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©1999 - 2005
Edward D. Reuss
All rights reserved. Including the right of reproduction in whole or part in any form

 

A COP IN THE STONEWALL INN

When I wrote this story, I came across the following piece of history. I think the words of a 6th Precinct Desk Officer who served in the era of the Stonewall Inn incident will best illustrate the character and motives of the police officers who served in that Command during some trying times.

The following Blotter entry was written in connection with the closing of the 6th Precinct Station House, 135 Charles Street, by Lieutenant Joseph A. Panzera, said writing being the final blotter entry of the old Charles Street Station House:

1200 hrs, January 13, l971  

The 6th Precinct Station House at 135 Charles Street is officially closed.

“With endings we recall beginnings, closing, openings. Who were these men who came before us?  Who first tread upon these steps in 1896? The Policemen of yesterday. They did not possess the electronic sophistication or mechanical power of the modern day Policeman. What common bond therefore does exist? What thread was woven for 75 years that links us all as members of the 6th Precinct? Void of present day reports, statistics, scientific advancements, we all perform the identical function; and it is not a meaningless phrase from a rule book - preventing
crime, preserving the peace, enforcing all laws, etc. It is service, a never-ending progression of self-sacrificing service; to one another, the Village community, the City and Mankind. This is the hallmark of a Police Operation. This is why a police career encompasses a working knowledge of almost every profession and occupation known to man. This is what was passed to us from our predecessors of the 6th.
We live and work in troubled times for a Policeman.  Never let this be an excuse to retreat from our obligation. We must and will perform to the best of our ability; then, and only then, will we justify those many men of the 6th, who have gone before us, and be an example and encouragement to those who will surely follow”.

                                                           Lt. J.A. Panzera

 The Stonewall Inn riots in the summer of 1969 have given rise to many a tale. Some accounts have been written from the gay viewpoint. That is understandable because the incidents on Christopher Street that summer are celebrated today as the birth of the Gay Liberation Movement.  The Stonewall has been added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.  This year is the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Riots.  Since the events that took place back in 1969 are considered to have great historical importance, the people who were on the scene should have their own personal memories preserved for the record. 

This is an eyewitness version of the events as told by a police officer who was inside the Stonewall Inn during the incident that precipitated the disorders that many call the Stonewall Inn Riots. I am sure that there will be many conflicting opinions of the same circumstances.  Yet, in the court of public opinion, the facts that are recounted here will stand the test of any challenge to their authenticity. There have been few versions of the same events retold by members of the New York City Police Department.  An accurate and historical perspective of the Stonewall riots should contain both sides of the conflict. Perhaps this account from a police officer on the scene can start a dialogue that will preserve the truth for succeeding generations. 

Here then is the story as seen through the eyes of one of the police officers inside the Stonewall Inn on that fateful night thirty years ago.

Patrolman Gregory Dolan, First Division Plainclothes Unit, New York City Police Department was working a 5 PM to 1 AM tour of duty on the evening of June 27, l969.  His partner was Patrolman Bill Butler.  Dolan had been working undercover with the plainclothes unit for some time. He had been in many operations that had resulted in the taking out of what was then termed "fag bars". In those days, the Penal Law of the State of New York still contained the crime of Consensual Sodomy and Loitering, for Deviate Sex. Sexual contact of a certain nature between members of the same sex was unlawful.  That statute also prohibited the same type of sexual contact in any social situation including marriage. The plainclothes units of the NYPD were charged with enforcing such laws.

Dolan and Butler were young cops, Dolan had less than six years on the job, but four of those years were in plainclothes, Butler had about twelve years on the job with the same amount of time in plainclothes duty.  It was after 11 PM when they called the Division Office and were set to tell the clerical man that they were taking time off.  The clerical cop told them to report to the Office forthwith to meet with two Inspectors of Police from the Plainclothes Division.  The Office was in the new 13th Precinct on East 21st Street. The 13th Precinct was in the same building as the new Police Academy. The Unit had previously been housed in the old 7th Precinct on Clinton Street. They reported to the office and were informed that they were to assist in the execution of a search warrant. The location was not to be announced until they were ready to go to the scene.

The search warrant had been obtained by a policewoman name Dolan, (no relation). When she arrived at the Division Office, the team proceeded to Christopher Street near Seventh Avenue South. The target location was an unlicensed premise called the "Stonewall Inn".  

The Stonewall Inn was a popular and well- known gay hangout that was rumored to be backed by organized crime.  It was also humored that the police were accepting bribes from the owners.  The bar was not licensed by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.  If the bar had obtained an ABC license, it would be subject to routine inspections by the police. By remaining unlicensed, the police could not legally enter to inspect the interior without a search warrant. On Friday night, June 27, l969, the joint was jumping. There is a small triangular shaped park opposite the Stonewall.  A statue of General Philip Sheridan of Civil War fame stands obscured by overgrown trees at one end of the park.  Dolan remembered that there were so many people on Christopher Street and in the park that it looked like a block party was in progress.

Dolan recalled that at this point the police made a critical error in tactics. Instead of sending in a member of the team to reconnoiter the interior of the Stonewall, it was determined that the entire unit would charge into the interior of the bar without knowing who the players were.  Perhaps the police supervisors wanted to avoid tipping off the operation. However, it would have been a good police tactic to send in one of the cops to identify who the owners, bartenders, and employees were.  Also, the location of rooms, rear exits, and the general layout of the interior would be critical to a successful operation.  It must be remembered that in the spirit of the times, gays were usually not known to resist police operations.  They feared exposure and avoided publicity.  They generally were non-violent in confrontations with the police. For this reason, the police supervisors may have felt that there was little threat of violence against the police.  Also, these were the days prior to the Knapp Commission.  The possibility of corruption may have motivated those same police bosses not to send a cop into the bar. 

The front window of the bar was covered with plywood, so the interior was shielded from public view.  The front door was manned by a giant of a man who screened patrons as they attempted to enter the premises.   However, the plainclothes team succeeded in entering the Stonewall and things quickly got out of hand.

The interior of the bar was crowded with patrons and confusion resulted when the police supervisors shouted for the team to eject the patrons outside onto the sidewalk.  The search warrant had authorized the police to seize evidence. Arrests could be made of those in violation of law.  The owners and employees were the obvious targets of the warrant.  In the confusion of the "raid", some of the managers and bouncers had been ejected along with the patrons.  The crowd outside grew larger by the minute as those who were already on the street and park were attracted to the disturbance.  As the police proceeded to effect arrests, the crowd outside became increasingly unruly. 

At that moment, in the view of the gay community, history was made.  Someone in the crowd threw a bottle at the police.  The crowd then became an angry shouting mob. The cops retreated into the interior of the Stonewall and closed the heavy door. Here, the situation deteriorated rapidly.  The plywood was torn from the front window and a flaming metal sanitation basket was thrown through the glass window. The cops inside now found themselves trapped.  One of the Inspectors was hit in the head with a beer bottle as the front of the building was bombarded with projectiles.

The cops had placed their prisoners inside the toilet and grabbed a standpipe hose to put out the fire.  Only a trickle came out of the hose.  The cops then threw the ice and water from behind bar onto the flames. Luckily the fire went out. Dolan and Butler found that the rear door was welded shut. There was no way out.  The team did not carry portable radios in those days. They grabbed the phone to call for assistance, and found that the phone was out of order. The cops were in trouble. The crowd outside was now a mob and was growing increasingly violent.  Objects continued to be thrown through the front window of the bar and the front door was shaking as a parking meter was used as a battering ram. 

The siege of the Stonewall Inn began shortly after midnight and someone made a call to the police. An assist patrolman or signal 10-13 was broadcast, but no uniformed cops ever responded to the Stonewall Inn itself. The 6th Precinct had no information of a police operation in progress. No precinct officers were assigned to the location.  It must be assumed that the sector cars that responded to the scene must have been physically unable to penetrate the shouting and unruly groups surrounding the park and the Stonewall. It must also be assumed that the cops who responded believed that the call was unfounded and that no police officer was being assaulted.  For whatever reason, the precinct cops didn't rescue Dolan and the plainclothes unit.

Dolan recalled that for what seemed an eternity, no assistance came to the Stonewall Inn. He felt that the plainclothes team and their prisoners were trapped inside the bar for over two hours. As the mob continued to chant and bombard the location, the cops were ordered to check their weapons and ammo. The fear of fire and injury might have necessitated a forcible exit through the front door. The cops inside hoped for the sounds of police sirens.  They had a long wait.

To the relief of the cops in the Stonewall Inn, the NYPD Tactical Patrol Force arrived in large numbers and drove the mob from the front of the Stonewall.  The police battled to disperse the groups of chanting gays. Dolan and the other cops were rescued and they transported their prisoners into the 6th Precinct on Charles Street.  Other than the Inspector who was hit in the head with the beer bottle, none of the plainclothes cops were injured.

For the next few nights, the Stonewall Inn became the focal point of gay protests. Each night, crowds of gays gathered in protest of what they viewed as police harassment. 
The gay community began to organize and form committees to bring about change. Many feel that the Gay Liberation Movement had its beginnings with the Stonewall Inn Riots.

In succeeding years, the courts declared Consensual Sodomy and Loitering statutes that targeted gays to be unconstitutional. The police were relieved from the onerous duty of supervising the moral conduct of a large group of citizens of the City of New York.  It those citizens still believe that the police of that era enjoyed the duty that was thrust upon them, they are sorely mistaken.  Proof of that assertion is exhibited by the relationship between the gay community and the members of the 6th Precinct today. The good community relations that has been forged between the NYPD and the large gay community of Manhattan's Greenwich Village is an example for other cities to use as a model for their own community policing.

Gregory Dolan retired fifteen years ago and now lives in Florida.  I thank him for reliving those hours inside the Stonewall Inn. He played a role in what has become a historical event.  The old sergeants used to tell us young rookies that we had a front row seat to the greatest show on earth.  They were so right.

©Copyright  l999 Edward D. Reuss

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