The Stonewall Riots of 1969

by Eric Lane Barnes, Director of Music

The Stonewall Inn, located at 51 and 53 Christopher Street, along with several other establishments in the city, was owned by the Genovese crime family. In 1966, three members of the Mafia invested $3,500 to turn the Stonewall Inn into a gay bar, after it had been a restaurant and a nightclub for heterosexuals. Once a week a police officer would collect envelopes of cash as a payoff known as a gayola (a take-off on the term ‘payola’) as the Stonewall Inn had no liquor license. It was the only bar for gay men in New York City where dancing was allowed; dancing was its main draw since its re-opening as a gay club.

Visitors to the Stonewall Inn in 1969 were greeted by a bouncer who inspected them through a peephole in the door. The legal drinking age was 18, and to avoid unwittingly letting in undercover police (who were called “Lily Law,” “Alice Blue Gown”, or “Betty Badge”) visitors would have to be known by the doorman, or look gay. The entrance fee on weekends was $3 (about $21 today) for which the customer received two tickets that could be exchanged for two drinks. Patrons were required to sign their names in a book to prove that the bar was a private “bottle club”, but rarely signed their real names. The interior of the Stonewall Inn was painted black, making it very dark inside, with pulsing gel lights or black lights. If police were spotted, regular white lights were turned on, signaling that everyone should stop dancing or touching. In the rear of the bar was a smaller room frequented by “queens”; it was one of two New York bars where effeminate men who wore makeup and teased their hair (though dressed in men’s clothing) were welcome. Only a few men in full drag were allowed in by the bouncers. The customers were “98 percent male” but a few lesbians frequented the bar. The age of the clientele ranged between the upper teens and early thirties, and the racial mix was evenly distributed among white, black, and Hispanic patrons. Because of its diverse mix of people, its location, and the attraction of dancing, the Stonewall Inn was known by many as “the gay bar in the city”.

Police raids on gay bars were frequent—occurring on average once a month for each bar. During a typical raid, the lights were turned on, and customers were lined up and their identification cards checked. Those without identification or dressed in full drag were arrested; others were frequently harassed or extorted before being allowed to leave. Women were required to wear three pieces of feminine clothing, and would be arrested if found not wearing them. Employees and management of the bars were also typically arrested. The identities of patrons, managers and bartenders were used against those arrested; many lives were ruined simply due to rumors of frequenting gay establishments.

The period immediately before June 28, 1969, was marked by frequent raids of local bars—including a raid at the Stonewall Inn on the Tuesday before the riots, and the closing of the Checkerboard, the Tele-Star, and two other clubs in Greenwich Village.

At 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969, four plainclothes policemen in dark suits, two patrol officers in uniform, and Detective Charles Smythe and Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine arrived at the Stonewall Inn’s double doors and announced “Police! We’re taking the place!” Stonewall employees do not recall being tipped off that a raid was to occur that night, as was the custom. Historian David Carter presents information indicating that the Mafia owners of the Stonewall and the manager were blackmailing wealthier customers, particularly those who worked in the Financial District. They appeared to be making more money from extortion than they were from liquor sales in the bar. Carter deduces that when the police were unable to receive kickbacks from blackmail and the theft of negotiable bonds (facilitated by pressuring gay Wall Street customers) they decided to close the Stonewall Inn permanently. Two undercover policewomen and two undercover policemen had entered the bar earlier that evening to gather visual evidence, as the Public Morals Squad waited outside for the signal. Once inside, they called for backup from the Sixth Precinct using the bar’s pay telephone. The music was turned off and the main lights were turned on. Approximately 205 people were in the bar that night. Patrons who had never experienced a police raid were confused. A few who realized what was happening began to run for doors and windows in the bathrooms, but police barred the doors.

The raid did not go as planned. Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification, and have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any people appearing to be physically male and dressed as women would be arrested. Those dressed as women that night refused to go with the officers. Men in line began to refuse to produce their identification. The police decided to take everyone present to the police station, after separating those cross-dressing in a room in the back of the bar. Maria Ritter, then known as male to her family, recalled, “My biggest fear was that I would get arrested. My second biggest fear was that my picture would be in a newspaper or on a television report in my mother’s dress.” Patrons related that a sense of discomfort spread very quickly, spurred by police who began to assault some of the lesbians by “feeling them up inappropriately” while frisking them.

“When did you ever see a fag fight back?… Now, times were a-changin’. Tuesday night was the last night for bullshit. Predominantly, the theme was, “this shit has got to stop!” – anonymous Stonewall riots participant

The police were to transport the bar’s alcohol in patrol wagons. Twenty-eight cases of beer and nineteen bottles of hard liquor were seized, but the patrol wagons had not yet arrived, so patrons were required to stand and wait in line. Those who were not arrested were released from the front door, but they did not leave quickly as usual. Instead, they stopped outside and a crowd began to grow and watch. Within minutes, between 100 and 150 people had congregated outside, some after they were released from inside the Stonewall, and some after noticing the police cars and the crowd. The police forcefully pushed or kicked some patrons out of the bar; some customers released by the police performed for the crowd by posing and saluting the police in an exaggerated fashion. The crowd’s applause encouraged them further.

When the first patrol wagon arrived, Inspector Pine recalled that the crowd – most of whom were gay – had grown to at least ten times the number of people who were arrested, and they all became very quiet. Confusion over radio communication delayed the arrival of a second wagon. The police began escorting Mafia members into the first wagon, to the cheers of the bystanders. Next, regular employees were loaded into the wagon. A bystander shouted, “Gay power!,” someone began singing “We Shall Overcome,” and the crowd reacted with growing resentment. An officer shoved a trans woman, who responded by hitting him on the head with her purse as the crowd began to boo. Pennies, then beer bottles, were thrown at the wagon as word spread through the crowd that patrons still inside the bar were being beaten.

A scuffle broke out when a woman in handcuffs was escorted from the door of the bar to the waiting police wagon several times. She escaped repeatedly and fought with four of the police, swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes. Described as “a typical New York butch,” she had been hit on the head by an officer with a baton for, as one witness claimed, complaining that her handcuffs were too tight. Bystanders recalled that the woman looked at bystanders and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the scene became explosive.
Violence broke out.

The police tried to restrain some of the crowd, knocking several people down, which incited bystanders even more. Some of those handcuffed in the wagon escaped when police left them unattended. The commotion attracted more people who learned what was happening. The police lashed out, beating back those in front. The police grabbed several people, including folk singer and mentor of Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, who had been attracted to the revolt from a bar two doors away from the Stonewall. Though Van Ronk was not gay, he had experienced police violence when he participated in antiwar demonstrations: “As far as I was concerned, anybody who’d stand against the cops was all right with me, and that’s why I stayed in. Every time you turned around the cops were pulling some outrage or another.” Ten police officers – including two policewomen -barricaded themselves, Van Ronk, Howard Smith (a column writer for The Village Voice) and several handcuffed detainees inside the Stonewall Inn for their own safety.

Multiple accounts of the riot assert that there was no pre-existing organization or apparent cause for the demonstration; what ensued was spontaneous. Michael Fader explained,

“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, and it was not an organized demonstration. Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us. All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around – it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.”

Garbage cans, garbage, bottles, rocks, and bricks were hurled at the building, breaking the windows. Witnesses attest that “flame queens,” hustlers, and gay “street kids”- the most outcast people in the gay community – were responsible for the first volley of projectiles, as well as the uprooting of a parking meter used as a battering ram on the doors of the Stonewall Inn. Sylvia Rivera, a self-identified “street queen” recounted:

“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.”

The mob lit garbage on fire and stuffed it through the broken windows as the police grabbed a fire hose. Because it had no water pressure, the hose was ineffective in dispersing the crowd, and seemed only to encourage them.

The Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) of the New York City Police Department arrived on the scene. Bob Kohler, who was walking his dog by the Stonewall that night, saw the TPF arrive: “I had been in enough riots to know the fun was over. 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.”

The TPF formed a phalanx and attempted to clear the streets by marching slowly and pushing the crowd back. The mob openly mocked the police. The crowd cheered, started impromptu kick lines, and sang. Lucian Truscott reported in The Village Voice: “A stagnant situation there brought on some gay tomfoolery in the form of a chorus line facing the line of helmeted and club-carrying cops. Just as the line got into a full kick routine, the TPF advanced again and cleared the crowd of screaming gay powerites down Christopher to Seventh Avenue.” One participant who had been in the Stonewall during the raid recalled, “The police rushed us, and that’s when I realized this is not a good thing to do, because they got me in the back with a nightstick.” Another account stated, “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 of a 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 4:00 a.m., the streets had nearly been cleared. Many people sat on stoops or gathered nearby in Christopher Park throughout the morning, dazed in disbelief at what had transpired. Many witnesses remembered the surreal and eerie quiet that descended upon Christopher Street, though there continued to be “electricity in the air.” One commented: “There was a certain beauty in the aftermath of the riot. It was obvious, at least to me, that a lot of people really were gay and, you know, this was our street.” Thirteen people had been arrested. Some in the crowd were hospitalized, and four police officers were injured. Almost everything in the Stonewall Inn had been broken. Inspector Pine had intended to close and dismantle the Stonewall Inn that night. Pay phones, toilets, mirrors, jukeboxes, and cigarette machines were all smashed, possibly by the police.

During the siege of the Stonewall, Craig Rodwell called The New York Times, the New York Post, and the Daily News to inform them what was happening. All three papers covered the riots; the Daily News placed coverage on the front page. News of the riot spread quickly throughout Greenwich Village, fueled by rumors that it had been organized by the Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, or triggered by “a homosexual police officer whose roommate went dancing at the Stonewall against the officer’s wishes.” All day Saturday, June 28, people came to stare at the burned and blackened Stonewall Inn. Graffiti appeared on the walls of the bar, declaring “Drag power,” “They invaded our rights,” “Support gay power,” and “Legalize gay bars,” along with accusations of police looting, and – regarding the status of the bar – “We are open.”

The next night, rioting again surrounded Christopher Street; participants remember differently which night was more frantic or violent. Many of the same people returned from the previous evening—hustlers, street youths, and “queens”- but they were joined by “police provocateurs,” curious bystanders, and even tourists. Remarkable to many was the sudden exhibition of homosexual affection in public, as described by one witness: “From going to places where you had to knock on a door and speak to someone through a peephole in order to get in. We were just out. We were in the streets.”

Thousands of people gathered in front of the Stonewall, which had opened again, choking Christopher Street until the crowd spilled into adjoining blocks. Marsha P. Johnson, an African-American street queen, climbed a lamppost and dropped a heavy bag onto the hood of a police car, shattering the windshield. As on the previous evening, fires were started in garbage cans throughout the neighborhood. More than a hundred police were present from the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Precincts, but after 2:00 a.m. the TPF arrived again. Kick lines and police chases waxed and waned; street battling ensued again until 4:00 a.m.

Beat poet and longtime Greenwich Village resident Allen Ginsberg lived on Christopher Street, and happened upon the jubilant chaos. After he learned of the riot that had occurred the previous evening, he stated, “Gay power! Isn’t that great! It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves,” and visited the open Stonewall Inn for the first time. While walking home, he declared to Lucian Truscott, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful – they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”

Activity in Greenwich Village was sporadic on Monday and Tuesday, partly due to rain. Police and Village residents had a few altercations, as both groups antagonized each other. Craig Rodwell and his partner Fred Sargeant took the opportunity the morning after the first riot to print and distribute 5,000 leaflets, one of them reading: “Get the Mafia and the Cops out of Gay Bars.” The leaflets called for gay people to own their own establishments, for a boycott of the Stonewall and other Mafia-owned bars, and for public pressure on the mayor’s office to investigate the “intolerable situation.”

Not everyone in the gay community considered the revolt a positive development. To many older people and members of the Mattachine Society who had worked throughout the 1960s to promote homosexuals as no different from heterosexuals, the display of violence and effeminate behavior was embarrassing. Randy Wicker, who had marched in the first gay picket lines before the White House in 1965, said the “screaming queens forming chorus lines and kicking went against everything that I wanted people to think about homosexuals – that we were a bunch of drag queens in the Village acting disorderly and tacky and cheap.”

On Wednesday, however, The Village Voice ran reports of the riots, written by Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott, that included unflattering descriptions of the events and its participants: “forces of faggotry,” “limp wrists,” and “Sunday fag follies.” Another explosive street battle took place, with injuries to demonstrators and police alike, looting in local shops, and arrests of five people. The incidents on Wednesday night lasted about an hour, and were summarized by one witness: “The word is out. Christopher Street shall be liberated. The fags have had it with oppression.”

The feeling of urgency spread throughout Greenwich Village, even to people who had not witnessed the riots. Many who were moved by the rebellion attended organizational meetings, sensing an opportunity to take action. On July 4, 1969, the Mattachine Society performed its annual picketing in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, called the Annual Reminder.

Organizers Craig Rodwell, Frank Kameny, Randy Wicker, Barbara Gittings, and Kay Lahusen, who had all participated for several years, took a bus along with other picketers from New York City to Philadelphia. Since 1965, the pickets had been very controlled: women wore skirts and men wore suits and ties, and all marched quietly in organized lines. This year Rodwell remembered feeling restricted by the rules Kameny had set. When two women spontaneously held hands, Kameny broke them apart, saying, “None of that! None of that!” Rodwell, however, convinced about ten couples to hold hands. The hand-holding couples made Kameny furious, but they garnered more press attention than all of the previous marches. Participant Lilli Vincenz remembered, “It was clear that things were changing. People who had felt oppressed now felt empowered.” Rodwell returned to New York City determined to change the established quiet, meek ways of trying to get attention. One of his first priorities was planning Christopher Street Liberation Day.

Although the Mattachine Society had existed since the 1950s, many of their methods now seemed too mild for people who had witnessed or been inspired by the riots. Mattachine recognized the shift in attitudes in a story from their newsletter entitled, “The Hairpin Drop Heard Around the World.” When a Mattachine officer suggested an “amicable and sweet” candlelight vigil demonstration, a person in the audience shouted, “Sweet! Bullshit! That’s the role society has been forcing these queens to play.” With a flyer announcing: “Do You Think Homosexuals Are Revolting? You Bet Your Sweet Ass We Are!” the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was soon formed, the first gay organization to use “gay” in its name. Previous organizations such as the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and various homophile groups had masked their purpose by deliberately choosing obscure names.

The rise of militancy became apparent to Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings -who had worked in homophile organizations for years and were both very public about their roles – when they attended a GLF meeting to see the new group. A young GLF member demanded to know who they were and what their credentials were. Gittings, nonplussed, stammered, “I’m gay. That’s why I’m here.” The GLF borrowed tactics from and aligned themselves with black and antiwar demonstrators with the ideal that they “could work to restructure American society.” They took on causes of the Black Panthers, marching to the Women’s House of Detention in support of Afeni Shakur, and other radical New Left causes. Four months after the group formed, however, it disbanded when members were unable to agree on operating procedure.

Within six months of the Stonewall riots, activists started a citywide newspaper called Gay; they considered it necessary because the most liberal publication in the city – The Village Voice – refused to print the word “gay” in GLF advertisements seeking new members and volunteers. Two other newspapers were initiated within a six-week period: Come Out! and Gay Power; the readership of these three periodicals quickly climbed to between 20,000 and 25,000.

GLF members organized several same-sex dances, but GLF meetings were chaotic. When Bob Kohler asked for clothes and money to help the homeless youth who had participated in the riots, many of whom slept in Christopher Park or Sheridan Square, the response was a discussion on the downfall of capitalism. In late December 1969, several people who had visited GLF meetings and left out of frustration formed the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). The GAA was to be entirely focused on gay issues, and more orderly. Their constitution started, “We as liberated homosexual activists demand the freedom for expression of our dignity and value as human beings.” The GAA developed and perfected a confrontational tactic called a ‘zap,’ where they would catch a politician off guard during a public relations opportunity, and force him or her to acknowledge gay and lesbian rights. City councilmen were zapped, and Mayor John Lindsay was zapped several times – once on television when GAA members made up the majority of the audience.

Raids on gay bars did not stop after the Stonewall riots. In March 1970, Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine raided the Zodiac and 17 Barrow Street. An after-hours gay club with no liquor or occupancy licenses called The Snake Pit was soon raided, and 167 people were arrested. One of them was Diego Viñales, an Argentinian national so frightened that he might be deported as a homosexual that he tried to escape the police precinct by jumping out of a two-story window, impaling himself on a 14-inch spike fence. The New York Daily News printed a graphic photo of the young man’s impalement on the front page. GAA members organized a march from Christopher Park to the Sixth Precinct in which hundreds of gay men, lesbians, and liberal sympathizers peacefully confronted the TPF. They also sponsored a letter-writing campaign to Mayor Lindsay in which the Greenwich Village Democratic Party and Congressman Ed Koch sent pleas to end raids on gay bars in the city.

The Stonewall Inn lasted only a few weeks after the riot. By October 1969 it was up for rent. Village residents surmised it was too notorious a location, and Rodwell’s boycott discouraged business.

Christopher Street Liberation Day on June 28, 1970 marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots with an assembly on Christopher Street; with simultaneous Gay Pride marches in Los Angeles and Chicago, these were the first Gay Pride marches in U.S. history. The next year, Gay Pride marches took place in Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, West Berlin, and Stockholm. The march in New York covered 51 blocks, from Christopher Street to Central Park. The march took less than half the scheduled time due to excitement, but also due to wariness about walking through the city with gay banners and signs. Although the parade permit was delivered only two hours before the start of the march, the marchers encountered little resistance from onlookers. The New York Times reported (on the front page) that the marchers took up the entire street for about 15 city blocks. Reporting by The Village Voice was positive, describing “the out-front resistance that grew out of the police raid on the Stonewall Inn one year ago.”

By 1972, the participating cities included Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Miami, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, as well as San Francisco.

Frank Kameny soon recognized the pivotal change brought by the Stonewall riots. An organizer of gay activism in the 1950s, he was used to persuasion, trying to convince heterosexuals that gay people were no different than they were. When he and other people marched in front of the White House, the State Department, and Independence Hall only five years earlier, their objective was to look as if they could work for the U.S. government. Ten people marched with Kameny then, and they alerted no press to their intentions. Although he was stunned by the upheaval by participants in the Annual Reminder in 1969, he later observed, “By the time of Stonewall, we had fifty to sixty gay groups in the country. A year later there was at least fifteen hundred. By two years later, to the extent that a count could be made, it was twenty-five hundred.”

Similar to Kameny’s regret at his own reaction to the shift in attitudes after the riots, Randy Wicker came to describe his embarrassment as “one of the greatest mistakes of his life.” The image of gay people retaliating against police, after so many years of allowing such treatment to go unchallenged, “stirred an unexpected spirit among many homosexuals.” Kay Lahusen, who photographed the marches in 1965, stated, “Up to 1969, this movement was generally called the homosexual or homophile movement. Many new activists consider the Stonewall uprising the birth of the gay liberation movement. Certainly it was the birth of gay pride on a massive scale.” David Carter, in his article “What made Stonewall Different,” explained that even though there were several uprisings before Stonewall, the reason Stonewall was so historical was that thousands of people were involved, the riot lasted a long time (six days), it was the first to get major media coverage, and it sparked the formation of many gay rights groups.