Today In History, 1970: The “Rockefeller Five” Arrested in GAA Zap

Jim Burroway

June 24th, 2016

Rockefeller 5Almost immediately after the Stonewall Inn uprising in lower Manhattan (Jun 28), the Gay Liberation Front arose up more or less spontaneously as the product of a younger generation of LGBT people who were impatient with legacy organizations like the Mattachine Society of New York and the Daughters of Bilitis. While the GLF undertook several highly visible marches and protests during its first several months of existence (Jul 27, Sep 12, Nov 12, Mar 8), its effectiveness quickly evaporated over the group’s refusal to have recognized leaders. Having a formal leadership structure was denounced as “patriarchal” and “oppressive”, and all decisions were reached by group consensus, which came only after exhaustive and often interminably picayune political discussions — if at all. Also, the GLF tended to get sidetracked by other issues that the young people in GLF were passionate about: he Vietnam War, Third World issues, and support for the Black Panther Party.

A few months after the GLF formed, a group of activists broke away to form the Gay Activists Alliance as a more professionally-run organization, with set goals, strategic planning, leadership, and a specific focus on gay rights. Early on, they made a name for themselves by conducting extraordinarily noisy and boisterous (and yet, also strategic and disciplined) “zaps,” a political direct action designed to embarrass public figures and call media attention to examples of anti-gay discrimination and harassment. GAA member Marty Robinson is often credited with developing the zap after a march on a New York City police precinct after a raid on the Snake Pit (Mar 8). As the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall approached, the GAA decided to celebrate with another zap at Republican State Committee Headquarters.

Nearly a dozen GAA members — including Arthur Evans, Marty Robinson, Tom Doerr, Jim Owles, Phil Raia, Cary Yurman and Arthur Bell — arrived at the headquarter’s reception room a little after noon. They were greeted by a flunkey who said, “If you have legitimate grievances, I will see to it that they are forwarded to the right party.”

Arthur Evans replied, “We want (Gov. Nelson) Rockefeller to come out and fight for homosexual rights. Rockefeller is guilty of a crime of silence, and we are not leaving until we get a satisfactory answer to our demands.”

The flunkey complained: they didn’t have an appointment; they didn’t have a legitimate request; this isn’t you you do things. Arthur Bell described the GAA’s response: “We just unwound and made ourselves comfortable on the floor of the reception room until they got the picture.” Meanwhile, a larger crowd of GAA activists threw up a picket line outside, shouting, “Two-four-six-eight! Gay is just as good as straight! Three-five-seven-nine! Lesbians are mighty fine!” and “Say it loud: Gay is proud!” Television cameras showed up, filming the protest outside and interviewing zappers inside. Closing time came at five o’clock, but the zappers refused to leave. At 6:30, the party chair agreed to meet with a GAA representative. Jim Owens agreed, provided a member of the press was present. The chairman refused and called police. When police arrived, the five GAA members sitting on the floor of that reception room — Doerr, Evans, Owles, Raia, and Robinson — became the first people ever arrested for a gay sit-in in New York.

“The Rockefeller Five,” as they were soon called, were taken to Criminal Court. The GAA worked the phones, and when the five entered the courtroom that night, they were welcomed by about 40 GAA members in the courtroom, who all stood up and held hands. After the judge got control of the courtroom again, he heard the charge of criminal trespass against the five, set a trial date for August 5, and released the five on their own recognizance. When the Five left the courthouse, news reporters were waiting. Marty Robinson seized the opportunity, telling reporters: “We are trying to use political power to achieve changes that will benefit homosexuals in the state. We want homosexuals to know who has been responsible for inaction regarding their civil rights.” He also turned to another longstanding grievance in the gay community: the state’s discriminatory bar licensing policies which prevented legitimate gay bar owners from getting licenses and effectively left gay bar ownership to the mafia. “And we also wish to charge the state with corruption, such as the State Liquor Authority’s non-issuance of licenses to gay bar.” By the time the August 5 trial date came around, the charges were dropped.

[Source: David Carter. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004): 249-251.]

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