Riot Act: What Happened the Night of the Stonewall Uprising

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the catalyst for the gay rights movement in the U.S. 

After countless raids at the Stonewall Inn and other gay hotspots in New York City, matters reached a boiling point in the summer of 1969, when patrons took matters into their own hands, fighting back after being fed up with being discriminated against for so long.

The weekend of fighting among the cops and civilians resulted in a watershed moment for the LGBTQ community in New York City, and eventually across the U.S. and around the world.

Five decades later, witnesses and historians looked back on the moment that altered the course of history for so many in interviews with InsideEdition.com.

Hiding in Plain Sight 

In the early 1960s, the New York State Liquor Authority refused to issue licenses to gay bars as they were considered “disorderly houses” and spots where “unlawful practices are habitually carried on by the public."

Though homosexuality was technically legal in the state, the community often faced ridicule and discrimination. People could be fired from their corporate jobs for being gay. Even just kissing or holding hands as a same-sex couple could be considered disorderly and result in arrest.

“As a community, we've come a long way. In the ‘60s we had to live in the shadows and hide,” NewNowNext and former Village Voice columnist Michael Musto told InsideEdition.com.

Stonewall Inn bartender Tree told InsideEdition.com that gay bars were hidden in plain sight, and to find one, you had to be taken there by someone who already knew where it was.

“The windows were painted, everything was dark, black, you had to knock on the doors,” Tree, who asked that his last name not be used, said. 

Police were notorious for raiding bars in the West Village and downtown Manhattan, havens for the LGBTQ community, that were suspected of serving homosexual customers. 

“If you sat at a gay bar, you could not turn around,” Tree said. “You had to talk to the person behind you through a mirror ... because they wanted to make sure if the cops came in that there didn't look anything suspicious.”

Most of the city’s gay bars were owned by the mafia, who did their best to keep police away from their businesses by paying off the local patrolmen.

By 1966, activists were able to overturn the SLA’s regulation that prevented the service of gay patrons. However, it was still illegal to engage in simple behaviors like holding hands, kissing or dancing with someone of the same sex. There were also laws in place that said wearing less than three gender-appropriate articles of clothing could lead to your arrest. So authorities continued raiding bars known to be gay hot spots in the hopes of catching people in the act.

By 1969, change was coming to America. Richard Nixon was sworn in as president and began withdrawing troops from Vietnam that spring. Later in the summer, Americans walked on the moon for the first time, Woodstock would celebrate a weekend of love and peace in upstate New York and Muhammad Ali would be convicted for evading the draft to Vietnam.

“It was a very exciting time and era,” LGBTQ activist and Stonewall witness Victoria Cruz recalled to InsideEdition.com. “But also as far as the justice system and the rights of people, people were demanding their rights.

“... People were protesting, they were tired of the same old, same old.”

In New York City, revolution came to the streets outside a little bar, the Stonewall Inn.

Serving Up Revolution 

The Stonewall Inn was built in the 1840s as a stable and later converted to a tea room during Prohibition called Bonnie’s Stonewall Inn. For decades, it was a popular watering hole in downtown Manhattan before being gutted by a fire in the mid-1960s. 

It reopened with new money thanks to members of the Genovese crime family syndicate and became popular in the LGBTQ  community.

The mafia found ways to get around certain parts of the state’s strict liquor laws by operating Stonewall as a “bottle club,” meaning alcohol was only served from bottles, and not taps or cans. 

Still, it found itself a target by cops. 

During the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, members of the NYPD’s Public Morals Division entered the dimly lit Stonewall Inn undercover and eventually called for a raid on the bar.

But for the patrons, enough was enough.

Trans activist Marsha P. Johnson is said to have thrown “the shot glass heard around the world,” according to historian David Carter, author of the book “Stonewall,” igniting a series of violent clashes between police and the LGBTQ community. 

“People were down,” said Cruz. “They were down. … When the cops went in, people were tired already.”

Cruz was outside the bar that night because she said she was dating the doorman at the time and when he didn’t arrive home that night, she was curious to see what kept him.

Upon her arrival to the bar, paddy wagons and more police reinforcements were pulling up outside the bar and the streets were swarming with people.

“The crowd grew and grew, because they were curious. They saw paddy wagons there and police cars and cops outside,” Tree recalled. “It was just breaking windows, throwing rocks, bottles, anything we could find.”

The rioting seemed to die down as more and more people were arrested, but the next night, the pandemonium broke out again.

The result? The rebellion mobilized the LGBTQ community and its allies in a way not yet seen. 

“Stonewall was the turning point for the queer community,” Musto said. “After that, it wasn't really an overnight dramatic effect, but still you could tell that gay people and queer people were not hiding in the shadows as much. They were not as afraid to hold hands or make out in public.”

Pride in the Name of Love

A year after the Stonewall Uprising, the community marched in the first-ever Pride Parade. The parade continues today, drawing millions of people from around the globe each year to celebrate.

Following the raid, the bar never reopened as it was. Tree said it became a bagel shop, a Chinese restaurant, a jewelry store and a clothing store in the years after the riots. In 1990, following extensive renovations, it became a new bar called New Jimmy’s. A year later, the owners changed it back to Stonewall, which stuck.

In 2011, New York State legalized same-sex marriage, becoming the sixth state at that time to do so. Two years later, as President Obama was sworn in for his second term in office, he mentioned Stonewall in his speech, the first time it was ever mentioned on a presidential platform.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” Obama said during his 2013 inauguration address.

“When I heard Stonewall in the speech, I fell over my couch,” Tree said. “Thank you, Obama.”

Three years later, Obama declared the bar a National Historic Landmark in 2016. That same year, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the country.

“It's legendary,” Musto said of Stonewall. “It would be legendary even if it weren't for the revolts, because it's a long-running queer bar that has served the community and been very important for that reason, but it also is especially important because of the revolt.”

“We were so proud,” Tree added. :And now, people from all over. You name a city, state or country, they're coming in.”

Former New York State Sen. Tom Duane, who was the state’s first openly gay politician with HIV, said that no matter how far the fight has come for LGBTQ rights, it must continue.

“It means that we are a community who is seen and seen by the president and his administration,” Duane said. “It is making it possible for generations to know the battle for LGBTQ rights and acknowledge that we have much to work for.”

In May 2019, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the world’s first monument to transgender pioneers Johnson and Sylvia Rivera would be erected near Stonewall. The city hopes to have the monument completed by 2021. 

“Both Marsha and Sylvia were a significant part of the Stonewall era, when the queer community came out of the shadows and became way more visible and vocal," Musto said. "The sculpture in their honor is long-deserved and a great testament to their uniqueness and accomplishments."

“It is about time! It makes me feel really good that these people are being honored for the grassroots effort in gay liberation," Cruz added. "It is about time our community is acknowledging them.”

Days after the announcement about the monument, the NYPD formally apologized for the raid at Stonewall. 

“The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple," Commissioner James O'Neill said on June 6. “The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive. And for that, I apologize.

"What happened should not have happened," he added. "This would never happen in NYPD in 2019."

Today, the Stonewall Inn is still a popular bar and attracts visitors from across the world. Upon entering the historical bar, patrons are greeted with framed newspaper articles about the uprising as well as a sign left by the NYPD following the events in 1969 which reads “THIS IS A RAIDED PREMISES.”

“Every day, as soon as the door opens sometimes, the bar is packed,” Tree said. “My friend Sal, when he died, his mother said, ‘I have no more son, my son is dead,’ because she found out he was gay. That was then; now, I love the fact that parents come in and drink with their kids.”

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