Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
In March 1986, my first winter in New York, I was mugged in a deserted parking lot a few blocks north of Madison Square Park while coming home from a party downtown. It’s a funny story, actually. My mugger was unarmed, basically a panhandler who’d decided to take the direct approach, and by the time it was over I’d talked him into giving me my money back. But what strikes me now, thinking back on that night, is how alien my mugging story seems to the New York I live in now. My old neighborhood, which now goes by the trendy moniker NoMad, was then a sketchy warren of all-night bodegas and welfare hotels. A block from where I was mugged a friend of mine was held up at gunpoint by a nine-year-old. A girl I dated fended off a would-be rapist who surprised her on her apartment building’s elevator by biting the man on the face. And on just about any night you could walk along 23rd Street below Madison Square Park where the hookers hung out and see car after car with Jersey plates parked along the sidewalk, lights off, the motor running, a half-naked girl draped over the driver’s seat.
That New York is gone now, buried beneath a glossy veneer of banker dollars and realtor blarney. In his new book, The Savage City, T.J. English pulls back this moneyed façade to expose an angry, crime-ridden New York City all but forgotten in the rush to gentrify picturesque blocks of former ghettos like Harlem and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. His tale makes for fascinating history and a necessary corrective for those who imagine the New York of a bygone era as all pencil skirts and three-martini lunches, but it is a story I fear is destined to fall on deaf ears in today’s amnesiac, relentlessly forward-looking city.
English, the author of several earlier books on organized crime, structures The Savage City as a kind of police procedural, following the story of a slow-witted young black man named George Whitmore, who is framed by corrupt police officers for a number of violent crimes, including a headline-grabbing murder of two young white women on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But English is after bigger game than a simple true-crime thriller. He uses Whitmore’s ten-year ordeal in the New York criminal justice system as a lens onto a broader story of racial conflict, radical politics, and police corruption that takes readers from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in 1963 to a series of vicious cop killings carried out by a violent offshoot of the Black Panther Party a decade later.
This tactic of using a reader-friendly narrative device to drive a complex, multi-level work of social history can be risky, but in Whitmore, English has found a perfect vehicle for the story he wants to tell. Quiet, polite, and so nearsighted he was clinically blind, Whitmore, “the proverbial invisible Negro,” was in New Jersey watching Dr. King’s famous speech on television on August 28, 1963 at the moment the two young, white “career girls,” Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert, were brutally murdered in their apartment on East 88th Street in Manhattan. A few months later, while hunting for work in Brooklyn, Whitmore became ensnared in the investigation of an unrelated sexual assault of a Puerto Rican woman. Whitmore’s description of his police interrogation at the station house that night casts a light on an ugly, violent underworld:
“The detective kept on saying that I was suppose’ to have raped this lady, and then he started punchin’ on me…Then they stood me in front of a chair, and every time I said, ‘I never seen this lady before,’ I got knocked into the chair until I thought the chair was going to break underneath me. I told them, ‘If I told you that I did do what you said I did, I’d be lyin’.’ They called me a liar and kept beatin’ on me. So I just broke down and said, yes.”
After police persuaded him to “confess” to this crime, along with a second unsolved rape case involving a middle-aged black woman, yet another detective tried to get Whitmore to confess to the so-called Career Girls Murders as well. This took some doing, since not only had Whitmore never heard of the Career Girls Murders but he’d never even been to the Upper East Side. No matter. After nearly twenty-four hours of police questioning, he copped to that crime, too, and the next morning the “jig named Whitmore” was paraded before the press as a serial rapist and murderer.
From this beginning, English widens the aperture to include a bent cop on the take named Bill Phillips and a former gangbanger and petty criminal with the chosen name of Dhoruba Bin Wahad, who became a leader of the New York arm of the Black Panther Party. And herein lies the real value of English’s book. Typically, you see these stories handled separately. You get a book like Serpico on the culture of corruption in the New York Police Department that led to the infamous Knapp Commission hearings. Or you get books like Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice or Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flack Catchers, which deal with the politics of the Black Power Movement. Or you get any one of hundreds of books and articles exploring the causes of the rise and fall of the crime epidemic in New York City in the second half of the 20th century. In The Savage City, English combines these three stories into one, arguing in effect that none of them makes sense without a full understanding of the other two.
At times, the disparate threads of English’s narrative threaten to unravel, but what ultimately holds them together is the endemic poverty found in neighborhoods across 1960s New York, especially those populated by recent black transplants from the rural South. “There were no social services in these neighborhoods,” one Italian-American cop recalls:
“Nobody picked up the garbage. In East Harlem people would throw their garbage out the back window and it piled up almost to the first-floor windows. And there were rats everywhere. More than once I saw young children who had toes gnawed to stubs because their apartments were infested with rats.”
Grinding poverty, combined with rigidly enforced residential segregation, begat a culture of lawlessness, which was met, in turn, with violence and indifference from the judicial system, which was run almost entirely by white people. Cops routinely beat confessions out of black suspects they believed to be guilty, and without black lawyers, judges, or in many cases even black jurors, there was no way for an innocent black man to defend himself. Worse, the widespread sense among white police officers and civilians alike that black people were inherently criminal led crooked cops to prey on defenseless ghetto-dwellers. While corrupt policemen wet their beaks in all precincts of the city, English argues, they were especially aggressive in their graft in poor, black neighborhoods. “The truth was, most cops hated the ghetto,” he writes. “And for many it was a short leap from being disgusted by the people and the conditions of that environment to fleecing it shamelessly for personal profit.”
Finally, in the 1960s, black New Yorkers struck back, first through the fiery rhetoric of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, and after his assassination in 1965, through the far less disciplined leaders of the Black Panther Party. Much of The Savage City is devoted to placing the split between the nonviolent Southern Civil Rights Movement and the more violent Northern Black Power Movement into its proper historical context. In the South, segregation was the law, which meant Dr. King and others could afford to wait for Southern lawmen overplay their hands on national TV and then push the courts to change the laws. In Northern cities like New York, the Bull Connors of the world would never dream of turning their dogs on preachers and innocent school children. They did their violence behind closed doors, which gave Northern race activists little option but to take their fight to the streets, which they did with a vengeance in the late 1960s.
Unlike many historians of the era, especially white liberal ones, who tend to adopt the faintly patronizing stance that to be poor and black is to be by definition without moral complication, English has some sympathy for the white cops. As the violence ratcheted upward in the later years of the decade, hard-line black activists tended to direct their attacks not against ordinary citizens, but against the police, who were often the only white people who actually ventured into the ghetto. By the early 1970s, once the Black Power Movement had run its course and its leaders had split into warring factions, the more extreme elements of the movement unleashed a series of attacks in which cops were lured by false emergency calls and then ambushed. In one especially unsettling incident in 1972, two NYPD officers were gunned down execution style by multiple gunmen, one of whom “danced in the street and fired shots in the air in celebration” after shooting one of the wounded cops in the groin.
English argues that the scars of this savage era lives on today even as New York has been transformed into America’s safest big city, but I’m not so sure. Pockets of abject poverty still exist in New York, and as the Sean Bell killing five years ago attest, New York’s Finest can still be trigger-happy when it comes to young black men. But New York today is nothing like it was a generation ago. In the 1980s, when I first moved here, 42nd Street was a squalid eyesore. The South Bronx looked like a bomb had hit. The subways were terrifying after midnight, and whole neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Northern Manhattan had been laid to waste by crack cocaine. That just is no longer true today. After 9/11, New Yorkers fearful for their safety began to look upward, scanning the skies for low-flying planes, rather than into the dark alleys of their own neighborhoods.
A sense of how utterly the memory of the bad old days has faded in the half century since George Whitmore was framed for the Career Girls Murders can be found in how little critical heat The Savage City has attracted. Jon Stewart put English on The Daily Show, but the New York Times has yet to do a full-scale review, and a Google search for other reviews of The Savage City turns up a smattering of newspaper and blog raves alongside stories about an R&B band called Savage City. This isn’t English’s fault. He has done his part by turning out a terrific work of social history, but he’s spitting in the wind. Since 9/11, and even more so since the election of Barack Obama, New York City – and white America, in general – has been living in a bubble of denial when it comes to the issues of race and poverty. White people say, “Yes, yes, of course racism still exists,” and shake their heads at the ever-growing income gap and the shocking incarceration rates of young black men, but as a society, we lack a communal memory of where these factors can lead. What I don’t know, and what The Savage City cannot tell us, is whether this complacency is rooted in genuine systemic change or whether it is just – well, denial. After all, most white New Yorkers in the early 1960s had no idea how angry the poor black people around them were, either. They, too, lived in a bubble of denial, telling themselves, “Yes, there are racists down South, but here in the North, we all get along just fine.” And then ten years later, radicalized black men were shooting cops in cold blood and dancing with joy over their corpses.