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Stonewall Inn Riots 1969

 
It was Friday 27 June 1969, the day they buried Judy Garland. Neil McKenna recounts the birth of Gay Liberation.

Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine and his eight detectives from the NYCPD (Public Morals Section) had no reason to believe that tonight's raid on the gay Stonewall Inn was going to be any different from other raids in Greenwich Village that had led to the closing of two bars. As reason for raiding the police claimed that the Stonewall was selling liquor without a licence but the patrons of the Stonewall and other bars in the Village thought differently. They knew the bars were only allowed to stay open by express permission of the Mafia.

New York's crime syndicates extorted large sums of protection money from gay bars. Any who could, or would, not pay were either "persuaded" or closed down after a visit from Public Morals, who enforced the Mafia's stranglehold on the city's gay bars.

The raid on the Stonewall was brief and businesslike. The police arrested two barmen, three drag-queens and a lesbian. The customers were allowed to leave one-by-one as the police set about smashing up the Stonewall a bit. A crowd of these customers quickly gathered, augmented by the people who thronged Christopher Street and Sheridan Square. As each customer emerged from the Stonewall, cries of defiance and cheers went up from the swelling crowd.

But the mood of the crowd changed as the police escorted the barmen and the drag-queens to the waiting paddy-wagon. They booed defiant catcalls. A cry went up to overturn the paddy-wagon, but it was loaded and away before this could happen.

The anger subsided only temporarily, flaring again as the lesbian was escorted to a patrol car. She fought the police, managed to break away briefly but was recaptured and dragged to the car. Sensing the danger Pine ordered the car away.

The jeering crowd had become an angry mob. Shouts of "pigs" and "faggot cops" went up accompanied by a hail of coins and beer bottles. Hemmed into a small clearing immediately outside Stonewall the police decided to seek sanctuary inside, bolting the heavy wooden door against the crowd outside.

From within they could hear the sound of breaking glass and the thud of bricks and cobblestones hurled against the door which suddenly flies open. A rain of missiles pours into the bar. As police rush to shut the door, one of them is hit and starts to bleed.

The police are angry now. Pine rushes out towards the crowd and grabs a man who he drags into the bar. The police secure the door again and beat the man senseless before handcuffing him.

Outside the mob is howling for blood. An uprooted parking meter is used as a makeshift battering ram for the door which flies open again.

The police draw their guns and one says "We'll shoot the first motherfucker that comes through the door". As they wait for the mob to surge forward someone pours lighter fuel through the broken window - a match is thrown and the bar is in flames as police reinforcements arrive. It had lasted about 45 minutes.

When they woke on Saturday the gay community of Greenwich Village found notices, put up by the Mattachine Society, the city's "homophile" organisation, appealing for calm. But the atmosphere was tense throughout the day and violence was to erupt again that night.

There were an estimated 4,000 gay men, drag-queens and lesbians on the streets that night. For the next few hours civil war raged in Greenwich Village.

The mob fought the police with everything they had - molotov cocktails, bricks, cobblestones, sticks and parking meters. Trash cans were set alight adding to the flashing sirens of police patrol cars. In Waverly Place a large block of concrete landed on the hood of a patrol which was surrounded by dozens of men shaking and pounding it.

At the intersection of Greenwich Avenue and Christopher Street the riot police were viciously clubbing a young man. A detachment of queens, some in drag, rushed over screaming "Save our Sister" and rescued him.

By 3.30am, Sunday morning, the riot had burnt itself out. Intermittent small incidents took place on the next four nights but the pent-up anger and fury of the gay community had been exhausted and replaced by an emotion they had never experienced before, Pride.

Gay poet Allen Ginsberg visited the scene, remarking that, "You know, the guys there were so beautiful - they've lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago".

Within a month the first Gay Liberation Front meeting had been held in New York. The rest is history. Commenting on the significance of Stonewall just afterwards someone described it as, the "hairpin drop" heard around the world.

Neil McKenna is the author of the acclaimed new biography
The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde published in May, 2005 by Basic Books.