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.