Street Riots and Racial Crime Panic in NYC in 1963-1964

The following excerpt comes from chapter 2 of my dissertation on postwar riots and policing. Well, I should say, this section may ultimately be cut or drastically downsized, as it is a bit of a tangent in a chapter that focuses on the implementation of stop-and-frisk, use-of-force controversies, and the fight over civilian review boards. But the story is interesting and timely in light of the much-hyped “Ferguson Effect” and other racialized crime panics of the last year and a half. I tried to reformat it to make it more readable on the blog. To this end I pared down the footnotes to the key and (relatively) most accessible texts.

Two small riots in New York City in 1963 and 1964 illustrate the growing deficit of trust and legitimacy that large urban police departments were then encountering in minority neighborhoods. The politics around these events also illustrate the uphill struggle faced by activists and reformers who sought to exert greater democratic control over the police.

One key advantage enjoyed by police was their moral and ideological authority—as state officials in a predominantly white institution—on matters of crime. When their critics were organizations representing the interests of poor minority residents, police deflected allegations of corruption or brutality by refocusing attention on the crime rate. This dynamic was particularly acute in Harlem, home to the largest African American population in the United States, and nationally significant for this fact. By early July 1964, when No-Knock and Stop-and-Frisk went into effect, civilian review was again up for debate but the dominant narrative about crime made its success unlikely. Regularly, the police and the mainstream press causally linked race-conscious militancy to criminal violence. Street riots in this formulation were the bridge between the two and their joint outcome.

Harlem residents confronted police on the street by blending the repertoires of spontaneous crowd rescues and the civil rights movement. Around 9:30 p.m. on Monday, June 17, 1963, a black police officer ordered a black vendor of ices to move his cart from the busy intersection of 125th Street and Broadway. The vendor loudly refused, drawing dozens of onlookers. Two teenagers intervened on his side. Down the street, stones crashed through the window of a radio and television store and a bottle broke against a patrol car. Police started to make arrests, which sparked more anger. Police reinforcements formed a line to push the spectators back.

The New York Times noted that the ringleaders appeared to be affiliated with a nearby “African Nationalist” store. In the window hung “a picture of a police dog biting a Negro, and a sign reading, ‘Damn white men.’” But the crowd needed no additional provocation. A large man climbed a hydrant and instructed the crowd: “Hit that police line. Don’t be afraid.” No one moved. Instead the two hundred present began to chant “We want freedom!” A few trashcans were set on fire, and some debris was tossed from rooftops. Police periodically charged the crowd, swinging their clubs. This kept people moving, and scattered. One hundred fifty youths proceeded west down 125th Street chanting protest songs. By midnight, the crisis was over. Helmeted police stood on every corner, keeping watch. [1]

The following spring a very similar scuffle erupted at Lenox Avenue and West 128th Street, in Harlem. On a warm Friday afternoon, on April 17, a few dozen schoolchildren knocked over a fruit cart in the process of taking the merchandise. Four police officers pounced on the youths who let out cries for help. More police arrived, with guns and nightsticks drawn. Young men tried to protect the children from the officers. Many onlookers, including passive observers, were clubbed by police in the fracas.

Afterward, Harlem Youth Unlimited (HARYOU), a community social-work organization, interviewed some of the young men who had intervened. Daniel Hamm, 18, said, “I saw a policeman with his gun out, waving it in some young children’s faces with his billy in his hand.” Hamm said the officer “was shaking like a leaf and jumping all over the place and I thought he might shoot one of them.” Wallace Baker, 19, and Robert Rice, 17, shared similar stories. All three alleged that relays of officers beat them at the station house for hours. Police denied the charge. [2]

What turned the Fruit Riot from a minor scandal of racially-tinged police aggression into a sensational news story was the alleged presence of the so-called Blood Brothers. Junius Griffin of the New York Times first reported on the “gang” in early May, two weeks after the riot. Griffin learned of the group from HARYOU, which in the course of tape-recording conversations with young Harlem teens discovered that some 400 claimed membership in the Blood Brothers.

According to Griffin, the Brothers descended from the Black Muslims, particularly the Fruit of Islam, who trained in martial arts and provided the organization’s security. Inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X, members enrolled in karate and judo classes for the avowed purpose of defending themselves and the black community from police brutality. But to Griffin, who relied upon police sources, the Blood Brothers signaled a troubling development: a spike in violent crimes allegedly committed by black youths against white persons. Griffin said that some members sold drugs, others were “taught to steal.” All hated white people—and this, according to Griffin, fueled their militancy and criminal violence. [3] [3]

Indeed, in April 1964, New Yorkers were in a panic over black-on-white violence. Several white women had been brutally murdered and the alleged killers were black. The previous August, two white single professional women were found stabbed to death in their apartment. Dubbed the “Career Girls,” the case tapped into longstanding racist and sexist notions of white female innocence under threat by black criminality.

In April 1964 officers picked up a black Bronx teenager named George Whitmore to question about a recent rape. Whitmore agreed to help but instead of rewarding a good deed, police grilled the nineteen-year-old in secret for days. Whitmore confessed to two rapes and three murders, including those of the Career Girls. The police victory was short-lived. The following year Manhattan prosecutors realized that Whitmore was not the killer. His “confession” was false, the product of illegal interrogation. It would take ten years, however, for the courts to disentangle Whitmore from the multiple charges and convictions. Finally, in 1973, after ten years of almost continuous confinement, Whitmore—now a twenty-eight year-old man—walked free. [4]

Remarkably, around that time, six Harlem teens began a similar ten-year ordeal. On April 29, Margit and Frank Sugar, husband-and-wife owners of a Harlem clothing store, were stabbed to death during a botched robbery. Within days the police had arrested their prime suspects, all young black men. The group, soon called the Harlem Six, included Rice, Hamm, and Baker—the three youths profiled by Griffin. Their arrest for rioting had turned them into “known criminals,” susceptible to re-arrest. Griffin helped fan the flames with lines like this: “The Blood Brothers…seized upon the Fruit Riot as the means to expand their anti-white forces.”

Griffin linked disparate phenomena—Black Muslim ideology, gang-affiliated street violence, serial murders—into a coherent narrative. In the process he had updated an old racist trope of the predatory “black brute” with a political bite for an era of urban crisis. Meanwhile, for many in the black community, the Harlem Six confirmed their experience of a racist criminal justice system whose entry point was the police department. By 1974, after four trials, recanted testimony, racist comments by a judge, multiple overturned convictions and reversals, five accepted plea deals for lesser sentences. Only Rice stood convicted of the original murders. [5]

Griffin’s causal linking of militant black politics, mass disorder, and black criminal violence was hardly unusual for the mainstream press. Hamm, Rice, and Baker were perfect vehicles for this particular story. The three youths had immediately joined the Fruit Riot. Although they had claimed to be defending children, they were avowed antagonists of the police. It only made sense that they would exploit an opportunity, such as a riot, to fight them. The teens also allegedly belonged to a Black-Muslim-inspired “gang” whose members preached hatred of white society.

The apparent rise to prominence of the Blood Brothers in the winter and spring of 1964 was a worrisome sign for mainstream liberals concerned with the police department’s ability to suppress crime and maintain good relations with minority communities. The recent police killings of three Puerto Ricans and the passage of stop-and-frisk and no-knock laws were symptomatic of this moment. The Blood Brothers called the new police-power statutes “passbook laws,” a reference to the identity cards that black people were required to carry in apartheid South Africa. One youth told Griffin that the Brothers were planning a “hit” on police sometime after July 1, when the laws went into effect.

Many Harlem residents despised the TPF precisely for what it was: a show of force. Commissioner Michael J. Murphy called them “wall-to-wall cops.” After the Fruit Riot, Griffin reported that the TPF “are said to be arresting, on various charges, scores of persons whom the regular patrolmen—swamped with work in a high-crime area—would have to overlook.”

An unnamed black precinct officer told Griffin that even beat officers, who must interact with residents every day, become annoyed with the “commandos.” A patrol officer “might settle a street dispute by sending both parties on their separate ways,” he said, while the TPF “are apt to explode community tensions by their very direct application of the letter of the law.” Patrol is discretionary, community-oriented; the TPF is top-down, “get-tough.” Though perhaps overstating the difference between the two, the officer was right to note fraying relations between the NYPD and the black community. Harlem youth had taken to calling the police “rollers,” “dirty cops,” “white bastards,” and “no-good killers.” [6]

[1] “Negroes Fight Police in Harlem; Several Injured and 27 Arrested,” New York Times, June 18, 1963, 1; “Harlem ‘Normal’ After Outbreak,” New York Times, June 19, 1963, 20.

[2] Junius Griffin, “Harlem: The Tension Underneath,” New York Times, May 29, 1964, 1.

[3] Junius Griffin, “Anti-White Harlem Gang Reported to Number 400,” New York Times, May 6, 1964, 1, 30; James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” The Nation, July 11, 1966

[4] Journalist T. J. English covers the Whitmore case extensively in The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge (New York, 2011).

[5] Sidney E. Zion, “Convictions of 6 in 1964 Harlem Slaying Reversed,” New York Times, November 30, 1968, 78; Lacey Fosburgh, “Judge Rules Inadmissible as Evidence a Statement by a New Witness in the ‘Harlem Four’ Slaying Case,” New York Times, May 24, 1972, 23; “‘Harlem Four’ to Go Free After Admitting Guilt,” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1973, 16; Lacey Fosburgh, “‘Harlem Four’ Are Freed After Manslaughter Pleas,” New York Times, April 5, 1973, 93; “Harlem 4 Facing their Fourth Trial,” New York Amsterdam News, July 8, 1972, C10; Arnold Lubasch, “Judge Throws Out Murder Conviction of One Defendant in Harlem Six Case,” New York Times, July 18, 1973, 14; Arnold H. Lubasch, “Ruling to Throw Out Conviction In ‘Harlem Six’ Case Reversed,” New York Times, February 8, 1974, 38; “State High Court Upholds A ‘Harlem Six’ Conviction,” New York Times, October 10, 1974, 57.

[6] Griffin, “Harlem: The Tension Underneath.”

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One thought on “Street Riots and Racial Crime Panic in NYC in 1963-1964

  1. Pingback: James Baldwin on Police | Get-tough

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