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The Stonewall Reader – What Really Happened

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Article by: Naomi Rose

The history of what took place June 28th, 1969, at Stonewall Inn in New York City is murky at best. The stories from witnesses and activists vary, depending on who you ask.  These differing stories can create confusion and conflicting information on what really happened:

Was a brick thrown by someone who grabbed it from a nearby construction site or was there no construction site at all? Did they pull the pavers up from around the bases of the trees placed in the New York sidewalks, and maybe the pavers just looked like bricks? 

Maybe there were never any bricks thrown, maybe it was a shot glass. Maybe a beer bottle. Was it pennies and dimes? 

Perhaps nobody threw anything except for molotov cocktails, glass bottles containing a flammable liquid that are then ignited and thrown, shattering on impact and allowing fire to quickly spread. Were they thrown in the door mere minutes before the police raided the bar? Maybe the patrons left the bar and cornered the police there, then the flaming bottles were thrown?

There’s always the chance that there weren’t any molotov cocktails at all and Stonewall Inn, a beloved gay bar, merely caught on fire in the chaos. 

But was it beloved or was it mafia run, dirty, and known for serving watered-down drinks? Some say it was all of those things, but it was still home to the gay residents of Greenwich Village. 

Should it be called an uprising, a party, or a riot?

People who were present claim there was a kickline. Was it just one kickline, or several? There was definitely at least one kickline, that much is agreed on.

Somewhere in the pandemonium of the night, the truth of exactly what led to the events at Stonewall Inn was lost. Several eyewitnesses report different things, depending on where they were when tensions came to a head. One thing that everyone seems to see eye to eye on is that it was a reaction to sudden unwarranted police brutality against the patrons of the bar.

This kind of confusion surrounding significant events in queer history is common. Our history has been hidden away by our past queer brothers and sisters for our own safety, or destroyed by fascist leaders, or simply not taught and ultimately forgotten. What that leaves us with today is eye witness accounts of the individuals who were present to try and piece together the information they remember.

The Stonewall Reader does just that. Compiled from the archives stored in New York public libraries, the book holds first accounts, literature, journals, and articles from LGBTQ+ magazines recalling the tumultuous years preceding the Stonewall uprising, as well as the events of that night, with a spotlight on activists. 

One of the accounts documented in the book is an interview with Morty Manford, a lawyer and activist who was present when the uprising began. He recalls how police entered the bar, which was later explained to have happened because they were coming to arrest employees for selling alcohol without a liquor license, and explained that everyone present seemed to be anxious by their arrival. After a few minutes, the patrons were told to leave the bar, but first had to line up and show identification before being freed one by one. Those who didn’t meet the standards the officers were looking for were temporarily detained in a coat room. In other words, a closet. An irony that Manford claims the cops first didn’t understand, “but they found out fast.”

Manford goes on to explain that as people were released, they waited outside for their friends to be released while passerbys joined to watch what was happening. Despite the energy and tension running through the rapidly growing crowd, Manford says as people were released, they’d emerge from the bar in a flourish. Whether it was striking a pose, teasing the police outside, or taking a bow, people would cheer in what he describes as “a colorful thing.”

“… there was the slightest lancing of the festering wound of anger at this kind of unfair harassment and prejudice. They weren’t doing this at heterosexual bars.” -Morty Manford

Something in the crowd quickly shifted, though. As the last of the detainees were released, the crowd transformed from one of temporary celebration to one of frustration and confusion at what just happened. People began throwing things and what Manford assumes to be a rock crashed through the front window in what he calls “a dramatic gesture of defiance.” He recalls the crowd collectively letting out an “Oooooh” at the shattering of glass. As the energy of the group outside escalated, a gun was held out the front door and aimed at the crowd, warning them to stay back. Someone responded by uprooting a parking meter and broke the front window as well as the plywood behind it. Another individual grabbed a wire mesh trash can and lit it on fire, tossing it onto the premises. With that, the area the coatroom was in was set ablaze. The closet was burning, another show of symbolism that stuck with Manford.

A police officer, who was now hiding with their colleagues in the very bar they had just raided, somehow procured a firehose and turned it on the crowd, forcing them back. A fire engine had been called due to the blaze within the building, as well as police in riot gear. At the time, the NYPD had what was known as the Tactical Police Force, or TPF. They arrived in a wave of blue and began forcing the crowd back before chasing them and hitting people with batons. This, Manford believes, could have been the turning point from an angry crowd to a full-blown riot that would last a full six days.

Manford reflects on the feelings building in him while watching this all take place. He states, “I think the emotional change was those minutes in front of Stonewall when this mass of gay people… acted in defiance.”

In The Stonewall Reader, there is another interview with Manford, this time joined by Sylvia Rivera. Rivera was a well known gay and trans rights activist in the 60s and 70s, active in the queer community in New York. She was also present at the Stonewall Inn when the police entered, and she recounts her side of the story. She recognized the officers, as they would regularly come to the Washington Square Bar, a nearby drag bar, and harass patrons there as well. As for what was different that night, she said “…I don’t know if it was the customers or it was the police. Everything just clicked.”

She explains the common sentiment that was running through the crowd as they gathered together outside the bar and waited for their friends to be released: “But why do we have to keep on constantly putting up with this?”

“People were very angry for so long. How can you live in the closet? I listen to my brothers and sisters who are older than I am and I listen to their stories. I would have never made it. They would have killed me.” -Sylvia Rivera

Rivera recalls watching people brutalized by the police. One drag queen, she states, was dragged out of the bar by police and beaten “into a bloody pulp.” An act she remembers as “inhumane, senseless bullshit.” When the interviewer, Eric Marcus, makes the comment that they were treated like animals, Rivera agrees and adds that it’s what they were called. That they were seen as nothing more than the “lowest scum of the earth.”

In the end, 13 people were arrested, mostly employees of the Stonewall Inn, several people in the crowd were hospitalized, and four officers were injured. The series of events that took place in Greenwich Village that night set off a series of other demonstrations across the United States in the months and years following. Many of the people present say they didn’t realize what it would turn into at the time, that they were just acting out of emotion and a collective agreement to not let the discrimination by police go unchecked that night. What it ended up being was a turning point in gay rights, the pindrop heard around the world. They couldn’t have imagined that police raiding a dive bar- a common occurrence at the time- would have had such an impact on queer individuals all over the globe. That it would still be remembered and celebrated today. Every June, people clad in rainbows, sparkles, and boas take to the streets to honor the memory of Stonewall and the liberation that was set in motion one summer night in 1969.

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