FIFTY years ago this weekend – from June 28 to July 3, 1969 – the Stonewall Riots, also known as the Stonewall Uprising, took place in New York City.

They were a turning point in the campaign for liberalisation of laws against homosexuality, inspiring events such as Gay Pride marches – the first was held in 1970 to mark the 12-month anniversary of the riots – and the formation of the Gay Liberation Front and other organisations.

WHERE DID IT ALL HAPPEN?

THE Stonewall Inn was a bar with Mafia connections on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. It had a major selling point as the only recognised bar frequented by gay people in New York that allowed same-sex dancing. The Mafia ownership’s links to law enforcement – bribery, mostly – helped it to stay open despite the considerable opposition of many local policemen.

The Inn was basically decorated in black with areas for different elements of the gay community, and while beer and liquor was sold, drug use was discouraged for fear of police raids.

The entry rules were simple. The bouncer had to know you or you could only get in if you were wearing clothing signifying you were gay. That’s not as daft as it sounds – New York had a criminal statute that authorised the arrest of anyone not wearing at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing. The mixed-race clientele was almost wholly male, although some lesbians did frequent the Stonewall and indeed it was the arrest of a lesbian which sparked the three days of riots.

The National:

HOW DID IT BEGIN?

IT’S important to note that the Stonewall Riots were the culmination of increasing raids on known gay bars by the New York Police Department. The Stonewall itself had been raided just three nights previously and one theory is that local cops who had been “on the take” were unhappy that Stonewall’s Mafia owners were blackmailing rich members of their gay clientele and not passing on a percentage to corrupt officers.

Whatever the reason, in the early hours of June 28, nine police officers raided the Inn, which was operating without a liquor licence. They lined up clients and demanded to see identification.

There were approximately 200 people in the bar, and they were not for meek acquiescence. Vastly outnumbered, the arresting officers sent for the NYPD’s Tactical Police Force, otherwise known as the riot squad. Some of the customers were herded into police vans but most were let go, only to stand outside and mock the police efforts as they tried to manhandle the gay men out of the Inn.

When one lesbian was roughly arrested, she turned to the watching crowd and shouted: “What are you guys gonna do?” She was thrown heavily into the back of a police vehicle, provoking an instant reaction on the part of the onlookers.

WHAT DID THAT INCIDENT LEAD TO?

IN brief, those who saw the police ill-treatment of the woman went berserk. They began to fight with police officers who retreated inside the Inn and called for help.

More police arrived and by now a crowd of 500-600 angry people was outside the Inn, hurling coins and other objects at the police and generally rioting all around Christopher Street and its environs.

Police rushed to the scene from all over New York, but not before the Inn had been set on fire. Numerous people were injured on both sides, although none critically. Only 13 arrests were made.

Rioting at the Inn, which was now closed by the police, happened again the following night, although some observers recalled that the main tactics of that night were for gays to openly kiss in public in defiance of the law.

A further display of defiance took place on the following two nights, but the last “riot” happened when the local Village Voice newspaper printed a highly one-sided version of events, causing hundreds of gay men to march on the Voice’s offices.

WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE RIOTS?

AFTER the militant defiance shown in New York, gay people in cities across the USA began to organise as never before.

Old LGBT campaigning organisations such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis became redundant. The Gay Liberation Front was founded, thousands came “out”, and Stonewall became the inspiration for gay rights activists everywhere – the Stonewall UK charity is the largest group of its kind in Europe.

The Stonewall Inn and its surroundings are now a designated National Monument of the USA.