Most of those arraigned in the Magistrates Court faced charges of burglary, disorderly conduct, or riot.

The definition of burglary centered on breaking into a building; prosecutors applied it when the riot left Harlem’s streets. They charged those arrested for looting with burglary; third degree burglary covered situations if there was no one in the premises at the time an individual allegedly broke in and stole goods, as was generally the case in the 1935 riot.1

The definition of disorderly conduct centered on acts that disturbed public spaces; prosecutors applied it to what happened on Harlem’s streets.  New York’s disorderly conduct statute employed such broad and general language that the charge was employed against a wide range of acts, but its focus on those “with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or thereby a breach of the peace made be occasioned” made it a clear fit with the events of the riot. The specified acts included language and behavior judged “offensive, disorderly, threatening, abusive, or insulting,” committed “in such a manner as to annoy, disturb, interfere with, obstruct, or be offensive to others,” that “cause[d] a crowd to collect,” that involved “shouts or makes a noise,” and not moving on when asked by police, which could also easily be applied to what happened on Harlem’s streets.2 Most of the cases for which no details survive resulted in a charge of disorderly conduct, suggesting that prosecutors used it for relatively minor acts that attracted little attention from reporters. Where details do survive, the charge was most often made against individuals who broke windows.

New York’s riot statute shared with the definition of disorderly conduct a concern with disruptions to public spaces, focused on acts of force and violence, with the addition of a concern with acts in groups of “three or more persons,” and a specific form of the crime for acts directed against law enforcement.3 Prosecutors applied that statute to individuals who had extorted others to attacks either stores or police, with the latter group held for the Grand Jury.

  1. New York Penal Law, s. 400-408. First and second degree burglary also applied only to dwelling houses, while third degree burglary applied to any building.
  2. New York Penal Law, s. 722
  3. New York Penal Law, s. 2090: “three or more persons, having assembled for any purpose, disturb the public peace, by using force or violence to any other person, or to property, or threaten or attempt to commit such disturbance, or to do an unlawful act by the use of force or violence, accompanied with the power of immediate execution of such threat or attempt.” Those who incited attacks on police would have been liable to up to five years in prison and a fine of not more than $1000. Those directing or encouraging others, or participating in the riot, carried a punishment of up to two years in prison and a fine of not more than $500.