Disorder spreads beyond 125th Street

The expanding police presence did not bring an end to the disorder. Rather, around 10pm, a second phase of violence centered on the avenues began. Evidence for the precise timing of this shift is limited to broad accounts of the riot; few of the reports of violence, damage, and arrests on the avenues on the map include information on when they occurred. What evidence there is suggests that the violence spread progressively from 125th Street north and south on the avenues. By 11.30pm, violence had arrived in Puerto Rican neighborhoods 10 blocks south of 125th Street, as well on 138th Street, 13 blocks north. These outbreaks came not from a mass of people moving together, in unison, but from small groups that emerged from crowds as most people on the street watched rather than participated. That pattern is evident in the arrests police made in their attempts to control the crowds – of men whose attacks and calls for more violence drew together crowds, and of men directing groups in attacks on stores. Men like William Ford, 17 year old laborer, who a police officer alleged threw a brick through Kress’ window, and shouted, “shed white blood, kill the cops, there has been enough black blood shed here now,” “causing a very large and threatening crowd to gather.” And men like James Pringle, a 28 year old laborer, part of a group of 25-30 men at West 123rd St and 7th Avenue, who allegedly called out, “Let’s go cross the way and scale rocks at the cops, they are coming down our side of the street.”  A small number of women appear among those arrested for both inciting a riot and breaking windows; although they did not dominate the crowds as they had in the hours immediately after Rivera was caught, they remained in the streets, and not just as spectators, as the photo favored by many white newspapers suggested.

Escalating violence against whites

This new phase of the riot saw an escalation in attacks on whites. Assaults came in various forms and places: one man was stabbed, several were beaten, with the remainder struck by bricks and bottles. Two separate attacks in which bricks and bottles were thrown at newspaper reporters at the intersection of 125th Street and 7th Avenue likely took place in this time period, when crowds were gathered at that location. Crowds also pelted vehicles driven by whites, smashing multiple windows on a bus traveling north through Harlem. A bus en route to Boston that suffered a similar bombardment likely traveled through Harlem in this time period. In some cases violence against property and individuals was entangled. Shopkeepers closing their stores also suffered attacks. Only one attack targeted at a black man, 34-year-old Lyman Quarterman, appears in the record for this period, and it was also the only one involving shooting. (There are few reports of members of crowds firing weapons; police were the ones with guns. But there is no evidence of the investigation of this death).

One reason why this violence dropped out of accounts of the riot was that in very few incidents was anyone arrested. Missiles that broke windows and struck police, pedestrians and vehicles, and the shot that killed Quarterman, came from within a mass of people, making it very difficult to identify who was responsible. The only arrest in this period was of a man who allegedly threw the brick that injured a police officer trying to protect a store. As a result, there were no legal proceedings to insert this violence into the post-riot record. Assaults on whites appear mostly in reports and records of ambulance dispatches and hospital admissions.

Breaking windows beyond 125th Street

The spread of violence to the avenues also saw widespread smashing of store windows. Although such attacks had occurred on 125th Street, their spread to the avenues represented a shift in the disorder. Those businesses, while overwhelmingly white, were different from those on 125th Street: smaller in size, with a longer history of doing business with black customers, and little recent history as the targets of boycotts and pickets. And more of the businesses on the avenues were black-owned than on 125th Street. Newspaper reports made much of the fact that crowds attacked at least some black businesses, which they interpreted as indicating that the crowd’s anger was economic rather than racial. But that interpretation assumes that the crowds on the streets were familiar enough with the owners of every business in the neighborhood to be discriminating in their attacks. Putting up signs identifying their businesses as black owned certainly indicates that some black business owners did not think that was the case. And the available evidence suggests that the signs worked, and businesses that identified themselves as black were spared attack (and in one case, where one window had been broken prior to a sign being posted, once the sign went up, attacks ceased).

More significantly, the interpretation of this wave of attacks on stores as based in economic anger relies on the absence of attacks on whites. Given the evidence that such attacks did in fact take place, businesses are better seen as providing an alternative outlet for racial antagonism. Most attacks on whites occurred around 125th Street, with a small number further south, around the stores on 116th Street. Crowds would have encountered few whites in the areas of Harlem over which they ranged after 10pm. Nor would they have initially encountered many police, as they moved away from where most were stationed, into areas where the police presence was limited to patrolling vehicles. In the absence of those targets, the outlet for racial anger that was available to crowds in the streets were the windows of white businesses.

Police fail to impose order

The limited police presence contributed to the extensive damage crowds wrought on those businesses. Even in the cordon around 125th Street police set up they were unable to protect all the businesses. While some officers were stationed on the sidewalk in front of stores, most took up positions at intersections, from which they tried to cover the surrounding blocks. Beyond the cordon, police control was analogous to the imperial power highlighted by Vincent Brown’s spatial narrative of the slave revolt in Jamaica in 1760, exercised “mainly over narrow bands, or corridors, and over enclaves and irregular zones around them.” Reports of missiles thrown at officers from rooftops and hallways highlight that police control did not extend off the street, or even off the avenues into the side streets. Police did make more arrests after 10 pm than they had earlier in the evening; both local precincts were filled by 11 pm (indicating that many of the events on the map that are not on the timeline likely occurred in this timeframe). But crowds on the streets continued to grow, with the spreading disorder only taking noise that would have drew residents onto the streets further into Harlem: the screaming sirens of patrol cars and the sound of pistol shots fired in the air to try to disperse crowds; the shattering of glass; the clanging of fire alarms; and the clamor of the crowds. Notwithstanding that it was a cold and wet weekday evening, not the warm summer weekend that typically provided the crowds to fuel rioting, several thousand residents were on the street. Many of those people would not have been down on 125th Street, or involved in the attacks on stores that events there had provoked.

III: Midnight to 2.30AM