In my previous post, I discussed the first night of the 1969 Stonewall Riots and how they are depicted in Stonewall (2015, dir. Roland Emmerich). After the riot scene, the film jumps forward a year, and shows its hero, Danny Winter (Jeremy Irvine) returning to his family home in small-town Indiana, in search of the quarterback he’s still in love with for some reason. That creates the impression that the Stonewall Riots lasted only a single night, Friday the 27th. In reality, the police raid on Friday night touched off six nights of clashes between the police and protestors. So instead of devoting so much screen time to Danny’s tedious back story, which could probably have been explained in 4 lines of dialog and perhaps some attempts to call home, the film should have explored the reasons why Friday night wasn’t the end of the matter.
Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning on seeing this film in the theater, you may wish to put off reading this until after you’ve done so, because I discuss a variety of major plot points.
Saturday Night: The Biggest Riot
While it’s understandable that Emmerich decided to concentrate on the most famous night of the conflict, it’s an unfortunate oversimplification, because the Friday night riot was not in fact the biggest one. The crowd Friday night has been estimated to be 4-500 people in size, which means it was only the third largest night. Over the course of Saturday afternoon, as word about the previous night’s events spread, people began going down to Christopher Street to see the damage for themselves. The result was a slowly growing crowd of street youths, gays, lesbians, hippies, and even a few tourists that by 9pm had come to number 2-3000. The crowd began singing, chanting, and shouting slogans like “Gay power!” and “Christopher Street belongs to the Queens!” A few activists from the Mattachine Society and Craig Rodwell, a very important activist at the time who had broken with Mattachine over its cautiousness, handed out fliers. Members of the crowd began kissing each other, a truly radical gesture that horrified some of the older, more closeted gays who had shown up. The general mood was one of anger mixed with pride at the previous night’s events. The police kept trying to disperse the crowd, and the Stonewall Inn’s owners sought to draw people in to the re-opened bar.
The size of the crowd was probably a combination of curiosity about how much damage had been down, anger over a dramatic incident of police harassment (this was, in fact, the second raid on the Stonewall in one week), and surprise and curiosity about how a community perceived as lacking in masculinity and the ability to fight back had managed to hold the riot police at bay for so long.
The hotness of the evening began to raise tempers and at some point around perhaps 10pm, the crowd decided to block the street to vehicles. Cars and buses that tried to get through the crowd were harassed. The only casualty of the whole riots happened when a taxi driver became so terrified that he had a fatal heart attack. The crowd began to throw bottles and garbage at the police, and the trash cans were lit on the fire, something that happened frequently during the riots. Not too far away stood the House of Detention, New York’s women’s prison, and the inmates (who included Afeni Shakur, future rapper Tupak Shakur’s mother) began to light toilet paper on fire and throw it out the window to express solidarity.
Marsha P. Johnson, one of the leaders on the previous night, climbed a lamppost (in a dress and high heels, no less) and dropped a bag containing a large heavy object into the windshield of a police car. The officers in the car grabbed the nearest person, who wasn’t a protester, pulled him into the car and drove off, beating their hapless prisoner. In another incident, a group of six policemen began to savagely beat a street youth who had not done anything, but around 50 Queens attacked them, rescued the boy, and allowed themselves to be beaten rather than turn him over to the police.
When the crowd attacked another police car with a cinder block, the police radioed for help. For the next several hours, approximately 100 officers struggled to deal with the crowd. Around 2:15am, 150 riot police showed up to provide assistance. Unlike the first night’s riot police, this group was equipped with riot shields and marched down Christopher Street in a tight phalanx, forcing the crowd to retreat. The street youth responded the way they had the night before, with a Rockettes-style kick line. The result was initially much as it had been the night before. The street youth made good use of the peculiar street plan, which involved short blocks and streets meeting at odd angles, to thwart police efforts to drive them off. When they were pushed out of one block, they simply ran down the street, around the corner, and came at the police from a different direction.
Unlike the previous night, however, the police successfully occupied the block of Christopher Street that houses the Stonewall. But they were unable to force the protesters out of the surrounding streets. In one incident, two police officers chased a crowd of more than 100 protestors down a street, until the crowd realized how badly it outnumbered the police. Suddenly it was the police officers who had to flee from the crowd, which was shouting “Catch them! Fuck them!” It was not until 3:30am that the police succeeded in fully restoring order.
Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday: Things Quiet Down
The following three nights, the police modified their strategy. On Sunday, the police realized that they had to show up with large forces very early in the evening and prevent crowds to forming. The Mattachine Society posted a public notice at the Stonewall Inn calling for peace and quiet, whereas Rodwell sought to continue the protests to maximize their impact. The result was that the protests were smaller and more dispersed. One group of street youth took advantage of the heavy police presence on Christopher Street to go down to the Sixth Precinct and plaster both police cars and the private cars of officers with “Equality for Homosexuals” bumper stickers.
The Stonewall stayed open and in what might be a rare example of genuine historical irony, the police actually encouraged people to go into it. Poet Allen Ginsberg stopped by Stonewall and danced with the street youth. He famously remarked, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful—they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago.”
Monday and Tuesday night were relatively quiet. The police continued their strategy of preventing crowds from forming, and rain and the fact that it was a workday depressed turnout. But the police became increasingly confrontational, perhaps to restore their wounded pride. Many officers shouted insults at gays, and one man was arrested purely for talking back to a belligerent officer. On Tuesday night, a police officer was mobbed while beating a protester, and his badge was stolen. It was found the next night, hanging from a tree on a string of pickled pigs’ feet.
Wednesday: The Last Night of Rioting
But on Wednesday, things heated up again. The Village Voice, which despite being a liberal newspaper was deeply anti-gay in this period, made the mistake of publishing two articles on the riots, which happened literally across the street from their offices. The articles were peppered with phrases like ‘limp wrists”, “the Sunday fag follies”, “dancing faggots”, and “the forces of faggotry”. The two articles infuriated the gay community, and a crowd of between 500 and 1000 people descended on the building and argued about whether to burn it down.
Additionally, by this point, word about the riots had spread through the leftist community in the city, and large numbers of Black Panthers, Yippies, and other radicals came down to Christopher Street looking to fight the police. They understood that the gays had somehow been able to defeat the police on the first two nights and wanted to participate in that. The Rev Irene Monroe, a middle-schooler at the time, says that a large group of blacks came in from Brooklyn on the first night of the riots trying to find a member of their community who was known to frequent the Stonewall, but the only night that David Carter reports a large group of heterosexual black protesters appearing is Wednesday, so it’s possible her memory of the date is wrong. The raid on the Stonewall didn’t happen until 1:20am, and the violence didn’t start for some time after that, so it unlikely the word of the rioting reached anyone in the wider NYC area much before 2am, and it seems curious to me that a middle-schooler would have been allowed to roam the city so late at night. But on later nights the protests started much earlier.
The crowd by this point was seriously angry, and Wednesday’s riot lacked the half-camp ridicule of the first two nights. This night appears to have been the most violent. A number of gay-friendly shops were looted, presumably by non-locals who didn’t know which businesses had a history of being gay-friendly or exploiting gays. Dick Leitsch, the president of the Mattachine Society, described seeing the extent of the injuries suffered by the street youth. “7th Avenue from Christopher to West 10th looked like Vietnam. Young people, many of them queens, were lying on the sidewalk, bleeding from the head, face, mouth, and even the eyes. Others were nursing bruised and often bleeding arms, legs, backs, and necks….The exploiters had moved in…blacks and students who want a revolution, any kind of revolution …swelled the crowd…but ‘graciously’ let the queens take all the bruises and suffer all the arrests.” (Carter, Stonewall, p. 204) Unlike previous nights, the violence that night ended quickly, in about an hour.
Wednesday night was the last night of the riot. Protesters vowed to return, and police expected trouble because Thursday was the start of a four-day weekend for the 4th of July, but although a large crowd of people appeared, there was little trouble.
Despite the violence and the size of the crowds, arrests were surprisingly few. On the first night, only 13 people were arrested (7 of them employees of the Stonewall), on the second night 4, and on the last night, only 5. A total of five officers are known to have been injured, including officers who sustained a broken wrist, a fractured leg, a serious cut under one eye, and a bite on the arm. Many protesters sustained broken ribs and arms, among the more serious injuries. A number of those arrested reported being beaten several hours later, down at the precinct.
Why did the protests go on for so many nights? The answer is clearly complex. Much of it was clearly pent-up frustration on the part of the gay community over how gays were treated by the police. Once the cat was out of the bag, the gay community clearly wanted to express its anger. The street youth played a large role in most nights of the protest, and in their case they may have been driven by their anger at their situation and a desire to extend the upside-down situation in which they momentarily felt a sense of power over the police. The riots began to subside on Sunday, due in part to the tactics of the police, but perhaps also because many of the initial protestors had been injured or decided that they had gotten away narrowly on the previous nights. The resurgence of the violence on Wednesday was clearly due to the inflammatory articles published by the Voice as well as the desire of outside groups to strike a blow against the police. But it’s also clear that the police gradually became more interested in inciting violence as a way to avenge their previous humiliations. Riots are rarely mono-causal events; a specific incident will trigger violence, but it takes a powder keg of anger, resentment, and perceived grievance to produce a substantial crowd willing to engage in multiple days of violence. That the violence was in considerable measure driven by a segment of the community normally perceived as passive and unwilling to resist speaks volumes about the depth of resentment gays felt.
Want to Know More?
The movie is not available yet, since it’s still in theaters.
If you want to read more about Stonewall, a good place to start is David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. It’s an excellent piece of scholarship and highly readable.