Stonewall: How a raid became a rights movement
NEW YORK >> Michael Olenick was 19 and living a secret social life, letting loose with friends at a speakeasy-like bar with blackedout windows and one of the few floors in town where men danced with other men. Then the lights came on and the police strode into the Stonewall Inn.
Adrenaline pumping, Olenick worried about getting arrested but also about the action outside — shouting, sirens, sounds of objects being thrown. Gay people got harassed on the streets often enough that he wondered whether they were getting attacked.
What he was hearing early June 28, 1969, would echo for 50 years. It was the start of a rebellion that helped propel and transform the modern LGBTQ rights movement, leaving a legacy in politics, policing and personal lives.
“I’m standing there, not knowing what was going on. That was the horror,” recalls Olenick, who was among many patrons police eventually allowed to leave the bar. “And then what came from it was the joy — the enlightenment for the country, for the world, that, ‘Hey, we’re here. Get over it.’”
Many details of what happened at the Stonewall are enveloped in differing perspectives, disputes and the uncertainty of half-century-old memories.
But the outlines are clear. At a time when homosexuality was defined as mental illness and show
ing same-sex affection could be deemed illegal, a diverse crowd of hundreds of gay men, bisexuals, lesbians and transgender people refused to go quietly after police raided the bar. They confronted the officers, hurling coins, bottles, invective and more.
Some bucked arrest and scuffled with officers, who took cover inside the bar for a time before riot police arrived. Demonstrations, defiance and arrests continued for several more nights.
The U.S. had seen some organized gay protests and spontaneous fights between LGBTQ people and police. But Stonewall proved to be a turning point. It kindled a sustained burst of organizing that changed the tone and volume of LGBTQ activism, and it altered how some people saw themselves in a society that had relegated many to shadows and shame.
“I knew that I deserved the same rights as anybody else, but it took all of that to make me realize that we, as a people, could fight back,” says Mark Segal, who was weeks out of high school when he went to the Stonewall that night and emerged an activist.
“How could anyone have imagined that going out for a night would end up being history?”
The night’s assignment: Search for evidence of unlicensed alcohol sales at the unlicensed Stonewall Inn.
Officer Charles Broughton had been on similar raids before. They were common at New York’s gay bars, often unlicensed and run by the underworld. Patrons rarely made waves.
As Broughton recalls, the focus was on people selling illegal drinks, not buying them. Several Stonewall employees were arrested.
While news and other accounts describe police checking people wearing clothes deemed gender-inappropriate — at the time, sometimes considered an illegal “disguise” — and arresting some, Broughton says he wasn’t involved in that and didn’t judge how bar patrons wanted to live.
He didn’t anticipate being corralled in the Stonewall by an angry crowd, hoping he wouldn’t get hurt as something crashed against the window.
He would ultimately be shoved and kicked by three people, according to an arrest report; Broughton says he doesn’t remember it. Overall, at least six people were arrested in the melee. At least four officers — not Broughton — were treated for injuries, according to police reports obtained by historian Jonathan Ned Katz and others. The reports don’t reflect any protesters’ injuries.
Broughton doesn’t regret the Stonewall raid. “I did my job at the time,” he says.
But the New York Police Department apologized this month.
“The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple,” Commissioner James O’Neill said.
The words of contrition came from a police force that now protects — and participates in — LGBT Pride celebrations that commemorate resistance to its own action.
The Gay Officers Action League has hundreds of members from the NYPD and some nearby agencies. LGBT officers have attained such high-profile positions as precinct commander.
Capt. Kevin Coleman, who oversees a Manhattan precinct, has been open throughout his 16-year career about being “a cop who happens to be gay.”
Other officers appreciate his frankness, he says.
“The NYPD, like all of society, evolves,” he said this week as a rainbow pride flag flew among others outside the stationhouse. “If we look at Stonewall, 50 years ago, through today, that’s an example of how far we’ve come.”
Still, LGBT activists say heavy-handed policing isn’t a thing of the past, particularly for transgender people and minorities. Some activists weren’t assuaged by O’Neill’s apology for the raid, and it elicited mixed feelings in police circles.
“I don’t blame the cops because they worked in a different time period. They answered to different types of policies,” said Sgt. Ed Mullins, a union leader. Like O’Neill, he joined the force in the 1980s.
Broughton, for his part, wasn’t offended by the NYPD’s apology.
“Things have changed a lot since I was a cop . ... If it helps, it’s good,” said Broughton, now a long-retired detective. “Listen, all of us have had family members that are part of that community.
“And none of us are better than anybody else.”