BROOKLYN, WEDNESDAY, JULY 13 — The lights have been out for five minutes.
The people on Brooklyn’s Broadway are going shopping.
Nineteen-year-old Jamar Jackson takes his second slug of pineapple soda as he watches his friend Bobby Stamps put his fist through the plate-glass window of Al-Bert’s Men’s Wear. Stamps reaches his bleeding hand past the shattered glass and grabs two shirts. An empty bottle of Wild Irish Rose crashes through another window. Now comes a brick. Hands are everywhere, stripping mannequins, grabbing shirts.
Jackson’s heart is pounding. He snatches a pair of brown corduroy pants. He realizes how easy it is. A gun barks. Jamar runs onto the sidewalk and bumps into a man holding a .32 caliber automatic over his head. The man squeezes off five more shots. The muzzle flash lights up a gang of kids pulling on the grate covering the next store.
“They’re hittin’ Busches’s Jewelry,” somebody screams. More glass shatters. Jamar hears a stampede racing toward him in the darkness. Bodies press against him and carry him down the street.
Edwin Velez’s television has been dead for 10 minutes. His girlfriend screams at him for not paying the Con Ed bill. Jumping off his tattered sofa, Edwin leans out his window. The entire neighborhood is dark. He hears glass breaking on Broadway, a half-block up Gates Avenue.
Edwin races into the hallway on the top floor of the four-story walk-up. Neighbors are pushing and shouting in the stifling darkness.
“They’re goin’ in the stores,” a woman yells. Edwin is knocked halfway down a flight of stairs by a sweat-soaked, 300-pound woman.
“Get out of my fuckin’ way,” the woman bellows as she tramples Edwin. “I’m goin’ to get me something before these greedy niggers take it all.” Edwin drags his 10-year-old cousin Cesar from the building’s vestibule. On Gates Avenue, the stampede toward Broadway is on.
“Come on, man,” Edwin tells Cesar. “It’s a riot.”
“That’s when they come in and shoot you,” Cesar says, pulling back into the vestibule.
“No, it’s when you take what you want from the stores,” Edwin says.
From the west, thousands pour out of a 630-acre slum called Bushwick. The area was first settled by the Dutch West India Company in 1660. The first blacks in Bushwick were slaves on the Dutch tobacco plantations. The Germans replaced the Dutch and were, in turn, squeezed out by the Irish. Then came the Poles and the Italians.
Today, there are no Dutch, Germans, Irish, Poles, or Italians. Today there are 225,000 blacks and Puerto Ricans living in 42,000 dwelling units: One quarter of these units have been classified by the City Planning Commission as “badly deteriorated,” Bushwick High School, originally designed for an enrollment of 2000, has 3000 students. An average of 400 drop out each year.
From the east, thousands converge on Broadway from Bedford Stuyvesant.
Until 1940, Bed-Stuy was a middle-class enclave. But Harlem was bursting with immigrants from the South. Drawn by jobs at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and inspired by Duke Ellington’s hit “Take the A Train,” an avalanche of poor blacks poured into Bed-Stuy via subway. After 25 years of blockbusting and redlining, Bed-Stuy was declared “the heart of the largest ghetto in America” by the Housing and Urban Development Administration.
On both sides of Broadway, unemployment hovers around 80 per cent. Half the families live on less than $4000 a year. Forty per cent are on welfare. The infant mortality rate is the highest in the city. In 1967 the City Planning Commission reported that the area “…urgently needs almost every type of community facility and service — housing, schools, health services, parks, supervised recreational activities, language classes, low-interest loans for home owners and businesses, social services, cultural activities, libraries, more job opportunities and learning programs, and improved sanitation and police protection. Assistance must be provided quickly.”
It is 10 years later, and the people on Broadway are assisting themselves.
Edwin and Cesar dash up to Broadway. Four men wrench a parking meter out of the concrete and batter the door of a jewelry store. On the third blow, the door blasts open. A crowd gathers. Edwin and Cesar are pushed into the store. A man with a baseball bat attacks the display cases. Broken glass sprays through the flashlight beams. A shard slices Edwin’s cheek. Holding his shirttail to his face, Edwin feels around the dark floor. He finds two watch cases and slips them into his pocket.
The incoming tide of looters pushes Edwin and Cesar farther into the store. It is pitch black and the heat is suffocating. Somebody has a transistor radio.
“There’s a party atmosphere in Manhattan,” a WINS newscaster says on the radio. Police sirens drown out the radio and probing beams of red light cut through the darkness. The tide turns and Edwin is carried toward the front of the store.
“God, don’t shoot,” a woman screams. Edwin steps on a leg as he scrambles for the exit. One cop beats a steady, sharp tattoo on the sidewalk with his riot stick. Three other cops simply watch the looters flee. On Gates Avenue, Edwin, breathing hard, opens the watch cases. They are empty.
“Shit, man,” Edwin says. “All that for nothing. I was scared in there. My heart was doing a heavy tango.”
Twelve-year-old Harry Brown stands outside the Everready Furniture Store. He is holding two notebooks he has just swiped from a stationery store. Across the street, a mob storms the Shoe Box. A year ago, Harry went into the Shoe Box to buy a pair of Pro-Keds. The shoes cost $12.82. Harry had $12.80.
“You don’t get the shoes ’til you have the full amount,” the white storekeeper had told Harry.
“I’m glad they’re doing this,” Harry said Wednesday night as the mob carted out the Shoe Box’s inventory.
By now, Bobby Stamps has 200 pair of dungarees, seven leather jackets, and dozens of shirts, all from Al-Bert’s Men’s Wear. Nothing is left in the clothes store. Stamps races a stolen panel truck down Broadway to a luxury-item store called Time Credit.
A sign behind the accordion gates reads: COME IN. YOUR CREDIT IS GOOD WITH US. Bobby wraps a chain around the gates and hooks it to his truck’s bumper. He pops the clutch and the truck jumps forward 30 feet. The accordion gates follow. Bobby heaves a garbage pail through the plate-glass window. Sixteen minutes later, he has five color television sets, two air conditioners, and a rack of wristwatches piled into his truck. Bobby stops to help an elderly man load a sofa onto the roof of a station wagon and races home.
“Plug them in and see if they work,” Bobby’s mother says as her son carts in the booty. Of course, there is no electricity.
Against all of this, Captain James Wynne of the 81st Precinct has only 22 men at his command. The station house’s emergency generator kicks on moments after the lights go out. The first reports of looting come 10 minutes later. The dispatcher shouts that, along with the phones, the main radios are dead. The hand-sets will only receive.
Wynne orders the men in the station house into patrol cars and barks one simple command: “Stop the looters.”
Wynne is in the lead car when the first cops hit Broadway. He and three other cops jump out in front of Time Credit. One last looter brushes past Wynne with a vacuum cleaner. The mob has moved up Broadway to another store. Wynne follows.
“We must have been outnumbered 70, maybe 80-to-1,” a cop from the 81st Precinct says later. “And that was after reinforcements were brought in. I don’t know how the hell nobody got killed. It must have been the magic of the blue.”
The luxury items disappear into tenements. Now, the shoe stores topple. Sneakers and high-heeled shoes litter the avenue. A young black kid races past two white cops with a paper bag full of shoes.
“Look, there goes a shoe-shine,” one of the cop says. The other cop laughs. Youths swarm into the bike shops and ride away on the inventory. In the gloom, someone offers a $200 Peugeot 10-speed for $40. Duos zip from store to store on stolen Mopeds, one kid driving, the other holding the swag.
A young black kid named Maurice Stone stands on the avenue with a new shirt, new jeans, and new sneakers.
“I wish I could get me some bikes,” Stone says. “I been in a lot of stores, but I mostly got clothes. Most of the bikes is gone. I got a watch, but it don’t work I don’t think, so maybe I’m gonna sell it.”
The cops start to make the first collars. Two cops tackle a six-foot black man as he comes out of J. Michael’s furniture store and drag him to a patrol car. Another cop grabs a teenager by her hair and pulls her toward the same car.
Two television sets, 11 pairs of Puma sneakers, and a sofa richer, 28-year-old Walter Bean ambles through the front window of the corner Key Food. Bean starts filling a shopping cart with meat.
“Fuck the whole thing,” a tall man at the back of the store shouts. A match flares, but goes out. Another one sputters and also goes out.
“Anybody got any matches?” the tall man shouts. A middle-aged Puerto Rican woman stumbles back into the darkness. She hands matches to the tall-man, but they drop to the floor. The tall man and the Puerto Rican woman are now down on their knees searching for the matches. The tall man finds them and kicks more papers into a pile he’s already made against a back wall. The fire spreads and the smoke is soon rolling across the ceiling and curling up the side of the three-story building.
“Burn, baby, burn,” the arsonist shouts, silhouetted against the orange glow of the flames. It isn’t until the next day that anybody realizes 100 local part- and full-time jobs have also “burned baby, burned.”
Walter Bean escapes, pushing a shopping cart laden with chicken fryers, bacon, and ground chuck. The chicken fryers are marked $1.08 a pound. The bacon is tagged $1.60 a pound. The ground chuck is going for $1.49. At Sloan’s on Sheridan Square in the West Village, the fryers go for 89 cents a pound, bacon for $1.35 a pound, and ground chuck for $1.39 a pound. Tonight, for the first time, Key Food is underselling Sloan’s.
Fire trucks scream out of Engine Company 222’s station on Reid Street. By 4 a.m., there are fires raging on Broadway. There are not enough firemen to handle them. They head first for the buildings where people live. The El running above the avenue traps the smoke and blocks the moonlight. The only light is from the shooting flames.
As the engines pour water into the blaze in Key Food, Dean Zule, 22, is in an alleyway on Green Street starting a barbecue. A neighbor brings down a can of lighter fluid and an armload of steaks. Zule turns the steaks with a screwdriver his brother stole from a hardware store. He raises his right hand, which is covered with a grimy, blood-stained bandage.
“The new sign is the fist with a towel wrapped around it,” Zule says. “That’s the power salute. This time it was flashlights, not guns. All power to the looters. Shit, I cut myself because I didn’t have no towel.” Zule spits a steak with the screwdriver, gnaws on the suet, and breaks into a big, greasy grin. The sun is rising over Bushwick.
THURSDAY, JULY 14
Slats of sun lance through the tracks of the rusting El. Shards of plate glass glisten in the street. Debris is strewn along the sidewalks and gutters. Yawning policemen loiter on street corners, watching black children dressed in short pants and new sneakers scavenge in the litter. A dog with mange tears at a sooty steak in front of Key Food. A police helicopter cuts through the smoke that billows up from the burning buildings. Along a 34-block stretch, from Myrtle to Stone Street, store after store has been ripped open. Gates have been wrested from their runners. Cellar boards have been pried loose from their concrete foundations. Most of the saloons, liquor stores, fast-food joints, and storefront churches have not been touched.
Thousands of people are still in the streets. Music blares from new tape decks and transistor radios. Batteries are going for two dollars apiece. One man dances a soft shoe with a mannequin. More cops in riot gear troop onto the avenue. In small knots, people mutter that many of the cops are not wearing badges or nameplates. This, the people say, is the first sign that the beatings and shootings are about to begin. One cop from the 83rd Precinct, badge number 15101, is asked why he wears no nameplate.
“Because we lost them,” he answers. Another cop, standing in front of the Reid Avenue station house, brandishes a table leg as a weapon.
“I don’t fucking feel like wearing no badge,” he says. A heavyset cop, badge number 29065, races toward a dozen kids who are trying to match odd sneakers. His baton cracks a shin bone and the kids scatter. His nameplate is covered by a black elastic band.
Six kids sit on a rooftop, their legs dangling four stories above a team of firemen fighting a store blaze. A stream of water hits a 20-foot bed of embers. Dense smoke drives away the kids.
Twenty-seven fires are burning on Broadway. Great streams of water pour in the street from the fire sites, forming large black ponds at the blocked-up sewers. One exhausted fireman named Tommy O’Rourke stands shin-deep in a pond of water. A mannequin’s arm floats next to O’Rourke’s legs. He gulps from a glass of ice water. Black mucous runs from his nose. His teeth are creviced with soot. Sweat cuts through the black grime covering his face. His eyes are bloodshot. When he spits, his phlegm is black.
“It’s a motherfucker,” O’Rourke gasps. “When you’re fighting a fire, been up all night, maybe 18 hours now, and you know the prick that lit this job is across the street laughing at you and probably torching another joint.”
As the afternoon deepens, thousands more crowd onto the avenue. The power is back on. A J train thunders overhead. The looters cheer and then invade Vim’s shoe store near Linden Boulevard. One woman sits on a burned-out car and measures her foot with a shoe-size ruler. A wedge of police move in on the store. Most of the looters flee. Some stay and exchange taunts with the police. Most of the cops edge away, their hands on their sidearms, their nervous eyes checking the rooftops for snipers. One cop rushes forward and clubs a Puerto Rican man with a bat. The other police pull the cop away from a fast-growing crowd.
“These motherfucking cops are pounding us,” the Puerto Rican man says. “They ask no questions and they just beat your motherfucking head. They want static, motherfucker, they get static.”
A black man with blood seeping from under his hair walks to the front door of the 81st Precinct.
“I want to talk to your boss,” the man tells a cop stationed at the door. “One of your boys hit me upside my head just because I was carrying a pipe.”
“What were you carrying a pipe for?” the cop asks.
“Shit, man,” the complainant says.”Just ’cause you carry a pipe doesn’t mean you’re gonna use it.”
Then the power dies again. The stop lights are out. Tires screech. Horns blare. Police sirens wail. Shouting matches break out. The sound of breaking glass picks up.
A squad of Savage Skulls appears, flying their war colors, carrying longer sticks than the cops.
“God is giving the poor people their bread today,” a gang member named Smokey says. “The poor people only want the same things the cops have. TVs, nice furniture, shit like that. And food. People have to eat. The cops are lucky they don’t want blood. But before this is over there might be some blood anyway.”
“The cops started this shit, man,” Blue Eyes, the supreme president of the 14th Regiment of the Bushwick Division of the Savage Skulls, says. “They’re taking things off looters, my people, and putting it in their cars and takin’ it home to their houses, man. One cop broke a little girl’s hip. The cops are handling it all wrong. They beating up black and Puerto Rican people. The cops should be in the stores. If there was a cop in a store, nobody is gonna go in there and risk getting killed for a pair of sneakers.” Blue Eyes points across the street. Two cops in riot gear are guarding a burned-out Key Food. A hundred yards down the street, people are leaving a grocery store with six-packs of warm beer.
“I went to some of the precincts,” Blue Eyes says. “I told some of the brass there that they doin’ it wrong. I know some of the brass. I been on TV shows with ’em. You know what they told me? They told me to kiss their ass. Well, if that’s what they want, we’ll handle this shit. We had 82 guys here this morning. I’m thinkin’ of calling in all the gangs and handling this thing right. We have a right to protect our community against police brutality and shit. We might finish this thing off completely, man, tonight.”
And now, the night is here and there are no lights. Bands of youths rove the avenue toting two-foot flashlights, baseball bats, iron pipes, two-by-fours, and even hammers. The police wander aimlessly up and down the street. Every 20 minutes a caravan of eight patrol cars crawls down Broadway. The looting pauses as the cars pass, then continues. People talk in low tones. There is too much tension to shout.
Seventy-five looters have been arrested and packed into the pens at the Reid Street station. In the booking room, stolen goods are piled head high.
“What do they expect us to do with all this shit?” one cop asks another
“Who the fuck cares?” the other answers. “We’ll just shovel it into barrels and send it down to the Property Clerk’s office. Let them figure it out. The entire garage outside is already filled. This is just the overflow.”
A third cop is in the rear of the precinct taking inventory. After 24 hours on the street, he was ordered back to the station, and handed a clipboard and a stack of forms.
“Where the fuck is that other Quasar TV?” he says to another cop. “How the fuck should I know?” the second cop says. “I only dealt with Zeniths.”
“I feel like a fucking stock boy,” says the first.
“A stock boy with a gun,” says the second.
“Fuck you,” says the cop with clipboard. “Now where is that other Quasar?” He is asked how many television sets were brought in. He answers, turning into a salesman. “You interested in a floor model or a portable?” Turning back into a cop, he says, “I honestly don’t know. I have one here, a Quasar, I can’t even find. It might be buried under that mountain of shit.”
He points to the mountain of shit. It includes: paper towels, frozen pizzas, baby clothes, Kotex, Pampers, jackets, lounge chairs, mattresses, couches, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, dishes, silverware, and hundreds of other items.
A detective walks up to the cop.
“I heard you need a hand,” the detective says, offering the cop a mannequin’s hand.
Over at the desk, a sergeant points to a porcelain statue of Stan Laurel.
“Can you imagine going to jail for stealing that?” the sergeant asks. “This is another fine mess Stan Laurel has gotten somebody into.”
At the other end of the room, a half-dozen civilians huddle on plastic chairs. They’ve come to the precinct for safety.
“I’m spending the night right here,” one of the civilians, Teddy Eve, says. “I’m scared. It’s the apocalypse out there. If this gets worse, I’m moving back to Barbados. There’s no money in Barbados, but they don’t have no apocalypse down there.”
“I was terrified something would happen to me,” a West Indian woman sitting on the next chair says. “It’s horrible, just horrible. It’s all been destroyed.” A minister from Bed-Stuy stands in the doorway. Earlier in the day, Mayor Beame had put out a call for all religious leaders to cruise their neighborhoods to “restore the calm.”
“I went out there,” the minister says. “But they all too busy stealin’.”
The power comes on at 9:30. Thirty-seven officers sit in the muster room, waiting for the next caravan run. Black cops stay in tight knots. They only join the white cops at 9:50, when it’s time for another sweep. Donning helmets and swinging sticks, the cops jump into the row of squad cars.
By the time the cops hit Broadway, the crowds have moved away from the avenue’s streetlights and dispersed into the dark side streets.
“There’s nothing left to steal that’s worth getting shot over,” a middle-aged black man says as he walks down Putnam Street. “And I know that if this goes on much longer, the cops will be shooting.”
Arson is now the main event. On the corner of Somers and Stone Avenue, a five-story warehouse is blazing out of control. The first alarm had come in at 5:30 p.m. By 6 it had reached five alarms. It is now 10:30 and the blaze is still out of control. A super-pumper has been brought in. Crowds from Broadway move in to watch the show. Seven firemen have already been injured.
The fire jumps 50 feet across the street. Three other buildings and two cars catch fire. The factory’s cornice crumbles, crushing a fire chief’s van.
Miguel Perez, 20, who lives in the last remaining house on the block, watches the blaze. He claims he saw a man light the fire.
“This cop hit a tall, skinny, colored guy when he caught him looting the warehouse,” Perez says. “There was stereos, TVs, clothes — that kind of stuff. So this guy gets mad because the cop hit him. He comes back later with two red gasoline cans and pours them into the building. He lit that gas up. Then he soaked some of the other buildings with the gasoline.” Part of the factory collapses, sending columns of sparks 100 feet into the night sky.
“I gotta make sure this guy don’t torch my place, man,” Perez continues. “I’m telling you, I know this guy’s face. I’ve seen him in the neighborhood. Me and my two brothers are gonna fuck this guy up good. Maybe I’ll kill him. I haven’t decided yet. He had a big wide Afro. I’d like to burn it off.”
Tonight is the night of the fire union election. Michael Maye has lost to Richard Vizzini. Neither of them has come out to Bushwick. So far, neither has Beame or Fire Commissioner O’Hagan. Deputy Chief Tortoriello has — since the lights went out.
“Nah, they ain’t been out here,” Tortoriello says. “They’re in Manhattan somewhere. That’s the big time. This is only Brooklyn.” He chuckles and returns to the fire.
FRIDAY, JULY 15
The fire burns through the night. At daybreak Michael Perez is still standing watch. He says he will not go to sleep until he is sure the arson and rampage are finished. As the warehouse continues to smolder, people start to reappear on Broadway.
“It looks like Sherman marched through here on his way to Atlanta,” says one morning stroller.
Those stores that were not hit are opening for business. Paul Alexander, the manager of National Shoes near Linden Boulevard explains that, although his store went untouched, business is bad.
“There has been no business today,” he says. “There won’t be for a long time. Everybody around here has new shoes.”
Up the street, Eddy Mizihi sits in a cream-colored Plymouth outside of what was once his clothing store.
“I might open it again,” Mizihi says, “if Mayor Beame gives me money. If not… what am I going to do?”
Ahmed Muharran stands in front of his grocery at 1385 Broadway. He hasn’t slept in 48 hours. From the moment of the blackout until this morning, he stood in the doorway to his shop with a double-barreled shotgun. Right now he’s open for business, but he keeps a police baton in his hand.
“Look, you have to protect yourself,” Ahmed says, keeping his eye on a 12-year-old standing near the potato-chip rack. “I told them when they tried coming in they were going to get hurt. They went away and robbed somebody else. Maybe tonight I’ll sleep. We’ll see.”
Outside Ahmed’s store, Rodney Washington and Wallace H. Jones are discussing the situation.
“This Con Edison makes me laugh,” Washington says. “They blaming the whole goddamned thing on some act of God. Now how can they say that when Con Edison is God?”
“I don’t give a damn who’s to blame,” says Jones. “What I want to know is where the fuck was the Civil Defense? The Civil Defense is supposed to help the police. I know, because me, Wallace H. Jones of 710 Bushwick Avenue, was in the Civil Defense for 11 years. The Civil Defense is supposed to be here when the bomb drop. Well, the bomb done dropped.”
Jones, who became a building contractor after he retired from the Civil Defense, walks into Al-Bert’s Mens Wear next door to Ahmed’s grocery store.
“You need some repair work in here?” Jones asks Maurice Phillips, the owner of Al-Bert’s. Phillips looks around his store. The windows are smashed. The bare shelves are splintered.
“Maybe,” Phillips says, laughing. Phillips first came into the store 11 years ago to buy a pair of pants on a layaway plan. A salesman told Phillips that the store needed a stock boy. For the next four years, Phillips stacked shirts and pants for $95 a week, an exceptional wage for black workers on Broadway. In 1970, Phillips took out a Small Business Administration loan and bought out the white owners of the shop. Phillips started to experience what he calls the “pitfalls for black businessmen.” Factories sent him inferior merchandise and refused to give refunds on damaged clothing. In 1974, Phillips grossed $274,000, but not a single bank would extend him a loan. Two years ago, the store’s basement flooded, destroying $70,000 worth of clothing. According to Phillips, the landlord, Broadway Realty, Inc., refused to accept responsibility for the damage and shortly thereafter, raised the rent. Phillips was hit by a spate of break-ins and hired the Holmes Protection Agency to watch his store. For $387 a month, Holmes promised to call Phillips the moment the burglar alarm went off. Last year, Holmes twice let the alarm ring for more than nine hours. Phillips was cleaned out both times. At the same time, the Chemical Bank was sitting on a $15,000 installment of Phillips’s second $60,000 SBA loan.
“You’re a turkey,” an officer at Chemical recently told Phillips. “You’re headed for bankruptcy. We’ve been telling you that for a year.”
“Then why aren’t I bankrupt?” Phillips asked. “You refuse to give me any working capital and I’m still in business.”
“I was looted before the riot,” Phillips says. “The people were looted, too. You have to look at the total economic condition, the frame of mind of the people. I’m more angry at Chemical Bank than I am at the people. Window shoppers finally got a chance to fulfill their desires and not just live with the bare necessities. Everybody stepped into the television commercials for a few hours and took what they wanted.”
As Phillips talks, the mayor and an entourage drive past the store in two air-conditioned buses. When the buses stop farther up the block, the mayor and 50 reporters and cameramen exit onto Broadway. Fire engines are parked at crazy angles along the streets. Smoke still wafts from some of the ruins. A hydrant is gushing on the corner. The stream of water runs swiftly along the curb, carrying assorted debris — cancelled checks, price tags, pages from ledgers, mail orders, the scribbled paperwork of small businesses. Beame, with the help of an aide, hops over the stream and starts talking to newsmen.
“Jobs, jobs, jobs, how about some jobs,” a group of black kids on the other side of the street chant.
“He’s here to discuss foreign aid,” one reporter jokes. Exactly 11,360 feet of news film is shot of the mayor as he walks through the devastation. The mayor directs an aide to expedite emergency housing for a woman burned out of her apartment. The woman kisses the mayor’s hand.
“What’s all this?” a black youth asks a friend.
“They making a commercial,” the friend answers.
Mayoral candidate Bella Abzug is also in the area. At the 81st Precinct, she examines the loot piled in the building’s garage. Dressed in a sporty summer dress, Abzug says she still stands behind the right of policemen and firemen to strike.
“What if they went on strike during something like this?” she is asked.
“They wouldn’t,” she answers.
“What would you do if you were mayor?”
“Mobilize the community organizations and get them into the streets.”
After Abzug leaves, Gary Jenkins, a local resident says: “The community was mobilized. They were all out lootin’.” Jenkins grabs a shopping cart and pushes it down the street.
“Going shopping?” Jenkins is asked.
“No,” Jenkins says, “I already been.” Ron Shiffman, director of the Pratt Institute’s urban planning center, is also in the neighborhood.
“This whole thing about giving out Small Business Administration loans to merchants who lost their businesses is a sham,” Shiffman says. “There isn’t the structure for giving out the loans. The mayor is playing politics with people’s lives. It’s an ugly thing to see all this looting, for sure. But the people who live in Bed-Stuy and Bushwick have had their lives looted for years.”
Shiffman comes from the Bed-Stuy tradition inspired by Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. Speaking at a community meeting in Bed-Stuy in 1966, Kennedy talked about the future that arrived on Wednesday:
“If this community can become an avenue of opportunity then others will take heart… but if this community fails, then others will falter and a noble dream of equality and dignity will fail with it.”
As night fails on Broadway, only the people who live here everyday remain.
Bobby Stamps is hawking $36 French-cut jeans on a street corner for $8 a pair. Jamar Jackson is with him, wearing a gold Aries necklace. Jackson is an Aquarius.
“I wish there would be a blackout every night,” Stamps says. “Shit, I’d be a millionaire.”
On the roofs of the Bushwick housing projects off Fulton Street, a huge clearance sale is under way. Hundreds of tenants examine piles of televisions, stereos, appliances, and shotguns. A 15-year-old is handing out complimentary cassettes with each tape recorder. Most of the merchandise is going for less than 10 per cent of retail value.
Along the avenue, the bars are doing their usual business. Music and drunks float out of Beulah’s Goodtimers, the Utopian Lounge, and Jukes Lounge. A transit cop is ticketing a battered Chevy parked at a bus stop. Groups of Puerto Ricans sit around card tables on milk boxes and play dominoes. Salsa blares from a new tape deck. The stores along Broadway are either shuttered or gutted. There is already graffiti on some of the plywood covering the broken windows. In yellow spray paint, someone has written: DETROIT.
Blue Eyes and Smokey of the Savage Skulls stroll down the street.
“I’m glad it cooled out last night,” Blue Eyes says. “The police kept cool and it worked out. It’s better that way. Maybe the cops will try to understand the street people.”
Inside the 81st Precinct, Captain Wynne is ready to go home. He looks exhausted, but agrees to answer some questions.
“Did you expect the looting?” he is asked.
“You expect what you get,” Wynne says. “But I’m not surprised.”
“Do you expect any more trouble?”
“Not if we keep the lights on.”
“Why weren’t the cops wearing badges and nameplates?”
“I wasn’t looking at cops.”
“Have there been any arrests for violent crimes in the past three days?”
Behind Wynne, there is a bulletin board with a dozen pictures pinned to it. WANTED FOR MURDER, a sign above the picture reads. Last year, there were 23 murders, 50 reported rapes, and 1100 armed robberies in the 81st Precinct.
“It was a bitch,” a desk sergeant says after Wynne leaves. “But at least nobody got hurt bad. You’ll see the violence start up again, though. Now that the party’s over, it’ll get back to the nitty gritty. We’ll have a stiff by morning.” The sergeant goes back to his bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 14, 2020