You can read the previous entry of Jack Willis’ memoir in the following issue:
“The most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose.”
– James Baldwin
I returned from Canada in the spring of ’64 after making two films for the CBC with money to complete The Streets of Greenwood. Fred and I began cutting the film and I started looking for freelance work to pay the bills. I found it in May when a series of articles ripped like machine gun bullets across the pages of the New York Times scaring many white New Yorkers already apprehensive about the rise of Black Nationalism and an increasingly militant, though non-violent, Civil Rights Movement. The first article appeared on May 3d, 1964 with this three column headline:
Whites Are Target of Harlem Gang
“A gang of about 60 young Negroes who call themselves, “Blood Brothers” is roaming the streets of Harlem with the avowed intention of attacking white people. They are trained to maim and kill.”
All the articles in the series were written by Junius Griffin, a former AP reporter hired by the Times to cover Harlem. Each article added more and more ominous details: the police suspected the “Blood Brothers” of murdering four white people; a researcher at Harlem Youth Opportunity Center (HARYOU), a government funded service organization, had taped hundreds of Harlem youth who had confirmed the existence of the Blood Brothers; the youth were trained in karate and other martial arts ( a front page photo showed an alleged gang member practicing a karate chop to his teacher’s Adam’s Apple); a police informer claimed that gang members who killed or maimed a white person got to use the letter X as their surname; the people who were indoctrinating the youth were dissident Black Muslims; and the gang could have as many as 400 members.
The NAACP and The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) denied the existence of the Blood Brothers and challenged the State to find evidence that the gang existed. Unlike the front page articles that claimed the existence of the gang these were buried inside the paper.
Dr. Kenneth Clarke, the noted educator, sociologist and Director of HARYOU, also challenged the veracity of the Times reports:
“There is no specific evidence in the HARYOU files which supports the contention of the existence of an organized anti-white gang in the community and no such statement was made by a HARYOU staff member”
Despite the denials, a Times editorial began,
“The existence of a Harlem gang indoctrinated in hatred of all white persons is chilling news. It is as indefensible as the Ku Klux Klan. It must be firmly repressed by the police. It should be extirpated, once and for all, by the aroused sentiment of the better elements of the Harlem community.”
I wasn’t surprised by the over the top editorial or the paternalistic tone in the phrase, “better elements of the Harlem community.” Just weeks before a Times editorial had denounced civil rights activist’s plans to draw attention to poverty in Harlem by picketing and blocking traffic to the opening day of the billion dollar New York’s World’s Fair. The Times warned that these actions would risk the Civil Rights Movement alienating its “friends”. Apparently it was okay to hold sit-ins, throw up pickets and stage boycotts in Charlotte, Memphis and Atlanta, but not in New York City.
Police Commissioner Murphy who believed force could solve everything, (His stated police philosophy: “the substitution of a show of force with actual force.”) reacted to the news of the “Blood Brothers” by sending forty Negro undercover detectives and assigning a Tactical Force Patrol to Harlem. Malcolm X cautioned the Police Commissioner that the additional forces and on going police brutality made Harlem a “powder keg” about to blow.
Murphy acting defensively, tried to reassure an anxious public that there would be no explosion when the summer heat hit the city. The police continued to try to link Malcolm to the Blood Brothers.
Even if the gang existed, I was sure Malcolm had nothing to do with it. He preached self defense, not murder. But I could also see how Malcolm’s preaching could fuel kids who had nowhere to go and no jobs into violent action.
I called Doug Leiterman, my former boss at the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) who was producing a new television magazine show called, “This Hour Has Seven Days,” and offered to find the gang and produce a piece on them. He agreed to pay for research and production.
The first thing I did was move out of my apartment on West 96th Street and into the Hotel Theresa located in the heart of Harlem at 7th avenue and 125th street. It was catty corner from Louis Michaux’s bookstore, where I’d first met Malcolm three years earlier. The hotel was a vibrant hub of Harlem’s black life. Many black entertainers and celebrities like Lena Horne, Muhammad Ali, Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellingon, Ray Charles and Sugar Ray Robinson stayed in the hotel or lived there for a while. And Fidel Castro stayed there while in New York for the 1960 opening session of the UN. The hotel benefited greatly from major hotels downtown refusing to accept black people.
My first morning there, I entered the hotel’s coffee shop and saw Malcolm dressed in his signature dark suit, white shirt and dark tie seated alone having breakfast. He had recently split from the Nation of Islam and opened his competing Organization of African Unity with headquarters in the hotel. He asked me to join him, clearly curious to know why I was in Harlem. When I told him I was trying to find the Blood Brothers, he said there was no such gang and even if there was, he had nothing to do with it,
“We don’t preach violence,” he said. “But we believe if a four legged or two legged dog attacks a Negro, the dog should be killed.”
“But what about the article in the Times?”
“The Blood Brothers don’t exist,” he repeated Then added, “but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.”
“But the writer of the articles is a Negro. Do you think he lied?”
“Being a Negro doesn’t mean he can’t be a fool. Or that his white editors won’t believe him because that’s what THEY believe about Negroes.”
“I’m confused. You say ‘the Blood Brothers don’t exist, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t,” I said. “I thought you only believed in violence to defend yourself.”
“Consider police brutality,” he said, shifting in his chair. “Blacks exist in a police state. We’re routinely stopped, searched, beaten, and sometimes killed. That makes us brothers – blood brothers. (he paused. Then rushed on) Oppression make us blood brothers; exploitation makes us blood brothers; degradation makes us blood brothers; discrimination makes us blood brothers; segregation makes us blood brothers; humiliation makes us blood brothers – we’re all blood brothers. And we have to do what’s necessary to defend ourselves.”
When I hit the streets after breakfast, the first thing I noticed were the number of cops. They were everywhere, sometimes three and four on a corner. Harlem was an occupied territory, occupied by overwhelmingly white policemen. And milling around the crowded streets were idle men standing on street corners and crowds of teenage kids with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Harlem was one of the most densely populated areas of the country. 232,000 people 94% of them black, were jammed into a 3.5 square mile wedge of Upper Manhattan In the past two years numerous rent strikes had been called to publicize some of the worst housing conditions in America. Slumlords, many absentee and predominantly white, charged high rents for rat infested tenements with no electricity or hot water, no super to clean and collect the garbage. The rats and the slum lords got the white presses attention, and mayor Wagner called for a million dollar campaign against rats. What they didn’t deal with was the racism both private and public that caused the crisis.
The Amsterdam News, the leading black newspaper in the city highlighted the real story – white landlords refused to rent to blacks in other parts of the city and there wasn’t enough government sponsored low-income housing units in New York. And those that existed discriminated against the fast growing non-white population. Government funded housing policies of the 50s and the open housing movement of the 60s favored returning GI’s and upwardly mobile white immigrant groups.
At the same time, slum clearance projects spared unlivable, dangerous structures in white ethnic neighborhoods but tore down those same buildings in black neighborhoods. They were replaced with middle- income housing and luxury apartments. And black residents were forced into dangerous, unlivable tenements in the increasingly crowded Harlem.
It was no wonder that by the time a Harlem child reached the sixth grade, he was nearly two years behind a white child who lived downtown; that the school dropout rate was 55% and that lacking access to jobs unemployment among Negro teenagers was 40%.
Crime was higher in Harlem than the rest of the city. Yet people complained that the police were less intent on protecting the citizens of Harlem than in hassling them. And that the police committed acts of brutality with impunity. I began to understand what Malcolm meant when he said if there were no Blood Brothers perhaps there ought to be. But I still had to find them.
After spending a frustrating week running down dead leads as to the Brothers whereabouts I decided to move back home. I needed to find a guide, someone who knew his way around Harlem and the gang scene. A friend put me in touch with a social worker named Piri Thomas. Piri had been a gang member and ex-con, who was now straight and was helping rehabilitate gang members in Harlem. I called Piri and set up a meeting. I liked him as soon as I met him. He was a round faced man of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent. He had a big smile, and wore horn rimmed glasses. He had an owly look about him. He was excited about working with me to find the Blood Brothers and assured me he knew his way around Black and Spanish Harlem.
A few days later we drove up to 114th Street in Harlem and parked in front of an old apartment building in a run down neighborhood. I grabbed my tape recorder, hopped out and started to lock the car.
“Don’t bother, man,” Piri said. “If they want your car, they’ll break the window. Just take everything out of the glove compartment.”
The building was dilapidated, plaster hung from the ceiling, the walls were streaked with graffitti, the smell of cooking hung heavily in the halls. There was no elevator so we started up a garbage strewn stairwell. I began to feel uneasy.
“ Don’t say a word,” Piri said as we climbed up the stairs. “I’ll do all the talking. And don’t turn on the tape recorder unless I tell you.”
I started to protest,
“I’m serious, man,” Piri repeated, stopping me on the stairs. “Don’t talk unless I tell you to.”
Now I was really getting nervous, but I nodded okay.
When we got to the 4th floor, Piri knocked on a door. It was cracked open by a young guy who peered out at us without saying a word. Piri said something in Spanish. After a short discussion, the kid closed the door and Piri and I headed back up the stairs to the roof, where we interrupted a young guy in the middle of shooting up. He froze, the syringe in one hand, his other arm outstretched, his belt wrapped in a tourniquet just above the elbow with one end held tightly in his teeth. I thought he was going to bolt, but when he recognized Piri, he relaxed, and inserted the needle into his vein and pressed the plunger.
Piri and I stood there watching. When he was finished, he untied the belt and looped it into his pants, rolled down his sleeve and buttoned it. He didn’t look much older than sixteen. he was short and so swathed in baby fat it was difficult to tell his age. It was an unusually chilly summer day as the boy stood calmly in his shirtsleeves and asked Piri who I was and what I wanted. When Piri said we were doing a story about the Blood Brothers he just shrugged and said “lets go downstairs.”
There were six or seven kids, maybe fifteen or sixteen years old, hanging out in the apartment below. They were smoking weed, sipping cokes and talking quietly when we walked in. There was a beat up couch, a coffee table, a few chairs scattered about the room. On the walls were pictures of Kennedy and Jesus, dirty curtains on the windows and paint peeling off the ceiling. Nobody said a word. They just stared at us. Piri motioned me towards the couch. I unzipped my jacket, placed the tape recorder on the coffee table and sat down. The kid from the roof pointed Piri toward the kitchen door and proceeded to nod off in a chair. Piri went into the kitchen, where I could hear a number of voices speaking Spanish. As I watched them in this sad room, afraid to speak to them, I felt as if I were in another country.
Suddenly Piri came out of the kitchen,
“Let’s go,” he said. heading toward the door.
I got up, grabbed the tape recorder and followed him out the door and into the hallway. He was halfway down the stairs when I caught up with him,
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“There’s a guy in there who says he wants to kill you.”
“You serious? What for?”
“How the fuck do I know, man? He just doesn’t like your looks”
“What about the Blood Brothers,” I asked.
“They’ve never heard of them.”
I didn’t know whether to trust Piri, but I wasn’t going back into that room to find out.
A few weeks later, just as Malcolm predicted, the city exploded. A group of Negro summer students from Robert F. Wagner Junior High School on east 76th street were playing in front of an apartment building on Manhattan’s posh upper east side. It was a hot July night and when the building custodian turned a hose on them, the boys began throwing garbage can covers and bottles at him. Thomas Gilligan, an off duty police Lieutenant in plain clothes, heard the ruckus and came running. Witnesses thought some words were exchanged between Gilligan and one of the boys, James Powell, but they weren’t sure. Powell charged Gilligan who pulled out his revolver and fired at him three times, the last shot went wild, but the first two killed him. In his defense, Gilligan maintained Powell had a knife.
Two days later there were demonstrations in Harlem outside of New York’s 28th police precinct. The angry crowd demanded that Gilligan be dismissed and that Police commissioner Murphy and Mayor Wagner resign. There were screams of police brutality and that Powell’s killer be prosecuted. Suddenly the Tactical Force Patrol guarding the precinct, charged the demonstrators and despite all the police in Harlem (or because of them) or maybe because people were just tired of being sick and tired, riots broke out. They spread quickly from Harlem to the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. It took Police Commissioner Murphy five days with a force of six thousand cops to put down the uprising. Stores were looted and burned, cars set on fire, people were beaten and an estimated five hundred were injured. One man died and 465 men and women were arrested. Property damage was estimated between $500,000 and $1 million.
Just as much of the southern press blamed the civil rights demonstrations on “outside agitators,” Time Magazine and many in the mainstream media blamed the riots on “hate preaching demagogues” “raunchy radicals” and “veteran activists.” It was easier for lazy journalists and editors to blame “outsiders” and “militants” than to be shaken out of their comfort zone and investigate and report on the poverty and racism that existed in their own backyard. That included the presses own complicity in helping create the conditions that led to the uprising.
Of the many complicated reasons for the riots one of them most certainly was the Times’ inflammatory articles and editorials on the Blood Brothers that resulted in heightened police activity in Harlem.
When the dust finally settled and we felt it was safe to go back to Harlem, Piri had me cruise the projects until he spotted a kid in his teens who was sitting alone on a bench. Piri went over to the boy who recognized him and gave him a big hug. They chatted for a minute, then came over to the car. Piri opened the passenger door and slid into the back seat. The kid looked at me, nodded hello, got in and closed the door. Without bothering to introduce us, Piri said,
I turned to the kid and stuck out my hand. He gave me a limp handshake, and turned away.
“Lets go” Piri said again, impatiently.
As I turned on the ignition, I asked “where to.”
We headed down Broadway and Piri asked the kid if he was hungry
He grunted “yes.”
“Lets find a chink,” Piri ordered.
I drove to the Harbin Inn, a Chinese restaurant I knew on 95th and Broadway. As the kid started to get out of the car, Piri stopped him with a hand on his shoulder,
“You better unpack,” he said quietly
Without saying a word, the kid reached under his shirt and pulled out a large knife and stuck it under the car seat.
I tried to act cool, as if this happened every day.
As we settled into a booth, Piri and the kid on one side, me on the other, I had a chance to take a real look at the boy. He was skinny, with a shock of dark hair, mahogany colored skin and dark brown eyes set in a baby face.
I sat quietly as Piri tried to warm things up by asking him about former gang members,
“How’s your brother, Angel?”
“He’s in jail.”
“Dead. He was shot.”
“Shot dead, man”
“In jail. They’re almost all dead or in jail. There’re a couple of guys around but the only one I see regularly is Tomas”
As if he hadn’t heard, Piri pressed on.
“Yeh, man, but what about Gregory?”
“He’s dead, man”
“And Kinky Sam?”
“Dead, too. I told you”
Of fifteen gang members, only three were alive or not in prison.
I had seen violence, and been threatened in Mississippi the year before. Mississippi was a violent society, a police state, where beatings and murder of black people were commonplace. Even as we were sitting there eating Chinese food on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, divers were searching for the bodies of three civil rights workers, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, who had been missing since June 21st. While they were searching they discovered the bodies of seven other murdered black men whose disappearance hadn’t been noted outside of their own community. And, when the bodies of the three young civil rights workers were finally found buried in an earthen dam all three had been shot, but Chaney, the only Black man among them, had also been horrendously beaten before he was shot. But THAT was Mississippi, THAT was the South and even though I’d been there the year before and was cutting a film about the experience, it all felt light years removed from me and my life.
But this kid’s nightmare existence was only thirty blocks north from where I lived. The people we were talking about were just a little younger than I was and his roll call of the dead and interned was one of the most chilling things I’d ever heard. Looking at the boy sitting across from me, I wondered what was his future? What were the odds that he and his friends wouldn’t end up dead or in prison too?
As we ate, Piri questioned the boy closely about the Blood Brothers. He said he didn’t know anything. I then spent another couple of weeks with Piri working the phones, visiting the projects, and interviewing people in Harlem but never found a trace of the gang. Nor did anyone else. From start to finish the story had been a hoax.
Six months later, Griffin resigned from the Times, his career as a journalist over. Over time I came to believe that he’d been duped by the police and had made a lot of the story up, (or both). I also came to believe that the Times editors accepted his story without question because the “Blood Brothers” fit their stereotype of the urban Negro.
I had wasted many weeks chasing the “Blood Brothers” story but I had gained real insights into urban America and learned an important journalistic ethic: When the press fails to portray marginalized communities in all their diversity and humanity those communities become even more marginalized. And when the press projects its own racism and fears onto them the consequences can be deadly.
Despite the lack of evidence that the Blood Brothers ever existed and that Griffin may well have made it all up, The Times never admitted it had made a mistake.