One Reason Why Ferguson Burned, and New York City Didn’t, Part 1

The decision of a grand jury in New York not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking civilian Eric Garner to death as Garner repeatedly pleaded that he could not breath, coming as it did on the heels of a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown, has helped ratchet up controversies about police brutality and race. I myself recently took to this blog to point out that whether one agrees with these verdicts or not, the continued problem of racism against black people in America is an undeniable fact. Today, however, I would like to look at a distinct, albeit related issue: why has Ferguson experienced so much more violence than New York City in recent weeks? CBS did a great article on possible reasons why, and I think all of their suggested factors may well have played a role. However, there is reason to believe that another factor was likely in play, one that is almost certain to make many people uncomfortable. Simply put, New York City likely avoided large scale violence due to having lower levels of racial tension than Ferguson. It is important to remember that riots in response to controversial law enforcement cases do not occur solely because of these individual cases: these cases are trigger issues that cause longstanding racial tensions to boil over like Vesuvius. A city with fewer racial tensions may be able to mostly avoid rioting even in a clear case of police brutality.
A reasonable reader may posit that the fact that a grand jury in New York failed to indict a police officer for needlessly killing a black man indicates a high level of racial tension in New York. The truth, however, is somewhat more complicated. New York has a tradition of what I term “billy club liberalism”–liberal views on civil rights, mixed with a conservative streak on “law and order” issues. New York lawyer-turned-judge, Samuel Leibowitz, worked to help nine black Alabama youths falsely accused of rape avoid execution, deplored racism, felt that baseball could not be called “a national game” until it was racially integrated, and favored the death penalty. Governor Thomas Dewey signed the first state law anywhere in America banning racial discrimination in employment and let over ninety people go to the electric chair. Governor Nelson Rockefeller instituted sweeping civil rights reforms as governor, donated money to the SCLC, vocally supported sit-ins, paid MLK’s hospital bill after a stabbing incident in Harlem, was a strong supporter of the War on Drugs, and showed no mercy at Attica. Even Governor Andrew Cuomo, for whom opposition to the death penalty is a family tradition, worked tirelessly to legalize gay marriage and strongly opposes racial profiling but has been slow to challenge “stop and frisk.” Hence, when a New York jury refused to indict Pantaleo, they were following the New York tradition of support for equal rights and non-discrimination mixed with extreme support for law and order that veers dangerously close to police state policies.
New York’s liberalism on civil rights bares close examination in no small part due to the shift it has undergone. While it was one of the few states, even in the North, to never ban interracial marriage, New York and perhaps especially New York City was not the epicenter of the abolitionist movement. The abolitionist movement drew its greatest concentration of white support from New England. New York was certainly home to abolitionists and antislavery politicians. For instance, Helen Pitts, a white woman who married Frederick Douglass in 1884, hailed from a New York abolitionist family. Gerrit Smith, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Asa Mahan, and Theodore Tilton are examples of other white abolitionists from New York. Frederick Douglass made his home there. Though not an abolitionist, William Seward vigorously denounced slavery and served as both Senator and governor. Congressman Roscoe Conkling despised slavery and, after the Civil War, showed himself to be unusually fair-minded with regard to African Americans as a Senator. But even New York abolitionists tended to be more moderate than New England abolitionists. Massachusetts abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison led the faction of black and white abolitionists which not only called for equality of the races but reviled the Constitution as a proslavery document. This faction included other native New Englanders like Wendell Phillips, William Nell, Abby Kelley Foster, Stephen Symonds Foster, Charles Lenox Remond, and Samuel Joseph May. Gerrit Smith, by contrast, led the faction of abolitionists whose members embraced the Constitution, using mental gymnastics to argue that it was an antislavery document. During the Civil War, Smith even stated that patriotism was more important than abolitionism.
Meanwhile, New York as a whole was moderate, if not conservative, for a Northeastern state when it came to slavery. Out of the Northern states that had been part of the original thirteen colonies, it was the second-to-last to end slavery. Its gradual emancipation bill meant that slavery persisted for another quarter century or so, finally ending in 1827. On the eve of the Civil War, black men were legally allowed the same voting rights as white men in every New England state except Connecticut. In New York, they were subject to wealth qualifications that did not apply to white men. When the South began seceding, Mayor Fernando Wood proposed that New York City also secede in order to continue trading industrial goods for slave labor products. When Abraham Lincoln instituted the draft in 1863, a massive riot of mainly working class Irish Americans broke out in New York City. Their grievances were not entirely illegitimate. Conscription, even for the worthiest of causes, raises thorny ethical issues, and both the Union and Confederate conscription policies had loopholes that allowed more affluent citizens to buy their way out of service. Yet it was also true that many Irish Americans opposed the war precisely because they did not want slavery to be abolished, fearing that a massive influx of Southern blacks to Northern urban centers would threaten their jobs and status. This widespread attitude was revealed by the fact that at least eleven black men were murdered during the riot, and an orphanage for black children was lit on fire, though thankfully all of the children survived. From the 1850s to the 1890s, New York alternated between the parties in presidential elections, voting for anti-civil rights Democrats Horatio Seymour, Samuel J. Tilden, and Grover Cleveland. Massachusetts always voted for the Party of Lincoln. The shift undergone by New York will be examined in my next blog post.


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