What Stonewall Got Right, and Occupy Got Wrong
This Sunday, as every fourth Sunday in June, the streets of New York will fill with prideful marchers celebrating Pride Month. There will be similar marches, too, in cities around the country. Sunday marks the forty-third year since the uprising in a Greenwich Village bar called Stonewall that supposedly started the modern gay revolution. The myth is that a few hundred angry people acted out in lower Manhattan, and the world changed. Maybe that’s where Occupy Wall Street got the idea that this is how it’s done.
It’s the wrong lesson. Stonewall was the product of a handful of brilliant community organizers applying basic principles of social organizing. Without them, Stonewall would have been nothing more than one of several gay-bar pushbacks in the late sixties, or another one of the non-gay street demonstrations that characterized New York in that tumultuous time. It was the dedicated strategizing of the men and women of the nascent gay movement that turned something unremarkable into the Bastille. Their achievement is a field guide to how to make a social movement, and also offers insight into why Occupy is failing.
Stonewall did not come from nowhere. The first night, when the bar erupted, a bunch of experienced activists from the unfashionable old nineteen-fifties gay organization, the Mattachine Society, and from the hot new antiwar movement, were in the crowd. Jim Fouratt, a young and charismatic member of Students for a Democratic Society, who had already been trying to radicalize the Mattachine Society, stopped in his tracks when he saw the crowd gathering outside the bar. Another veteran S.D.S.’er, John O’Brien, from the board of the counterculture free school Alternate U., was there. Bob Kohler, from the old Congress of Racial Equality, walked by and stayed. Gay bookstore owner Craig Rodwell shouted “gay power,” and although no one took up the chant, a big crowd gathered and fought the police again the next night. (I describe the scene in a new book, “Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution.”)