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Stonewall Riots

Police raids on gay bars were not uncommon in 1960s America – so why was this one different? Jon Savage explores the flashpoint that launched the gay rights movement in the US
The riots centred on this Mafia-run bar, a place where the most marginalised people in the gay community could be themselves
NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVI LARRY MORRIS/THE NE

When it happened, it was totally unexpected. Thje New York City Police had done this sort of thing many times before: rousting gay bar patrons, fully knowing that in their shame and surprise they would not offer any resistance. But, in the early hours of 28 June 1969, the familiar script was torn up. When eight policemen arrived to raid the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, they proceeded as usual: checking ID documents, arresting obvious ‘female impersonators’, and generally harassing the clientele.

However, the mood quickly took an unfamiliar turn. Instead of the usual compliance, people fought back inside the club. While this was going on, a crowd of forcibly ejected clubbers gathered outside: as it happened, the Stonewall Inn was on a block with a small public space, Christopher Park.

The police attempt to quell the crowd, and succeed only in inciting more violence
MORRIS/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVI NE X1, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS/GETTY X1

Something snapped. As the police began to load in transvestites and young hustlers - street prostitutes - into their vans, a fierce lesbian fought the arresting officers every step of the way Inspired by her ferocity the crowd moved from insult to action.

First it was bottles and loose change. Then it was bricks and paving stones, heaved at the police. Taken aback by the ferocity of a previously passive minority the police ceded the streets and retreated back into the club. Once barricaded in, they were assaulted with parking meters, garbage cans and Molotov cocktails by an enraged crowd, which had swelled to several hundred people. “I was sick of being told I was sick,” one rioter remembered, while the general mood was “this has got to stop”.

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About BBC History Revealed

For most of us, when we think of the Wild West, we imagine gunslinging cowboys, dusty prairies and swinging saloon bar doors – not to mention rolling tumbleweed. But was the American West really all that wild? Plus: the remarkable women whose work at Bletchley Park helped break the Enigma Code in World War II, the French Revolution told through seven severed heads and the Stonewall Riots, flashpoint for the fight for gay rights in the US.