With major dailies giving a megaphone to the police, the coverage of Stonewall is a reminder of what’s lost when alternative media outlets wither away.
The Stonewall riots were a six-night series of protests that began in the early morning of June 28, 1969, and centered around the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City.
Four days earlier, on June 24, 1969, the police, led by Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, raided the Stonewall Inn and began arresting bar employees and confiscating liquor. But when Pine led a second raid on the 28th, patrons fought back. Approximately 150 people fled, regrouped on the street and stormed the bar, trapping the police inside. The protesters began throwing bricks, bottles and garbage, and attempted to set the bar on fire.
For six nights, protesters clashed off and on with police, while chanting and marching in and around Christopher Street.
Today, many credit the protests with sparking the LGBTQ rights movement. But at the time, if you were a New Yorker reading the local, mainstream papers, you wouldn’t know that a new civil rights movement was unfolding in the city.
As someone who studies the history and role of the alternative press, I’ve researched how the Stonewall riots were reported in New York’s mainstream and alternative publications.
In the days after the Stonewall riots, depending on which paper you read, you would have been exposed to a vastly different version of events. The major dailies gave a megaphone to the police, while alternative outlets embedded themselves among the protesters.
When the press inadvertently outed people
To understand the differences in media coverage, it’s important to recall the relationship between gay people, the press and the police prior to Stonewall.
In 1969, homosexual acts were illegal in every state except Illinois. In New York – home to the largest gay population in the U.S. – police aggressively and systematically targeted places frequented by gay men.
If arrested, a person’s name, age, address and crime would be published as part of the police blotter in most local newspapers across the U.S. For example, if a man was arrested for committing a “homosexual” act in Dayton, Ohio, his information would be published in the Dayton Daily News. Such publication often had disastrous consequences for the person “outed” in print.
Many were disowned by their family, fired from their workplace or dishonorably discharged from the military. Some were targeted for assault or murder.
Gay men, therefore, were forced underground. Christopher Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village became a fairly safe locale with bars and coffee shops that surreptitiously catered to a LGBTQ clientele. These bars often were run by the Mafia, which owned the cigarette machines and jukeboxes, and sold watered-down liquor.
Unlike many clubs, the Stonewall Inn, which opened in March 1967, was on a main thoroughfare instead of a side street. The clientele was mostly men, though even marginalized segments of the LGBTQ community frequented the bar because of its two dance floors.
On average, police raided bars once a month, though they typically would warn the bar that a raid was coming and time the raid to minimize disrupting the bar’s business. Police raids usually were accepted by bar employees and clientele.
However, this time was different. Stonewall’s patrons already were upset about the June 24 raid, so when one person resisted arrest, others joined in. The situation quickly escalated.
The big dailies give the police a platform
The scene was tense and chaotic.
Inside Stonewall, Pine gave his officers the order not to shoot, fearing that any additional escalation could lead to a full-scale massacre. Outside, hundreds of protesters were throwing almost anything they could get their hands on, while others were trying to find a way to set Stonewall on fire with the cops inside.
Yet the mainstream media largely failed to adequately cover the protests.