The killing – some would say execution – of George Floyd by a senior Minneapolis police officer (and field trainer) and the militarized police response to Black Lives Matter protests have led to calls for a systematic reevaluation of policing in the United States.
The issues raised by protestors are definitely not new. In 1960, James Baldwin wrote in an Esquire magazine article that the police “represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corralled up here, in his place.”
In 1967, Dr. Kenneth Clark of the City College of New York testified before the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders headed by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois. Clark told the commission, “I read the report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of 1935, the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of 1943, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot of 1965. I must again in candor say to you members of the Commission — it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland with the same moving picture reshown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”
In 1900, a police riot in the Tenderloin District of New York City shook the African American community and escalated into an international incident. The riot was precipitated by the death of an out-of-uniform police officer, Robert Thorpe, in an altercation with a black man, Arthur Harris. Harris fled and was later arrested in Washington DC. Harris was later sentenced to life in prison in the Sing-Sing correctional facility.
According to a report published by the Citizens’ Protective League, “On August the 12th last a Negro named Arthur Harris was with his wife at 41st Street and 8th Avenue. He says that he left her to buy a cigar, and when he returned he found her in the grasp of a man in citizen’s dress. This man was a police officer, named Robert J. Thorpe, who had arrested her, as he claimed, for “soliciting.” Harris says that he did not know Thorpe was an officer, and that he attempted to rescue his wife. The policeman struck Harris with his club, and Harris retaliated with his penknife, inflicting a mortal wound, and then ran away.”
The incident and the riots that followed took place in the 20th Police Precinct under the command of Acting Captain John Cooney. “The district has a large colored population, and mixed with it are many dissolute and lawless white persons,” the Citizens’ Protective League report said.
On August 16, the New York Times reported:
“For four hours last night Eighth Avenue, from Thirtieth to Forty-second Street, was a scene of the wildest disorder that this city has witnessed in years. The hard feeling between the white people and the Negroes in that district, which has been smoldering for many years and which received fresh fuel by the death of Policeman Thorpe, who was shot last Sunday by a Negro, burst forth last night into a race riot which was not subdued until the reserve force of four police precincts, numbering in all over 100 men, headed by Chief Devery himself, were called to the scene and succeeded in clearing the streets by a liberal use of their night sticks . . . As a result of the riot a considerable number of wounded negroes were attended by surgeons at the Roosevelt Hospital. The greater number of those who were injured, however, preferred to remain in their houses, being afraid of the crowds on the streets while on the way to the police station or hospital. Every car passing up or down Eighth Avenue between the hours of 8 and 11 was stopped by the crowd and every negro on board was dragged out, hustled about, and beaten until he was able to break away from his assailants and escape into a house or down a side street.””
The following day, the Times acknowledged “policemen were not too active in stopping the attacks on the Negroes, and even went so far as to use their clubs on colored men.”
“The race trouble which was first encountered by the New York police force Wednesday night is now practically at an end. The burial of Policeman Thorpe and the arrest of the Negro Harris, who, it is alleged, killed him, both had much to do with quieting the feeling in the neighborhood of Ninth Avenue and Thirty-seventh Street, where the rioting started . . . That policemen were not too active in stopping the attacks on the Negroes, and even went so far as to use their clubs on colored men who had been arrested, was fully developed at the West Thirty-seventh Street Station yesterday. The policemen, according to their own statements, are feeling vindictive against the colored people generally . . . Many colored people had moved to other sections of the city, while others were careful not to go on the streets . . . In the West Thirty seventh Street Police Station last night a negro was arraigned before the Sergeant at the desk on the charge of carrying concealed weapons. As the man was being taken back to his cell he had to pass through the muster room. A number of policemen who were held there on reserve jumped up from their chairs, grabbed their night sticks, and beat the young negro over the head. ‘Please do not kill me; I did nothing,’ cried the man as he fell to the floor. Other negroes brought into the station protested against the way they had been treated. They declared that the policemen were taking revenge on them for something with which they had nothing to do.”
A Times editorial the same day, August 17, declared “A Disgrace to The Police.”
“The record of the police in the riotous attacks on the Negroes in their quarter on Wednesday night may briefly be summed up. They stood idly by for the most part while the Negroes were being beaten except when they joined savagely in the sport, until the rioting threatened to extend dangerously; then they gradually dispersed the crowds, arresting almost no whites and many blacks, most of the latter being clubbed most unmercifully. This record is fully established by the testimony of many eye-witnesses, and there is nothing in the official reports so far published to contradict it.”
The Citizens’ Protective League published a pamphlet, “Story of the Riot,” that included sworn affidavits from African Americans victimized by white rioters and police officers. In a sworn affidavit on August 28, John Hains, a New York City longshoreman, described his arrest, in his home, early in the morning of August 16.
“I reside at No. 341 West 36th Street. I am a laborer, and am at present employed as a longshoreman at Pier 16, North River. On the evening of August 15, 1900, I went to bed as usual at 9:30 o’clock. About two o’clock in the morning I was awakened by somebody beating me on the back with a club. When I awoke, I found six policemen in the room; they had broken in the door. They asked me for the revolver with which they said I had been shooting out of the window. I told them I did not have a revolver. One of the officers said that he had seen me shoot out of the window. Three officers then began to club me, while the other three were searching the house . . . They dragged me out of the house, and proceeded to take me to the station house. I was only in my undershirt, being asleep at the time they broke into the house, and begged them to allow me to put on my trousers and my shoes. They only sneered at this, and one of the officers said, ‘You’ll be d – – d lucky if you get their alive.’ Here another of the officers pulled out a revolver and said, ‘Let’s shoot the d – – d nigger,’ to which a third officer replied, ‘We can take the black son of a b— to the station house as he is.’ When I got to the station house, I was bleeding from my head and other parts of my body, as a result of these clubbings.”
In a sworn affidavit on September 6, Walter Gregory corroborated John Hains’ claims.
“On August 15th, 1900, I was boarding with Mr. [William] Seymour at 341 West 36th Street. John Hains, Mr. Seymour, and myself were sitting together at our home until about nine o’clock that evening, when Hains went to bed. Mr. Seymour and I were up until about one o’clock, when we went to bed. In the early part of the evening there was a lot of shouting going on in 36th Street, but I heard no shooting. About two o’clock in the morning we were awakened by shooting in front of the house. Seymour and I walked to the window and looked out to see what was the matter. I did not see any colored people on the street at that time, and the shooting was evidently done by white people. Just then I heard somebody break open the front door of the house. There were several people; they were talking in a noisy manner, but I could not hear what they said. As they reached our door some one rapped on it, and said, ‘Open the door.’ I said, ‘I can’t.’ Mr. Seymour and I hurriedly ran to the fire escape undressed. As we did so we passed Hains, who was fast asleep. I shook him and said, ‘A big crowd is coming in the house.’ I do not think he heard what I said, and he fell asleep again. Seymour and I went down the fire escape and into the yard at 339, where we remained until matters had quieted down a little. I could hear Hains say repeatedly, ‘Don’t kill me!’ The people in the houses were screaming. About three or four o’clock, when things were quiet again, we went back to our room. The bed in which Hains slept was all bloody.”
In a sworn affidavit on September 10, Josephine Bullock testified.
“I reside at 351 West 36th Street. On Wednesday, August 15th, 1900, about 9:30 o’clock P. M., I saw a crowd chase a colored man and beat him, on the corner of 9th Avenue and 36th Street. The said man succeeded in breaking away from the mob, and ran towards my house. When he reached the stoop some of the male tenants who were seated on the stoop told him to come in there, adding that ‘if they kill one they might as well kill all of them.’ All during the evening the rioting continued, and from the rear of the house I heard screams and groans coming from the houses facing on 37th Street. About two o’clock A. M. I heard shooting in the street, and in a short while after I saw two police officers dragging a colored man from 341 West 36th Street, who had on no clothing except a gauze undershirt. The officers were clubbing the colored man, and the man was begging them not to club him, as he had done nothing. The only answer he got was more blows and a reply from one of the officers as follows: ‘Shut up, you black son of a b—-, or I’ll kill you.'”
Many of the blacks victimized by the police were immigrants. On August 25 the Times reported:
“Dr. M. S. N. Pierre of 318 West Forty-first Street, a Negro from British Guiana, and 200 of his fellow-British subjects have prepared a petition to Percy Sanderson, British Consul, asking him to take the necessary steps for their protection. The petition alleges that the signers were brutally attacked by the mob in the recent riots, and that the police, instead of giving them protection, actually urged and incited the mob to greater fury. The Consul is reminded that the signers have, as subjects of her Britannic Majesty, been educated to respect law and order and the legally constituted authorities, and if permitted will do s. They believe, however, that there is no adequate protection afforded to them under the present circumstances.”
In September 1900, the President of the New York City Police Board launched an investigation into charges of police brutality. On December 9, the New York Times reported that the “Police Are Exonerated.”
“Bernard J. York, President of the Board of Police Commissioners, who conducted the investigation made by the Police Board into the charges made against policemen in connection with the Negro troubles on the west side last August, made public yesterday a report on his investigation. The report fails to fix the blame for the clubbings on any policeman. It goes into details in several cases, and states in substance that the police did no more than their duty during the days of the race riots . . . Acting Capt. Cooney . . . swears positively that no assault was committed in his presence or to his knowledge, and he would have seen it. He is corroborated in this by a number of witnesses. An officer who would commit an assault on a prisoner in a station house or permit such an assault is a coward, and unfit to wear the uniform of the force.”
As Donald Trump and his supporters rush to the defense of police officers and police departments accused of systemic racism and brutality, it is worth remembering the comment by Acting Captain John Cooney, commander of New York City’s 20th police precinct in 1900: “An officer who would commit an assault on a prisoner in a station house or permit such an assault is a coward, and unfit to wear the uniform of the force.”
Photos, from above: New York Police Commissioner William “Big Bill” Devery; New York police officer, 1908; and 1871 Map of NYC police precincts.