Nearly 50 years after a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City catalyzed the modern LGBT rights movement, New York’s police commissioner apologized Tuesday 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.
“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 on 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 LGBT Pride celebration in the city this year had called this week for police to apologize. So had City Council speaker Corey Johnson, who is openly gay.
The 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,” said James Fallarino, a spokesman for NYC Pride.
Police participate in and protect its annual parade, but the lack of a formal apology from the department for the raid — the very 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 LGBT people, among others, still face heavy-handed policing.
The confrontation at the Stonewall wasn’t the first time gay people had protested or spontaneously clashed with police. But it proved to be a turning point, unleashing a wave of organizing and activism.
At the time, many LGBT people lived in fear of arrest, harassment, professional ruin and family ostracism. The psychiatric establishment saw homosexuality as a mental disorder, and law enforcement often viewed it as a crime.
LGBT 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.
“What happened should not have happened,” O’Neill said, adding: “This would never happen in NYPD in 2019.”
Toronto’s police chief apologized three years ago for that city’s 1981 bathhouse raids. On Feb. 5 of that year, officers armed with crowbars and sledgehammers raided four bathhouses and arrested about 300 gay men.
The owners and workers were also charged.
Eventually, more than 90 per cent of the charges were dropped, but as in New York, the police action galvanized Toronto’s LGBT community to fight for their rights and find a political voice.