The Last Police Raid on Gays of Fire Island

I went to a jewelry store last week with a watch of mine and a watch of my wife's to have new batteries put in. Do you remember when watches needed to be wound? Times change, watches change -- and culture changes. Indeed, a most important change was reflected in the jewelry story: several same-sex couples were earnestly examining wedding rings.

The woman at the counter said many gay and lesbian couples had been coming in to do that ever since the New York State Legislature passed and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Marriage Equality Act. "We have been very busy!" said Jackie Navan, assistant manager at Rose Jewelers in Southampton, New York.

I glimpsed at the nearest couple: two elderly men, white-haired, sedate. They looked like any two men in their late 60s to early 70s. Society, at least in New York, was allowing them and other gay and lesbian couples to legally commit themselves to each other. I thought about what they must have gone through before this big change happened.

Leaving the store, my mind went back to starting as a reporter at the daily Long Island Press in the 1960s covering police and courts when a Suffolk County custom was the annual police raid on the gay communities of Fire Island, a barrier beach on the Atlantic and a diverse summertime haven for New Yorkers.

Boatloads of Suffolk police would make a night-time assault on Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines. Prisoners were dragged off in manacles and charged with morals violations. All would plead guilty, most being from the city and frightened about casting their lot with Long Island locals. And, no question, this was a variant of a witch hunt. Police stressed, in notifying the press about the arrestees, where they worked and what they did. They wanted to get these guys in trouble. Then one judge began sentencing some arrestees to jail, getting himself plenty of notoriety.

The Fire Island gay community had had it. Benedict P. Vuturo, a rough-and-tumble, colorful former president of the Suffolk Criminal Bar Association, was retained to represent the arrestees in the next raid. That happened on August 24, 1968 -- and, because of Benny Vuturo and the good sense of the people of Suffolk County, that was the last raid on Fire Island. Vuturo demanded jury trials for each of the 27 arrested. He believed a jury of adults wouldn't convict. He won every trial. I covered the situation. What scenes! Vuturo toughly cross-examined arresting officers demanding they tell in detail what they saw and what they did. The cops were embarrassed. And Vuturo in his summations spoke dramatically about the murders, rapes and other major crimes occurring in Suffolk and how, he declared, the police department was wasting its resources storming Fire Island to round up gays.

The Mattachine Society of New York had arranged for Vuturo's representation. It prepared the Fire Island gay communities for the legal fights ahead by distributing a pamphlet advising against "shortsighted" pleas of guilty and declaring: "Intolerable police state tactics continue because of our cooperation."

For Vuturo it was a case of "civil liberties are civil liberties." He hoped to lose one case so he could get to the State Court of Appeals or U.S. Supreme Court to try to have the laws under which the arrests were made ruled unconstitutional. But he never lost. He said this proved "people -- given all the facts -- are fair. People aren't stupid. That's what the jury system is all about."

This is also the basis of our system of representative government. The vision is that somehow wise decisions can be arrived at by a grouping of elected officials. And sometimes that does happen. It did with enaction of the Marriage Equality Act.

Riverhead, New York lawyer Adam Grossman, former co-chair of the East End Gay Organization (and my son), says: "It is a real sign of progress in New York State that marriage rights for same-sex couples were enacted and on a bipartisan basis."

Governor Cuomo said after signing the act that "we reached... a new level of social justice... It's really about New Yorkers, our brothers and sisters, looking at us and saying, we want equality. We want equality in society, equality in our relationships, equality in our love, equality in our families. We want full recognition, marriage equality, and we did it today." New York was showing it's "a beacon for social justice." True, after many years of injustice involving gay and lesbian people.