Today’s Protests Are Centuries in the Making

A recent die-in. Photo by

A recent die-in. Photo by

This was first published in the Gotham Gazette on December 29, 2014.

Today’s Protests are Centuries in the Making

The tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu offer New Yorkers an opportunity to have a real conversation about our city’s sordid racial history. Racial politics may have come a long way in a city that prides itself on multiculturalism and progressivism, but community memories are long, and discussing the past must be part of moving forward. Mayor de Blasio recently acknowledged that some of the conflicts that have surfaced in recent weeks “go back centuries in their origins.”

In New York City’s black community, those origins are rooted in nearly 400 years of distrust and mistreatment. From slavery to Jim Crow, from unchecked white mobs to oppressive white police forces, the black experience in New York has been marked by pain, destruction, and neglect. There is no question that many in power have made an effort in recent decades to correct the wrongs of the past. But examining our history has to be part of the healing. Doing so will reveal that the recent protests are not just about Eric Garner, and not even just about policing. They are indeed about whether black lives matter in New York City.

Although the Dutch practiced slavery in New Amsterdam, the British assumption of New York in 1664 commenced a crueler period of slaves’ treatment. One night in 1712, two dozen slaves revolted, torching houses and killing owners. The rebels were killed or captured, with those in the latter group suffering torturous executions – slowly burned alive, dragged through town by a horse, mutilated on “the wheel,” and suspended by chains until death by dehydration – their heads left on stakes for weeks afterwards. In the aftermath of that rebellion, harsh new slavery provisions were passed, and even free blacks lost the right to own land.

These conditions worsened already tenuous race relations, leading to the 1741 slave conspiracy: part uprising and part witch trials for black people. After a white servant attributed an outbreak of arson around the city to a mass slave uprising, dozens of slaves were tortured into “confessing” the involvement of others before being deported, burned at the stake or hanged. The historical record is ambiguous – it is possible that some slaves were plotting with abolitionist whites, but the trials were not serious inquiries. Every lawyer in town was enlisted in the prosecution. Only when prominent whites began accusing each other did New Yorkers realize the charade had gone too far.

The American Revolution did not end slavery in New York State. In fact, slavery within New York City actually increased significantly in the years immediately following independence. The end of slavery in New York, which finally took effect in 1827, did not herald any improvement in race relations. Abolitionists, both black and white, met at their peril. White mobs could be driven to fits of rage at any moment, such as one night in 1834 when the presence of a British lead actor at a theater (the British were anti-slavery) provoked a rampage, rioters beating any black people they found in the streets.

The Civil War draft riots are considered by local historians to be the absolute low point in New York City’s history. Politicians and business leaders steeped in racism and cotton trade interests were already stirring up anti-black hysteria – Mayor Fernando Wood had proposed seceding from the Union – when an 1863 federal conscription requirement ignited a fury among the city’s Irish.

Angry white mobs, who had no desire to fight a war to free black people from slavery, ransacked the city, focusing on federal property, wealthy elites, and especially black people, who were hunted throughout the city for days. Many were murdered, some hanged in the streets. A black orphanage was burned to the ground, though thankfully the children escaped. The police performed admirably in protecting hundreds of blacks from the rioting crowds, which were finally beaten back by the Union Army. The draft riots are considered the worst civil uprising in American history.

Nor did the Civil War’s conclusion bring racial justice to New York City. Tammany Hall, a political machine fueled by Irish and Italian votes and commensurate patronage, enforced the worst of Jim Crow Laws during its decades of dominance. Several of the worst incidents are spelled out in Jonathan Gill’s excellent book, Harlem.

For example, on Christmas Day, 1901, three Irish teenagers beat down a black man in Harlem. A few white people actually came to his aid, but in the confusion they were in turn attacked by blacks, leading to a massive racially-charged street brawl. A white mob chased one wounded black man into the local drugstore, destroying it in the process, and the police beat another into unconsciousness with their batons.

In 1917, not far from Ferguson, Missouri, East St. Louis and other cities were ripped apart by a mass lynching that left hundreds of black people dead and thousands homeless. Harlem’s NAACP chapter, which had been organized only recently by W.E.B. Du Bois, organized the Silent Protest Parade down Fifth Avenue, with hundreds of women and children in white leading thousands of men in black who held a banner reading, “Bring Democracy to America Before You Take it To Europe” – a sign the police took as provocation, attempting to break up the protest.

A few weeks later, Patrolman Robert Holmes was killed in the line of duty. One of four black officers in a police force that had only been racially integrated in 1911, his funeral was attended by 20,000 Harlemites.

Holmes was an exception. Through World War II, the number of black police officers remained extremely low, and they were confined to beats in poor black neighborhoods. The majority of white police officers assigned to such neighborhoods were there as department punishment, leading to community tension that would periodically erupt. In 1935, a misunderstanding over a shoplifting incident led to a frenzy on 125th Street that ended with three deaths and the wanton destruction of property.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, initially popular among the City’s racial minorities, appointed a commission to investigate the incident, but then tried to repress the commission’s report. The commission had found that anger over racism and discrimination – nearly every institution in Harlem, from schools to hospitals to social service agencies, was whites-only – had been the underlying cause, noting, “As long as these conditions persist, no one knows when they will lead to recurrence, with possibly greater violence.”

Only eight years later, in 1943, Harlem was again engulfed in flames after a white police officer shot a black soldier during a street confrontation. During the ensuing pandemonium six black men were killed by the police, a thousand were arrested, and hundreds of civilians and policemen were injured. That this could take place at the height of nationalistic war fever was in part due to black New York being entirely left out of the economic opportunities that the war had brought to the city, as well as the vast infrastructure projects that had improved much of the city under the New Deal. This time LaGuardia attempted to address the community’s grievances, but the damage was traumatic and severe, leading to exodus of the white and black middle class. Many prominent black leaders denounced the rioters, but resident-poet Langston Hughes countered, “All the best colored people declare that they have been set back fifty years. I don’t know from what.”

In 1964, following a tragically familiar script, an off-duty police officer shot and killed 15-year-old James Powell on the Upper East Side, claiming Powell was advancing on him with a knife. The whole incident had begun when a building superintendent named Patrick Lynch (no relation to the current police union boss, we presume) turned a garden hose on a group of black teenagers who had been taunting him. When Lynch began chasing Powell, an undercover police officer joined in pursuit, with deadly consequences.

Six weeks later the District Attorney exonerated the officer of wrongdoing. As an enormous crowd gathered in Harlem, the NYPD’s Tactical Patrol Force, comprised largely of former marines, charged it wielding batons. In the ensuing mayhem, more than 100 people were hospitalized, and chaos spread to Bedford Stuyvesant, lasting in both neighborhoods for six days. (The only silver lining, you might say, was Mayor Lindsay’s response: forming the Civilian Complaint Review Board in 1966.)

In 1967, El Barrio was overrun by what Mayor Lindsay inartfully called “a disturbance” after the police shot a young Puerto Rican named Renaldo Rodriguez. Four people were killed and over a hundred were injured in the chaos.

If this all sounds like old history, New York City has had more recent heart-wrenching incidents of racial divisiveness. In 1992, long-simmering tensions between the black and Jewish communities in Crown Heights led to three days of unrest in the streets.

It is surprising how many transplants to New York are completely unfamiliar with the story of Amadou Diallo, a young Guinean immigrant. Four white officers from the Street Crimes Unit (3% of which was black) fired 41 shots at Diallo as he stood outside of his Bronx building vestibule, reaching for his wallet to show his identification. When the police officers were acquitted by an Albany jury (the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division had held that the officers could not receive a fair trial in the Bronx) and assigned to desk duty, organizers took to the streets with major, peaceful demonstrations.

The marches, noted for their interracial composition, lasted for weeks, with activists making very similar policy demands to those being made in the aftermath of Eric Garner’s death and the Staten Island grand jury’s non-indictment. In 1999, Reverend Al Sharpton and PBA President Patrick Lynch were both players, obviously with opposing bullhorns. The Coalition Against Police Brutality, which had formed a few years earlier after a different set of policing incidents, drove many of the protests, and its lawsuit,Daniels v. City of New York, led to the disbanding of the Street Crimes Unit and the release of police arrest data.

The stop-and-frisk data released after Daniels served as the basis of Floyd v. City of New York, the landmark lawsuit against stop-and-frisk that concluded in the plaintiffs’ favor this year when Mayor de Blasio declined to pursue an appeal and agreed to reform certain police procedures. The Coalition Against Police Brutality was a precursor to Communities United for Police Reform, which is now responsible for many of the “#BlackLivesMatter” actions. Thus, in some respects, today’s protests are part of an ongoing 20-year movement.

William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The young minority organizers of the Black Lives Matter protests say that the ongoing demonstrations are not only about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Akai Gurley, but about expressing the emotions of a community that has always been discriminated against. Today’s activists respond to demands that they “respect the rule of law” by asking for whom laws are designed, and for whom they are enforced. Politicians who unconditionally back the NYPD or call for “law and order” fail to acknowledge that for some communities, the rule of law has been seen and felt as a weapon and not a shield for centuries. Even today, racial disparities in the criminal justice system amplify this legacy. Changing that perception and that reality will take time.

Much about police and minority community relations is slowly improving. The NYPD is more diverse than it has ever been, as the tragic deaths of Officers Wenjiang Liu and Rafael Ramos illustrate. However, as recently as 1980 the force was 90% white, which is reflected in today’s command and union leadership.

Today the city’s elected officials look more like the city they represent than ever before, especially in the City Council. Both Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton have publicly discussed the need to build community trust, and the mayor has noted that the conversation moving forward must acknowledge “centuries of racism.”

The crowds marching in the street are diverse in race, age, and income and have broad support for their demands. Protesters and police officers are not hurting each other or physical property in bloody street clashes; in fact, with the exception of a few fringe protesters and fringe officers, these have been perhaps the most respectful demonstrations in recent city memory, a dynamic that inflammatory comments by the PBA’s Lynch risk jeopardizing.

Yet despite these positive steps forward, we are still not a city of racial trust, let alone peace and harmony. For those who can envision a unified city, and want to put in the work, perhaps the first step is to admit that the past is real, and as long as we share these streets, it’s not even past. Perhaps a Truth and Reconciliation Process could move New York City forward.

In a city of constant change, replenished with new immigrants, professional transplants, and dream-seekers who work and live alongside communities that have passed down these stories for generations, perhaps New Yorkers need to have this conversation more explicitly than most. As we begin 2015, let us respect how far we have come, and let us respect how far we have to go.


For Further Reading, Janos Recommends: 
Edward Robb Ellis: The Epic of New York City.
Jonathan Gill: Harlem.
Graham Russell Hodges: Roots & Branch: African-Americans in New York & East Jersey.
Eric Homberger: The Historical Atlas of New York City.
James Lardner and Thomas Repetto: NYPD: A City and Its People.

2 thoughts on “Today’s Protests Are Centuries in the Making

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