The police commissioner of New York City, James P O’Neill, has apologised for the violent storming of the Stonewall Inn in the city 50 years ago, saying “the actions taken by the NYPD were wrong — plain and simple… I do know what happened should not have happened”. Gay rights leaders across the United States have welcomed the statement, saying the police commissioner’s apology was momentous and unexpected, albeit long overdue.
The Stonewall Inn incident that took place on June 28, 1969, is a milestone in the gay rights movement in America and elsewhere. People around the world are commemorating this month the 50th anniversary of the incident, which is also the inspiration for the annual LGBT Pride Month Celebrations. Also, WorldPride, an event that has promoted LGBT pride issues through parades, festivals and other cultural activities in various international cities since 2000, is being hosted by New York City in its sixth edition this month.
In 1960s’ America, police frequently raided gay bars, picked up cross-dressers, and intimidated customers while claiming to go after prostitutes or the mafia. Many of the bars were owned by mob bosses, and expressions of affection between individuals of the same sex in public was illegal, so police had a ready excuse for their actions.
Early on June 28, 1969, eight officers belonging to the New York City Police’s Public Morals Squad (now defunct), and an inspector, showed up at Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, claiming violation of liquor laws by the establishment. Some 200 customers were lined up and asked to produce IDs, and some were body-searched. “They came in the bar. They slammed people against the wall. They shoved people, and they hurled insults that you can probably imagine,” a report in The New York Times quoted 68-year-old Mark Segal, one of those present that night, as saying.
Bar employees, patrons, and neighbourhood residents protested the highhandedness and manhandling, and a riot broke out that rapidly escalated. For six full days afterward, patrons and area residents protested vociferously and fought pitched battles with the police on Christopher Street and nearby areas. Many people were injured and arrested, and there was significant damage to property.
The police action and the rioting that followed electrified the nascent LGBT movement. In the series of events that unfolded over the next several years, as social ideas and attitudes underwent changes, the NYPD too changed, even if slowly. In 1982, a sergeant in the force started an association of gay officers. In 1996, gay police officers marched in uniform in New York City’s pride parade, which was started to commemorate the Stonewall Inn raid. The department today has hundreds of LGBT officers.
In June 2016, President Barack Obama formally recognised Stonewall Inn as the heart of New York City’s LGTB community, declaring the bar and its neighbourhood the Stonewall National Monument, the first National Park Service unit dedicated to the gay rights movement. In a statement, the White House said the monument area would cover 7.7 acres, and include the bar, Christopher Park across the street, and several other streets and sidewalks where spontaneous protests had broken out in 1969.