“If there is anyone who entertained any thought that they could make capital out of this unfortunate incident, I’m sure they will be greatly mistaken,” New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, broadcasted from police headquarters in Harlem on August 1st, 1943.
This was the last time that New York City imposed a curfew on its residents. The restriction, which was imposed solely in Harlem, came after a white NYPD officer shot a black U.S. Army soldier. Unfounded news spread that the soldier, Robert Bandy, was killed by the officer, John Collins. Bandy did not actually die from the gunshot, but the rumors prompted the looting of white-owned businesses and clashes with police, as police killed six people and arrested 600.
After the murder of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis, seemingly endless protests have spread to major cities and small towns throughout America. Mayors across the country — from Atlanta to Chicago to Los Angeles — have turned to ordering people to stay inside in hopes of quelling the uprisings.
“If you choose to protest today, do it in the daytime hours and then go home,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio — apparently believing the First Amendment applies only during his preferred hours — said Tuesday at a City Hall press conference. Since Friday, New York City’s once-eerily-sparse streets have been filled with protesters, as NYPD vehicles were both set ablaze and plowed into crowds of people.
Following mayoral nemesis Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement of a citywide curfew that started the evening before, which was largely unenforced and had started at 11 p.m., de Blasio said that a curfew would again be imposed but starting at 8 p.m. tonight, and would last through the weekend. The curfew exempts police, first responders, essential workers, people seeking medical attention, and the homeless. Looting that occurred in SoHo, midtown, and the Bronx was cited as the impetus. Coronavirus, on the other hand, never produced the same level of lockdown.
Jumaane Williams, the outspoken public advocate of New York City, addressed reporters outside of the Barclays Center one minute after the curfew began last night. “Instead of saying this is how we’re going to address the pain and anger that everyone has been talking about, we’re gonna give you more police, and we’re gonna put a curfew on this city,” he said.
To better understand how the city that never sleeps got to this point, we are looking to New York’s history with Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society. The Harlem riot of 1943 erupted during World War II in the streets of New York, in a neighborhood that Morris described as “the cultural capital of black America.”
Can you explain what happened during the Harlem riot of 1943?
I want you to kind of get a picture of America in 1943. I mean, World War II had started and you had Roosevelt giving speeches about the four freedoms. And black people were listening to all of this, of course. Now, were the blacks in Harlem stupid? Did they think everything was OK? No, they didn’t. So there’s this dispute at this hotel that at one point was upscale, but had become a location for prostitution. And there was a police officer stationed in the lobby because it was a known prostitution location. Somehow there was a dispute with this lady, the exact circumstances of the dispute are somewhat in dispute. But the bottom line was that at some point the police officer attempted to take the lady in question into custody, for disturbing the peace. And along comes this active-duty soldier, who happened to be black, and he and the officer got into it a little bit, and somehow he wound up with the officer’s nightstick. He didn’t give it back fast enough. And the officer shot him in the shoulder, a grazing wound. And they took them both to the hospital. And there a crowd gathers outside the hospital, and somebody says that the police killed this African American soldier.
The soldier, as you note, was not actually killed. So then what happens?
The propagation of incendiary misinformation was that the soldier had been killed by the police. And that started outside the hospital. And then some rocks were thrown from the roof into the crowd gathered outside the hospital. And then the crowd, which was very massive, broke up and started wandering in packs of 50 to 100 people throughout Harlem, and busting up all the white-owned businesses. And that went on for two days.
So then what?
It was thousands and thousands of people involved in the riots. In 1943, of course, blacks were at best second-class citizens in Harlem. They knew this. And here’s young black men fighting for freedom for America overseas, and then they come back and they’re here in the United States and they got shot. So the anger just boiled over. I would point to that sociological parameter as fundamental. Of course, there was the ongoing perception of inequity, and inequality. Economically and socially. That was an ongoing condition, and then for a black soldier to be shot by a police officer, that was the tipping point.
And La Guardia was mayor at the time?
La Guardia was the mayor in 1943. In 1935, he had instituted this commission to see what started the [Harlem riot of 1935], and what they could do for the underlying conditions. But there were still these fundamental inequities that were profoundly perceived by the residents, especially the black residents, of Harlem. La Guardia did send a bunch of prestigious blacks, including Sam Battle, around to try to calm things down. That they managed to actually calm things down in a day and a half was pretty amazing. But there was a lot of damage. 600 people were arrested. A bunch of people died. It was pretty fucked up.
And was the curfew put in place during this day and a half? How did that go down?
Yeah, he put the curfew in place. It went down. They enforced it, so a lot of people got arrested for violating the curfew. They used every possible avenue for disseminating the information. It was a major component for stopping the riots. You had these major black figures circulating throughout going, “OK, let’s stop destroying our own community. So you better stay home or you’re going to get arrested.” One was the positive and one was the negative, and they were synergistic in persuading people to not get into the line of fire.
Was the curfew in place for all of New York, or just Harlem?
It was for Harlem. So the city was able to focus its resources on Harlem. They brought in a couple thousand outside officers to blanket the area. It was a major, major presence, that’s without a doubt. La Guardia was a very hands-on mayor. We should have him now. He was really committed to dealing with inequality and inequities in our society. But, I mean, you know if people think things are inequitable now, they should have been around then. Can you imagine? It was so blatant.
Do you see any similarities between now and then? How would what happened in 1943 be different if everyone had cell phones?
In 1943, the dissemination of a piece of mistaken, incendiary information spread like wildfire and blew up the community. Which means that the tinder was there, the fuel was there. The profound, fundamental unhappiness with the prevailing social, economic, political environment. It was there, and it didn’t take much to blow up. In this particular case today, there was no misinformation. We saw it. I guess that’s the contrast. We actually saw them kill this guy with our own eyes.