Monday, November 2, 2015

Blackout Riots 1977: Revisiting ‘Gone With the Wind’

Broadway is just what its name implies: a wide, two-way boulevard, running from the piers on the East River in Williamsburg in a southeasterly direction for 4.32 miles, ending at its boundary with East New York. It serves to neatly divide Bushwick to the northeast of it from Bedford-Stuyvesant to the southwest. The BMT subway line (the J, M and Z trains) runs overhead its entire length till it makes a sharp right turn into East New York and on into the Borough of Queens. The night of July 13, 1977 and into the early morning hours of July 14, there was a moon but the light it shed on Broadway came through the overhead tracks in weak patches. As we screeched left off Dekalb onto Broadway, we became engulfed in a jungle of black bodies racing helter-skelter, none empty-handed. A wall of metallic noise hit us from storefront gates being torn off by car bumpers with chains, a waterfall of breaking glass; above it all, the exultant screaming of the mob. We abandoned our RMP, locked doors, headlights full-on facing up Broadway that undulated with bodies far as we could see: hundreds, thousands, we couldn’t tell. Then we waded into the crowd, swinging our nightsticks at the moving targets.

Photo: Tyrone Dukes/The New York Times
Police Headquarters, having in the first hours divined the extent of the problem that was enveloping the five boroughs as well as the piddling number of policemen then ready to deal with it, had decreed there be no arrests. An arrest ordinarily required the arresting officer to remove his prisoner to the Precinct to complete the booking paperwork and lodge his prisoner, routinely taking 14 hours. No cop could be spared this night.

During the few hours of darkness left till dawn, our numbers grew as cops in plainclothes spilled from a commandeered City bus, wielding baseball bats. Up and down Broadway, looters beyond counting, smashed into and emptied stores—jewelry, furniture, drugstores, supermarkets the prime targets. They ran loaded down like pack animals—men, women, children. We’d chase and knock the men down; enter the broken stores guns drawn to drive them out. One stunned owner of a used furniture store on Broadway, slumped on a stoop adjacent to his emptied store, asked in anguish: “Where were you? They came across Broadway like a herd of buffalo!” Couldn’t think of an answer, went back to banging heads with renewed fury.

We heard over our radios that Al & Bob’s Sporting Goods store, down Broadway in Lower Williamsburg, was under siege. They must not get their hands on rifles and ammunition; RMPs rushed to that scene. Meanwhile, two cars with a heavy chain stretched between them accelerated up Broadway into the throng; in vain, as the looters ducked under the chain like Limbo dancers or fled to the sidewalks. A pickup truck with four cops on the flatbed appeared, lights on high beams, a cop with a Louisville Slugger leaning out from the running boards on each side cleared obstructions from their path ferociously. The men in the back of the truck tossed boxes of .38-caliber cartridges to us, in anticipation. The radio reported gunfire coming from the rooftops, yet I couldn’t swear to it, the sound of gunfire being indistinguishable in the tsunami of shattering glass, ripping metal, frantic burglar alarms, and the demented bellowing of people as they began to set fire to the emptied stores.

Finally, word came down: Arrest the bastards! Soon the wood structures on both sides of Broadway for blocks lit up the street in an eerie flickering light, then roared skyward in a conflagration, licking at the tracks of the train station overhead. The fires burned out of control till fire trucks took possession of the streets while the mob surged around them. At one dicey moment, cops manned the water canons on a truck, turning them on a threatening crowd, flushing them away. As the night wore on, faces covered in soot from the fires, our bodies leaking sweat from the heat, I remember idly thinking how familiar this scene as I looked heavenward at the towering flames, immediately making the connection: The Burning of Atlanta in the movie “Gone With the Wind.” The only souls on the street being cops, firemen, and looters.

As the new day dawned, there were many more of us engaged in the battle for Broadway. We numbered 142 men at its height, from the two adjacent Precincts, the 83rd and the 81st, according to the official Post-Mortems (weeks later). Looting fever had begun to spend itself and police tactics had devolved to a Game of Hide-and-Seek. We’d knock down and cuff the runners within reach but more often follow the looters into the broken-open stores. In a drug store, we found forty hiding in the basement; to arrest and transport all was beyond impracticable; we gave women and children a free pass. The men we stuffed into the back seats and trunks of the RMPs for a bumpy ride to the Precincts, where they were disgorged like clowns emerging from the Clown Car at the Circus. The Precincts had been ordered to house their prisoners since Brooklyn Central Booking cells were stuffed full already. In the end, my Precinct, the 83rd, had 145 guests for two days. Stuffed standing-room-only into the cells meant to accommodate 14 prisoners, the overflow chained to each other then to radiators, or dumped in a gated open yard that had once housed police horses.

We all made multiple arrests—one cop who’d arrived early, right after he’d observed the City go dark from the rooftop of his apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, arrested thirty; a late arrival, I arrested ten. Arresting officers were not fated to ever see their arrestees again. I no longer remember faces or details except for one slightly-built older fellow emerging from a furniture store carrying a red love seat on his back. I remember it was cherry red and that when I tripped him up with my nightstick as he ran, he let it go and sprang to his feet like a Jack-in-the-Box, declaring in irritation: “I’m not like these people! I have a job!” As the thing wound down by afternoon, the adrenalin replaced by fatigue after ten straight hours, I sat on the curb and watched firemen trying to control the conflagration devouring the structures along two solid blocks on Broadway. I was kept company on the curb by Wilton, the cop from Sunnyside, who’d been at it fifteen hours and was now nodding off, leaning into me.

When it was all over and the tally in: 3,071 looters had been arrested City-wide, 1,088 in Brooklyn alone. Along Broadway, 134 stores had been looted, 45 of them burned to the ground. A mile-and-one-half of commercial Broadway—30 solid blocks—had been destroyed. The fate of the 3,000-plus arrestees— having been held for up to a week in the Chateau d’If conditions of the local jails– was for most a slap on the wrist and release from custody. Few were charged with a felony, and none went to trial. The NYPD claimed that no police fired their weapons during the riot, except for two accidental discharges that hit no one, although two deaths were reported: one prisoner in the Pens at the Manhattan Tombs from heart failure, and one in a looted building from an undetermined cause.

Later, Assistant Chief William Bracey, Commander of Borough Brooklyn North, made the rounds of the Precincts to praise the men under his command. While addressing the cops of the Eight-Three as we stood in uniformed ranks in front of the Precinct Desk, he thanked us for “our bravery and fire discipline.” He was alluding to the Department’s official stance that no cop had fired his weapon in anger during the Battle for Broadway. At that, Officer Wilton, standing at attention in the next rank, said, loud enough to be heard by all: “Where was he? On vacation?’

The 83 Precinct holds a biannual Reunion at the American Legion Hall in Valley Stream, Long Island. A big turnout. I’ve made seven so far. I go to see the cops I worked next to, from 1975 to 1981. Old men, we tell each other stories.

© 2015 Robert Knightly

Sources: ‘The Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City’, by Jonathan Mahler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005); ‘Blackout Looting’ by Robert Curvin and Bruce Porter (Gardner Press, 1979); ‘BLACKOUT’, by James Goodman (North Point Press, 2003).

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