What were the Stonewall riots?

What were the Stonewall riots?
The Stonewall Inn in 2017

The 28th June marks the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in 1969. The riots took place over six nights in Greenwich Village, New York City. They ignited following a police raid of local gay bar, the Stonewall Inn.

Like many LGBTI establishments in New York at the time, the Stonewall Inn was a mafia-run bar.

Gangsters knew that LGBTI people were desperate for safe spaces to meet. They could sell them watered-down drinks at inflated prices, and even blackmail some of the wealthier clientele if they discovered where they worked.

‘Fat Tony’ and dancing at the Stonewall

The Stonewall had existed as a venue for decades, mainly as a restaurant. Crime family member Tony Lauria (‘Fat Tony’), took it over in March 1967 and turned it gay.

Visitors today may be surprised to learn that at the time of the raid, some estimated it to be the biggest gay venue in the US.

Despite many recalling it as a run-down dump (with dirty glasses and no running water behind the bar), it immediately established itself as the city’s leading gay establishment because it allowed dancing – something prohibited at other bars.

‘It was a safe place for us,’ one regular, Mark Segal told New York Times. ‘When you walked in the door of Stonewall, you could hold hands, you could kiss and, more importantly, you could dance.’

Because of the dancing, it attracted a diverse, mainly younger crowd. It also attracted ‘drag’, ‘scare drag’ and ‘nelly queens’ – terms bandied about commonly to describe people who cross-dressed or for effeminate gay men.

Nowadays, this might include transgender people. This evolution in terminology and perception of the gender non-conforming has led to controvery over how some of the people at the Stonewall may have identified. Sadly, many are no longer here to inform us.

Because of its location, the Stonewall also attracted the attention of street youth. Many homeless LGBTI youth would hang out in small Christopher Park, across the road from the bar.

Although the Stonewall’s door staff often kept the youth from entering, many regularly managed to gain access.

The writer Edmund White, 29 at the time of the riots, recently told the Guardian, ‘I had at one time been a regular patron of this Greenwich Village bar, but [in the months leading up to the raid] the crowd had changed to kids mainly from Harlem, many in drag.’

Police routinely raid New York City’s queer spaces

In the 1960s, police routinely raided LGBTI venues. These raids were usually carried out by the Morals Division. It was illegal for a bar to serve homosexuals in New York City up until the late 1960s.

However, an LGBTI rights organization, the Mattachine Society, protested against this ban and persuaded the city to change its stance in 1966.

However, although the law changed, police still found reasons to raid gay bars – despite the fact some of the bars paid protection money to corrupt police officers in the force.

Often they were raided under the pretext of being ‘disorderly’ or to have their liquor licence inspected. Police could also arrest people who did not dress in keeping with their birth gender – putting anyone who cross-dressed, and drag queens, at particular risk.

‘Stonewall wasn’t done out of a sense of pride,’ says Miss Major, a trans activist who was present, recently told Out. ‘It was done after a buildup of shit from constant police raids in Greenwich Village.’

Cops routinely attested gay men, either at gay bars or at cruising locations: in 1966, around 100 men a week in New York City alone, often through police entrapment on charges of ‘homosexual solicitation.’

Besides the Mattachine Society, other LGBTI rights groups were also working to raise awareness of LGBTI rights. These included the predominantly lesbian Daughters of Bilitis.

Previous uprisings and protests

The Stonewall rebellion wasn’t the first queer uprising. In 1959, police officers met with resistance when trying to arrest the owner at Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles, and in 1966 a fight broke out between police and drag queens at Gene’s Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco.

In 1967, a smaller raid led to a demonstration at the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles. However, Stonewall was a bigger and more riotous event than any of these, with longer lasting ramifications.

Stonewall also happened at a key moment in the 1960s, when the possibility of counter culture revolution seemed real and other civil rights groups had made headway in pushing for change.

Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine

The raid at the Stonewall took place on a Friday night. It had been a swelteringly hot summer day and the temperature remained high going into the evening.

Police actually conducted a raid on the Inn earlier that week. Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine of the New York City Police’s Vice Squad (Sixth Precinct) oversaw both raids.

One authorative account of the riots, Stonewall – The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, by David Carter, says that when Pine carried out his first raid on the Stonewall on Tuesday 24 June, a patron dismissively sneered at him: ‘If you want to make a bust, that’s your business. We’ll be open again tomorrow.’

Pine made the decision to return later that week. He wanted to close the Mafia-run bar for good.

Simmering tensions leading up to raid

Tensions had been simmering between police and the LGBTI community for some time. Earlier in the summer, an off-duty Transit police officer faced no charges over the deaths of two gay men on the New York City waterfront.

Other gay men reported being arrested and even robbed by police offers who caught them at cruising locations and public toilets.

Earlier in June 1969, police raided and subsequently closed several gay bars.

The infamous Friday night raid found the Stonewall Inn at its busiest, with up to a couple of hundred people inside. This time, Pine went to the trouble of obtaining a warrant from a district attorney and was accompanied by a Federal Agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

He was sure the Stonewall was watering down its drinks – a violation of federal law. He wanted to use that as an excuse to close it down.

Pine, accompanied by four plainclothes police officers from the morals squad, two patrol men, and a detective, went in to the Stonewall at 1.20am on the morning of Saturday 28 June. Pine had already sent in two women officers undercover to pose as lesbians.

The police envisaged it being a regular raid. Because of the nature of the clientele, they anticipated most would want to get out of there as quickly as possible and not risk arrest.

Once inside, they first told everyone that they could not leave. They wanted to see ID and note down names. Those without ID, or cross-dressing, faced arrest.

However, outside, rumors began to spread that people were locked inside and were being beaten by the police. Curiosity began to rise among a gathering crowd and the street kids who hung around outside.

The atmosphere goes from jovial to anger

Police began to lead customers out. Some were put into the back of a paddy wagon, but cops left it largely unwatched.

The police still believed patrons would go without kicking up a fuss. However, left unattended, they began to slip away – to the thrill and amusement of the growing crowd. They were encouraged and whipped up by the open rebelliousness.

Members of the mafia and staff were first to be put in the wagon, followed by several drag queens.

The mood turned darker when a police officer pushed one of the queens. She turned around and hit him with her purse, and he clubbed her. The crowd began to boo the police.

Cops then brought out a person that many eye witnesses later described as a butch lesbian. She also did not go quietly. She had begun fighting with the police inside the bar and continued fighting them as they wrestled her towards a police car.

The struggle between them lasted for around 5-10 minutes, and some recall her shouting out to the crowd, ‘Why don’t you guys do something?

The crowd started throwing coins and beer bottles at the police vehicles.

Police barricade themselves in the Stonewall Inn

As the mood turned rowdy, the police themselves retreated into the Stonewall and closed the door.

Sensing the tide had turned and it was the police who were now scared, the crowd began to throw cobblestones at the Inn.

Some used a parking meter as a battering ram against the unyielding door. Others tried to set the door alight.

‘The police removed people from the Stonewall, denying those inside the little comfort and safety they derived behind the locked bar door,’ said another participant, John O’Brien.

‘Within an hour, those police would instead find themselves in fear, seeking to hide behind the very same door.’

Street kids fight back

It remains a matter of dispute who threw something first. However, it’s generally acknowledged that the street youth fought the hardest because they had the least to lose. Unlike some in Greenwich Village that night, they didn’t have jobs or live closeted lives in the suburbs. They included the likes of Marsha P. Johnson, who says she turned up sometime after 2am.

At one point, lines of youths – including street kids and ‘nelly queens’ – began to do Rockettes-style, high-kick routines in defiance.

They sang a song: ‘We are the Stonewall Girls, we wear our hair in curls…’

Again, this thrilled the crowd. They were not used to seeing the LGBTI community fight back in its own unique fashion.

News of the rioting in Greenwich Village spread quickly. Between 500-1,000 people – most of them LGBTI – came to see what was happening. Some simply observed, while others threw things at the police or led them on a chase around the densely packed Greenwich Village blocks.

‘Coming out of the subway station at Christopher Street we could hear the commotion,’ recalls the Rev. Irene Monroe. ‘The shoving and pushing by both protesters and police yanked three of us away from the core group.

‘As the momentum of the crowd pushed my small group toward Waverly Place, a block away from the Stonewall, we witnessed two white cops pummeling a black drag queen.’

Eventually, colleagues from the Tactical Police Force (TPF) – the riot police – rescued the officers trapped inside the Stonewall Inn. They arrested thirteen demonstrators that first night. One police officer required hospital treatment for a head wound.

Further Stonewall rioting over the next few days

On the following evening (Saturday), a second night of rioting took place, attracting considerably greater numbers.

Some of those present say there was more of a protest fair atmosphere. Attendees from other civil rights groups showed up to show support.

A third night followed on the Sunday, but this was smaller and less impactful than the first two nights. Many people had jobs to get up for on Monday and their appetite for rioting had waned. There was another, final flare-up on the following Wednesday night, which led to five further arrests.

After the Stonewall Uprising

The Stonewall uprising galvanized the New York City LGBTI community.

Within weeks, the fledgling Gay Liberation Front (GLF) had formed. It lobbied gay bars to erect noticeboards and devote space for flyers and gay publications. This notion, radical at the time, helped people to remain connected.

GLF members attended political hustings and asked politicians what they planned to do to help NYC’s thousands of homosexuals. Politicians were not used to being questioned in public in this way.

‘The Gay Liberation Front was born out of the ashes of Stonewall. Gay Liberation Front is literally why we have everything today,’ Stonewall participant Mark Segal recently told the New York Times.

Although the GLF in New York only lasted a few months due to internal disagreements, its influence rippled worldwide. Gays and lesbians began to organize their own dances and other events, instead of relying on Mafia-controlled bars.

At the time of the Stonewall riots, there were an estimated 50-60 LGBTI groups in the US. A year later, there were 150 groups, and a year after that, 250 groups. This included the likes of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), formed by the aforementioned Johnson and her friend Sylvia Rivera (another Stonewall participant).

Mural in Dallas, Texas, that features Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, to raise awareness around trans violence

A detail from the new mural in Dallas, Texas, that features Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson (Photo: Arttitude via Facebook)

Stonewall gives birth to Pride in NYC

Also, a year after Stonewall, the LGBTI community organized a march to commemorate the uprising. Leading gay rights activist Craig Rodwell drove the idea.

It took place the same weekend as the first Pride marches in Chicago and Los Angeles. Many now regard it as New York’s City’s first Pride march. Since that time, the Pride movement has spread worldwide.

Media barely covered the Stonewall uprising when it happened. There is no film footage and precious few photos, and conflicting reports over who exactly did what and when.

Stonewall wasn’t the start of the LGBTI rights movement, but it remains a key moment. Queer people stood up and said ‘enough!’ to the authorities that wanted to keep them hidden and beaten down. That it led to the Pride movement in the US, with many cities celebrating around the anniversary, ensures its legacy will continue for decades to come.

See also

I rioted at Stonewall in 1969 – and there remain battles to be won

Stonewall 50 Voices: I was at Stonewall and have seen it whitewashed

Stonewall just one, important part of our never-ending queer history

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Author: David Hudson