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What the Freddie Gray Protests Have in Common with the Riots of the 60s

Then, as now, people came together in anger over how the police, and society at large, were treating young black people.

Photo of the Harlem Riots via Wikipedia

"The shooting triggered an outburst of bottle and rock throwing, window smashing, and looting. Such violent outbursts have become almost predictable events in the city's ghettos in the past few years."

Though it sounds contemporary, that line comes from a New York Times piece titled "Police the Target of Ghetto Wrath" published half a century ago, in 1964. Back then, the unrest was triggered after the killing of a 15-year-old by an off-duty police officer in Manhattan. The teenager, James Powell, was black. The cop, white.


The shooting occurred after Powell and his friends got into a confrontation with the superintendent of an apartment building who had directed a hose at a group of young black men because they were hanging out on his stoop. NYPD Lieutenant Thomas R. Gilligan, who was off duty at the time, soon got involved, and though the sequence of events is murky, he ended up firing three shots: One was a warning, the next hit a major artery in Powell's arm, the last went through his chest, puncturing his lungs and killing him. Hours after the boy's funeral, "Thousands of rioting Negroes raced through the center of Harlem," according to the Times.

Before the "Harlem Riots," as they were called, ended, one person had died, more than 125 had been injured, about 500 had been arrested, and nearly 700 businesses had been damaged. After that, there were many more James Powells and many more riots in the 60s.

Many will see in James Powell's untimely death similarities to those of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. The six cops involved in Gray's arrest are now facing criminal charges , but that is uncommon for officers who are involved in the deaths of civilians both now and then. In September 1964, Gilligan was officially cleared of any wrongdoing by in a grand jury; the decision not to indict came down even though witnesses testified that Powell had a beer can in his hand, not a knife as the officer claimed.


Before James Powell, there were the "Harlem Six," a half-dozen black men who earlier in 1964 were arrested and beaten for defending a group of children who knocked over a fruit stand in Harlem—despite statements from the shop owner that the men were not involved. After James Powell—well, the list goes on.

The history of police violence against black men is by no means a secret, but it's not the sort of history most Americans learn in high school. We are taught about the Civil Rights Movement, of course, but that means videos of "We shall overcome" and more buttoned-up marches—not the young black people hoping for a better future who were gunned down in the streets, not for protesting, but simply for being young black people living lives of unfulfilled promises.

Michael W. Flamm, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University who's working on a book about the 1964 Harlem Riots, told VICE, "The Powell shooting was a critical moment, a pivotal juncture in the long road to the mass incarceration prison crises that the United States faces today." The shooting and subsequent unrest, Flamm added, led President Lyndon B. Johnson to advance stricter criminal justice laws through his "War on Crime" legislation that only exasperated tensions between the police and the African Americans.

In the 51 years between Powell's death and Gray's, the most obvious changes seem to be semantic ones. "Negroes" are now "African Americans," and "ghettos" are called "urban areas" or the "inner city." In 1964, the New York Times said "a riot grew out of a demonstration," which, it noted, "followed a rally." Now the paper discusses whether to deem the outcry over a seemingly innocent young man's brutal killing a "#Riot, #Uprising, or #Disturbance"—though why the hashtags are essential here is beyond me.


Still, I have to admit that I came to learn about James Powell in the most Millennial of ways: a late-night Twitter frenzy and impulsive Google search. It was in November, on the night of the grand jury verdict in the case of Officer Darren Wilson who was cleared of all charges related to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

"First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law," President Obama said in a televised statement after the decision came down. "And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury's to make. There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It's an understandable reaction. But I join Michael's parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully."

That's when, back on Twitter, I came across a meme someone had made of a quote from James Baldwin, who wrote some of the most biting, powerful prose on race in the 20th century. It read:

This is why those pious calls to "respect the law," always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

I googled Baldwin's lines as Obama's statement droned on and found an essay he had written in The Nation in July 1966.


The writer's words have haunted me ever since—not least because they have so often merited resurrecting amid months of stories so similar to that of James Powell's. They cried out, most recently, amid the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.

"When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they're not protesting," Obama said on Tuesday. "They're not making a statement. They're stealing. When they burn down a building they're committing arson. And they're destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities that rob jobs and opportunities form people in that area."

Baldwin wrote of these "opportunities" in the context of a conversation he had with government officials in Washington on how best to contain the discontent—and rage—brewing in Harlem.

"Then I would find myself trying patiently to explain that the Negro in America can scarcely yet be considered [as a part of the labor force]. The jobs that Negroes have always held, the lowest jobs, the most menial jobs, are now being destroyed by automation," Baldwin, a Harlem native, wrote. "Furthermore, the Negro's education, North and South, remains, almost totally, a segregated education, which is but another way of saying that he is taught the habits of inferiority every hour of every day that he lives. He will find it very difficult to overcome these habits."

"Thus, even when opportunities—my use of this word is here limited to the industrialized, competitive, contemporary North American sense—hitherto closed to Negroes begin, very grudgingly, to open up, few can be found to qualify for them for the reasons sketched above, and also because it demands a very rare person of any color to risk madness and heartbreak in an attempt to achieve the impossible."


This much, at least, Obama conceded in his remarks on Baltimore. "Let's not pretend the system is fair," he said. "Let's not pretend everything is OK. Let's not pretend the path from poverty like the one I traveled is still available to everyone out there as long as they work hard."

Obama is a shining example of what Baldwin describes as that "very rare person of color" who has attempted—and indeed, achieved—the impossible. But even so, the same tropes of violence that abounded during the first years of his life are marking his last presidential term.

Baldwin, too, achieved success. A novel, poet, playwright, and essayist, his collection of essays Nobody Knows My Name became a bestseller and sold more than a million copies, but that didn't save him from the same kind of racial profiling and limited prospects his peers faced. Even though he moved to Paris to escape, Baldwin wrote, "Neither I, nor my family, can be said ever really to have left."

"This means," he continued, "That I also know, in my own flesh, and know, which is worse, in the scars borne by many of those dearest to me, the thunder and fire of the billy club, the paralyzing shock of spittle in the face, and I know what it is to find oneself blinded, on one's hands and knees, at the bottom of the flight of steps down which one has just been hurled.

"I have witnessed and endured the brutality of the police many more times than once—but, of course, I cannot prove it," Baldwin wrote. "I cannot prove it because the Police Department investigates itself, quite as though it were answerable only to itself."

Baldwin's call to open up the police to external investigations and to try allegations of misconduct in formal trials, not by grand juries, are still being echoed—and often go unheard. That's why onlookers cheered when Maryland State Prosecutor Marilyn J. Mosby announced Friday that she's charging the six Baltimore officers she says illegally arrested Freddie Gray; one of the cops is being charged with second-degree murder.

Mosby has called on demonstrators in Baltimore and across the country to keep the peace. It's a request that's been made many times before by elected officials both black and white. But in her case, at least she seems to be making a promise to restore the law to what James Baldwin considered its rightful place—as servant and not master.

"To the youth of this city: I will seek justice on your behalf," Mosby said at a press conference. "This is a moment. This is your moment. As young people, our time is now."

Beenish Ahmed covers international affairs for ThinkProgress. She's also the founder of THE ALIGNIST, a new media venture to bring literature into conversation with current events. Follow her on Twitter.