan Square park and Seventh Avenue. When the crowd overflowed the sidewalks and poured into the streets, the call went out to block traffic on Christopher Street 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. 

On Gay Street, demonstrators briefly stopped 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 

Who 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 Latiné 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 limpwristed, 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 Street and Greenwich Avenue. When Stonewall ignited, prisoners — many of them Black and Latine, 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 vibrated.” 

Fighting back! 

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 blocks. 

Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, a Black transgender gay street survivor who later co-founded STAR — Street Transvestite 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. 

A 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. 

The Sixth Precinct couldn’t subdue the crowd, even with help from the Fourth, Fifth and Ninth [precincts]. 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. 

Police rushed at demonstrators, viciously beating people at random. However, 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 them through.” 

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 Waverly, 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.” 

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 block. 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 Avenue and Waverly for about half an hour before cops retook the location. 

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 (“Stonewall,” Dutton).


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