In his epic new history, The Savage City, T.J. English tells the stories of three men—George Whitmore, Bill Phillips, and Dhoruba Bin Wahad—as a device to chronicle an extremely turbulent time in New York City’s history, when the crime rate exploded, political unrest sparked riots and police assassinations, and widespread corruption in the police department was exposed.
The sprawling structure of the book is reminiscent of the J. Anthony Lukas’s classic Common Ground, which told the story of the integration of public schools through the eyes of three Boston area families.
Like Lukas and his families buffeted by the school busing wars, English has found iconic characters for a particular time and place—New York in the 1960s and 1970s.
Whitmore was falsely accused in the murders of two young white women on the Upper East Side, and coerced by detectives into signing a false confession. He then embarked on a painful, decade-long campaign to clear his name. His case contributed to the demise of the death penalty in New York State, and put a spotlight on police and prosecutorial misconduct. His story is so appalling that even today, more than 40 years later, it remains shocking and infuriating.
Phillips was a corrupt cop who padded his paycheck by taking bribes and extorting money out of brothel owners, drug dealers, and crime suspects. Phillips wound up cooperating with the famed Knapp Commission, which exposed endemic corruption within the New York City Police Department, and forced a series of changes to how the NYPD did business. He was ultimately convicted of two murders. Ironically, as the book points out, there is major doubt as to whether he was actually guilty of those killings.
Bin Wahad, a founder of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party, was radicalized in prison and wound up at the center of the law enforcement war on the Panthers and other black separatist groups. He helped expose the FBI’s long and fairly sinister campaign to undermine those groups through its COINTEL program, and the NYPD’s own similar program.
“These three men represent three points of a triangle,” English writes. “Though their stories would unfold independent of one another, all three men became enmeshed in a similar matrix of forces—political, social, racial—that would alter the direction of the city.”
English has resurrected a story that most New Yorkers either have forgotten or never knew about in the first place, and that’s what makes it a fascinating read. Some of these historic events probably took place right around the corner from your apartment. (Did you know, for example, that in 1958 Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed at Blumstein’s Department store on 125th Street in Harlem?)
While English relies often on previously published work to tell the story, he also uses a lot of primary source material, like diary entries, and extensive interviews with Whitmore and Bin-Wahad to offer an extremely detailed narrative.
However, it’s also a lot to absorb. The act of weaving three independent stories into one narrative is a challenge, one that English mostly pulls off. And there are dozens of secondary characters, places and events. Sometimes the reader gets lost. In other words, you feel like you’re in the room, but you can’t always identify everyone there.
Mostly, it’s definitely worth the effort. Nowadays, we only hear about how safe the city is, and how much both the police department and race relations have improved.
But as English rightly points out: “The Savage City may have drifted from memory; the names and events of a tumultuous era have been paved over and buried away. But the scars, emotions and underlying causes are still present. They remain embedded below the surface of the city like a dormant but smoldering volcano, one that could rumble to life at any time.”