Midnight brought a new phase of disorder. Looting began. The time lag between attacks on stores and looting suggests that it was the work of new groups who had joined the crowds. While “those who were angry vented their wrath by smashing the stores,” as Claude McKay put it, “those who were hungry looted them.” Given that the riot occurred in the midst of the Depression, which had hit Harlem residents particularly hard, it is unsurprising that some saw an opportunity to alleviate their economic needs by looting stores that been targets of racial violence. That the looting appears to have been concentrated on Lenox Avenue north of 125th Street – with the caveat that the number of arrests for looting missing from my map leaves gaps in any pattern it shows – adds support to that interpretation. The street was in some ways the least likely of Harlem’s avenues to be the main target of looting, as it had long been home to lower grade stores than on 7th Avenue. But the blocks to the east of Lenox Ave were Harlem’s poorest and most overcrowded.
Included in the changing crowds were at least some with other motives who might have deserved the label of hoodlum that the white press initially rushed to apply to all those involved in the riot. Louis Cobb, a 38 year old laborer arrested for looting a liquor store on Lenox Avenue, for example, had five convictions for burglary, robbery drug possession, possession of a firearm and procuring. He seems unlikely to have needed to be hungry to take advantage of broken windows. At least one white man also appeared among those charged with looting.
Police used more force to protect a store’s stock than its windows, shooting at suspected looters rather than in the air. They also made more arrests for looting than any other offence during the riot. Some of the arrests they made reflect that looting took longer than smashing a window, and individuals carrying stolen goods could less easily be lost in the crowds. In fact, police made some arrests away from the site of looting, which was not possible in the case of those breaking windows or assaulting whites. Nonetheless, its clear that police had the same limited success in controlling looting that they did in protecting stores from damage.
Continuing attacks on whites
The outbreak of looting did not end attacks on whites. In this period, August Miller, a 56-year-old white man, was killed, suffering a head injury in the midst of a crowd on 126th and Lenox. This death appears in none of the existing accounts of the riot, perhaps because Miller never regained consciousness, and police could find no witnesses to establish the circumstances in which he was injured. Another white man was found beaten unconscious in an alley. Other attacks took the same form as earlier in the evening, with more individuals being struck by flying bricks and bottles. Some attacks took place in conjunction with attacks on property: Herman Young was struck by rock that broke one of his store windows, and a clerk was assaulted in front of the store where he worked. Crowds also continued to bombard vehicles driven by whites. A police officer was struck while on an emergency truck, and another had his car “battered by rocks and its windows shattered,” while one driver reported not only his car being hit multiple times as he drove up 7th Ave, but also seeing other cars driven by whites with broken windows. Only one such attack, which likely occurred in this time period, was reported in the press; Patricia O’Rourke had been injured when her car window shattered, and a photograph of her leaving the hospital appeared on the front page of the NYDN. It seems likely that these attacks are indicative of a widespread pattern: since most drivers suffered limited injuries, most would not have been reported. Again, police made few arrests in these cases.
Violence against blacks
Unlike earlier in the evening, a small number of blacks appear among those assaulted after midnight; most hit by flying objects, although two were shot. There is no evidence of the circumstances in which they were attacked or the race of their assailants. No such doubt surrounds who was responsible for the second black death of the riot. Officer John McInerney shot 16 year old Lloyd Hobbs. He and his brother had emerged from a theater on 125th Street to find damaged buildings and crowds on the street. On their walk home, they joined a crowd examining a damaged auto parts store. As McInerney drove past he claimed he saw Hobbs looting the store; Hobbs’ brother said they were merely standing on the street. As crowd fled the arriving police, McInerney shot Hobbs in the back. He claimed he had called for the boy to halt; multiple witnesses disagreed. Twice a grand jury sided with the officer and refused to indict him.