Wednesday 17 February 2010

The LGBT History Series (17) - The Stonewall Riots

The Stonewall Riots in June 1969 were a turning point in US and international queer history, as the first time that gay people fought back against a persecuting government policy. They also signalled the Gay Rights Movement joining the pantheon of social movements in the 60s, including the Civil Rights Movement, and anti-war demonstrations.

Author: Bob Bobster, Permission: Creative Commons

Above is an image of the Stonewall Inn where the riots originated, in Greenwich Village, New York. In 1966 the Inn was invested in by the mafia, and opened as the only gaybar in New York where dancing was allowed. The bar had no liquor licence, no running water behind the bar, there were no fire exits and the toilets are better left undescribed. To avoid letting in undercover police, visitors to the club would have to be known by the bouncer, or look gay.

At 1:20am on saturday, 28th June, 1969, the police raided the bar. Patrons that weren't arrested were let out of the front door, but instead of dispersing for fear of discovery or brutality as per usual, a crowd started to gather. Shouts of 'Gay Power!' were heard and someone started singing 'We Shall Overcome'. Police shoving the crowds were shoved back, and had bottles thrown at the police wagons.

A scuffle broke out surrounding a woman who fell over whilst handcuffed and escorted to a wagon, the crowd turned into a mob and fights with the police broke out. The mob attempted to overturn the wagons and slash the tires. By now the crowd was 500 or 600 strong and had found a nearby construction site with loose bricks as handy projectiles.
Parking meters were used as battering rams and rubbish bins were set alight. "You've been treating us like sh*t all these years, now its our turn!" was shouted by a man with a tiara.
The police unholstered their guns and aimed at the crowds.

More police arrived and formed a phalanx, which was mocked by lines of gays doing can-can dances, until they were rushed with night-sticks.
13 people were arrested, some of the crowd were hospitalised, and 4 police officers were injured.

The aftermath to the first riot included gay-power slogans sprayed on the walls of the burnt out Inn. The next night, many of the rioters returned, choosing to continue their demonstration by public displays of affection. This time the crowd numbered in the thousands, more than 100 police were present, and street battles ensued again until 4am.

Riots were rained off on Monday and Tuesday, but resumed on Wednesday lasting only an hour and can be summarised by an interviewed witness: "The fags have had it with oppression."

The events of the Stonewall Riots triggered a multitude of Gay Liberation organisations which organised peaceful demonstrations like picketing and marches and a Gay Pride March in New York. The building which once housed the Stonewall Inn was declared a National Historic Landmark.