In 1969 you could not face a same-sex friend directly while sitting at a bar. You had to look at them through the mirror behind the bar. The police could arrest you for lewd and lascivious behavior. Other raid tactics included the use of an anti-masquerading law from the 1800s to target the transgenders and cross-dressers. According to another law, having a known gay person on the premises created a “dangerous condition” and the business had to be shuttered for the protection of the public. It was still against the law to serve alcohol to a Native American or a known LGBTQ citizen.
Just eight months after the Stonewall Riots, in the early morning of March 8, 1970, police raided the Snake Pit, a gay-run, Mafia-free, after-hours bar in the basement of a Greenwich Village apartment building. According to Damron’s 1970 Address Book, an annual gay travel guide, the Snake Pit was located below the Texas Chili Parlor.
The raid was led by Deputy Police Inspector Seymour Pine (1919 – 2010), who also led the raid on the Stonewall Inn. The NYPD regularly raided gay clubs, and Pine said at the time that three other bars in Greenwich Village had been raided in the two weeks before the Stonewall Inn raid. In the raids at gay bars, transgender people and cross-dressers would routinely be arrested while officers simply harassed the other customers.
The Stonewall Inn was Mafia-owned and there were 200 people inside when the raid began shortly after midnight on that June night 50 years ago. Plainclothes officers presented a search warrant citing the claim that liquor was being sold illegally at the bar. Despite orders for all patrons to line up and provide identification, most customers refused and the transgender patrons refused to undergo “anatomical inspections”.
In David Carter‘s excellent book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked The Gay Revolution (2004), he describes the Stonewall riots as being:
…to the gay movement what the fall of the Bastille is to the unleashing of the French Revolution.
Fearing a similar riot like the one at the Stonewall Inn, when a crowd of patrons at The Snake Pit started forming, the police arrested 167 people. Diego Viñales, an Argentinian immigrant on a student visa, panicked over the possibility of deportation because he was gay and tried to escape by jumping from the second story of the Charles St. NYPD station, and was impaled on the iron fence below. He was cut loose along with part of the fence and was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital where he barely survived, but word spread that he was dead.
The Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front organized a quick response. An angry protest of 500 people marched from Christopher Park to the police station. They then headed towards the hospital, where they conducted a “death vigil”. Late in the evening, the protesters left the hospital and marched peaceably through the West Village.
The intense interest by the local news media about the Snake Pit raid and Viñales’ injuries was the most of any event relating to LGBTQ issues since the raid on the Stonewall Inn. The Daily News, NYC’s top-selling daily newspaper, published a front-page photo the next day of Viñales with the caption “Spiked On Iron Fence”.
These events increased activism of the LGBTQ community in New York following Stonewall. There were political repercussions as well. Democratic Congressman Ed Koch, the future mayor of NYC and a closet case, accused Police Commissioner Howard R. Leary of approving raids and arrests against the gay community. Leary was reassigned to Flatbush.
Pine retired from the NYPD in 1976. At a 2004 program conducted at the New York Historical Society, Pine acknowledged that officers “certainly were prejudiced… but had no idea about what gay people were about.” He also justified the raid on the Stonewall as a routine way of combating organized crime and noted that arresting gay people was an easy way for officers to improve their arrest numbers. Pine:
If what I did helped gay people, then I’m glad.
Interviews with Pine and other eyewitness accounts of the incident at the Stonewall Inn and Snake Pit are included in the 2010 documentary film Stonewall Uprising (2010) produced and directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner.
Tid-bit: One of the first New York City anti-gay police raids occurred at the Ariston Bathhouse. Police detained 60 men and arrested 14. This was in 1903.