To the Barricades! To Wall Street! July 4th 1986
Ah, nostalgia, I remember my “Wall Street” protest march on July 4th, 1986. Yes, I was a leader of a protest march, I admit it. Though it didn’t quite start out that way, it just happened. Very spontaneous and grass roots indeed. All because on July 1st 1986 the Supreme Court handed down an odious decision called “Bowers v. Hardwick.”
This was a lawsuit that came from Georgia, and somehow wound up on the Supreme’s docket. Seems some guy named Hardwick was arrested for sissy smooching down there in Georgia, and he took it to court. For it was illegal to smooch a sissy back then – or more properly, for two sissies to smooch each other. Yes, back in the bad old days when folks thought that outlawing gay folks was a good thing. (not like today, when only ½ the people think it would not be so bad to outlaw our smooching again, eh Rick Santorum?)
And so the decision came –> yes, it was perfectly fine for any jurisdiction in this nation to pass any law they saw fit against sissy smooching, and even more than smooching I’m sure. These laws were present in many states back then; and just 15 years earlier, in 1971, in 49 states; only Illinois didn’t see the point. Yes, a whole class of people were felons merely because of who they were. Born gay? Too bad, you were born a felon; right from birth. It was like outlawing autism, but hey, I didn’t write the laws.
So the decision came, and I was mad as hell. Every gay person in the nation was just enraged. I doubt there was a one of us who said “Oh, yah, good.” Did we riot? No, we did not. Were there massive demonstrations? No there were not. Did we invade public parks and take over the place? No we did not. Why? Beats me. I guess we couldn’t decide what to do, except go to the bar and have a cocktail and sigh at the utter ridiculousness of a law that no one ever enforced and that could solve no problem other than to give balm to heteros who were so fearful that we would smooch legally that only outlawing our very existence would still their nerves. For you can’t outlaw our smooching without outlawing our existence.
So I did, I went to the bar. On July 4th, 1986 I went to the Ninth Circle, a most spectacular bar on West 10th Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It was pretty much the only bar I ever went to. Indeed, when I would call a friend, any friend, and asked “See you at the bar?” there was no reason to state the name of the place, we all knew exactly what we were talking about.
And there I met my friend Jerry Rosco, who is still a friend of mine. Why, this very past June 27th we got together at Julius, the “other” bar, down the block from where the long closed Ninth Circle was. This was the very weekend 1,000,000 or more gay folks got together for the umpteenth time in our annual political protest, aka, “gay pride” march. Only this time we were just allowed to not only smooch legally, but actually get a piece of paper from the state saying “Go, be at peace, be married.” Wow! What a difference a few decades make, eh? But in all these pride marches, all around the world now, not just in New York, is there ever violence? Or rock and brick throwing? No there is not; these events are extraordinarily peaceful. Why, the gay protests, now going into their 40th year, are the most peaceful political marches one could imagine; indeed, they are festive.
Are we “proud” we’re gay? Absolutely not! We are proud that we survived the onslaught against us. And for no other reason than that many heterosexuals still can’t wrap their little minds around the fact that not only are there gay people, but that we are rather happy just the way we are. It used to be that we were not allowed to gather together; lest some heterosexuals be unhappy we were happy; so our bars were raided, and our publications not allowed, and our political meetings broken up, for you know, heteros need to make sure we’re not plotting the end of the world or something.
There are still heterosexuals unhappy that we want to be happy, but most have gotten over it. And without a law to that effect even, but through our patient, turn the other cheek, and explain it all over again – we’re gay, you are not, stop worrying about us. But no, there are still people very concerned that we should be happy being gay, and that we just are. Much like perhaps they are concerned that autistic people should be happy, oh well.
And so there I was, with Jerry, at the Ninth Circle, and we heard of a ruckus out on Sheridan Square, at Christopher Street and 7th Avenue – the very site of the Stonewall Riot in 1969. So we went to see what the fuss was. And somehow, Jerry and I became the “leaders” – or at least the “mentors” – of the 100 or so guys who had gathered in a twisted knot of indignation. And this July 4th was the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, under whose protection we wished to be, but were denied by the Supreme Court, which called us a peril to the nation. And we were pissed.
I can’t recall how Jerry and I wound up to be the ringleaders of the merry band, but somehow we were the ones people turned to for advice on what to do. I do have a way of taking over crowds. And I said: “To Battery Park!” For I revered Miss Liberty; why, I had always taken all my Czech relatives down to her. When we brought them over, essentially paying a non-refundable hostage fee to the Communist Government to bring them over, two at a time, lots of them – and I took them to Slecna Svoboda, Miss Liberty. So I knew something of the import of the dear lady in the harbor, and well, there was a festival going on, and so why not all of us go? Me and a few hundred of my, um, closest friends.
There were lots of cops, but all women, actually, when this started, as I recall, who were already there; perhaps they figured there would be a reprise Stonewall Riot and so they wanted to be prepared – but it was not just a cop or two standing around, no there were dozens. And as we 100 grew to 200, then 300, there became the clear idea that a protest of some kind was brewing. And there was no room on the sidewalks anymore, where the cops told us to stay. So we blithely moved out into 7th Avenue. We brought traffic to a halt, for we would not leave the avenue. And there came more of us gay guys, a few came every minute, and soon, soon we had oh, 1,000 guys. Maybe more. Who counted? Not me.
And then, over the course of the next hour or two, there came more and more. And soon, from Christopher Street northward to oh, 12th Street, 3 or 4 blocks, there was a sea of seething mad gay guys. Only, all we did was stand around. Then the cops, who had been thickening in numbers themselves, told us to get off the Avenue. And Jerry and I, somehow we got to talking with the senior cop – he seemed to be in charge anyway, and we told him “No, we will not. We are all felons, you must arrest us all.” And he looked at the sea of gay men, now, 3 hours later, 2,500, 3,000 strong, who knew? And this bright cop figured this was not the time to start arresting several thousand people.
And this conglomeration of people was spontaneous, in a way few protest marches ever are. For there was no plan to do such a thing, nor was there any promotion or fliers. Frankly, I don’t know how so many learned of what we were doing, blocking 7th Avenue – but they came, still they came, and they would not stop coming. From the houses we paid rent and taxes on, from the jobs we held, from the bars we supported, more came. Who alerted them, I don’t know. Why no one seemed to leave, I don’t know. Yet, still more came, with every passing minute.
And Jerry and I concluded, yes “to Battery Park!” And so we alerted our fellows nearest us, and the word spread, and us thousands who had been sitting in the Avenue got up, almost as one, and Jerry and I started walking down 7th Avenue towards the looming World Trade Center, which hadn’t yet been destroyed, of course. And there were a gaggle of other “Leaders” that formed, and they were to the left and right of us, but still, it was Jerry and I who seemed to be the guiding force. And so off we went.
And as we went, the lady cops were all replaced by men cops. And the nice ladies in regular uniforms melted away and the burly manly cops with their night sticks in their hands tried to tell us, “No” and Jerry and I said to the head cop, “We will go, or you will arrest us.” And so we went. And the cops sort of led the way, but on the sides, with the head cop walking with me and Jerry from time to time, before going off to consult and then he came back. So the great mass of people headed down towards Houston Street.
At Houston Street, some 10 blocks from where we started I looked up 7th Avenue, and there was a sea of men, all just pissed, but politely so. All chanting, “To Battery Park! To Battery Park!” And the cops told us we’d have to go down Houston or dissipate. So we paused, and blocked that intersection as well. Then Jerry and I concluded, “Sure, let’s go to Foley Square, and the federal courthouse” – for that was the target of our peaceful wrath – the federal court. So we went down Houston, and the cops, growing still in number, now with riot helmets, and a horse or two, they sort of said “You cannot do this.” And we said to the head cop, for he didn’t seem to wander far from Jerry and I unless he had to give orders to his men – “No, we will go, you will have to arrest us now, or you will let us pass, this is our right.”
And so he agreed to let us continue in peace, and off we went. And the crowd grew. Oh, from the looks of it had to be 5,000 now, maybe 6,000 – for it took all 3 eastbound lanes of Houston, and when we got to the Bowery we looked back, and there was a sea of solid guys, solid in every sense of the word – solid in a mass, and solid as decent citizens not deserving to have our very smooching considered a crime. So we took up the entire area, and turned down the Bowery, which led to Foley Square, and the great mass of guys followed us. There were perhaps, now, several knots of “Leaders” – and Jerry and I spoke with them, but we were the two who said “Oh the hell with this, to Battery Park!”
And when we got to Foley Square, we found a line of metal railings stretching from one side to the other, with a line of cops nearly shoulder to shoulder behind it, in riot gear. And so we filled the square, and all sat down, and Jerry and I and the few other leaders consulted, and we wondered “What to do?” And I said, “Oh the hell with this, we’re going to Battery Park – there’s a public festival there with 2,000,000 Americans, and we are Americans, and we shall join them in celebrating liberty, even if we were denied,” and it was agreed, that’s what we would do. So Jerry and I went to the head cop – I could not tell you his name nor rank – and we said, “You will move out of our way peacefully, or you will move out of the way with a riot, your choice.”
And he went and consulted with whomever. It was all amazingly polite. We did not raise our voices. We were not screaming, but only chanting “To Battery Park! To Battery Park!” And while we consulted with the cop, the crowd had all sat down, and was still growing – maybe now, 7,000, 8,000, who knew? Who could count that high so fast? But there they were, thousands of gay men, and a few lesbians, all sitting peacefully and wondering what their “leaders” would decree next. And the cop came back to us, after his consultation with whomever, and he said, “We will let you pass.” And almost as one, the cops behind the barricades picked them up and carried them off to the sides, and we waited until they were done, and then we walked down what becomes Park Row, to Lower Manhattan.
And the cops had grown in number, and we were thick with joy, and we had an inner peace. I never felt nervous that some cop was going to crack my head, even though they were all in riot gear and had their truncheons in their hands. I never felt that this would result in violence, for we gay folks are a peaceful bunch, sissies even, of course. And no sissy ever started a fight, that’s for sure. So they let us go south, and the way was lined with cops, and many were smiling that benign smile heterosexuals get when they get that “pity the poor queers” look on their faces. When we got to City Hall we paused again. And shook our collected fists and said “Shame on you for allowing these laws to stand.”
I recall that we were now in the upper fringes of the heterosexuals who had flooded in to downtown for the Liberty Festival on this July 4th. And the cops were sort of leading us through the thickening crowds and many of the heterosexuals had a disgusted look on their face, like “what on earth?” But we had no signs, we had no t-shirts, we had no symbols, we just were an obvious bunch of now 10,000 gay guys – and when this many of us get together, it’s rather obvious, I assure you. And of course, all those cops lining the way, that made an impression I’m sure, too.
And somewhere near the entrance to the City Hall park some big tough hetero guy thought he’d attack us, and so he waded into the flank of the march, and actually threw a punch at one of the gay guys! Ah, the poor guy never knew what hit him – no, not the gay guy, he knew what hit him – it was the heterosexual toughie – a few of us pulled him into the midst of ourselves, and we beat the hell out of him, and then tossed him back to his friends and looked at those toughies and dared them for more – and the cops came, and took him away, and the lead cop came to Jerry and I and said – “Sorry, we’ll try to stop that.” “Yes, please do, we just want to go to Battery Park.”
So we headed down Park Row, under the towering Woolworth Building across Broadway, and the cops moved the heterosexuals out of the way, and we walked between the two lines of cops, and it was a very cooperative effort between the cops who did not want a riot and we who did not want a riot. That we had gotten this far, and our numbers so many was startling, but yet, we didn’t seem to think about this, at least I did not. And soon we were on Broadway headed south. The heterosexuals who made way for us stood agog at the mass of gay guys. They clutched themselves in some sort of fear and horror, for none had ever seen so many gay guys at once. And they marveled at the cops in riot gear walking along with our parade.
Wall Street is about 6 blocks south of City Hall Park, maybe 8, and we were going that way – and then, when we got to Wall Street we found the most amazing thing – a wall of water cannon trucks, and a line of cops on horses shoulder to shoulder right across Broadway. It seems they were waiting for us, no? And the heterosexuals had been moved out of the way, apparently, for we sort of had the street to ourselves. And so, well, we sat down. 10,000 of us sat down on the 6 to 8 blocks from Wall Street to the Woolworth Building.
Well, not me and Jerry, we were talking to the head cop, still with us, all those many blocks from the Village, and we looked at that crowd, and I felt good and Jerry and I just smiled. We had done something. There were, like I said, two or three other small “leader” groups, and so, maybe 15 of us were talking to the head cop and his assistants, and he said “You can’t go any further.” And we said “Oh yeah?”
But we did not want violence, we did not want head cracking and bone breaking, no. We did not want anything more than to go to Battery Park. So we huddled, and they huddled, and it was like two opposing football teams; though they were like the Green Bay Packers and we were like some sissy league, so were weren’t exactly evenly matched. And so our side concluded that well, obviously this was were we were going to be stopped – unless, unless, yes, we would split up our march, and simply slip off to the side streets and gather up again in Battery Park. And we let our side know this – and did not tell the cops. And that’s what we did. By the dozens and 100s us gay guys slipped down the side streets, each contingent free to make its way as best they could.
Jerry and I simply walked off, leading a 100 or so of my, um, closest friends, right down Wall Street, to Broad, and then south again, right past the stock market and through the crowd, us almost holding hands so as not to get separated, which did befuddle the heterosexuals I can tell you. I can still recall their funny faces as a 100 guys holding hands paraded through them.
And we got to Battery Park, to see Miss Liberty, and other groups of 100s got there too, until perhaps 2,000 or 3,000 of us all huddled in a mass to take in the scene – and be seen, indeed. For one can’t miss 2,000 guys together with nary a female among them.
And so, that’s my March on Wall Street story. Our march actually made a small article in the NY Post: Queers March on Liberty Festival – I still have a copy of that, somewhere, in my papers. It was most hysterical, to be called “queer” in a major newspaper, but hey, even the New York Times refused to use the word “gay” for us until that very year, 1986 – perhaps they were encouraged to change by our march, I don’t know. But neither the Times nor the Daily News covered our little thing, only the Post. But man, I can still recall that day with great clarity. And the nation survived our onslaught of demands that can be summed up in a few words: can we please smooch in peace now?
And the answer is still, according to some, even many, politicians: “No, you cannot – this nation can’t handle sissy smooching.” Egad, what idiocy.
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