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.”)
If not for Rodwell, and the Mattachine’s President, Dick Leitsch, two nights of rioting might have been the end. In the previous five years, two similar uprisings in California had come to naught. But the day after Stonewall, a Sunday, teams of activists spread out around the neighborhood, distributing manifestos (“The Hairpin Drop Heard Round the World”). Unlike Occupy Wall Street, the gay activists had a clear list of demands. “Get the Mafia out of the bars,” the leaflets proclaimed. “No more police raids.”
The activists also had a regular place to meet in a structured way—and meetings, not flash mobs, are the heart of an effective movement. Within days, the stodgy old Mattachine Society had called an assembly at their regular meeting place to talk about what to do next. It was essentially the last Mattachine meeting, as the gathering erupted into chaotic demands for radical action, but without the established framework of meeting, it might have ended there. The Mattachine dissenters descended on a lefty Alternate U. classroom—and kept meeting, this time as the Gay Liberation Front. To raise money, they started having Friday night dances. In a matter of weeks, the gay community went from having to hide out in a Mafia bar to dancing at fundraisers.
Over the next few months, as the G.L.F. met and debated whether anyone is free until everyone is free and other movement-destroying rabbit holes familiar to the followers of Occupy Wall Street, Rodwell, the bookstore owner, decided to plan a march to commemorate the event on the fourth Sunday in June a year later. Call it the Pride Parade. There have been many gay parades since 1970, but at that time it was a revolutionary notion—that gay people would come out of the closet and into a parade all at once. Rodwell did what any smart organizer would do: he brought in a handful of his trusted friends to plan the event. Rodwell’s committee met every week in the bookstore. He had a discrete, manageable goal: to get people to show up on a particular Sunday in June, 1970. Reaching out to all the factions that were rapidly proliferating after Stonewall, he did not have to get everyone to agree on some lofty mission or to mass in front of a dozen banks to protest everything everybody did wrong, as Occupy did to so little effect on May Day this year. Just come out, as the old gay slogan said. And so they did.
As Rodwell left the Stonewall Inn that Sunday morning, a year after the riots and forty-two years ago this month, there were perhaps a dozen marchers. But as they proceeded from Stonewall up Fifth Avenue to Central Park, the numbers grew until there were an unheard of crowd of thousands of gay men and lesbian women out and out of doors for the first time in history. And so the myth of Stonewall began. Strategic, discrete, well-planned, original (in its time), the Stonewall march is the pure manifestation of how social movements succeed. It was the birthday party for Stonewall, not the birth the year before, that gave rise to the triumphant gay revolution.