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The Stonewall riots were a spontaneous protest by members of the LGBT community in the early hours of the morning of the 28th June 1969. The demonstration was in response to a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, New York, a famous gay bar, and has commonly been called the first major protest on behalf of equal rights for homosexuals.
The Stonewall was a mafia-owned bar, frequented by a variety of patrons but especially the most poor and marginalised in the gay community, including homeless youth, drag queens and trans people. The criminal owners treated the patrons poorly, often watering down drinks and overcharging for them anyway, but importantly they paid off the police and so kept raids to a minimum. Police raids of known gay bars were common throughout the 1960s. Homosexuality was still illegal and considered a mental illness, and known homosexuals faced widespread discrimination. Often mafia-owned bars were the only place gay people could meet, as the New York Liquor Authority prohibited serving gay patrons in bars on the basis that they were ‘disorderly’.
During a police raid the lights would be turned on, a signal to stop dancing, and people would line up and allow their ID cards to be checked. Anyone without an ID or wearing full drag would be arrested; women were required to wear three items of ‘feminine’ clothing. Due to underhand agreements with the police, the employees at Stonewall usually received a tip-off about upcoming raids, and these would occur early in the evening so that business could resume afterwards. However, on the 28th June there was no tip-off and the police arrived later than usual, at 1:02am, suggesting that they were determined to finally crack down on business at Stonewall.
On this occasion the patrons were determined not to let them. Men refused to show ID cards, whilst those dressed as women refused to accompany a police officer to the toilets to have their genders confirmed. Faced with such resistance the officers decided to take people to the police station, and began to lead them to police vans outside. Those who hadn’t been arrested began to gather around the bar, and were joined by passers-by until a crowd surrounded the scene. They began to grow restless, singing and shouting chants at the policemen. Finally, as a woman was shoved into a van, she called out to the crowd to “do something!” and the mood changed utterly.
The crowd turned on the policemen, some of whom barricaded themselves in the Inn. Objects were thrown at the building and a parking metre was used as a battering ram, until they broke in and set the bar on fire. Chased by police, people rampaged through the nearby streets, overturning police cars and chanting gay pride slogans. The riots lasted until 4am. The next day news quickly spread through newspapers and rumour. Graffiti appeared on the burnt shell of Stonewall calling for gay bars to be legalised. Leaflets called for a boycott of Mafia-owned bars and for homosexuals to own their own establishments. The next night riots broke out again.
Something had clearly changed, and the LGBT community were no longer going to accept the harsh treatment they’d suffered. The Stonewall riots inspired gay people throughout America; within two years gay rights groups had been founded in major city in the country. On the anniversary of the riots the first gay pride parade in US history took place, going from Christopher Street where the Stonewall Inn stood to Central Park. Gay pride parades remain an important symbol of equal rights and acceptance.