On July 16, 1964, a white off-duty New York City police lieutenant fatally shot a black ninth-grader in Harlem on allegations that the teenager had a knife and was lunging at the officer.
While the details of exactly what happened that day are still hotly contested and debated, it would seem that the event was racially motivated. It triggered a wave of riots that not only consumed New York City, but spread to cities like Rochester, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois; and Jersey City, New Jersey — all of which were influenced, in part, by allegations of local police brutality.
As the nation continues to deal with instances of alleged aggressive policing, such as recent allegations of a California Highway Patrol officer striking a confused or mentally ill woman on the side of a freeway and the aftermath of New York City’s escalated use of “stop & frisk,” however, questions of the proliferation of police brutality remain relevant.
Examples — such as the April arrest and assault of Neykeyia Parker by a Houston police officer for trespassing 10 feet in front of Parker’s front door, June’s racially-charged vice raid at the Copper Tan and Spa in Chicago, in which the spa’s owner was slapped and insulted by the police while being handcuffed, and the May incident in Georgia in which a baby was severely burned by a “flash bang” grenade thrown by a Special Response Team during a botched late night raid — highlight the growing demand, particularly in minority communities, to address the modern-day role and liability of the police.
At the heart of the events 50 years ago in Harlem was the question of how a police lieutenant with 17 years of experience with the New York Police Department and 16 years of wartime military experience could not control the situation without the use of deadly force — especially considering the officer was nearly twice the size of the teenager and the teenager was only armed with a knife.
On that day, the superintendent of a residential building in a predominately white neighborhood became irate with the black students sitting on the stoops of the building. Allegedly yelling racial epithets, the superintendent turned a hose on the students. As they responded by throwing cans and bottles at the superintendent, one student — James Powell, 15, a passerby who was not part of the group on the stoops — chased the superintendent into the building.
These events were witnessed by Lt. Thomas Gilligan, who had been at a nearby shop. Gilligan ran to the building and fired a warning shot through a window. Alleging that Powell emerged with a knife in his hand, Gilligan fired a second shot through Powell’s forearm and into the teenager’s chest, then a third into his abdomen. While Gilligan would ultimately be exonerated of any wrongdoing in this case he was charged as a concession to stop the riots, which grew out of the police’s control, the situation touched off frustrations that would ultimately lead to more than 4,000 residents of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant rioting for six nights, resulting in 118 injuries, one death and 465 arrests.
In the 50 years since this tragedy, police brutality continues to be a national problem, with both the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror” being used as rationale for the police to take a stronger crime prevention role, complete with the federal government providing many local police forces with military weapons and vehicles.