The Harlem Uprising. Segregation and Inequality in Postwar New York City

Hayes, Christopher
New York, NY 2021: Columbia University Press
Anzahl Seiten
VII, 339 S.
$ 30.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Pia Beumer, Lehrstuhl für Nordamerikanische Geschichte, Universität Erfurt

In The Harlem Uprising, historian Christopher Hayes takes us on a journey into Central Harlem to witness one of the most sustained upheavals of the 1960s, sparked by the killing of the 15-year-old African American James Powell at the hands of 36-year-old white off-duty police officer Thomas Gilligan on July 16, 1964. The protesters’ most pressing demand - the establishment of a civilian complaint review board - was ultimately defeated by the New York Police Department’s union lining up as a political force. Offering a holistic account of the state of life in Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant at the time, Hayes argues that Powell’s death was a catalyst for the greater despair over American inequality and discrimination. The Harlem Uprising, therefore, casts doubt on the perception of a liberal post-war North and sheds light on the persistent structural racism underpinning society in the 1960s.

Hayes’ monograph comprises three equally powerful parts that detail the causes, dynamics, and aftermath of the uprising. In the first five chapters of his book, he contrasts the urban crisis in Central Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant against the national backdrop of hard-earned civil rights victories to demonstrate how discriminatory practices in housing, education, and employment continued to drive communities into misery. However, since Blacks and whites in the North were considered equal before the law, structural racism hid underground, frustrating efforts to eradicate it. By telling the story from the perspective of Black New Yorkers, Hayes turns his attention to their continuous struggle to push for change in areas where racism lurked still. Drawing from a broad range of sources, like citizen letters, interviews, photographs, and neighborhood association records, Hayes succeeds in providing a more intimate look into the communities’ social lives and local organizational structures, and he portrays Harlem as the political center of Black New York.

Particularly striking is his analysis of the discriminatory practices of Harlem’s majority-white police force that collaborated with city officials and organized crime figures to carry out corruption, bribery, and drug trafficking within the borough. Lacking resources and fair access to the justice system, Harlemites struggled to hold police accountable for their crimes (p. 88). Addressing the rather subtle ways in which destructive police work weakened the communities’ social and economic networks, Hayes expands existing studies of police power beyond physical violence perpetuated by the NYPD.1 The neighborhood provided “a place of opportunity,” Hayes reflects, where state institutions and businesspeople took “advantage of a captive population, one with a deliberately diminished capacity to stand up for itself” (p. 104). Until they finally did, in dramatic fashion.

In chapters six through eleven, Hayes offers a chronicle of each of the six days of protest. He pulls us onto the seething streets of Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant, closely following the unfolding clashes between enraged demonstrators and martially minded police officers that resulted in the destruction of local businesses and institutions and hundreds of arrests and injuries - some of them fatal. Very few protestors were willing to surrender to authoritarian violence without resistance. In the North, self-defense and self-preservation were considered core principles of activism. While the fight for civil rights, whether in Mississippi or New York, was generally considered a shared struggle, different systems of oppression gave rise to different forms of resistance (p. 109). Acknowledging the movement’s geographical but also ideological differences, Hayes argues, is crucial for understanding the Northern and Southern protests’ respective dynamics and motives, as well as the level of violence that eventually erupted in New York. While Black leaders sympathized with the desperation of the protestors, they also warned that chaos and destruction could harm the movement’s national agenda and benefit the soaring right-wing law and order politics of Barry Goldwater. However, their attempt at conciliation with then-Mayor Wagner got them into “hostile territory” with the protestors who grew tired of compromises (p. 133). Losing faith in Black leadership, they felt in need to speak up for themselves. Eventually, concludes Hayes, the uprising of 1964 provided for what would soon become the Black Power Movement (p. 240).

On the opposing side, the backlash of white New Yorkers showed the prevalent hostility towards civil rights in a city so commonly known for its progressivism. With each day of uprising passing by, a mounting front of counter-protesters gathered in front of the NYPD headquarters unfettered to vent their racist agenda. Their subsequent violence, however, was measured with double standards. While the focus was on activists "rioting," few were concerned with the "unidirectional, citizen-on-citizen violence that took place” in plain view of the NYPD (p. 178). White residents and like-minded politicians, concludes Hayes in chapter eleven, criminalized protestors in an attempt to distract from underlying systemic problems. Most importantly, however, their criminalization served as justification for the growing backlash of the police and politicians alike against the movement’s agenda. Eventually, the nation’s largest police union, allying with the city’s conservative party, succeeded twice in striking down civilian oversight. Hayes’ analysis of their „racially charged“ campaign material in chapters thirteen and fourteen reveals how they rallied around fears of crime, integration, and taxation (p. 220). In line with the growing scholarship reflecting on the establishment of the carceral state2, Hayes investigates the police as a political force and provides insight into their early militarization.

The Harlem Uprising refines our understanding of protest culture in America and reminds us once again that neither James Powell in 1964 nor George Floyd in 2020 fell victim to individual failure but a failing system. Corresponding with most recent studies on Black rebellion3, Hayes demonstrates that abusive police power - whether of physical, economic, or political nature - perpetuates a cycle of violence in those communities most in need of protection. Drawing timely connections to most recent events, his book underscores the importance of persistent protest. Without the continuous struggles of the Black Lives Matter activists and the public pressure they applied, Derek Chauvin would never have been suspended nor charged - much less convicted. At the same time, his book warns against overlooking the profound (and increasingly armed) backlash against the demands for equality and justice then and now.

1 Cf. Marilynn S. Johnson, Street Justice. A History of Police Violence in New York City, Boston 2004; Clarence Taylor, Fight the Power. African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City, New York 2018.
2 Cf. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Anniversary Edition, New York 2020 (1st Edition 2010).
3 Cf. Elizabeth Hinton, America on Fire. The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s, New York 2021.

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