Thursday, August 06, 2009

Stonewall Ensemble: The Pressure Cooker Explodes

June 1969: The psychological, political, and social landscape in the United States is littered with grievances and resentments. Oppressed groups—women, African-Americans, Latinos, urban America, students, the counterculture, and the burgeoning movement against the Vietnam conflict feel empowered and broadcast their agendas for all to hear. Still dispirited by the failure of the reform and anti-war Presidential candidacies of Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy and the assassinations of Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and spooked by the violence at the Chicago Democratic Convention, post-King assassination rioting, Vietnam’s Tet debacle, and bloodshed on campuses such as that inflicted on demonstrators by New York City’s notorious Tactical Police Force (NYPD) at Columbia University, the heavy hand of 1968 loomed.

Events around the country in the months leading up to the Stonewall Rebellion indicated the political and social turmoil wracking the country. In February 1969 student occupations, strikes, and boycotts closed such universities as Penn State, Howard, Rice, Wisconsin, Berkeley, and Massachusetts. In April –the month the Smothers’ Brothers Show was cancelled as controversial—those student actions spread to Harvard, City College, and San Francisco State. The latter remained closed for 134 days.

Things heated up considerably in May. In disturbances related to Berkeley’s People’s Park, then governor of California Ronald Reagan said, “If it’s a blood bath, then let it be now.” He ordered gassing of the University of California campus. Over two weeks of street fighting with police and the National Guard, left approximately 150 demonstrators shot and wounded. Roughly a month before Stonewall, 30,000 Berkeley citizens (out of a population of 100,000), with a local municipal permit, marched without incident past barricaded People's Park to protest Governor Reagan's occupation of their city, the death of student James Rector, the blinding of carpenter Alan Blanchard, and the many aforementioned injured. Rector and Carpenter –both bystanders, not demonstrators—were wounded by “The Blue Meanies” (Alameda County Sheriff's deputies) who used shotguns to fire buckshot at people sitting on the roof of the Telegraph Repertory Cinema.

Overseeing the carnage in Berkeley was Reagan’s Chief of State Edwin Meese who would go on to infamy with his censorship campaign in the 1980s. Beset by tear gassing that violated elementary schools and a local hospital and with barbed wire dividing the city, to no avail the Berkeley City Council voted 8-1 against Reagan’s occupation of their city.

Nixon sent a “draft reform” plan to Congress on the 13th, which called for the “notorious” lottery system. On the 21st he nominated Warren Burger as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, just the beginning of a four decades long rightward drift for that institution. That month also found Nixon ordering wiretaps to track leaks regarding the secret bombing of Cambodia. Refused entrance to the U.S. because of a conviction for hashish possession, John Lennon flew to Montreal with Yoko to hold a “bed-in” for peace at that city’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. The song “Give Peace a Chance” was written and recorded during this period.

The issue of “Life” magazine on the stands during the Stonewall Rebellion contained the cover story "One Week's Dead," which contained an 11-page spread with photographs of more than 200 servicemen killed in the Vietnam War in a seven-day period the preceding month. This issue electrified the country and helped to solidify majority opposition to the war post Tet Offensive and in advance of the next fall’s Moratoria. Vietnam (whether in regard to personnel returned in body bags or efforts not to be caught in the draft’s net) left no community or family untouched—including those at the Stonewall Inn that June evening. The faces of U.S. dead in an immoral and useless war—whether directly or indirectly—cast a shadow on the nation’s public that last week in June 1969.

Then there were the “older” elements of the queer community above and beyond the homophile ranks of the Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis, and East Coast Homophile Organizations (Echo) and other organizations rendered obsolete or irrelevant in the wake of Stonewall. As described in the writings of independent scholar Allan Bérubé (1946-2007) and actress Pat Bond (1925-1990), New York City was just one of several sanctuaries in which thousands of "witch-hunted" lesbian and gay recipients of “blue discharge” papers settled after the war. While neither honorable nor dishonorable, veterans holding a blue discharge were denied G.I. Bill and Veterans Administration benefits. They also had difficulty getting work since the discharge papers of returning veterans were scrutinized by employers who were savvy to the document. Those who came from small towns were not likely to return to those places after the war and remained in various large cities on either coast. Many in that group had witnessed police raids and McCarthy Era repression in the intervening years—many joining the homophile organizations. At the time of Stonewall, those veterans were largely in their forties and were integral in the infrastructure of urban LGBT communities if not actually participating in the rebellion.

When one remembers that young men from the “working class” and “communities of color” were disproportionately among those war dead, it is no surprise that the so-called “flame queens, hustlers, and street kids“ were especially primed to fight on June 28 at the Stonewall Inn in response to the police raid. Furthermore, the utilization of the Tactical Police Force further angered the crowd and frayed nerves: The bloodbath they committed by cracking the heads of students on the steps of Columbia University’s Low Library had been broadcast the world over. They were disliked intensely “on the street.”

The TPF arrived at the Stonewall to free police trapped inside the bar by the increasingly angry crowd. The efforts of this “elite” branch of the NYPD only provoked ridicule. These helmeted and club wielding bullies managed to play cat and mouse with the outraged community. Early on in the police raid, the ubiquitous and hated “draft card” (that was often burned at demonstrations) was used by men in the Stonewall as ID—including those in drag.

As beer cans and bricks hit the police in the melee, they rounded up several people. One, a folk singer named Dave van Ronk was not gay, but had been a few doors away from the Stonewall and joined in the crowd. In a neighborhood with high participation in the anti-war and several other movements, non-gay individuals such as van Ronk had experienced police violence at antiwar demonstrations and were incensed at the actions of police. It must be remembered that even elementary school children in this neighborhood engaged in political actions: Students at P.S. 41 refused to participate in nuclear shelter drills, which led to those exercises being abolished.

As “One” (Three Dog Night), “Grazing in the Grass” (Friends of Distinction), “Color Him Father” (The Winstons), “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (Marvin Gaye), “Crystal Blue Persuasion” (Tommy James & the Shondells), “Bad Moon Rising” (Credence Clearwater Revival), “Israelites” (Desmond Dekker & the Aces), and “My Cherie Amour” (Stevie Wonder) played on the local AM stations WABC and WMCA, the forces of NYPD were to receive a heaping amount of LGBT outrage over several evenings.

With The Beatles “Get Back” single and Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” album contributing to the period’s soundtrack and tear gas lingering in other U.S. locales, layer by layer, such influences and events (along with many more) accumulated in the momentous Stonewall Rebellion. With the counterculture and militant antiwar sentiment taking root in the suburbs, the urban LGBT denizens who fought back at Stonewall were certainly influenced by what was going on around them. In the months that followed millions of U.S. citizens “fought” back in that autumn’s Moratoria. That December, African American activist and Black Panther Party member Fred Hampton was murdered by a “tactical unit” of the Chicago police. As befitting the period’s cauldron of social change, the Gay Liberation Front and other more activist groups (i.e., Gay Activist Alliance, Radicalesbians) picked up the mantle of LGBT organizing after Stonewall. Like their fellow Americans participating at sit-ins, marches, and other actions, so too did those who were LGBT at Stonewall and in the aftermath of the event.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Fabulous piece, Jon. Too often Stonewall is viewed without putting it in context with anything other than "youth" culture, but 1969 was a time of turmoil for virtually every American, right or left, young or old. Thank you for this!