Queer bars have existed for centuries, and have been raided by the police for just as long. The Stonewall Inn was no different.
After the Second World War and well into the Cold War, American law enforcement, led by the FBI, deliberately targeted homosexuals for prosecution. In a three-year period from 1947-50, 17000 federal job applications were denied, 4380 people were discharged from the military, and 420 dismissed from government jobs because of suspicions about their sexuality. It was the period known as the Lavender Scare, and plenty of other institutions soon took part. The US Postal Service recorded addresses where “homosexual material” was delivered; local state ordinances were passed to close down gay bars and outlaw cross-dressing, and city police forces did regular “sweeps” to rid the streets of anyone perceived to be homosexual; colleges expelled professors whose teaching was too liberal; and anybody caught in a compromising situation was publicly humiliated in the press and usually jailed or sent to a mental institution.
The system was so biased against homosexuality it was easily abused. Even the hint of scandal was enough for somebody to lose their job and social position, and plenty of people were reported out of spite, whether or not they were guilty of what they were accused. Once accused, it was almost impossible to get a fair hearing. Lawyers often refused cases concerning homosexuality, and juries were quicker to convict than acquit. Entrapment was frequently employed by the police, and even buying an undercover officer a drink could get you arrested for solicitation. One man was arrested in a gym locker room for asking an undercover officer if he was okay after he grabbed his own crotch and moaned loudly. Some lawyers who did defend people accused of homosexual crimes split their fees with the arresting officer, proving without doubt that corruption ran rife. The problem was, nobody could speak out about it without casting suspicion upon themselves.
Against the backdrop of this climate, several homosexual activist groups were born. The Mattachine Society was founded in LA in 1950 with the aim of unifying homosexuals and providing legal assistance. Their early radicalisation polarised opinion about them, and by 1953 they’d changed their image to promote assimilation and “respectability” — moving forward, their activism was based on the argument that queerfolk were just like everybody else.
The same year the Mattachine changed its aims, they got their first major legal challenge. A magazine published by ONE, Inc. led its August issue with an article about homosexuals in heterosexual marriages. The US Postal Service refused to deliver it on grounds of it being an obscene publication. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1958 that ONE, Inc. could mail its materials through the Postal Service.
In the meantime, other homophile organisations (as they were known) began to spring up across the US, moving from the west coast to east. The Washington Mattachine picketed the White House and other government buildings to protest against the repressive legal climate. At the same time, more generalised public unrest was growing as the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam protests gained support and took to the streets to voice their discontent.
In San Francisco in 1966, Compton’s Cafeteria — a popular spot with queerfolk — was raided by police who intended to arrest every man in female attire. A riot ensued.
Despite the escalating antagonism which threatened from both sides, the police continued to raid gay bars with depressing regularity. In New York, each bar was raided about once per month, with any clients without identification or dressed in drag being arrested, and all the alcohol being seized. Women had to wear three pieces of feminine clothing by law. Employees and managers on duty during a raid were also usually arrested. Money was often passed under the table from the bars to the police to limit the raids, or receive tip-offs before they happened. Most bars kept stashes of alcohol hidden away so they could resume business as soon as possible following a raid.
The Stonewall Inn was just such another bar. Mafia-owned, it benefited from generous payoffs to the police which, while not exempting it from being raided, made it safer than most places. Guests had to be known to the bouncer, who inspected them through a peephole in the door before allowing entry. The walls were painted black and the room was lit with black lights, with regular lighting only being turned on as a warning if the bar was about to be raided. Dancing was allowed — the Stonewall was one of the few gay bars which allowed it — but the moment the main lights came on, everyone had to cease all physical contact or risk arrest.
At 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969 the police raided the Stonewall Inn for the second time in a week. This raid was different from the others in a number of ways. Usually the police tipped the bar off that a raid was coming, and conducted the raid early enough in the evening that there would be fewer patrons inside and the bar could resume the day’s business afterwards. At 1.20 a.m. on this Saturday night, there were 205 people inside the Stonewall Inn.
Historian David Carter produced evidence which suggested the mafia owners of the Stonewall actually made most of their money through blackmailing wealthy patrons to the bar, particularly those employed on Wall Street. Carter theorised the bar was targeted by the police after they’d been refused kickbacks from the blackmail and theft of negotiable bonds from the extortion of wealthy customers, and they decided to force the Stonewall to close for good.
The police barricaded the doors and the lights inside were turned up. Usually during a raid the patrons were lined up, those dressed as women were taken to the bathrooms to verify their sex and any found to be male were arrested; the rest would have their identification checked and providing it was in order, be released from the bar. That night, the patrons rebelled.
It began with the trans patrons, who refused to go with the officers to be subjected to a humiliating physical examination of their genitals. Seeing this, the men lined up around the room began to refuse to produce their identification. The police decided to arrest everybody.
Outside, the few who’d been released first didn’t disperse as was usual, but remained outside the bar. The police, awaiting transport for their prisoners and the alcohol they’d seized, were trapped at the bar longer than they’d intended. Passersby outside began to stop and watch the events unfold, and soon the bar was surrounded by a crowd of upwards of 150 people. By the time the first patrol car arrived on the scene, the police estimated there were several hundred people in the street.
The police began to remove their prisoners under the watchful gaze of the crowd. The mafia members were brought out first, to cheers, followed by the regular employees. A cry of “Gay power!” went up, and people began singing “We Shall Overcome.” One officer shoved a trans prisoner, who responded by hitting him over the head with her bag. A rumour spread through the crowd that those inside were being beaten by the police, and the mood turned hostile. First pennies, then bottles, then other missiles were hurled at the police wagons.
A woman — “a typical New York butch” in the words of one witness — was brought out in handcuffs. When she complained they were too tight, a police officer hit her with a baton. She fought with the officers holding her, breaking free four times before being caught again and bundled, still fighting, towards the van. Looking at the bystanders, she shouted “Why don’t you guys do something?” Her words turned the agitated crowd into an angry mob.
As the crowd surged towards the police wagons, the officers tried to hold them back. When they knocked people to the ground, the mob’s anger intensified. Two police cars and the wagon immediately left the scene, the wagon driving on slashed tyres. More people were attracted by the commotion, and the crowd grew. Someone in the crowd declared that the bar had been raided because “they didn’t pay off the cops”, to which someone else yelled “Let’s pay them off!” and threw coins at the police. Others left and returned with bricks from a nearby construction site.
Outnumbered by between 500-600 people, the remaiing ten police officers grabbed half a dozen people and barricaded themselves inside the bar with them.
We all had a collective feeling like we’d had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn’t anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place…
— Michael Fader
You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn!… It was one of the greatest moments in my life.
— Sylvia Rivera
…they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town…
— Mattachine Society Newsletter
The mob set garbage alight and pushed it through the broken windows of the Stonewall. The fire hose at the bar had no water pressure and when the police tried to turn it against the crowd, it only incensed them. When the protesters broke through the plywood boarding that had covered the windows, the police inside threatened to shoot.
The cops were totally humiliated. This never, ever happened. They were angrier than I guess they had ever been, because everybody else had rioted… but the fairies were not supposed to riot… no group had ever forced cops to retreat before, so the anger was just enormous. I mean, they wanted to kill.
— Bob Kohler
The NYPD Tactical Police Force arrived in numbers strong enough to overwhelm the crowd. They arrested anybody they could keep hold of — the trans protesters were noted by all the witnesses for how vigorously they fought — then the TPF formed a phalanx, planning to clear the street by marching slowly down it and pushing the crowd back. In response, the crowd started kick-lines, mocking the police.
I just can’t ever get that one sight out of my mind. The cops with the [nightsticks] and the kick line on the other side. It was the most amazing thing… And all the sudden that kick line, which I guess was a spoof on the machismo… I think that’s when I felt rage. Because people were getting smashed with bats. And for what? A kick line.
By 4 a.m. the street had been cleared. Thirteen people had been arrested, four police officers were injured, and several people from the crowd were hospitalised. Almost everything inside the Stonewall Inn had been destroyed.
All the major news outlets in New York covered the story, and over the course of the following day, more and more people gathered in Greenwich Village to look at the burned and smashed-up building. Slogans were painted on its walls — “Drag power”, “They invaded our rights”, “Support gay power”, and “Legalize gay bars” — although the most triumphant one of all came from the Inn’s owners: “We are open.”
That night, there were more riots. The crowds attacked passing vehicles unless the occupants were gay or professed support for the demonstrations, fires were started, and police cars smashed up and overturned. The TPF returned and battle waged in the streets until the early morning. Every time the police captured a protester, the crowd swarmed to get them back.
Gay power! Isn’t that great!… It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves.
— Allen Ginsberg
Rain brought the riots to and end over Monday and Tuesday night, although a critical article in the Village Voice brought more unrest on Wednesday. That skirmish only lasted about an hour, but now there was always the threat of more. As one witness said, “The word is out. Christopher Street shall be liberated. The fags have had it with oppression.”