This Day in Greenwich Village: The Stonewall Riot

Today marks the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, a series of riotous protests at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village that many scholars consider the launching pad for the modern Gay Rights Movement. In 1999, GVSHP and the Organization of Lesbian and Gay Designers, gained federal recognition for the site when it became the first place associated with LGBT culture to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Left: Stonewall in 1969 (photo courtesy of Larry Morris for the NY Times); Right: Stonewall today

Located at 51-53 Christopher Street, the Stonewall Inn, like many other gay bars in New York City, was run by members of the Mafia, who were able to skirt around the red tape often thrown in the way for gay establishments seeking liquor licenses. Organized crime figures would either obtain illegal liquor licenses or pay police to turn a blind eye to the sale of alcohol.  Stonewall did not have a liquor license, but was operating as a private club, since “clubs” were not required to have a liquor license. However, the sale of liquor was prohibited and Stonewall never had a cash register, keeping money in cigar boxes.  Admission was strict due to a fear of plainclothes police officers.

In the 1960s, a pattern of random police raids and harassment was occurring in many gay establishments in the Village, specifically around Christopher Street, a thoroughfare well known for its gay culture and nightlife. Often times, bar owners would be alerted of an upcoming raid and pay off police not to proceed.

A protest sign written outside Stonewall in 1969

At 1:30 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, June 28, 1969, an unannounced raid took place at the Stonewall Inn.  Six plainclothes police officers raided the bar.  Everyone with valid identification was allowed to leave, except staff.  Customers dressed in drag were also held in the bar, as drag attire was illegal at the time. Those who were allowed to leave, however, didn’t disperse. They gathered along Christopher Street and were joined by people hanging out across the street in Christopher Park, residents of the neighborhood, and passersby.  It is reported that this crowd amounted to well over 400 people. Some estimated that it reached 1,000.

Rioters outside of the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969

When patrons of the bar were finally allowed to exit, they stepped out into this crowd and a celebration ensued.  But when the police began exiting with those in custody, the crowd booed and surrounded the officers. The crowd rioted when more arrests were made.  The officers, to escape the intensity of the crowd, withdrew back inside the bar and barricaded themselves in.  The crowd persisted, smashing windows with bricks and bottles.  A parking meter was used to break down the door.  Fearful that the crowd would come in, officers drew their guns.  Around 3:00 a.m. fire trucks and the NYPD Tactical Patrol Force (a unit established to deal with anti-Vietnam protests) arrived on the scene equipped with billy clubs and other weapons. Thirteen arrests were made before the crowd dispersed.

These statues by George Segal are titled Gay Liberation in honor of gay rights and the Stonewall Uprising. Unveiled in 1992, these statues reside at Christopher Park, across the street from the Stonewall Inn. The park is included in the National Register listing.

News of the night’s events spread quickly. Craig Rodwell, a prominent gay activist and then-owner of the Oscar Wilde Bookshop (the world’s first gay and lesbian book store), distributed several hundred flyers about the event throughout the Village.  There was little action for the next few days, it is thought, in part, due to inclement weather.  However, on the night of Wednesday, July 2 the protest began anew.  Between 500 and 1,000 people once again gathered outside of Stonewall.  The TPF police were dispatched, taking the whole evening and into the day to eventually disperse the crowd.

Post-Stonewall, the LGBT community became less afraid to openly assert their sexuality and voice their opinions. Noted gay activist Franklin Kameny, quoted in the National Register listing, States, “by the time of Stonewall we had fifty to sixty gay groups in the country.  A year later there was at least 1,500.  By two years later, to the extent that a count could be made, it was 2,500.  And that was the impact of Stonewall.”

Sunday, during the 2011 Pride Parade, outside of Stonewall (image courtesy of (Vivienne Gucwa's flickr)

The bar closed its doors in 1970, but it was re-opened in 1990 and has been open as a gay bar since. This past Sunday, New York City Pride Day, thousands of New Yorkers of all backgrounds and sexual orientation marched down 5th Avenue in the annual Pride Parade.  The route ended not far past the Stonewall Inn, an establishment that will always be a reminder of the Village’s role in the Gay Rights Movement.

The plaque on the facade of the Stonewall Inn


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