Stonewall: How a raid be­came a rights move­ment

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jen­nifer Peltz As­so­ci­ated Press

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.”

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