Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
February 11, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 6
Corruption makes the world go round
By Clark Whelton
In February, 1960, Adam Clayton Powell stood up on the floor of the House of Representatives and delivered a speech entitled “The Immorality of the new York Police Department.” It was one of a series of angry attacks Powell had been aiming at both the police and the policy numbers racket. Powell had been naming names and documenting his accusations that police corruption permitted the numbers game to operate in Harlem. The New York Times charged Powell with conducting a personal “vendetta” against the then Commissioner of Police, Stephen Kennedy. But Powell kept up the pressure. The “Immorality” speech was among his strongest and most specific. Shortly thereafter a real vendetta began. This time Adam Clayton Powell was the target.
Nearly 11 years later, on January 30, 1971, Representative Charles B. Rangel — Powell’s successor in the 18th Congressional District — stood in his new office on 125th Street and stated that members of the New York Police Department “involved themselves in the narcotic trafficking the same way they have involved themselves in the policy numbers game.” Rangel claimed that certain New York policemen had requested his help in obtaining assignments to the Harlem narcotics squads because “they’re not making enough money where they’re now assigned.”
Rangel did not name the names of these policemen but he did accuse the governments of Turkey and France of “being involved in a conspiracy” with the U.S. State Department for the purpose of growing, processing, and importing heroin into this country. On the local level Rangel was more cautious. He asked the residents of Harlem to report to his office all incidents of police corruption they witness. When he has the facts, Rangel promised, he will take action. Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy later said he was waiting for specific information from the Harlem Congressman. Rangel replied by inviting the Commissioner to accompany him on a walking tour of Harlem.
The tour formed at the Canaan Baptist Church on West 116th Street last Saturday morning. Commissioner Murphy wasn’t there. Rangel held a press conference in the church lobby. He was confident and pleased. His charges of a Franco-Turkish-State Department conspiracy had made headlines and caused talk in Washington. Not bad for a man in Congress less than month. The charges of police corruption hadn’t done as well. Police corruption in New York City is not news unless you name names, unless you demonstrate that you’re willing to go beyond playing the easy politics of pointing out a situation everyone already knows exists. Even U.S. Attorney Whitney Seymour recently admitted that policy and bookmaking rackets cannot operate without local police protection. The same would have to be true for narcotics, a racket many times more vicious and visible. So the question isn’t whether police corruption exists or not. The question is: what are you going to do about it?
Rangel answered this question with 20 minutes of post-election oratory, invoking community spirit, collective action, and calling for an honest’s day’s work from the cops while believers shouted “Amen!” in the background. Rangel cited Harlem’s lack of confidence in the police and challenged Commissioner Murphy to disprove his charges of police involvement in the narcotics traffic. When asked how he would reply to Murphy’s put up or shut up request for specifics, Rangel said, “It’s not my job to collect evidence.” When asked what a Harlem resident should do if he has information about drugs, Rangel replied, “The first thing he shouldn’t do is tell his local police precinct.” Rangel suggested that people call his office at 866-8603.
After brief statements of support from other community leaders, Rangel led the crowd of 40 and a half-dozen reporters west along 116th Street. Rangel greeted friends, shook hands, smiled for the cameras, and asked people if they believed there was corruption among the police in Harlem. Most said they did.
“The people know,” Rangel said. “They know that grocery stores won’t sell you milk and bread between 6 and 8 at night because they’re busy taking care of their policy business.”
But he didn’t point out any such stores. Last year a Harlem group called Mothers Against Drugs (MAD) had taken a few reports on a tour of Harlem and had chanted “This store sells drugs!” in front of places they knew to be pushing dope. Rangel wasn’t having any of that. He turned south on Eighth Avenue, walked to 114th Street, shook a few more hands, then got into a car and drove away.
Charles 37X Kenyatta watched him go. “The thing is,” Kenyatta said, “there are people who went on this tour today who don’t like this idea worth a damn. They really don’t want the drugs stopped, you see?”
Kenyatta is a man with many enemies in Harlem. He was a bodyguard for Malcolm X and into all kinds of radical action, some of which proved very unpopular. “People pointed guns at me, took me for rides, but it wasn’t until I worked against drugs that they tried to kill me,” Kenyatta said.
He survived a bullet and is still crusading against drugs. “But I’m not converted to the game,” he said. “To understand the game, ask yourself why Harlem, which has more churches, community groups, and militants than any place in New York, is so corrupt. Why is that? Because it’s a way of survival, you see? So when you talk about stopping drugs and the numbers, you’re talking about stopping somebody’s way of surviving.”
…Rangel wants to prod the Police Department into doing the job it’s paid to do. By asking the people of Harlem to no longer accept police corruption as a matter of unchangeable fact, Rangel hopes to come up with some admissible evidence that would put the crooked cops out of business. This is at best uncertain. The people with the hard evidence are the people involved in the pay-offs, the people with the most to lose.
If Rangel really means to stop the drug traffic in Harlem, sooner or later he’s going to have to stick his neck out farther than he’s willing to do right now. If he wants the people of Harlem to follow, he’s going to have to lead. Right now he’s covering the easy ground, scoring the easy points. But when the first cops have to start living on their salary instead of the extra $500 a week they make ignoring narcotics, when the first pushers have to face the fact that their $2000 a week income may be in danger, then they’re going to try to shut him down. If Rangel can unite the people of Harlem behind him, that won’t be easy to do. But if he can’t, he’s lost. Because if he’s correct in his charges that the State Department is involved in the international drug trade, where will he turn for help? To his colleagues in Washington? to these same people who ran Adam Clayton Powell out of Congress and paved the way for Rangel’s own election last November?
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]