When discussing the history of the Stonewall Riots in 1969 people must remember that the world and New York City was a very different place.
Richard Nixon was President and the Vietnam War was in full swing and its bloody images were televised into people’s living rooms each night. Over 45,000 American soldiers were dead. The counterculture of hippies, yippies, and anti-war protestors mostly young people flocked to major cities like San Francisco and New York City to escape the draft, their parents, and moral constructs.
New York City itself was a melting pot of millions of different kinds of people. But none were looked down upon as much and had to hide as gay men, lesbians, and other so-called “sexual deviants” of that era.
Greenwich Village at that time was a haven for outcasts in 1969 and was home to thousands of artists, actors, bohemians, beatniks, runaways, and mostly blue-collar workers.
The original Stonewall Inn was located at 51 and 53 Christopher Street. (Only 53 Christopher Street is used today and the other side of the original bar sits vacant.) And what many people don’t know is that it was owned by the infamous Genovese mafia crime family.
In 1966, three members of the Genovese family 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 NYPD police officer from the 6th Precinct would collect envelopes of cash as a payoff for “protection” to keep the The Stonewall open. The bar had no liquor license and no running water behind the bar—used glasses were run through tubs of water and immediately reused. There were no fire exits, the bathrooms were filthy and toilets overran consistently. It was the only bar for gay men and lesbians in New York City where dancing was allowed and that was its main draw since at that time same-sex dancing was illegal and those who were caught doing it were subject to arrest.
Visitors to the Stonewall Inn were greeted by a bouncer who inspected them through a peephole in the door. The legal drinking age at that time in New York was 18 years old. To avoid unwittingly letting in undercover police who were called “Lily Law”, “Alice Blue Gown”, or “Betty Badge” at the time, visitors would have to be known by the doorman or be friends with someone who did. The entrance fee on weekends was $3, for which the customer received two tickets. Patrons were required to sign their names in a book to prove that the bar was a private “bottle club”. Needless to say, customers rarely signed their real names.
Police raids on gay bars in the late 1960s were frequent, but bar management usually knew about the raids in advance due to bribes made to certain police officers. The raids usually occurred early enough in the evening that business could commence after the police had finished. 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 and others were allowed to leave. Lesbian patrons were required to wear three pieces of feminine clothing and would be arrested if found not wearing them all.
At 1:20 AM on the night of Saturday, June 28, 1969, four plainclothes policemen in dark suits, two patrol officers in uniform along with 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.
Some have said that one of the reasons that the bar was raided unannounced was that the Mafia owners of the Stonewall and the manager Ed Murphy were blackmailing some of their wealthier customers, particularly those who worked in the Financial District and that they were making more money from extortion than they were from liquor sales in the bar. The police were unable to receive kickbacks from blackmail and the theft of negotiable bonds (facilitated by pressuring gay Wall Street customers), so the NYPD decided to close the Stonewall Inn permanently. But again this is conjecture and not a proven theory as our history has not been very well documented.
Once inside, the NYPD called for backup from the Sixth Precinct using the bar’s pay phone. 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.
Michael Fader who was at the Stonewall that night: “Things happened so fast you kind of got caught not knowing. All of a sudden there were police there and we were told to all get in lines and to have our identification ready to be led out of the bar.”
Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification, and have female police officers take any customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any men dressed as women would be arrested.
But things that night did not go exactly as the NYPD had planned.
The story goes that some of those dressed in pieces of female attire that night refused to go with the female officer and that men in line-up began to refuse to produce their identification. The police decided to take everyone present to the police station. After separating those in drag in a room in the back of the bar. Maria Ritter, who was known as Steve 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! Both patrons and police recalled that a sense of discomfort spread very quickly, spurred by police who began to assault some of the lesbians by “feeling some of them up inappropriately” while frisking them.
The police were to confiscate and transport the bar’s alcohol in patrol wagons. Twenty-eight cases of beer and nineteen bottles of liquor were seized but the patrol wagons had not yet arrived, so patrons were required to wait in line for about 15 minutes. Those who were not arrested were released and let out the front door, but they did not leave the area 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. Although 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 campy fashion. The crowd’s applause encouraged them further: “Wrists were limp, hair was primped, and reactions to the applause were classic.”
When the first patrol wagon arrived the crowd 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. As the police began escorting those from within the bar outside a bystander shouted, “Gay power!”, someone began singing “We Shall Overcome”. It was then said some pennies, and beer bottles, were thrown at the wagon as a rumor spread through the crowd that patrons still inside the bar were being beaten.
This is where the myths about Marsha Johnson aka Malcolm Michaels Jr. and Sylvia Riveria come in. Marsha P. Johnson herself has claimed on an audiotape that she was the one who told Sylvia about the raid AFTER it started and that neither was at the bar when the riot began and joined in much later. Sylvia never mentioned being at the Stonewall Inn until well after 20 years after the riot. In the face of such evidence and the lack of any real proof, it does make Rivera’s claim about being at the Stonewall Inn at the time of the raid and “throwing the first heel”, brick, pennies, etc. more of the stuff of legends than any true historical fact and should be treated as such.
THE ARRESTS: Ma
It’s been reported that while the NYPD began “escorting” those arrested out of the bar a scuffle broke out when a lesbian in handcuffs was escorted from the door of the bar to the waiting police wagon. She escaped repeatedly and fought with four of the police, swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes. 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, whose identity remains unknown sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at bystanders and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” When an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the paddy wagon the crowd went “berserk”:
It was at that moment that the scene became explosive and the fight for our rights and freedom
The crowd outside the Stonewall Inn started to push back at the police who tried to restrain them, the police fought back and knocked a few people down. It’s rumored that Storme DeLaverie, a lesbian crossdresser was observed throwing the first punch after being pushed around by a policeman which incited bystanders even more. Some of those handcuffed in the wagon escaped when police left them unattended As the crowd tried to overturn the police wagon, two police cars and the wagon left immediately, with Inspector Pine urging them to return as soon as possible. The commotion attracted more people who learned what was happening. 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!” Beer cans were thrown and the police lashed out, dispersing some of the crowd, who found a construction site nearby with stacks of bricks. The few police at that point were surrounded by between 500 and 600 people and grabbed grabbed several people, in the crowd including folk singer Dave Van Ronk —who had been attracted to the commotion 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” .”Ten police officers—including two policewomen—barricaded themselves, Van Ronk, Howard Smith (a writer for The Village Voice), and several handcuffed detainees inside the Stonewall Inn “for their safety”.
There are multiple accounts of the riots that night but the one thing that everyone agrees on is what happened from this point was raw, powerful, and spontaneous.
Michael Fader: “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 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.”
Bob Kohler: “And nobody knows who started it and nobody can [know] because you don’t know a riot is going to start, so therefore you’re not looking to see anybody start anything. You hear something. Maybe it’s a bottle break. Maybe it’s a fire in the trashcan and then it’s a riot. So all these bullshit people who are ‘I saw this. I saw that.’ You didn’t see anything. Well, one thing you didn’t see was drag queens in high heels. I can tell you that. They weren’t there. It was the kids who started it and then the whole street erupted. But it was just – the kids had the best time of their lives. That was fun. And that broke up the week and they were glad when it happened on Wednesday night. And glad when it happened again. And by Saturday night, they still, none of those kids knew because they didn’t have that kind of a mind”.
Garbage cans, bottles, and rocks were hurled at the building and breaking the windows. A parking meter was wretched free from the ground and used as a battering ram on the doors of the Stonewall Inn. 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. When demonstrators broke through the windows—which had been covered by plywood—the police inside un-holstered their pistols. The doors flew open and officers pointed their weapons at the angry crowd, threatening to shoot. The Village Voice writer Howard Smith, in the bar with the police, took a wrench from the bar and stuffed it in his pants, unsure if he might have to use it against the mob or the police. He watched someone squirt lighter fluid into the bar; as it was lit and the police took aim, sirens were heard and the Tactical Police Force (TPF) of the NYPD and firetrucks arrived to free the police trapped inside the Stonewall Inn.
One officer’s eye was cut, and a few others were bruised from being struck by flying debris. 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 humiliated. This never 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.”
When extra NTPD officers arrived 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, as gay men and a few drag queens started impromptu kick lines, and sang to the tune of The Howdy Doody Show theme song: “We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We don’t wear underwear/ We show our pubic hairs”. Just as the line got into a full kick routine, the TPF advanced again and cleared the crowd, and sent them screaming 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?”
Craig Rodwell, the once owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, reported watching police chase the crowds through the crooked streets, only to see them appear around the next corner behind the police. Members of the mob stopped cars, overturning one of them to block Christopher Street. Jack Nichols and Lige Clarke, in their column printed in Screw, declared that “massive crowds of angry protesters chased for blocks screaming, ‘Catch them!’
By 4:00 in the morning 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 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. Everything in the Stonewall Inn was broken. Pay phones, toilets, mirrors, jukeboxes, and cigarette machines were all smashed, possibly in the riot and possibly by the police. But despite everything, the Stonewall Inn would open for business again the very next night.
All three New York City newspapers covered the riots; The New York Daily News placed coverage on the front page. News of the riot spread quickly throughout Greenwich Village, All day Saturday, June 28, people came to stare at the burned and blackened Stonewall Inn. Graffiti appeared on the walls of the bar “They invaded our rights”, “Support gay power”, and “Legalize gay bars”
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. 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 to get in. We were just out. We were in the streets.”
Thousands of people had gathered in front of the Stonewall, which had opened again, choking Christopher Street until the crowd spilled into adjoining blocks. The crowd surrounded buses and cars, harassing the occupants unless they either admitted they were gay or indicated their support for the demonstrators. 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; when police captured demonstrators, whom the dallies described as “sissies” or “swishes”, the crowd surged to recapture them. Street battling ensued again until 4:00 am.
Allen Ginsberg who lived on Christopher Street, but missed the first night of the riot stated, “Gay power! Isn’t that great!… It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves”, and that night visited the re-opened but in shambles Stonewall Inn for the first time. “You know, the guys there were so beautiful,” said Ginsberg —“they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago”.
Nothing much happened the next two days, 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 gays to own their 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”.
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” just to name a few which rekindled the anger all over again. A mob descended upon Christopher Street once again and threatened to burn down the offices of The Village Voice. Also in the mob of between 500 and 1,000 were other groups that have had unsuccessful confrontations with the police in the past and were curious how they were defeated in this situation. 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.”
*This photo of Stonewall rioters is one of the few known pictures from the first night of the rebellion, is credited to Joseph Ambrosini in the New York Daily News on Sunday, June 29, 1969