When Harlem Was Occupied Territory
In 1966 James Baldwin wrote an essay in which he described the tense relationship—really no relationship at all—between the police and the people of Harlem. Sadly, it hasn’t dated much.
The thickety mash-up of police brutality and race is an irrefutable part of our history and our present reality. That in mind, we’re especially proud to share this piece by one of our most brilliant writers. James Baldwin wrote “A Report from Occupied Territory” for The Nation on July 11, 1966. It is featured in the essential anthology, James Baldwin: Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison and published by The Library of America. It appears here with permission from the James Baldwin Estate.—Alex Belth
On April 17, 1964, in Harlem, New York City, a young salesman, father of two, left a customer’s apartment and went into the streets. There was a great commotion in the streets, which, especially since it was a spring day, involved many people, including running, frightened, little boys. They were running from the police. Other people, in windows, left their windows, in terror of the police because the police had their guns out, and were aiming the guns at the roofs. Then the salesman noticed that two of the policemen were beating up a kid: “So I spoke up and asked them, ‘why are you beating him like that?’ Police jump up and start swinging on me. He put the gun on me and said, ‘get over there.’ I said, ‘what for?’ ”
An unwise question. Three of the policemen beat up the salesman in the streets. Then they took the young salesman, whose hands had been handcuffed behind his back, along with four others, much younger than the salesman, who were handcuffed in the same way, to the police station. There: “About thirty-five I’d say came into the room, and started beating, punching us in the jaw, in the stomach, in the chest, beating us with a padded club—spit on us, call us niggers, dogs, animals—they call us dogs and animals when I don’t see why we are the dogs and animals the way they are beating us. Like they beat me they beat the other kids and the elderly fellow. They throw him almost through one of the radiators. I thought he was dead over there.”
“The elderly fellow” was Fecundo Acion, a 47-year-old Puerto Rican seaman, who had also made the mistake of wanting to know why the police were beating up children. An adult eyewitness reports, “Now here come an old man walking out a stoop and asked one cop, ‘say, listen, sir, what’s going on out here?’ The cop turn around and smash him a couple of times in the head.” And one of the youngsters said, “He get that just for a question. No reason at all, just for a question.”
No one had, as yet, been charged with any crime. But the nightmare had not yet really begun. The salesman had been so badly beaten around one eye that it was found necessary to hospitalize him. Perhaps some sense of what it means to live in occupied territory can be suggested by the fact that the police took him to Harlem Hospital themselves—nearly nineteen hours after the beating. For fourteen days, the doctors at Harlem Hospital told him that they could do nothing for his eye, and he was removed to Bellevue Hospital, where for fourteen days, the doctors tried to save the eye. At the end of fourteen days it was clear that the bad eye could not be saved and was endangering the good eye. All that could be done, then, was to take the bad eye out.
As of my last information, the salesman is on the streets again, with his attaché case, trying to feed his family. He is more visible now because he wears an eye patch; and because he questioned the right of two policemen to beat up one child, he is known as a “cop hater.” Therefore, “I have quite a few police look at me now pretty hard. My lawyer he axe (asked) me to keep somebody with me at all times ’cause the police may try to mess with me again.”
You will note that there is not a suggestion of any kind of appeal to justice, and no suggestion of any recompense for the grave and gratuitous damage which this man has endured. His tone is simply the tone of one who has miraculously survived—he might have died; as it is, he is merely half blind. You will also note that the patch over his eye has had the effect of making him, more than ever, the target of the police. It is a dishonorable wound, not earned in a foreign jungle but in the domestic one—not that this would make any difference at all to the nevertheless insuperably patriotic policeman—and it proves that he is a “bad nigger.” (“Bad niggers,” in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed.) The police, who have certainly done their best to kill him, have also provided themselves with a pretext derisoire by filing three criminal charges against him. He is charged with beating up a schoolteacher, upsetting a fruit stand, and assaulting the (armed) police. Furthermore, he did all of these things in the space of a single city block, and simultaneously.
* * *
The salesman’s name is Frank Stafford. At the time all this happened, he was 31 years old. And all of this happened, all of this and a great deal more, just before the “long, hot summer” of 1964 which, to the astonishment of nearly all New Yorkers and nearly all Americans, to the extremely verbal anguish of The New York Times, and to the bewilderment of the rest of the world, eventually erupted into a race riot. It was the killing of a 15-year-old Negro boy by a white policeman which overflowed the unimaginably bitter cup.
As a result of the events of April 17, and of the police performance that day, and because Harlem is policed like occupied territory, six young Negro men, the oldest of whom is 20, are now in prison, facing life sentences for murder. Their names are Wallace Baker, Daniel Hamm, Walter Thomas, Willie Craig, Ronald Felder and Robert Rice. Perhaps their names don’t matter. They might be my brothers, they might also be yours. My report is based, in part, on Truman Nelson’s The Torture of Mothers (The Garrison Press, 15 Olive Street, Newburyport, Mass., with an introduction by Maxwell Geismar). The Torture of Mothers is a detailed account of the case which is now known as the case of The Harlem Six. Mr. Nelson is not, as I have earlier misled certain people into believing, a white Southern novelist, but a white Northern one. It is a rather melancholy comment, I think, on the Northern intellectual community, and it reveals, rather to my despair, how little I have come to expect of it that I should have been led so irresistibly into this error. In a way, though, I certainly have no wish to blame Mr. Nelson for my errors, he is, nevertheless, somewhat himself to blame. His tone makes it clear that he means what he says and he knows what he means. The tone is rare. I have come to expect it only of Southerners—or mainly from Southerners—since Southerners must pay so high a price for their private and their public liberation. But Mr. Nelson actually comes from New England, and is what another age would have called an abolitionist. No Northern liberal would have been capable of it because the Northern liberal considers himself as already saved, whereas the white Southerner has to pay the price for his soul’s salvation out of his own anguish and in his own flesh and in the only time he has. Mr. Nelson wrote the book in an attempt to create publicity and public indignation; whatever money the book makes goes into the effort to free The Harlem Six. I think the book is an extraordinary moral achievement, in the great American tradition of Tom Paine and Frederick Douglass, but I will not be so dishonest as to pretend that I am writing a book review. No, I am writing a report, which is also a plea for the recognition of our common humanity. Without this recognition, our common humanity will be proved in unutterable ways. My report is also based on what I myself know, for I was born in Harlem and raised there. Neither I, nor my family, can be said ever really to have left; we are—perhaps—no longer as totally at the mercy of the cops and the landlords as once we were. In any case, our roots, our friends, our deepest associations are there, and “there” is only about fifteen blocks away.
* * *
This means that I also know, in my own flesh, and know, which is worse, in the scars borne by many of those dearest to me, the thunder and fire of the billy club, the paralyzing shock of spittle in the face, and I know what it is to find oneself blinded, on one’s hands and knees, at the bottom of the flight of steps down which one has just been hurled. I know something else: these young men have been in jail for two years now. Even if the attempts being put forth to free them should succeed, what has happened to them in these two years? People are destroyed very easily. Where is the civilization and where, indeed, is the morality which can afford to destroy so many?
There was a game played for some time between certain highly placed people in Washington and myself before the administration changed and the Great Society reached the planning stage. The game went something like this around April or May, that is as the weather began to be warmer, my phone would ring. I would pick it up and find that Washington was on the line.
Washington: What are you doing for lunch—oh, say, tomorrow, Jim?
Jim: Oh—why—I guess I’m free.
Washington: Why don’t you take the shuttle down? We’ll send a car to the airport. One o’clock all right?
Jim: Sure. I’ll be there.
Washington: Good. Be glad to see you.
So there I would be the next day, like a good little soldier, seated (along with other good little soldiers) around a luncheon table in Washington. The first move was not mine to make, but I knew very well why I had been asked to be there.
Finally, someone would say—we would probably have arrived at the salad—“say, Jim, what’s going to happen this summer?”
This question, translated, meant: Do you think that any of those unemployed, unemployable Negroes who are going to be on the streets all summer will cause us any trouble? What do you think we should do about it? But, later on, I concluded that I had got the second part of the question wrong, they really meant, what was I going to do about it?
Then I would find myself trying patiently to explain that the Negro in America can scarcely yet be considered—for example—as a part of the labor unions—and he is certainly not so considered by the majority of these unions—and that, therefore, he lacks that protection and that incentive. The jobs that Negroes have always held, the lowest jobs, the most menial jobs, are now being destroyed by automation. No remote provision has yet been made to absorb this labor surplus. Furthermore, the Negro’s education, North and South, remains, almost totally, a segregated education, which is but another way of saying that he is taught the habits of inferiority every hour of every day that he lives. He will find it very difficult to overcome these habits. Furthermore, every attempt he makes to overcome them will be painfully complicated by the fact that the ways of being, the ways of life of the despised and rejected, nevertheless, contain an incontestable vitality and authority. This is far more than can be said of the middle class which, in any case, and whether it be black or white, does not dare to cease despising him. He may prefer to remain where he is, given such unattractive choices, which means that he either remains in limbo, or finds a way to use the system in order to beat the system. Thus, even when opportunities—my use of this word is here limited to the industrialized, competitive, contemporary North American sense—hitherto closed to Negroes begin, very grudgingly, to open up, few can be found to qualify for them for the reasons sketched above, and also because it demands a very rare person of any color to risk madness and heartbreak in an attempt to achieve the impossible. (I know Negroes who have gone literally mad because they wished to become commercial air-line pilots.) Nor is this the worst.
The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers—having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones—cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition. What to do in the face of this deep and dangerous estrangement? It seemed to me—I would say, sipping coffee and trying to be calm—that the principle of what had to be done was extremely simple; but before anything could be done, the principle had to be grasped. The principle on which one had to operate was that the government which can force me to pay my taxes and force me to fight in its defense anywhere in the world does not have the authority to say that it cannot protect my right to vote or my right to earn a living or my right to live anywhere I choose. Furthermore, no nation, wishing to call itself free, can possibly survive so massive a defection. What to do? Well, there is a real estate lobby in Albany, for example, and this lobby, which was able to rebuild all of New York, downtown, and for money, in less than twenty years, is also responsible for Harlem and the condition of the people there, and the condition of the schools there, and the future of the children there. What to do? Why is it not possible to attack the power of this lobby? Are their profits more important than the health of our children? What to do? Are textbooks printed in order to teach children, or are the contents of these textbooks to be controlled by the Southern oligarchy and the commercial health of publishing houses? What to do? Why are Negroes and Puerto Ricans virtually the only people pushing trucks in the garment center, and what union has the right to trap and victimize Negroes and Puerto Ricans in this way? None of these things (I would say) could possibly be done without the consent, in fact, of the government, and we in Harlem know this even if some of you profess not to know how such a hideous state of affairs came about. If some of these things are not begun—I would say—then, of course, we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer. Of course, the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.
They thanked me. They didn’t believe me, as I conclude, since nothing was ever done. The summer was always violent. And, in the spring, the phone began to ring again.
Now, what I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco—is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.
This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.
* * *
On April 17, some school children overturned a fruit stand in Harlem. This would have been a mere childish prank if the children had been white—had been, that is, the children of that portion of the citizenry for whom the police work and who have the power to control the police. But these children were black, and the police chased them and beat them and took out their guns; and Frank Stafford lost his eye in exactly the same way The Harlem Six lost their liberty—by trying to protect the younger children. Daniel Hamm, for example, tells us that “…we heard children scream. We turned around and walked back to see what happened. I saw this policeman with his gun out and with his billy in his hand. I like put myself in the way to keep him from shooting the kids. Because first of all he was shaking like a leaf and jumping all over the place. And I thought he might shoot one of them.”
He was arrested, along with Wallace Baker, carried to the police station, beaten—“six and twelve at a time would beat us. They got so tired beating us they just came in and started spitting on us—they even bring phlegm up and spit on me.” This went on all day in the evening. Wallace Baker and Daniel Hamm were taken to Harlem Hospital for X rays and then carried back to the police station, where the beating continued all night. They were eventually released, with the fruit-stand charges pending, in spite of the testimony of the fruit-stand owner. This fruit-stand owner had already told the police that neither Wallace Baker nor Daniel Hamm had ever been at his store and that they certainly had had nothing to do with the fruit-stand incident. But this had no effect on the conduct of the police. The boys had already attracted the attention of the police, long before the fruit-stand riot, and in a perfectly innocent way. They are pigeon fanciers and they keep—kept—pigeons on the roof. But the police are afraid of everything in Harlem and they are especially afraid of the roofs, which they consider to be guerrilla outposts. This means that the citizens of Harlem who, as we have seen, can come to grief at any hour in the streets, and who are not safe at their windows, are forbidden the very air. They are safe only in their houses—or were, until the city passed the No Knock, Stop and Frisk laws, which permit a policeman to enter one’s home without knocking and to stop anyone on the streets, at will, at any hour, and search him. Harlem believes, and I certainly agree, that these laws are directed against Negroes. They are certainly not directed against anybody else. One day, “two carloads of detectives come and went up on the roof. They pulled their guns on the kids and searched them and made them all come down and they were going to take them down to the precinct.” But the boys put up a verbal fight and refused to go and attracted quite a crowd. “To get these boys to the precinct we would have to shoot them,” a policeman said, and “the police seemed like they was embarrassed. Because I don’t think they expected the kids to have as much sense as they had in speaking up for themselves.” They refused to go to the precinct, “and they didn’t,’’ and their exhibition of the spirit of ’76 marked them as dangerous. Occupied territory is occupied territory, even though it be found in that New World which the Europeans conquered, and it is axiomatic, in occupied territory, that any act of resistance, even though it be executed by a child, be answered at once, and with the full weight of the occupying forces. Furthermore, since the police, not at all surprisingly, are abysmally incompetent—for neither, in fact, do they have any respect for the law, which is not surprising, either—Harlem and all of New York City is full of unsolved crimes. A crime, as we know, is solved when someone is arrested and convicted. It is not indispensable, but it is useful, to have a confession. If one is carried back and forth from the precinct to the hospital long enough, one is likely to confess to anything.
Therefore, ten days later, following the slaying of Mrs. Margit Sugar in Mr. and Mrs. Sugar’s used-clothing store in Harlem, the police returned and took Daniel Hamm away again. This is how his mother tells it. “I think it was three (detectives) come up and they asked are you Danny Hamm? And he says yes and right away—gun right to the head and slapping him up, one gun here and one here—just all the way down the hall—beating him and knocking him around with the gun to his head.” The other boys were arrested in the same way, and, again of course, they were beaten, but this arrest was a far greater torture than the first one had been because some of the mothers did not know where the boys were, and the police, who were holding them, refused for many hours to say that they were holding them. The mothers did not know of what it was their children were accused until they learned, via television, that the charge was murder. At that time in the state of New York, this charge meant death in the electric chair.
Let us assume that all six boys are guilty as (eventually) charged. Can anyone pretend that the manner of their arrest, or their treatment, bears any resemblance to equal justice under the law? The Police Department has loftily refused to “dignify the charges.” But can anyone pretend that they would dare to take this tone if the case involved, say, the sons of Wall Street brokers? I have witnessed and endured the brutality of the police many more times than once—but, of course, I cannot prove it. I cannot prove it because the Police Department investigates itself, quite as though it were answerable only to itself. But it cannot be allowed to be answerable only to itself; it must be made to answer to the community which pays it, and which it is legally sworn to protect; and if American Negroes are not a part of the American community, then all of the American professions are a fraud.
* * *
This arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life—otherwise, they would not dare to claim it, would indeed be unable to claim it—creates a situation which is as close to anarchy as it already, visibly, is close to martial law.
Here is Wallace Baker’s mother speaking, describing the night that a police officer came to her house to collect the evidence which he hoped would prove that her son was guilty of murder. The late Mrs. Sugar had run a used-clothing store and the policeman was looking for old coats. “Nasty as he was that night in my house. He didn’t ring the bell. So I said, have you got a search warrant? He say, no, I don’t have no search warrant and I’m going to search anyway. Well, he did. So I said, will you please step out of this room till I get dressed? He wouldn’t leave.” This collector of evidence against the boys was later arrested on charges of possessing and passing counterfeit money (he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, “conspiring” to pass counterfeit money). The officer’s home in Hartsdale, N. Y., is valued at $35,000, he owns two cars, one a Cadillac, and when he was arrested, had $1,300 in his pockets. But the families of The Harlem Six do not have enough money for counsel. The court appointed counsel, and refused to allow the boys counsel of their own choice, even though the boys made it clear that they had no confidence in their court-appointed counsel, and even though four leading civil rights lawyers had asked to be allowed to handle the case. The boys were convicted of first-degree murder, and are now ending their childhood and may end their lives in jail.
These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bring peace and freedom to so many millions: “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”
There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it. Alas, we know our countrymen, municipalities, judges, politicians, policemen and draft boards very well. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to get bad niggers off the streets. No one in Harlem will ever believe that The Harlem Six are guilty—God knows their guilt has certainly not been proved. Harlem knows, though, that they have been abused and possibly destroyed, and Harlem knows why—we have lived with it since our eyes opened on the world. One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!" The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society.