Friday 27 June was the last day of school that year. With school out, my middle-school cronies and I looked forward to a summer reprieve from rioting against Italian, Irish and Jewish public school kids for being bussed into their neighborhoods.
However, the summer months in Brooklyn’s African American enclaves only escalated rioting between New York’s finest – the New York Police Department – and us.
During this tumultuous decade of black rage and white police raids, knee-jerk responses to each other’s slights easily set the stage for a conflagration. It created both instantaneous and momentary alliances in these black communities – across gangs, class, age, ethnicity and sexual orientations –against police brutality.
That night of 27 June started out no differently than any hot and humid summer Friday night in my neighborhood. Past midnight, folks with no AC or working fans in their homes were just hanging out.
Some lounged on the fire escapes while others were on the stoops of their brownstones laughing and shooting the breeze. Some were in heated discussion of black revolutionary politics, while the Holy Rollers were competing with each other over scripture.
The Jenkins boys were drumming softly on their congas to the hot breezy mood of the night air. Directly under the street lamp was an old beat-up folding card table where the Fletchers and the Andersons, lifelong friends and neighbors, were shouting over a game of bid whist.
The sight of Dupree galloping up the block toward us abruptly interrupted the calm of the first hour of Saturday 28 June. Dupree stopped in front of the gaming table and yelled out: ‘The pigs across the bridge are beating up on Black faggots – right now!’
Cissy Anderson, who was just moments from throwing in her hand to go to bed, let out a bloodcurdling scream that shook us and brought a momentary halt to everything. Nate Anderson grabbed his wife to comfort her and said, ‘Cissy, calm down.’
Greenwich Village in the 1800s had housed the largest population for former slaves in the country. But gentrification forced racial relocation and led to Harlem becoming the Mecca of Black America.
Dupree’s message was particularly for the Anderson’s at the game table. Their son Birdie, who sang like a beautiful songbird, was more than likely in the melee across the bridge. Everyone knew Birdie was gay, and we would wonder where he and his ‘brother-girls’, as he dubbed them, had gone the night before when they laughed and spoke in code on Sundays about their exploits while robing-up for choir.
Cissy detested that her eldest, Nate Turner ‘Birdie’ Anderson Junior, went outside the community to a white neighborhood to be himself. Nate Senior also worried about his eldest son. When Birdie told his dad he was gay, his father asked him if he understood that he didn’t know how to keep him safe, especially if his son wandered out of his purview.
Nate Senior told us: ‘My son is somewhere there and I need you all to help me find him and bring him home safely to his mother and me.’
Coming out of the subway station at Christopher Street we could hear the commotion. The shoving and pushing by both protestors and police yanked three of us away from the core group; we were left to fend for ourselves.
As the momentum of the crowd pushed my small group to Waverly Place, a block away from the Stonewall, we witnessed two white cops pummeling a black drag queen.
‘I should shove this stick up your ass,’ said one of the cops as he pulled up her dress with a nightstick in his hand. The taller of the two cops yanked off her wig and laughingly tossed it to the other cop.
In spotting us, the cop who caught the wig threw it at us yelling: ‘You nigger fags get away!’ The wig missed and landed about a foot away from us, but the cop’s words hit, striking fear.
When I look back at the first night of the Stonewall Inn riots, I could have never imagined its future importance. The first night played out no differently from previous riots with Black Americans and white policemen. Like those other nights, in was underreported at the time. But I was there.
On the first night of the Stonewall Inn riots, African Americans and Latinos were the largest percentage of the protestors because we heavily frequented the bar. For Black and Latino homeless youth and young adults, who slept in nearby Christopher Park, the Stonewall Inn was their stable domicile.
The Stonewall Inn being raided was nothing new. In the 1960s gay bars in the Village were routinely raided, but: ‘Race is said to have been another factor. The decision by the police to raid the bar in the manner they did may have been influenced by the fact that most of the “homosexuals” they would encounter were of color, and therefore even more objectionable.’
The Stonewall Riot of 27 to 29 June 1969 in Greenwich Village started on the backs of working class African American and Latino LGBTIs who patronized that bar.
Those brown and black LGBTI people are not only absent from the photos of that night, but have been bleached from its written history – and now, if the trailer is anything to go by, from the new Stonewall film.
Many LGBTI African-Americans and Latinos argue one of the reasons for the gulf between whites and themselves is about how the dominant queer community rewrote and continues to control the narrative of Stonewall.
The names of Irene’s neighbors have been altered to protect their identities. This is an abbreviated and partially re-written version of a piece on memories of Stonewall first published on Huffington Post.