Prior to Stonewall, police raids on gay bars and nightclubs were a regular part of gay life in cities across the United States. Commonly the police would record the identities of all those present, which would be subsequently published in the newspaper, then load up their police van with as many gays as it would hold. Kissing, holding hands, or even being in a gay bar at all were used as grounds for arrest on indecency charges at that time.
The Stonewall raid started out just like any other raid on a gay bar. Seven plainclothes policemen entered the bar along with one uniformed policeman, allegedly to investigate improprieties in the liquor license. They cleared the bar, whose clientele remained on the sidewalk and street outside.
Some of the people outside the bar that night began to toss coins at the police, making fun of the system in which regular raids were a part of extorting payoffs from the bar owners. The gay bar system in New York at the time was widely corrupt. Many gay bars were owned by the Mafia, and operated by a form of payola called gayola[?], paying off the police to look the other way.
Details about what happened next vary from story to story. The situation quickly got out of control, as there were 400 gay people outside of the bar, milling around, so the stories are confused and sometimes contradictory. One story says the situation escalated when a drag queen stood in the doorway and defied the police. Another says a butch lesbian started it. Either way, at some point the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse, and the police began beating people who resisted with their nightsticks. Several were sent to the hospital, and one teenage boy lost two fingers after police slammed his hand in a car door.
The crowd started throwing rocks and bottles rather than coins. The police took refuge inside the Inn, which they trashed. They also beat a heterosexual folk singer Dave Van Ronk, a man who was present and who has since documented much of the event. He says effeminate men were singled out for special treatment.
While the police were inside, someone sprayed lighter fluid through the door and attempted to light it. The crowd used a parking meter as a battering ram. All across the district, residents, many of whom were gay, rushed to the scene and the crowd swelled. They began to chant "Gay Power!"
The police sent additional forces in the form of the Tactical Patrol Force[?], a riot-control squad originally trained to counter anti-Vietnam War protesters. However, they were completely unsuccessful at breaking up the crowd, who sprayed them with rocks and other projectiles. At one point they were presented with a chorus line[?] of mocking queens, singing:
Eventually the scene quieted down, but the crowd returned again the next night. Anger and outrage against the way police had treated gay people for decades previously burst to the surface. Leaflets were handed out saying, "Get the Mafia and cops out of gay bars!" Protests continued every night for the next five days.
It is not known why the bar's occupants decided to rise up that night, after so many years of persecution; but a popular folk legend in the gay community says that emotions were riding high after the death of Judy Garland.
The forces that were simmering before the riots were now no longer beneath the surface. The legacy of the days of rioting includes the organizations that came out of it. Within the next year, the Gay Liberation Front[?] was formed, as well as similar organizations in countries around the world including Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.