50 Years After the Stonewall Uprising

I knew very little about the 1969 Stonewall uprising before starting research for our upcoming Witness panel discussion on the historic event. Like many people, I had a cloudy understanding of the facts and a general knowledge that it was important to the gay rights movement. In preparation for the program, I learned a much deeper story involving the Mafia, corrupt law enforcement and civil rights.
In 1960s New York City, often the only businesses catering to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) communities were involved in some type of crime. Members of the Genovese crime family, well connected in New York’s Mafia, ran the Stonewall Inn. Because the Inn didn’t have a liquor license, the owners bribed local law enforcement who would also warn the owners about upcoming raids, which were a part of the systemic abuse of the LGBTQ community. Police used these raids on suspected gay bars to enforce anti-sodomy laws. The enforcement of these laws, in every state except Illinois at the time, made living life openly as a homosexual person illegal. It wasn’t until 2003 that the United States Supreme Court ruled in ‘Lawrence v Texas’ that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional.
NYPD Detective Charles Smithy and Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, along with four plainclothes policemen and two patrol officers, arrived at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, at 1:20 am. Deputy Inspector Pine had been charged with shutting down the bar because the Mafia had been blackmailing wealthy gay men and closing the bar would damage the owner’s extortion business.
The bar was full that night, with more than 200 customers. The police planned to follow the standard procedure of lining up customers to check for identification. When the customers at the Stonewall Inn refused to cooperate, the officers began arresting anyone who wouldn’t show identification. Unfortunately, the patrol wagons had not yet arrived to transport the arrested customers. Instead, a crowd began to gather outside, as the customers who had been released stayed to watch the officers.
Violence broke out in the crowd after the wagons arrived and officers began leading arrested Stonewall customers out of the bar. A lesbian fought against being loaded into the wagon and the officers responded forcefully, inciting the crowd. Garbage cans, beer bottles, rocks and bricks were hurled at the police officers, their vehicles cars and the Stonewall Inn. A parking meter was uprooted and used as a battering ram on the bar’s front door as officers decided to shelter in the building.
The NYPD’s Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) responded to the trapped police officers and tried to detain as many of the protesters as possible. TPF officers chased protesters until about 4 am. Witnesses and participants gathered in Christopher Park across from the Stonewall Inn in the aftermath. Thirteen people had been arrested and others were hospitalized or suffered minor injuries. The Stonewall Inn was destroyed in the process. The walls were burned and nearly everything in the bar was broken.
The night of June 28 saw more protests. Thousands of people gathered around the Stonewall Inn, including those who had been at the bar in the early morning, as well as curious bystanders, provocateurs and even tourists. They set fire to garbage cans, destroyed police cars and sang songs of protest. The TPF was again sent to disperse the crowd, with whom they violently fought until 4 am.
The protest at the Stonewall Inn became a rallying cry for gay rights. Organizations that had been fighting for gay rights, such as the Mattachine Society, grew in membership. Other organizations, including the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance, were more militant and borrowed tactics from anti-war demonstrations. On the first anniversary of the protests, known as Christopher Street Liberation Day, groups assembled in Greenwich Village for the first Gay Pride March. This happened simultaneously with marches in Los Angeles and Chicago. The following year, marches were also held in Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, West Berlin, and Stockholm. In 2009, President Barack Obama declared June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month.
The NYPD continued to raid gay bars and clubs after Stonewall, and it wasn’t until 1980 that New York State ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the NYPD Commissioner’s office created an LGBT Advisory Panel to hear from community members about their needs. Other law enforcement agencies have tried to address the mistreatment of members of the LGBTQ community through liaison units. These units investigate hate crimes and public safety issues unique to the LGBTQ community and try to build trust. Yet people of color in the LGBTQ community continue to suffer discrimination at a higher rate than their white counterparts.
Learn more about the impact of the Stonewall Inn uprising and its effect on law enforcement during our upcoming Witness program, ‘Stonewall Riots: Fifty Years of Change for Law Enforcement and the LGBT Community’, on Thursday, June 13, 2019.