How the Stonewall Riots Worked

The Stonewall Riots

The crowd tries stop police arrests during the riots. NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images The crowd tries stop police arrests during the riots. NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
The crowd tries stop police arrests during the riots. NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine of Manhattan's First Division of Public Morals had several undercover officers inside the Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969. He arrived at the door to the bar after 1 a.m. (so, technically, the raid and riot occurred on the 28th).

It's notable that Pine and the officers initially participating in the raid were not part of the 6th Precinct, the police department that covered the Stonewall Inn's neighborhood. Pine's officers entered the Stonewall with the intention of shutting it down permanently and arresting the Mafia guys who ran it for selling liquor without a license. They'd raided it already that summer, as part of a plan to shut down all the Mafia-owned gay bars in Manhattan. But, for a variety of reasons, this raid went differently than the others.

First, the officers wouldn't let people out of the bar without seeing ID, one of many tactics to intimidate and humiliate gay people. Patrons exited the bar one by one, slowly growing into a crowd as they waited for their friends to emerge. The crowd grew — a lot of disenfranchised street kids, many of them LGBTQ people who'd left home with nowhere else to go, joined the gathering.

But the high-spirited crowd erupted into a full-scale riot, for several reasons:

  • Pine repeatedly requested backup officers, but the 6th precinct never sent them. There's evidence that this was intentional, because the 6th was getting kickbacks from the Stonewall and resented someone barging into their jurisdiction to conduct a raid. As a result, there were far too few officers on-site to control the growing crowd [source: Carter].
  • Because of the prior raids on the Stonewall and other gay bars in Manhattan, LGBTQ people felt like their last refuge was threatened and they were being backed into a corner. The patrons and LGBTQ youth in the neighborhood were unwilling to put up with police harassment any longer.
  • A few people physically resisted police arrests, which transformed the incident from a shouting match to one of physical confrontation. Most accounts describe one lesbian woman who had been in the Stonewall as fiercely battling cops who tried to stuff her into a patrol car, inciting the crowd as she fought. Some accounts cite Jackie Hormona and Marsha P. Johnson as key players in inciting the riot. A few other physical altercations led to the crowd throwing things at the cops, escalating the riot.

The crowd started out throwing coins at the cops, then bottles, then bricks either pried from the street or taken from a nearby construction site. At that point, Pine sensed the danger and retreated into the Stonewall Inn with the other police officers. A few of the bar's patrons and one reporter were also inside the Stonewall at the time. The rioters grew even angrier that cops now occupied the bar, and they battered open the door using a parking meter ripped from the street. Some of them even tried to light garbage near the Stonewall's windows on fire. But from the cops' perspective, it was a surprise that anyone even fought back.