Puerto Ricans Riots: East Harlem in 1967

Police abuse was again the immediate motivation behind the July 1967 riot in East Harlem, when el Barrio experienced three nights of melees with about 2000 rioters involved. The riot was triggered by the police and aimed at an off-duty policeman who killed a Puerto Rican he claimed was holding a knife. The killing led to a revolt of the neighborhood's young people, who smashed windows and looted in a riot not as extensive or damaging as those of other cities or even the larger 1964 and 1968 Black Harlem riots.

The riot began on July 22nd, in the hot humid days of summer, with many people out on the streets because of the heat. It continued on the night of July 23, as further violence broke out in East Harlem on 111th St. One thousand police were mobilized and shots were fired, police cars attacked and windows smashed, with only a small amount of looting on Third Avenue. Police claimed a sniper on a rooftop shot at them and they responded with 15 shots. Roving crowds attacked police cars with stones and bottles throughout the whole area. 

In the first day of the confrontations, two people were killed by police bullets, and police attempted to cover up both (police initially claimed a .22 bullet note fired by them and a broken neck were the causes of death). Police shot Emma Haddock, a respected member of the local Community Council, while she looked out her window. The other victim was Luis Antonio Torres, 22. The killings only angered local people further. 

Mayor Lindsay agreed to a meeting with the police commissioner at a local church where a truce was organized. The tactical police units withdrew, but the confrontation continued. When the tactical police force reappeared, some leaders felt betrayed and their work of calming the crowds was now more difficult. Into the morning, groups of patrolmen attacked crowds of youth on E. 108th St. Police claimed, and journalists supported, that they swung at their butts and not their heads--a command given by Mayor Lindsay to not fire or attack protestors. On Third Avenue, several hundred youth came out blocking the street and prancing with a dressmaker’s dummy, giving the simmering events a festive tone. The police “surged“ through the crowd and bottles flew from rooftops and crashed all around them. The Police Commissioner claimed he was not happy about the use of clubs to disperse teenagers, a marked contrast with the fully military response in Newark and California riots which brought out National Guard units. Some police officers began asking the youth to go home. The New York Times noticed that on the first night of violence it was the very presence of the police and especially the tactical police force that was the target of the youth.  Beatings by the tactical police the first morning of the riots only led to further violence.  It took additional reinforcements to disperse people by 5 AM of the first night.

The first night  of the riot The New York Times reported a man haranguing from a stand made of garbage cans on Third Ave and 111th St. He made short speeches in Spanish about Puerto Ricans serving in Vietnam: “something is owed to us”…and incited a group, resulting in an attack on a nearby gas station. At midnight, a group of youths carrying a Puerto Rican flag tried to march on the East 104th St. police station but were turned back by the tactical police force.

As ordered by the Mayor after the first night, apparently police were succesful at minimizing arrests and not using their guns. Every shop on Lexington Ave. between 102 and 103rd had been broken and crowds were busy looting, burning trash along the way, taunting police from stoops and doorways. Running confrontations between youth groups and police cars continued, with looting resuming as soon as the police passed.

During the second night police tried to appease gathering crowds on 109th and Third Ave.  The agreement from the first day kept them from using sirens, wearing helmets, or using helicopters to hunt for rooftop brick throwers.  At some point in the confrontations some youth drew a chalk line across Third Ave just above 110th St. and wrote “Puerto Rican border. Do not cross, flatfoot.” The line, as much a boundary for police, indicated the ethnic divisions of East Harlem with the areas east of Third Ave. still being predominantly Italian. The New York Times had no problems acknowledging that the conflict came from the brutality of some police, the contempt and the ethnic slurs of others and the frustration of officers not being able to speak Spanish, as well as the cultural differences that led Puerto Ricans to “gather nightly on sidewalks and stoops to drink beer and talk” as an acceptable part of daily life.

The mayor showed up the morning after the first night of rioting, having come from out of town.  He was well received and cheered and for more than two hours as he listened to delegates not commenting on police brutality. Some community leaders expressed relief that the mayor was sympathetic and would help them reach “those damn cops.” The Mayor refused to blame outside agitators and called for Spanish-speaking policeman to be assigned to each precinct with large Puerto Rican populations. A police order circulated quietly reminded policemen not to use derogatory racial language. Anti-poverty workers also worked to ensure that other parts of Harlem did not break out in violence.

But despite the Mayor's very positive reception by residents and community leaders in East Harlem, looting and rioting continued. In the third night of clashes, the youth continued in the streets and the Mayor and other leaders were at a loss as to how to respond. At the same time the disturbance extended to the South Bronx on the night of July 24th, resulting in a 19-year old shot in the arm on 139th St., and rampaging groups of youth setting fire to trash cans, with two stores looted. 70 police were mobilized in that area. A few days later, when a dozen youth became angry at a policeman for halting their stickball game, 75 participants joined in some sort of conflagration. In response to the violence in the Bronx, priests and nuns organized a procession starting at the Catholic church on East 138th St. Monsignor Fox gathered thousands for this procession, with crucifix, vestments, incense and candles, calling on people to join in prayer and song. This worked.[6]

Continue to Puerto Ricans Riots: Coney Island in 1968

[6] The New York Times, 24 July 1967, 25 July 1967,  26 July 1967, 27 July 1967, 29 July 1967, 30 July 1967, 31 July 1967,  30 September 1967; Joseph Fitzpatrick, Memoir (manuscript), Box 46, Folder 1, Papers of Joseph Fitzpatrick, Special Collections, Fordham University; “Policemen clear in 2 riot killings.”