Was Stonewall a Riot, an Uprising or a Rebellion? Here's How the Description Has Changed—And Why It MattersBreaking News
tags: Pride Month, Stonewall 50
The Stonewall Inn has become to the modern LGBT rights movement what Lexington and Concord were to the American Revolution. But while there is broad agreement that something seismic happened there one fateful night in 1969, there is little consensus on anything else — including how people should talk about it. After police raided the New York City bar and sparked protest from patrons, were there riots? Was there an uprising? Was it a rebellion?
This is not just a matter for copy editors. The terminology that people use shapes how historical events are perceived, from the way they came to happen to why they matter. That’s why, for instance, some Southerners have called the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression and why some Catholic textbooksoffer lessons about the Protestant Revolt rather than the Protestant Reformation. Disagreements over what to call Stonewall reflect different conceptions of what it was. “There has been a debate about the meaning of Stonewall,” says Columbia University history professor George Chauncey, “from the very beginning.”
At TIME’s request, the Oxford English Dictionary did an analysis of the language that is most commonly used in online news sources to describe Stonewall. Today, riots is most popular, followed by uprising and more distantly by rebellion. That wasn’t always the case. Uprising has seen a surge in recent years, and the first mainstream media reports about Stonewall used different language entirely.
Back in 1969, calling Stonewall a “riot” was, in some ways, strategic. The event was disruptive and violent. When police raided the Stonewall Inn, LGBT bar patrons pushed back, throwing coins at police, liberating detainees from custody and attempting to light the bar on fire while police were still inside. Parking meters were uprooted, stones were thrown and several nights of protests, involving thousands of people, followed.
Yet compared to events that Americans in the 1960s were likely to think of when they heard the word riot, the tumult that unfolded on and around Greenwich Village’s Christopher Street was fairly tame. In the years leading up to 1969, places like the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and the city of Detroit had seen massive unrest in black communities. The deadly upheavals there left hundreds of buildings razed and hundreds injured. Thousands were arrested and the streets were calmed only after officials deployed military troops. By contrast, evidence suggests that about 20 people were arrested during the protests that followed the Stonewall raid.
That is likely why outlets like the New York Times used what today may seem like diminishing language, characterizing Stonewall as a “melee” or “near-riot” when it first happened. The gay press, by contrast, started calling Stonewall a “riot” almost immediately.
The gay rights movement was already taking inspiration from African-Americans fighting for civil rights in the 1960s, explains Marc Stein, a history professor at San Francisco State University and author of The Stonewall Riots: A Documentary History. “What better way to say ‘we too matter and we too can revolt’” than by embracing the language that was being used to describe their profound discontent? That word and its fiery undertones also ran counter to the stereotype that LGBT people were effeminate and ashamed, too weak and too unwilling to resist.
“All of that made the word riot distinctly attractive,” Stein says. But, over the ensuing decades — as that term lost some of the proud patina it carried in a time defined by anti-war protests, radical feminism and black power — that would change.
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