In the summer of 1989, I traveled to New York City for Pride because I wanted to be where it all began some 20 years before. At Sheridan Square, in front of the former Stonewall Inn, a mock reenactment of the raid, which had set off the Stonewall Riots, was taking place. Hundreds were jammed along the front sidewalk yelling at the fake cops who were pretending to be hauling off bar patrons and drag queens.
Handed foam yellow bricks to throw at the cops, the crowd called out, “pigs!” and, “pink, oink!” The taunting felt like I was transported back in time. So I joined in and enthusiastically yelled, “Gay power!” Wasn’t that what this night was truly about, liberation and taking back our power?
As a chorus of “Gay Power” joined me, someone yelled out, “Let’s take back 7th Avenue!” Spontaneously, hundreds converged into the intersection of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue. We lifted the police barricade and held it aloft so that the joyful, constrained crowd could move on down to the next intersection. Immediately the police arrived on the scene, but cautiously watched as the crowd swelled to several hundred chanting, “Arrest us! Just try it! Remember Stonewall was a Riot!” The police had the common sense to keep a respectful distance as we danced in the street, chanting our slogans, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Homophobia’s got to go!”
The playful crowd was now more than 1000 strong and with the increased numbers, the silliness of the earlier revelers turned serious. I stayed with the young, urban radicals who were carrying the confiscated police barricade, stopping traffic and working up the crowd. The event was taking on a life of its own.
At one intersection, someone in his car tried to run us down. We streamed over to the police department where people demanded that the police do something. Angry at the officers who would not address us, some of the young hot-heads began jumping on police cars parked out front and banging on the police station’s front doors, which had been locked in case the crowd really turned ugly.
Several American flags were set on fire in front of the police station and finally the cops came out with a bull horn to address the crowd that had filled the street. Some self-appointed spokesperson stated that gays in the Village were outraged over the recent killings of two gay men, but when the police officer said that the murders were not gay related, a chorus of “bull shit!” interrupted him. The crowd began to shout, “No more lies!” and, getting nowhere with the police, retreated after pelting the police station with condom packages.
Leaving the station, we headed for the West Highway along the Hudson River where the gay men were murdered. Practicing civil disobedience, we sat down in the middle of the highway and blocked the Saturday night traffic along this major thoroughfare. We declared our sit-down space Queer Nation.
The sit-down, blocking a main traffic artery, brought the police out in full force to deal with a potential volatile situation. However, they simply re-routed traffic rather than take on a crowd of thousands of gay radicals.
With no more traffic to hold up, we left the West Highway and went back to the streets where the gay bars were located. We were now at least 10,000 strong and our one voice, shouting, “Gay power!” echoed down the narrow streets of Greenwich Village. As we slowly and aimlessly walked along the streets of the village, cars on cross streets were immobilized by the endless procession. Most people sat in their cars smiling and waving, being very supportive, but some looked very bewildered by it all, even scared and some, really mad.
At side street intersections, several of us acted as a human barricade. However, at one particular intersection, a brand new red automobile had stopped in front of us. It was full of young guys and they started yelling at us, “Faggots get out of the fucking way!” Immediately, the car was surrounded by people pounding on the car to let the occupants know we weren’t taking heterosexual crap tonight. The driver flipped us off and plowed right into the human barricade, knocking down about five before speeding away.
Immediately a chase arose, and through the narrow streets hundreds ran after the car. I ran as fast as I could but kept getting passed up by the younger and stronger ones who were intent that this one would not get away. It was bedlam as the car drove up on the sidewalk, hitting some more gay people until cornered and surrounded. The cops finally arrived to disperse the angry and frustrated crowd. But rather than just getting the hell out of there, incredibly the car backs up and tried to run down more people.
The crowd was intent on revenge now — cops or not. The car was surrounded and under siege by a tumultuous angry crowd of hundreds. Only after a squadron of cops put a stop to the melee were the visibly shaken and scared guys pulled from the car by the police. The car was trashed. The car really took the brunt of pent-up rage. Meandering down the road to get back to Christopher Street, a young lesbian triumphantly exclaimed to me, “I use to be a yuppie but I’m an anarchist now!” and she proudly showed off a section of the red plastic tail light that she had ripped off the car. She held it like some trophy or treasured memento of a heroic battle. I suppose it was.
Exhausted, I sat down in the middle of the intersection of Christopher Street and 7th Ave. along with a gay man I met, named Michelle. He was the first one hit by the car but he said he was OK. We sat in the middle of the street with our arms around each other and drank in the scene of thousands milling around us on the warm June night. We both felt lucky and grateful to have taken part in the Second Stonewall Riot and were able to re-enact the magic of 1969. It was like being given a second chance to be a part of the most significant event in gay history.
There we were, 20 years after the real Stonewall — two strangers, locked in each other’s arms. Michelle informed me that he had just gone off of his AZT AIDS meds because they wren’t doing him any good. As we shared our stories, I reflected on my life and thought, “Here it is, midnight and I’m sitting in my white shorts on a dirty New York City intersection, holding a gay man who is dying of AIDS.” I was extremely grateful for every minute of it.