The Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) repeatedly requested a meeting with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to discuss gay rights issues, but these requests were ignored. Knowing that Rockefeller’s personal security was tight and that access to him would be unlikely, GAA planned a zap at 120 East 56th Street. (See our curated theme for background on the “zap” tactic.) Originally an apartment hotel named the Fairfax, it had been converted into an office building in 1956 and was the headquarters of the New York Republican State Committee. The plan was for the activists to enter the building, request to see the Republican State Committee Chairman, and insist that the governor end his “crime of silence” about gay rights in the state. GAA’s six political demands were: repeal of state sodomy and solicitation laws; an end to police entrapment statewide; a state fair employment law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; an end to bonding companies’ discrimination against homosexuals; an investigation of the State Liquor Authority; and an end to harassment of gay bars statewide.
The zap occurred on June 24, 1970, during Gay Pride Week and four days before the first Pride March. While a group of GAA members settled into the 12th story reception area of the Republican State Committee for a sit-in that lasted for seven hours, a picket line of about 30 people loudly demonstrated outside. After failing to get the group inside to leave, the Republicans called the police, who arrived around 7:00 p.m. and threatened arrest. Five GAA members, including president Jim Owles, Tom Doerr, Marty Robinson, Arthur Evans, and Phil Raia, stayed and were arrested for criminal trespass. The “Rockefeller Five,” as they became known, are considered the first LGBT protesters arrested for gay rights in New York City.
The “Rockefeller Five” immediately became a rallying cause for the LGBT community. They were booked at the 51st Street Police Precinct and then arraigned at the Criminal Court Building downtown, where some 50 GAA members showed up and silently protested. The arrests received radio, newspaper, and television coverage. On the date when the trial was scheduled, August 5, 1970, GAA led a protest at the Criminal Court, with a rally in Foley Square Park. About 115 people, including members of the Gay Liberation Front and the Daughters of Bilitis, supported GAA’s six demands and protested the arrest of the “Rockefeller Five” and Rockefeller’s continued silence. The trial was postponed to September and then to October, and the charges were ultimately dropped.
Read about other GAA actions, listed in chronological order, in our curated theme.