As the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots quickly approaches, and New York City prepares to host World Pride to celebrate, activists have doubled down on their calls for an apology for the initial police brutality.
And now, after almost five decades, they are finally getting it.
“I think it would be irresponsible to go through World Pride month and not to speak of the events at the Stonewall Inn in June of 1969,” New York City’s police commissioner, James P. O’Neill said Thursday during an LGBTQ police event, according to The New York Times.
“The actions taken by the N.Y.P.D. were wrong, plain and simple,” he continued. “The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive, and for that, I apologize.”
In recent years, multiple commissioners have refused to apologize for the now-documented violence that the LGBTQ community faced at the hands of New York City officers at the Stonewall Inn. In 2017, O’Neill originally declined to apologize, saying “I think that’s been addressed already," before adding, "we’re moving forward."
O'Neill's predecessor, Bill Bratton, acknowledged the year prior that there had been a "terrible experience" at Stonewall that became a "tipping point" and eventually led to "so much good." He added, "An apology, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s necessary. The apology is all that’s occurred since then."
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is gay, had called for an apology from the NYPD in a Wednesday interview with Juliet Papas of the 1010 WINS radio program. Johnson said the police raid, which took place in the early morning hours of June 29, 1969, said such an act would be a show of "decency."
"The NYPD in the past has apologized for other incidents that have occurred, so I think the NYPD apologizing on this would be a very, very good thing, and it's something they should do,” he said. "I think it's never bad to apologize. One thing that personally I do, is if I think I've made a mistake, I try to say I'm sorry, I was wrong and I learn from that because I don't think there is anything wrong with admitting a mistake. It shows decency to recognize something that you may have done wrong."
Incidents that the NYPD have apologized for in the past include a “long overdue” public apology to a rape survivor whose 1994 complaint was met with skepticism by investigators. “We were wrong then,” O’Neill said in a statement on the police department website in October 2018. “I want us to be right today.”
In 2015, Bratton, New York City's police commissioner at the time, said he personally called James Blake, the former tennis star, to say sorry after Blake was tackled by a police officer after being racially profiled “I spoke to Mr. Blake a short time ago and personally apologized for yesterday’s incident,” a statement read.
Johnson had anticipated a similar apology as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising neared. Stonewall is credited with being the most important event to spark the modern fight for LGBTQ equality in the United States.
"I would love for it happen this month and I will bring it up to the police commissioner," Johnson said Wednesday. "I will have a conversation with [the NYPD commissioner] about it because I think it would be an important step toward further healing and reconciliation and recognizing what happened in that crucial moment, and not just in American history, but New York history in June of 1969."
Heritage of Pride, the organization that hosts New York Pride every year, tweeted Thursday morning before O’Neil’s announcement that they “demand @NYPDNews issue an apology to the LGBTQIA+ community for the violent police raid that triggered the #Stonewall Uprising. @NYPDONeill is offered the stage at the #Stonewall50 Commemoration Rally during #WorldPride2019 on June 28 to issue the apology.”
And while the activists organizing the Queer Liberation March, happening the same day as the Pride march on June 30, do not see eye to eye with Heritage of Pride on many fronts, one topic both organizations unequivocally agreed upon is that the NYPD needed to apologize for what happened at Stonewall.
“Yes, we believe strongly that the NYPD needs to apologize, but not just for Stonewall,” said Ann Northrop, one of the organizers of the Queer Liberation March, told The Advocate. “First, in that context, the NYPD spent years, before and after the Stonewall Rebellion, rousting patrons in many bars, brutalizing and arresting them. They need to apologize for all of that.”
“Our demand for an apology must not and should not be treated like a subpoena issued to the current administration and completely ignored,” Gail Eisenberg, another Queer Liberation March organizer, added.
But the Queer Liberation March also believes an apology is owed for many other offenses against LGBTQ people and communities of black and brown people as well. This includes the harassment of trans people (particularly trans women of color), the entrapment of gay men in sex stings, and the unnecessary killing of black and brown people like Eric Garner.
However, for many, an apology on Stonewall is enough to begin the healing process of a decades-long complicated relationship between the queer community of New York and its police department.
"Commissioner O'Neill's apology today was an important step, albeit a small one, and we thank him for his leadership," James Fallarino, media director at Heritage of Pride, said to The Advocate. "This apology can never wipe away the violence and discrimination LGBTQIA+ people, in particular trans folks and people of color, have experienced and continue to experience at the hands of police."
"But, we hope that this gesture will allow for more dialogue and create more space for real, lasting change."
Editor's note: This article has been updated to better reflect the views of some of those interviewed.