Monday, October 26, 2015

A Police Story: Blackout Riots, 1977

The other day I watched an old movie on NetFlix, ‘The Summer of Sam’. It reminded me of my participation in the only full-scale riot I’ve ever been in. The Blackout Riots of 1977 enveloped all of New York City, lasting 25 hours officially or three straight days and nights, depending on who’s counting. No deaths were admitted to by officialdom as having occurred during the looting and arson, yet the event was second only to the 1863 Draft Riots during the Civil War in the scale of the insurrection and destruction to City neighborhoods.

July 13, 1977, started out very, very hot but had cooled off some by early evening when my girlfriend and I went to the movies. ‘Black Sunday,’ a thriller with Robert Shaw as a Mossad agent tracking Palestinian terrorists in Miami, was playing at the American, a down-at-the-heels movie house in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a couple blocks from my apartment. It was the last chance to see the movie that had opened in the City in March; you didn’t go to the American otherwise, where the slightly tilted floor was sticky underfoot. Afterward, a few beers, then home since I’d worked an 8-by-4 Day Tour earlier and needed sleep.

At 9:43 p.m. on July 13, 1977, Con Ed’s power suppliers in New England and Westchester County got knocked out by lightning, causing, in classic domino effect, all the lights in NYC to go out and stay out. The city was in the midst of a heat wave when all the air conditioners failed, the subways ground to a halt, street traffic lights blinked out and the five boroughs were plunged into darkness. At that moment, I was in my apartment enjoying a cold beer. In the next hour, I heard over a hand-sized portable radio that looting had begun and was spreading in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Police Commissioner Michael Codd ordered all off-duty policemen to report for duty at their local precincts (big mistake), whereupon I went to bed.

My local Precinct was the 94th, dubbed by cops a “country club” for its law-abiding blue-collar Polish and Irish residents, in Greenpoint, at the northernmost tip of Brooklyn. It looked across the East River to the East 23rd Street Piers in Manhattan and over a puddle-jump bridge spanning the poisonous Newtown Creek to Long Island City (LIC), Queens. I wasn’t about to report to the 94th where I wasn’t needed; I’d head for the 83rd Precinct in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where I was assigned and always needed. But first, I’d sleep awhile, being of little use to the NYPD in my present condition, exhausted and half-in-the-bag. I could expect my tour of duty to be of long, indefinite duration once it began.

At 3:00 a.m., I arose, dressed, checked the loads in my service weapon and off-duty 38-cal. revolver and started for the Bushwick Precinct, a mere four miles away. A quickie trip normally: cross under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, then straight up Morgan Avenue to pick up Wilson, then a short stretch to the turn-of-the-Century Victorian-style Station House looming over the neighborhood like a Norman Keep, at the intersection of Wilson and DeKalb Avenues. The only illumination came from my car’s headlights as I negotiated the eerily dark and silent streets; no traffic except for some souls sitting in cars parked at the curb with their headlights on.

The Precinct House was ablaze with light like Gatsby’s mansion on Party Nights. It drew me like a Beacon does a lost ship. Inside, Lieutenant Jones presided at the desk having been left over from four-by-twelve Tour as were the sixteen other policemen on duty when the lights went out. No one would be off-duty for the foreseeable future. Cops had responded to the SOS from Commissioner Codd en masse, most, unfortunately, ending up in the outer boundaries of the boroughs, closest to where they lived on Long Island and Upstate counties: all without uniforms or riot gear in neighborhoods where they were not needed. Not so in the Eight-Three; it appeared to my eyes that most, if not all, of the 130 cops assigned to the Precinct were present for duty “with hats and bats” (riot helmets and nightsticks). Everyone was in motion, as if the zoo cages had been flung open. No civilians were present in cuffs; the standing Order that had come down at the inception of the rioting was still in effect: “No arrests. Restore order.” (Please!!)

After a pithy briefing (“The shit has hit the fan, men”), I piled into an RMP with three other cops and we raced up Dekalb the three long blocks to Broadway, epicenter of the revolution.

Next Monday, Part 2: The Scene

© 2015 Robert Knightly

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