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NYPD apologizes for 1969 raid at the Stonewall Inn that sparked gay rights movement

NYPD apologizes for 1969 raid at the Stonewall Inn that sparked gay rights movement
The Stonewall Inn in New York was the site of 1969 riots that launched the gay rights movement. (Angela Weiss / AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly 50 years after a police raid at the Stonewall Inn catalyzed the modern LGBTQ rights movement, New York’s police commissioner apologized Thursday for what his department did.

“The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple,” Commissioner James O’Neill said during a briefing at police headquarters.

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“The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive,” he added. “And for that, I apologize.”

The apology comes weeks ahead of the milestone anniversary of the raid and the rebellion it sparked in the early hours of June 28, 1969, as patrons and others fought back against officers and a social order that kept gay life in the shadows.

Organizers of what is expected to be a massive NYC Pride celebration this year had called this week for New York police to apologize. So had City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is gay.

NYC Pride organizers cheered O’Neill’s remarks.

“The NYPD, as an institution, needed to take responsibility for what happened at Stonewall. This isn’t going to undo the decades of violence and discrimination that our community has experienced at the hands of the police, but it’s a good first start,” group spokesman James Fallarino said.

Police participate in and protect the annual parade, but the lack of a formal apology from the department for the 1969 raid — the event that gay pride marches commemorate each June — has hung over the collaboration, Fallarino said. He hopes people will see O’Neill’s remarks as a sign of “the NYPD’s commitment to positive change.”

Organizers of an alternative Stonewall anniversary march, however, see no such thing. They called O’Neill’s comments an “empty apology” made under pressure.

“Where has this apology been for the last 50 years?” the group, called the Reclaim Pride Coalition, said in a statement. The coalition, which is excluding police from its Queer Liberation March, is seeking a more sweeping apology from the NYPD. The group says transgender and minority LGBTQ people, among others, still face heavy-handed policing.

At the time of the Stonewall raid, the psychiatric establishment saw homosexuality as a mental disorder, and law enforcement often viewed it as a crime.

LGBTQ people could be subject to arrest for showing affection, dancing together, even for not wearing a certain number of items deemed gender-appropriate. Bars that served gay people had at times lost their liquor licenses, and others — like the Stonewall — were simply unlicensed. Raids were common.

The confrontation at the Stonewall wasn’t the first time gay people protested or spontaneously clashed with police. But it proved to be a turning point, unleashing a wave of organizing and activism. A park across from the Stonewall now houses first national monument to gay rights.

The police inspector who led the raid, Seymour Pine, said in 2004 that he was sorry, according to news accounts of a talk he gave at the time. Pine, who died in 2010, said officers were prejudiced about gay people, whom they didn’t understand.

NYPD leaders have expressed some regret before about the events at the Stonewall, but until Thursday they stopped short of a formal apology.

Former Commissioner William Bratton in 2016 called it “a terrible experience” but noted that it had also been “a tipping point” for change. He said an apology was unnecessary: “The apology is all that’s occurred since then.”

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When O’Neill was asked the next year about apologizing for Stonewall, he said it had “been addressed already.”

On Thursday, he addressed it frankly: “What happened should not have happened,” he said.

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