Blackout ’77: Part II



All Five Boroughs

Neighborhood: All Over, Multiple

Merchants and police had the first say, but in no time, countless others got into the fray.

“They are jackals, that’s why,” said a city councilman who represented a heavily looted Brooklyn neighborhood. “Jackals who took advantages of the darkness to destroy our stores and services.”

“Why do they do it?” asked an eighteen-year-old, as if the answer were obvious. He, too, lived in a heavily looted Brooklyn neighborhood. “Got no summer jobs. That’s why.”
He worked in a variety store on Utica Avenue. But, he said, the looters “have nothing to do. So they come down here.”

“When you see a black florist on Nostrand Avenue wiped out,” and a “black-owned supermarket on the same street suffer the same fate . . . how can I buy excuses that no jobs and poverty motivated this mob action?” asked a state assemblyman from Brooklyn. “It is vandalism. Vandalism. And we can’t coddle or pamper acts of vandalism.”

“When you are hungry and you haven’t worked in a long time . . . and the opportunity presents itself, you know it’s wrong, but you take it,” said an East Harlem community leader. “People who are working don’t need to steal.”

“When you’re hungry, you’re hungry,” said the East Village activist.

The looters, he said, were not hungry. If they were, they would not have waited for the lights to go out to “rebel.”
He was a former radical who went into party politics to embarrass concessions out of the system. He believed in confrontation and protest. But the looting was “not a protest, just a bunch of clowns,” many of them hustlers and junkies, going “inside the crowd,” egging it on, “taking advantage of the situation to benefit themselves.”

“They don’t have no chance out here,” said the leader of an East Harlem gang, who spent the night trying to keep his members off the street. “So when they see the opportunity, they take it.”

“In emergencies, people do what they do in everyday life,” said a sociologist.

Crime was up dramatically since 1965; the looters were probably “thieves and vandals. The looting should not be thought of as a change in people but [as] a change in opportunity.”

“Black teenage unemployment . . . is twice what it was a decade ago,” said a Manhattan state senator. “The family income level disparity between Blacks and whites has steadily worsened, and as many Blacks are unemployed today as during the days of the Great Depression. We have systematically sowed the seeds of despair and in so doing have cultivated chaos.”

“Godlessness,” said a Long Island woman. “Ever since the late 1960s, when we had leaders from the president on down who forgot that they were under God and the Ten Commandments, there has been this feeling of anything goes. Nixon was pardoned and sent to San Clemente instead being tried, convicted, and sent to jail. Eventually the trouble trickles down. And people think: If he can get away with it, why shouldn’t I.”

“God” gave “poor people their bread” said a member of another street gang, the Savage Skulls. “The poor people only want the same things the cops have: TVs, nice furniture, shit like that. And food. People have to eat.”

“I don’t think it had much to do with the loot,” said a Bedford-Stuyvesant social worker who had passed the hours on her stoop with her husband and their neighbors, talking and drinking beer. Although new to the neighborhood, she and her husband were already active in their block association; they were trying to figure out what to do about the boys who loitered at the top of the subway stairs, harassing people and occasionally snatching a purse.

She thought of the looters as she thought of those boys. They were angry, “getting back” at people. When she listened to their talk, she heard a lot of “I hate whitey.” She understood the anger—storekeepers often treated her “like dirt.” But not the hate. “They’ve got no skills; they can’t read or write; they don’t know how to do anything. All they know how to do is hate.”



Excerpted from BLACKOUT by James Goodman, to be published by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux LLC. Copyright (c) 2003 by James Goodman. All rights reserved.

Mr. Goodman has compiled this narrative of New York’s 1977 blackout from interviews, city records, first-person chronicles, and other accounts. For a complete annotated source list, please see BLACKOUT.

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