The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Looting During New York Blackout
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. New York City returned to something like normal business today after suffering an electrical power failure that lasted in some areas for twenty-seven hours.
While federal, state, and city agencies began urgently investigating the cause of the blackout, New Yorkers are still counting the economic cost of the city from one day of lost business. But more painful, is the task of surveying large areas of the city where the blackout brought an orgy of looting. More than three thousand people were arrested Wednesday night and Thursday in the act of pillaging hundreds of large and small businesses in poorer areas of the cities Brooklyn, Harlem, and the South Bronx. In many cases police were powerless to stop the looting because the crowds helping themselves were too large to control. Every kind of business suffered -- from supermarket to jewelry stores -- leaving stretches of whole blocks devastated. Windows smashed, steel security shutters torn down, some buildings set on fire. The Small Business Administration today declared the five buroughs of New York City and Westchester County a disaster area, making businesses eligible for special loans. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, a New York police official described the looting rampage as "the night of the animals." Others say it was more a night of the oppressed; the have-nots of society releasing their anger of the haves. Well, tonight we examine why so many people in the ghettos-of New York did what they did when the lights went out, and is it strictly a New York phenomenon or one that potentially exists in all American cities. Robin?
MacNEIL: One of the still uncounted victims of the lootings was Syl Williamson, forty-three year old owner of a sporting goods store on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. Mr. Williamson started his store thirteen years ago with a seven hundred dollar investment; last year he grossed over two hundred thousand dollars. In a few minutes on Wednesday night, he lost a hundred thousand dollars worth of stock. Mr. Williamson, how did it happen, as far as you know?
SYL WILLIAMSON: How it happened, I don`t know. The only thing I know is what happened. The lights went out, and I reached my store and people were in it.
MacNEIL: How much later did you reach your store after the lights went out?
WILLIAMSON: I reached my store approximately twenty-five minutes after the lights went out.
MacNEIL: And were you able to stop or save anything?
WILLIAMSON: I was able to stop the looting in my store only because of the rapport that I have with the community in general.
MacNEIL: What did they take?
WILLIAMSON: They took sneakers, basketballs, football shoes -everything of value that I had in the store.
MacNEIL: What kind of neighborhood is it where your shop is?
WILLIAMSON: I think the neighborhood is a good neighborhood. It`s black people, middleclass, poor -- some poor, some middleclass, some even wealthy.
MacNEIL: And what kind of people did the looting, do you know?
WILLIAMSON: I would say all types of people did the looting. I would venture to say that you can`t say what type of people did the looting. . .
MacNEIL: It could be any type of person.
WILLIAMSON:. . . cause the person that you`d say "brother" to today, and you`d never even think of him as looting, and you would see him carrying your stuff down the street.
MacNEIL: People you knew.
WILLIAMSON: People I knew.
MacNEIL: How do you feel about that?
WILLIAMSON: It`s something that happened. It happened and there`s -- it just happened.
MacNEIL: Are you insured for that kind of thing?
WILLIAMSON: No, not for that kind of thing, no.
MacNEIL: How much insurance were you able to carry?
WILLIAMSON: I think my broker told me today that we carried fifteen thousand dollars worth of insurance.
MacNEIL: Is that all the insurance you can get in the area of New York . . .
WILLIAMSON: In that area the broker told me, that`s all we could get.
MacNEIL: What is the future of your business now?
WILLIAMSON: The same as it was when I first started. I started with nothing, so I`ll just go back and start again. The only thing I have now is more experience and more friends.
MacNEIL: More friends?
MacNEIL: Friends that have come out since this happened?
WILLIAMSON: Yes. There`s been an outpouring of friends.
Most people only refer to the looters; they don`t think of the kids that didn`t loot, and the kids that stayed with me the rest of the night to help me secure my store and keep other people out. And as soon as it got light enough that we could see to try to pick up what was lost and sweep the garbage out into the street and try to pick and salvage -- no one speaks about that. And those are friends.
MacNEIL: How do you feel about it all now? How do you explain to yourself why it all happened?
WILLIAMSON: Well, I think all things happen for a reason, and the reason is not mine to question. It`s just that I know what I have to go about and do.
MacNEIL: Which is?
WILLIAMSON: Just continue, just start over as though nothing happened.
MacNEIL: And you will stay there and do that?
WILLIAMSON: I have to stay there. It would be a loss to the community if I left. I couldn`t let what I`ve developed within the community in thirteen years be wiped out in one night, anyway.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Among the thousands of people out in the darkened streets of Brooklyn Wednesday night was this eighteen year old high school graduate. What were you doing when the blackout started?
YOUNG MANS At first I was over to see my girl friend, you know. And then I was going up on the elevator. I was lucky I got up before it blacked out, but when I did, you know, I got upstairs everything just went black, you know. First thing that came to my mind, you know, I wanted to go outside where everybody else was at. So that`s when I went around to my neighborhood at St. Felix Street and Fulton Street, and then that`s when everybody decided to break into Mullin`s or Seaman`s or whatever place they find, you know, to get some merchandise.
MacNEILs When you say everybody decided, how did it happen? How did they decide?
YOUNG MAN: You know, first thing that came to their mind`s a way to make some money; they was going to do it. Anyway they can make some money, they was going to try to do it.
MacNEIL: And what was the atmosphere like? What was the mood like? Were they happy? Were they angry?
YOUNG MAN: They was happy when the lights went out.
MacNEIL: What did they say? What sort of things did they say?
YOUNG MAN: I`m not allowed to say it over the television. They said bad things, you know, like curses and stuff like that.
MacNEIL: You can say what you like. What did they say?
YOUNG MAN: They said, "Oh shit, the lights is out; let`s break in this place and get us some money." And the first thing they did was pop the lock on the door, and everybody went in.
People from different neighborhoods went in.
MacNEIL: About how many people were there there?
YOUNG MAN: I`d say at least twenty-five or thirty people were inside the place.
MacNEIL: Yeah. Were you excited yourself? Scared?
YOUNG MAN: I was scared.
MacNEIL: You were scared.
YOUNG MAN; Yeah, because -- yeah, maybe I thought the cops would catch us, you know, and then I`d have a record now for doing something I shouldn`t be doing. But at the time everybody thought it was all fun.
MacNEIL: What did you do yourself?
YOUNG MAN: I went inside. I got a couple of, you know, tables and lamps.
MacNEIL: And why did you do it?
YOUNG MAN: Because everybody else was doing it. I wanted to be like everybody else. I thought I could make some money.
MacNEIL: Unhuh. Were the cops around at the time?
YOUNG MAN: At the time the cops didn`t come around for about three hours.
MacNEIL: Were people taking basically what they needed or just anything they could get their hands on so that they could sell it?
YOUNG MAN: Well, most of the people that was poor was taking stuff they could use in their homes. You know, like couches, beds, televisions anything they can to replace the other stuff they had in their homes.
MacNEIL: And what did you do with the stuff you took yourself?
YOUNG MAN: Oh, I kept it, and I sold some, you know.
MacNEIL: Unhuh. And how do you feel about it?
YOUNG MAN: Now, you know, I feel, you know, why`d I do it? I`d be saying to myself why`d I go out there and do that?
MacNEIL: And why did you?
YOUNG MAN: I wanted to do it, you know. Go out there and be like everybody else. I thought the lights is off, I can make, you know, some money, have some fun, so I went out and did it.
MacNEIL: Describe again what the kind of feelings were in the crowd that you were in. And you said some of the things they were saying. What kind of a mood was it? Was it a holiday mood? Some people have said it was a kind of mood like it was the one night off of the year or something.
YOUNG MAN: It was like a holiday mood for everybody. For the poor people, you know, it was holiday, you know. They might not have enough money to buy these things so they figure right now while they got a chance, the lights is off, they was going to get it. And so they went out, and they got what they wanted.
MacNEIL: Were most of the people who did that people who do not have jobs who are unemployed?
YOUNG MANS That`s right. I have a lot of friends that was with me that was unemployed.
MacNEIL: But you have a job yourself.
YOUNG MAN: Yes, I have a job.
MacNEIL: Okay, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Not all of the public officials out on the street the other night were `dew York policemen or firemen, Another who was there was Congressman Herman Badillo, a Democrat who represents the South Bronx district of New York, one of the hardest hit with-the looting. The Congressman is also a candidate for the Mayor of New York for the upcoming Democratic primary. Congressman, Mr. Williamson just said that everything happens for a reason. What reason would you give for what happened in the South Bronx and other, areas of the city?
HERMAN BADILLO: I think the reason is that people feel there`s not opportunity for them in the cities. We do have two societies there`s been warnings about that for some time, and not enough people feel that the problems of the city are their problems and that the city is their city, and when you have a disaster that strikes, some people separate themselves from it, and they tend to feel that they can take advantage of it. That`s one of the very serious problems we have in this country, not just New York City.
LEHRER: Congressman, the young man just told us what went through his mind when the lights first went off, let me ask you this: when the lights first went off, did you think to yourself, uh oh, there`s going to be looting) there`s going to be violence, going to be trouble in South Bronx. Was that your immediate thought?
BADILLO: Well, I`ve been through these things before, and I did think of that. I`ve had many unfortunate experiences in the riots of 1967. 1 was at Attica, for example, and I`ve been in prison riots, so this is one other of the very unfortunate experiences that I thought was going to take place, and it did.
LEHRER: So it didn`t surprise you at all?
BADILLO: No, because I know that there is that alienation; it`s very clear. There`s a lot of hostility and resentment and unfortunately, it grows because there are more people in New York City who are poor than there were ten years ago, for example, and there`s more a feeling of hopelessness. Even with a new administration in Washington there is still no national urban policy, no program to provide jobs such as the young man was talking about then. Long after a new Congress has convened, we still find that the first priority is not for providing jobs for all.
LEHRER: Congressman, in your opinion, does this economic situation that exists for so many in the ghettos, in your opinion, is that a justification for looting stores and setting them on fire and what happened?
BADILLO: No, not at all; it`s not a justification. On the other hand, there is really no justification either for having the kind of unemployment that we have in this country and in this city especially when you get a forty to fifty per cent rate among the young people, sixteen to twenty-five. That`s not justified, either.
LEHRER: Congressman, you were out there, and you were out trying to stop people from looting and doing all of this -- what did you say to young people that you would stop in the streets, and what did they say to you?
BADILLO: Most of the situations I got involved in were crisis situations involving the police and the groups. The idea in these things is to try to keep things from escalating. I must say that New York City police are very professional. We were able to diffuse a couple of situations in the South Bronx which could have gotten worse, and I think if we had not had very professional operation by the New York City Police Department, we probably would still be having difficulty in New York City.
LEHRER: But did you tell any young kid, "Hey stop this. Don`t do this"?
BADILLO: Yeah, I told them to move away, and we agreed in a number of cases, for example, I would disperse the crowd by walking with them for several blocks so that they would follow me along, and then gradually, some of them dispersed. I also got on the radio, and I asked the people to get their kids off the streets to prevent them from forming a large crowd, because a large crowd attracts police, and that attracts more people, and that leads to confrontations.
LEHRER: All right. Congressman, thank you. Another view now from the well- known play write and author, James Baldwin. Mr. Baldwin grew up in Harlem and is the author of many well-known books including Another Counter and his most recent, If Beale Street Could Talk. His plays include Blues for Mr. Charlie. Mr. Badwin, was it anger that the darkness brought out the other night?
JAMES BALDWIN: Anger is too simple a word. Let me overstate my case a little bit.
LEHRER: All right.
BALDWIN: It is significant to me that the looting occurred among the looted, if you see what I mean. The economic level of the ghetto, and everybody knows this, is not only beneath that of the nation, it is also -- one talks in this country about upward mobility, but a person trapped in the ghetto with no job and no future, and trapped in a consumer society which demands every hour, every day that he lives that he buy this, buy that. He`s not living, for example, in South Africa. No he`s not living in a poor country; he`s living in one of -- in the richest country in the world. And living on a level of poverty which in this country is utterly intolerable, you know.
LEHRER: Uh-huh, sure.
BALDWIN: And has no justification whatever. Now, I grew up in that misery, and I do not want to see my brothers and my children in the streets carrying away television sets and breaking windows and turning into what society always said they were. But I can`t really, I cannot offer them -- I haven`t got a job to give them. Now the society, which has promised us, after all, life and liberty for all, has betrayed that promise, and when that happens you have -- you create, and the society creates everyday, a group of people, endless groups of people who have nothing to lose. And when that happens you can`t blame those people from taking what has been taken from them.
LEHRER: Does your idea, though, is it inconsistent with what the young man said, that there was a holiday mood out there; does that surprise you at all that there was a good time . . .
BALDWIN: Doesn`t surprise me at all, no. Someone called it Christmas in July. You see, if you live in a society that does not respect you, you have no reason to respect it. This is the rule, not only in New York, as my friend just said, but all over the country. If the lights go out in Detroit tomorrow, you`ll have the same thing for the same reason. You have created these people; you have created this misery, and no one in the society has even addressed himself to it.
LEHRER: Do you see it as basically a racial thing or is it economic; it crosses over many things, or what?
BALDWIN: The racial thing is an American myth, you know. You, if I may say so . .
BALDWIN: . . . have created, roughly speaking, the nigger. It is you, the American people who have put the Puerto. Rican and the nigger; in the streets; it is you, who have assured them, they have no future; it is you; after all, I`m not that boy`s age; I`m much, much older, but in the fifty years I`ve been on Earth, nothing on the level of the American promise has changed. I would go so far as to say that in the fifty-two years I`ve been on Earth, it has gotten worse. And the American people, if I may say so, and I must say so because I love my country, have become more and more and more cowardly -- have created something they didn`t know how to divest themselves of. They didn`t know how to set -- let my people go.
LEHRER: Well, I would take from what you`ve said, and what you have said, too, Congressman, that both of you feel that what happened is not a unique situation for New York, that if the lights went out in Cincinnati or Chicago or Dallas or Los Angeles, the same thing could happen?
BADILLO: There`s no question about that. That`s why when we had riots once before, we had them in many different parts of the country as well, and the conditions which existed in 1967, if any thing have worsened since that time.
LEHRER: Congressman, in the blackout, it`s been pointed out by the many news stories in these last hours, that the blackout in 1965 -- there were only one hundred people arrested, and there was not this wide-spread violence. What`s happened since 1965?
BADILLO: Well, first of all the blackout in 1965 was in November, a different time of the year altogether. You have to have lived in these tenement houses, as I have, to understand that even when the lights are on, people are outside in the streets at two in the morning. I`ve seen kids playing stickball in the streets at two in the morning, and the parents watching them because the heat rises and you simply cannot sleep. When the lights go out, people are out by the hundreds without any lights, and you have very dangerous conditions under the best of circumstances. That did not happen the last time. Secondly, you have a promise that has not been fulfilled since then because we have many programs; and we speak of the capacity this country has for full employment, and nothing happens. We brought in tremendous amounts of money for poverty programs, and instead of using it to rebuild the cities, that money was given out to what I call poviticians, who use it for themselves. And so people see that there is money, but that it is not going on a priority basis to providing meaningful jobs. And that was something that was not available before, too.
MacNEIL: Jim, I don`t know whether you could see him. I think Mr. Williamson had a comment on your question to the Congressman.
LEHRER: Yes, Mr. Williamson.
WILLIAMSON: The comment that I wanted to say -- that in 1965, I would say that black people had a little more self-pride, and they have been robbed of since 1965. They have been robbed of self-pride without even knowing it. We live in a society where a person is told that he should do this, that he cannot learn or that he won`t learn, so he believes it. But I know that they are very brilliant. He don`t know why he looted. He gave you some reasons but he doesn`t know why he looted. I say that the media caused him to loot. The media caused him to loot because the media tells him that you have no job or that there`s no future for you. It`s not that they don`t have jobs or that there`re no jobs available, it`s the job that a person feels as though he`s told that he has qualifications for, and he finds out he doesn`t have qualifications for the job, then he can`t fill the job. He has been given no-work jobs and only collects a pay, and that`s not a job. That`s not even self-motivating; that`s self-destruction to pay a person $37.50 a week for just showing up and signing a sheet, that`s not a job. And that`s what those summer programs have actually ended up to he.
BADILLO: That`s what I meant about the waste of funds that have been made available.
WILLIAMSON: Those are not jobs; those things demoralize a person. It`s not coming out saying, "Well, I don`t want you to work; here`s $37.50, just sign the sheet." No, they do it better than that. They let him sign the sheet. Anything else that happens, like things that are allowed to happen in black neighborhoods never happen in white neighborhoods not . .
LEHRER: Mr. -- yes, go ahead sir, finish.
WILLIAMSON:. . . not because the person there has dice, games going on in the street. That`s not my way of life; that`s not his way of life, but if you even ask someone, say "Why don`t you stop it?" he`ll tell you, "That`s his way of life." I don`t live like that, and I know Mr. Baldwin doesn`t live like that, and I know countless of my friends and even the people that come in the shop with me don`t live like that. But we only see one or two per cent of the people who live that way and they spotlight those one or two per cent; they don`t spotlight the other ninety-eight per cent.
MacNEIL: Mr. Baldwin.
BALDWIN: I just wanted to add to what my friend just said. Part of the American tragedy is that the American people have always created the nigger that they wanted to see. This is a very remarkable man, and the boy`s very remarkable, too. And both of them are saying in another way, they`re treated in society with no respect whatever. Langston Hughes said, "You treat colored people like second-class fools." Now if you do that, there`s a bill that comes in that you have to pay. You rob a man of his self- respect, he will do anything.
LEHRER: Umhmm. Robin.
MacNEIL: Yeah. At risk of seeming very obtuse on this, let me put a question that perhaps a lot of people in our audience might put. It would seem that since 1965 which was when the first civil rights bill had just been passed and then further civil rights bills, a lot of people, certainly white politicians in Washington would argue there have been tremendous advances in opportunities since then.
BALDWIN: That is, if I may say so, I hate to say it, but it is a total lie. That is speaking of American cowardice even to say so. In 1954 the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in the schools. Right? I was in Little Rock in 1957 during one of the school battles; that`s twenty years ago. I was in Boston a few months ago. Now are you telling me the American people deliver without any promises at all? (Tape not clear; could be "deliberately omnily promises" or something else.) This boy wasn`t even born yet.
MacNEIL: What`s your opinion of that?
BADILLO: The unemployment rate today is much higher than it was in 1965, to take one single example. There`s much greater poverty in all of the cities of America, especially in the Northern cities, than there was in 1965. And the programs that worked during all of those years -- my files in Washington are full of successful programs that turn out to be valid, but yet we cannot get them implemented on a mass basis. I can get a SWEAT Equity program to get a gang of renagades to renovate three buildings in the South Bronx, but when they are successful, I cannot get it done for thirty thousand buildings throughout the city. So that there really is no commitment to trying out the solutions that we have found work.
MacNEIL: If this is a racial/economic problem, and this is an expression of massive frustration for the failure to do what you said has not been done over the last fifteen years, why does Mr.
Williamson get ripped off? What is he a symbol of to the people, who ripped him off? Mr. Williamson?
WILLIAMSON: I`m not a symbol; they don`t see me.I was not visible. When I became visible, the looting in my store stopped. They only saw merchandise, and the merchandise I had was very sellable on the street. And that was the total answer because we have been programmed into believing that money is a cure-all. That`s why I don`t feel bitter about losing what I lost because I still have more than I had when I started.
MacNEIL: Let me ask the young man. If the lights went out again one hot night next month, would this happen all over again?
YOUNG MAN: If the kids go off just like that, maybe -- most likely it would happen again, but if they knew the lights was going to go off, it probably wouldn`t happen that much because the young kids would probably be scared that people are going to be waiting for them this time. The people are going to be guarding their store, their property.
WILLIAMSON: In other words, we`re programmed to respond to fear; we`re programmed to respond to the gun; but we`re not programmed to self-respect. You see, when a person respects himself, he cannot go out and destroy his brother`s property. Because the people he put out of work -- he didn`t hurt the store owner. All those stores they destroyed in Bedford Stuyvesant, the only people working in these stores were black people. Now what they actually did was to put their friends` parents out of work. Some of their own friends they put out of work. The person that was able to employ seven, eight, nine, ten people, he was also able to carry enough insurance that if he wanted to rebuild, he could rebuild it in another neighborhood.
MacNEIL: We just have a few seconds left. I just want to ask if this is not to happen again, what in your view, as the politician among us, needs to be done?
BADILLO: We need to have a commitment to bring about change. To bring about change in the areas that we know how to bring about change so that we can remove the poverty in this country. how to do it, and we know how to provide jobs.
MaeNEIL: We have to leave it there] I`m sorry. Thank you very much, Jim. Good night.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEILt And thank you all very much indeed. That`s all for tonight. We`ll be back on Monday night with a look at the crisis in the cost of car insurance. I`m Robert MacNeil, good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Looting During New York Blackout
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- NewsHour Productions
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- This episode features a discussion of the looting that occurred during the New York blackout. The guests are Herman Badilla, James Baldwin, Syl Williamson. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer
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- Copyright NewsHour Productions, LLC. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode)
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Producing Organization: NewsHour Productions
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Identifier: 96443 (NARA catalog identifier)
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