A rigorous and unsettling discussion of decades of police brutality within New York City’s communities of color.
Taylor (Emeritus, History/Baruch Coll.; Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union, 2010, etc.) writes with an authoritative knowledge of his urban narrative and controlled prose that doesn’t mask anguished urgency about the disturbing topic. The author began to realize that despite renewed focus on police brutality after such flashpoints as the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, even social justice sympathizers lack awareness of the temporal depth of the problem. He argues that since the 1940s, police brutality has “led to civil unrest and mistrust between blacks and the NYPD…[and] a long history of African Americans’ efforts to expose the brutality.” The author documents this through a narrative survey, concluding in the present day. He reveals an epidemic of strong-arm policing in postwar New York, which the era’s black press scrupulously documented and the Communist Party visibly if inconsistently protested prior to the McCarthy era. In the 1950s, mutual hostility developed between the NYPD and the Nation of Islam; surprisingly, Taylor documents how NOI representatives, including Malcolm X, worked to defuse conflicts. As tensions mounted in the 1960s, following disturbances in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, politicians and activists advocated for greater civilian oversight of the department but were thwarted by a conservative backlash advancing a “false narrative” that such oversight was meant to coddle black criminals. Later, Mayor Rudy Giuliani famously embraced tough-on-crime, “broken windows” policing. Although crime declined dramatically on his watch, he displayed racial insensitivity as brutality complaints soared, culminating in the police torture of Abner Louima and several notorious fatalities. In recent years, cautiously progressive policies on accountability and “stop and frisk” tactics defused Giuliani-era tensions, but Taylor remains unconvinced, noting, “Mayor [Bill] de Blasio’s adamant defense of broken windows predicted ongoing harassment of black and brown people.”
An important social history for students and policymakers regarding the relationship between police brutality, urban stability, and civic accountability.