A pivotal moment in civil rights took place the week of June 28, 1969. That day, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York City's Greenwich Village. The move was a clear condemnation by law enforcement officials of the city's LGBTQ+ population. The volatile riots that followed sparked a new sense of urgency about demanding tolerance for persecuted communities.
1. The Stonewall Inn was operated by an organized crime organization.
In the 1960s, homosexuality was under fire from all directions. Because it was perceived as being amoral, individuals caught engaging in so-called "lewd behavior" were arrested and their names and home addresses were published in their local newspapers. Homosexual activity was considered illegal in most states.
As a result, being part of the LGBTQ+ community in New York was never without its share of harassment. Several laws were on the books that prohibited same-sex public displays of affection; a criminal statute banned people from wearing less than three “gender appropriate” articles of clothing. Commiserating at gay-friendly bars was also problematic, because officials often withheld liquor licenses from such establishments.
This kind of persecution led to members of the Mafia purchasing and operating gay-friendly clubs. It was not an altruistic endeavor: The mob believed that catering to an underserved clientele by bribing city officials would be profitable, and it was. The Genovese crime family owned the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, which became known for welcoming drag queens and giving homeless teenagers and young adults a place to gather. Often, these places got tipped off before a raid took place so they could hide any liquor. But the June 28 raid at the Stonewall Inn was different: No one was tipped off.
2. Police had to lock themselves inside the Stonewall Inn to barricade themselves from the crowd.
During the June 28 raid, police (who were alleged to have targeted Stonewall for its lack of a liquor license and the owners' possible blackmail attempts on gay attendees) confiscated alcohol and arrested 13 people in total, some for violating the statute on inappropriate gender apparel. After some patrons and local residents witnessed an officer striking a prisoner on the head, they began lashing out with anything within arm’s reach—including bottles, stones, and loose change. A number of people even pulled a parking meter from the ground and tried to use it as a battering ram.
The police, fearing for their safety, locked themselves inside the Stonewall as the angry mob outside grew into the thousands. Some were attempting to set the property on fire. Reinforcements were eventually able to get the crowd under control—for one night, at least.
3. The situation got worse on the second night of the Stonewall riots.
After getting the crowd to disperse, police likely thought the worst of their problems were over. But on the second night, the Stonewall Inn reopened and another mob formed to meet the police response. Both sides were more aggressive on the second night of the Stonewall Uprising, with residents and customers forming a mob of protestors and police using violent force to try and subdue them.
“There was more anger and more fight the second night,” eyewitness and participant Danny Garvin told PBS’s American Experience. “There was no going back now, there was no going back … we had discovered a power that we weren’t even aware that we had.”
4. Protestors set their sights on The Village Voice.
Tempers flared again days later when The Village Voice published two articles using homophobic slurs to describe the scene at the Stonewall Inn. Angry about the demeaning coverage, protestors once again took to the streets, with some descending on the offices of the Voice, which were located just down the street from the Stonewall.
5. Not all of the protests were violent.
During the demonstrations—which some observers later referred to as an “uprising”—some protestors opted for a nonviolent approach in order to be heard. Eyewitnesses reported residents forming Rockettes-style kick lines that performed in front of stern-faced policemen. Others sang or participated in chants like “Liberate the bar!”
6. The Stonewall Riots led to New York’s first gay rights march.
Once the riots had subsided, protestors were filled with motivation to organize for their rights. A year after the riots, residents began marching on Christopher Street and Sixth Avenue. The date, June 28, was dubbed Christopher Street Liberation Day. Thousands of people marched the streets while thousands of other people lined up alongside them to protest the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community at the hands of law enforcement officials and society at large.
Some members of a New York Police Department who had confronted protestors during the Stonewall Riots one year before were now being ordered to protect those same protestors during the walk. Other marches took place in other cities, marking the country's first widespread demonstration for gay rights.
7. The Stonewall Inn is now a national monument.
Since the events of 1969, the Stonewall Inn has been considered an important and historic venue for the new era of gay rights. On June 24, 2016, President Barack Obama made that official when he designated the Stonewall Inn and the surrounding area a National Historic Landmark under the care of the National Park Service. Many credit the Stonewall Uprising with the subsequent surge in gay rights groups. One participant, Marsha P. Johnson, started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) the following year, an organization devoted to helping homeless LGBTQ+ youth.
8. The Stonewall Inn is still standing.
Following the riots, the Stonewall’s patrons were still faced with police harassment and were growing uncomfortable with the mob affiliation. Months after the event, the Stonewall became a juice bar before subsequent owners tried operating it as a bagel shop, a Chinese restaurant, and a shoe store in the 1970s and 1980s. New owners renovated the building in 2007.
Today, the Stonewall is once again operating as a bar and club at 53 Christopher Street in Manhattan, and a visitor center is expected to open next door by summer 2024, which will focus on the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Naturally, everyone is welcome.
Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Marsha P. Johnson's organization as Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. The correct name is Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
A version of this story was originally published in 2019, and has been updated for 2022.