—Police Turn Violent at Vigil
Exciting Night of My Life!'
By Jack Nichols
Last night's Manhattan memorial service was to be a peaceful vigil called to remember Matthew Shepard and to demand society's protection for gay men and lesbians.
There was no hint of peace, however. Instead, GayToday's contributing writer Randolfe Wicker said in a breathless, telephoned eyewitness account, "I saw police brutality up close, beatings, clubbings, arm-twistings, and there were 90 arrests." Wicker exulted: "It was Stonewall Two!" his voice filled with excitement and the spirit of what he'd experienced. "It was the most exciting, invigorating experience of my activist's life," he told GayToday.
Many marchers had also gathered to protest the violent homophobic moods preached by hate- group-fundamentalist "Christians" such as Fred Phelps' God Hates Fags, Gary Bauer's Family Research Council, James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, Southern Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell and their Republican lackey-legislators in the U.S. Congress.
The City of New York—from the start—had refused the vigil holders a parade permit. Police were later to claim they were not expecting more than 200 and that consequently they were overwhelmed as a giant crowd estimated at between 4,000 and 5,000 surged down Fifth Avenue after gathering between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. in front of the Plaza Hotel (59th and 5th Avenue).
Their original plan had been to march down 5th Avenue to 25th Street to conduct the candlelight vigil at Madison Square Park, but that plan went awry. The New York City Anti-Violence Project had announced that although its members intended to exhibit a presence at the vigil-parade, they would not co-sponsor it because of the lack of an official parade permit.
Candles were distributed. Signs saying "Matthew Shepard: Another Death Caused by Homophobia!" were carried. Anti-Violence Project members handed out silver whistles which were later blown loudly by protestors to thwart police when they tried to communicate alarm on walkie-talkies.
As the crowd grew, the police did become alarmed. Silvia Rivera, a Stonewall Era veteran was marching near members of the Socialist Workers Party which was chanting "The Streets Belong to the People!" As vast numbers of lesbians and gays overstepped the sidewalks, a phalanx of law officers set upon them. Ms. Rivera, kicked by police, was among the first of those arrested.
An Anti-Violence Project administrator told the crowds: "If you have no identification and are arrested for being in the streets, you may have to spend more time in the system than you expect." The warning ringing in their ears, the huge crowd poured only over the sidewalks, streaming down 5th Avenue.
The police were overwhelmed by sheer numbers but they took control of 5th Avenue. The crowd arrived somewhere above St. Patrick's Cathedral (in Manhattan's mid-50s) and then marshalls directed it to turn West to The Avenue of the Americas— 6th Avenue--and headed toward Times Square. "It was clear we could have tied up the whole city if we'd reached Times Square," said Wicker.
Wicker continued: "At 6th Avenue, police blockaded the entire street and all sidewalks, but there was a construction site and the crowds went around police barricades. Traffic on the Avenue of the Americas was brought to a complete standstill."
At this point, Wicker witnessed approximately 8 police grabbing one marcher, throwing him atop a scooter and brutally pummeling him. But an angry mob surrounded the "pigs" threateningly advancing on them. "There I was," Wicker said of himself, "Wagging my finger in the face of a cop. I'd never expected such a thing to happen!"
The crowds advanced down 6th Avenue surging between four lanes of "totally stopped traffic". But then marshals linked arms and told the crowds to return to 5th Avenue. "It's dangerous to march against traffic," they advised, "It would only take one crazy driver to step on the accelerator and mow people down."
In the mid-50s again, this time marchers passed St. Patrick's Cathedral. There were no untoward incidents reported in front of this Roman Catholic ediface, but many marchers did shout "Shame! Sham! Shame!" as they passed the giant church.
At 43th and 5th marshals linked arms again and directed the masses to return west. Ahead, at 42nd Street, police had decided to take a stand and could be clearly seen lined up in the distance.
"That's when it got ugly," Wicker said. "All exits were closed. Five thousand people were trapped on 43rd near 6th Avenues…marshals sat down holding hands. That's when police on horseback marched into the crowd clubbing and trampling and arresting people. We were pinned like cattle for about 45 minutes."
"There were people carrying caskets, rainbow flags, drums," said Wicker. "I've never felt such inner surges of wonder… excitement!"
At this point the marchers were divided, but approximately 80% went back to 5th Avenue and continued downtown stopping all mid-town traffic. Just south of the Public Library they took control of the street.
Police commandeered buses, emptying them of passengers so that they could be used as arrest stations.
"It was now about 8:30 p.m." said Wicker, "and we were just getting to 25th Street where the candlelight vigil was to be held in the Park. But there was no speaker system. A woman stood up and tried to address the crowd without a bullhorn. She said that several speakers had been scheduled but that they'd all been arrested. Finally, people out of the audience brought in bullhorns and the crowd—all carrying candles—became utterly silent."
Wicker says speeches were delivered—including a particularly moving one by a black woman-- telling how Matthew Shepard had been killed because he was gay. The thousands already overflowing Madison Square Park were finally joined by hundreds more who'd been diverted earlier and who were carrying drums.
Monitoring New York's TV News coverage, Wicker said that CBS (Channel 2) had been "terrible" in its support of police against gays. NBC (Channel 4) and Fox (Channel 5) however had both done "an excellent job" of exposing police misbehaviors.
"Gay New Yorkers must be advised that video tapes of the violence and the badge numbers of offending police have been noted," said Wicker "and those who witnessed police brutality are being urged to come forward."
"The cops caused the riot by being control freaks," Wicker noted with perfect confidence.