A Tour of the Savage City with T.J. English
Aaron Leonard is a writer and freelance journalist and regular contributor to the History News Network. His writings can be found at www.aaronleonard.net.
The writer TJ English has just published “Savage City: Race, Murder and a Generation on the Edge.” On one level it is the story of three men living in New York City in the Nineteen Sixties: George Whitmore, Dhoruba bin Wahad and Bill Philips. Whitmore is a Black man forced to confess to a brutal murder he did not commit, bin Wahad is a leader of the Black Panther Party in New York, and Philips is an NYPD officer who would go on to testify about police corruption. On a larger level though this is a snapshot of New York at a certain historical moment, a time when the place of Black people was being transformed and the systemic power enforcing their subject position -- most notably by the police -- was being sharply challenged. I sat down with English in a West Village cafe to discuss the book.
Your book is the story of three people, George Whitmore, Dhoruba bin Wahad and Bill Phillips. Who are these folks and how did you settle on them to tell your story?
The entire book began with the story of George Whitmore. A fellow writer friend of mine asked me if I knew about the Wylie-Hoffert murders of the early 1960s [the brutal murder of two young white women living in the affluent Eastside of Manhattan]. Even though I am not a born New Yorker -- I’ve been here my whole adult life and pride myself in knowing City history, particularly City crime history -- I hadn’t heard of the Wylie-Hoeffert murders. When I started to do research I was astounded. Both by the nature of the crime and that it was such a big story, this was a very important piece of racial history in this City. These were murders the George Whitmore was framed for. He spent the next ten years trying to get out from under the false confession he was coerced into signing.
So I started to do a book on the Whitmore case, but then asked myself, what else was happening in the City in terms of race? The answer was that all hell was breaking loose. I thought it would be interesting and revealing if I could chart the narrative development of a couple of other characters that would allow me to see what was happening in this period through multiple perspectives. So I went back and looked for a character who could bring me into the police department, in particular the culture of corruption that existed within the police department.
Bill Philips [who testified about the pervasive corruption within the NYPD] I had heard of, and he is another person who was a front page story in his day, but has now been more or less forgotten by history. So I wanted to reclaim Philips as a significant historical figure in the history of the City particularly in the history of the NYPD. Philips came to personify a certain tradition of corruption that had become deeply entrenched.
The third character was Dhoruba bin Wahad, his story too was central to the era in which he lived. In many ways he was iconic of a certain type of militant activist.
George Whitmore is a tragic figure. He is essentially an everyman caught up by forces much larger than himself, yet he in many ways is a catalyst for great things. Could you put him in context for us?
Whitmore is really important in the civil rights history of New York City and maybe even the United States, though he and many others would reject that characterization because nothing he did was done with a purpose.
George was living outside of Wildwood, New Jersey in 1963 when this horrific double murder happened. The murder occurred on the same day that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. This is very important because at the time the murders were taking place in Manhattan, George was watching the speech on television in a catering hall in Wildwood where he was working. Thank God for that because people had seen him there and were able to account for his whereabouts on the day of the murder.
He was something of a tumbleweed, blowing in the wind. He would go into Brooklyn at certain times of the year and live with relatives and look for work. That is how he got drawn into the whole confession. He was typical in many ways of the way he was dealt with by the NYPD of this era. The idea of a young, not terribly bright black kid, 19-years-old volunteering information to the cop on the street [Whitmore had met a cop on the street in Brooklyn and innocently answered questions the cop asked] and that they would bring this kid into the Precinct and proceed to interrogate him over a period of close to 24 hours and who they realized very early on I think that in George Whitmore they had someone who was very pliable, a blank slate and that they could get him to confess to the Lincoln assassination if they wanted to. The squeezed Whitmore for all that he was worth. They got him to confess to a sex assault in Brooklyn, they got him to confess to a murder that had happened in Brooklyn just a few blocks away from that Precinct and they got him to confess to the Career Girls murders which had happened far away in Manhattan.
Now he is enmeshed in the system in a way which is not untypical of a young Black kid in that era. He was facing the full weight of the system. He had no money for counsel of his own, no one to advocate on his behalf. He was a nobody, which is how he was characterized in the papers at the time when his confession was paraded on the front of the tabloids.
He then begins a process of trying to clear his name. The saga he goes through is typical of what any young person dealing with the criminal justice system could have expected to encounter during this period. Lack of good counsel because he had no money, encountering racism that was revealed in juries, statements made by prosecutors, and judges. The racial attitudes were so deep within the system that many people did not even think of it as racism. That is what Whitmore was up against.
If he can be accredited with a certain type of heroism, and I think that he can, it is in his diligence. After he got coerced into signing a sixty-one page confession of murders that he didn’t commit, I think the humiliation of that act -- and I know when he went off to prison he took a lot of shit from inmates, ‘Hey Whitmore, why’d you sign that shit if you didn’t do it?!’ He felt humiliated by the very idea that he had signed this confession to these crimes he didn’t commit. But in reaction to that he was determined to not cop a plea. And they kept coming to him throughout this ten year ordeal, saying ‘Just take a plea to a lower charge, we’ll give you time served and you’ll be out right now.’ He wouldn’t do it. He said no, ‘I didn’t do it. I don’t want to have the stigma of being a sex offender the rest of my life. I’m not going to say that I did a crime that I didn’t do.’
He stuck with that and ultimately was exonerated. In him being exonerated it moved, I use the phrase in the book, he moved the wheels of justice just a little bit. Whitmore’s case does that, the Miranda decision [in which the Supreme court cited the Whitmore case], the abolishment of the death penalty in New York State, comes from this case. His sticking to it, allowed for that case to have a dramatic impact on the system and ultimately allowed things to move things forward incrementally and Whitmore deserves much credit for that. There should be a school or street corner somewhere named after him, but there isn’t.
Dhoruba bin Wahad, unlike Whitmore, is a leader. He was part of the Black Panther Party, which had captured the imagination of a generation. Like other Panther leaders of the time -- Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale -- history was asking a great deal of him. How well do you think he did under the circumstances?
I think he did the best that he could do. The real way to judge that is to assess his level of commitment to what his agenda was. On that account you have to rate him pretty high because he paid a very heavy price and he did so willingly and knowingly. I think there was a whole generation of young African Americans, 18-20 years-old who seized this moment in history knowing that the consequences of it could very well be an extended prison sentence or even death -- a lot of Panthers were killed by the cops or by internal strife within the Black Power movement.
The movement gave Dhoruba a sense of purpose. When the book begins he is in prison, he was a gang-banger, he’d been involved in gang life since he was a kid growing up in the South Bronx in the late 1950s. He gets convicted on an assault charge at the age of 19 and he goes away for a five-year prison sentence. In the early sixties, when the Career Girls murders happens, Dhoruba’s in prison going through a process of self-education and self-awareness, very similar to what Malcolm X went through. Dhoruba is very influenced by Malcolm X, he hears and reads his speeches for the first time. The philosophy and persona of Malcolm X begins to have a tremendous impact on New Yorkers but particularly on people who were passing through the prison and criminal justice system. Malcolm X spoke so eloquently on how prison was a metaphor for Black people in the United States. This resonated strongly with Dhoruba’s generation.
By the time Dhoruba comes out of prison in 1967 he’s primed and loaded to step forward and play a leadership role. He does so in a very swashbuckling/rambunctious way. He was dynamic and dramatic speaker in the way that Eldridge Cleaver and some of the other Panthers were. He is also steeped in the philosophical writings of Karl Marx and Franz Fanon -- this was the sort of literature that was important to the intellectual development of the Black Panther Party.
Dhoruba’s emphasis was very much on the conflict between the community and the Police. He told me that people got involved with the BPP for many different reasons, some got involved because of the role the Panthers played as a social service organization providing breakfast programs for children and that sort of thing. Dhoruba said, ‘Naw’ he wanted to take it to the police. Dhoruba and many people in the Northern cities had identified this relationship between the police and the community and the way that played out on a daily basis the front lines of conflict between Blacks and the system. Dhoruba wanted to be on the front lines so there he was.
The book charts Dhoruba’s descent into something of a violent pathology -- he becomes an urban guerilla. He takes part in a series of criminal acts. The most disturbing is the killing of another Panther who was running a newspaper office in Queens. There had been a violent and contentious split within the Panthers that was fueled by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program. Dhoruba and a group that represented a faction that was loyal to Eldridge Cleaver went over the Panther newspaper office in Queens to burn it down because they felt that the Panther newspaper office had become affiliated with the Huey P. Newton faction that they were at war with. In the course of burning down the office they killed Sam Napier who was the director of the newspaper operations. It was a very disturbing killing and it rocked the Black Power movement. It signaled a turn in the movement that much of the violence had turned inward. Much of that was orchestrated by law enforcement to an extent. To the degree that Dhoruba gets caught up in that I think you have to judge him somewhat critically.
In terms of his dedication to the cause, his willingness to take on the more difficult tasks, to put actions behind his words I think he is in many ways admirable and impressive. Those of us who were not called on in that way, were not required to make the choices that Dhoruba was faced with as a young Black guy in the late Nineteen Sixties I don’t think are really in a position to pass moral judgment on it. history will judge Dhoruba’s role in the movement.
I spent a lot of time with him and we formed an interesting trusting relationship very early on I was very impressed with his intellectual discipline, with his emotional commitment his heart, his willingness to pay the price without whining and bitching about it. He was a true warrior in a time in history when those sorts of attributes were greatly needed.
The NYPD in this period does not come off well. Philips in particular is a parasite of the kind, as you quote another officer’s description, ”The dudes that are taking the money are the dudes that are breaking hands.” You also write, “The department’s use of excessive force instilled fear everywhere in the community; it was the nonverbal facilitator behind many police corruption rackets.” Yet this was also as you say largely concentrated in the poorest areas of the city, its as if folks living there were living under a different government? Could you talk about that?
The issue of police brutality and police repression was way more pervasive in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s than anyone wants to admit. New York City is emblematic of the US more generally. It was equally true in the South and the North. In the North there wasn’t the KKK or the Jim Crow laws but we had segregation that was just as rigidly enforced -- there was an economic imperative behind segregation. The way that played out in New York City was primarily in relation to real estate values, white people didn’t want “niggers” in white neighborhoods because it brought down the value of their property-- an example of capitalism being used as an excuse for racism. All you need to do is talk to any Black person who lived in an urban setting in those years and they will tell you what the cops were like -- there is no ambiguity on this. Now white people will say, “I’m sure there were bad cops and there were good cops....” There were no real good cops in the Black community in these times. First, there were nothing but white cops, the Department was about 98% white so you had this phenomenon of white, in many case suburban white, cops policing Black and Latino neighborhoods. The way it was going to play out was going to be very violent and tense because the city structure was incapable of resolving it. It was going to have to be resolved in the streets. People in the Black Power movement and a lot of cops knew that. There really was a sense of guerilla warfare that became increasingly pervasive as the Sixties gave way to the Seventies.
The repressive nature of policing was a fact of life. I don’t think there’s ever been a fair reckoning of that. I don’t think we have been honest about the degree to which it existed in the Northern cities and how that infected the relationship between Black people and the urban environment they lived in. Even all these years later, every time there’s an incident in this city where an unarmed Black kid gets shot by the police, or there’s some instance of brutality, its an emotional flashpoint, Boom! It has the potential explode. The relationship between the Black community and the police is rooted in this history and there’s never been a fair and full accounting of it. No one’s ever apologized for it, no one representing the system of government has ever stepped forward and said I acknowledge this history. I think that needs to be done.
In reading this I was reminded of something Eric Foner wrote in, Reconstruction: The Unfinished Revolution, “Day-to-day encounter[s] between the races became infused with the tension inevitable when a social order, with its established power relations and commonly understood rules of conduct has been swept away and a new on has not yet come into being.” (123) How did this phenomenon manifest itself in the transformative years you write about?
In many ways what he says is very similar to what was playing out in the Sixties. Much of what I write in the book is happening in the shadow of the Civil Rights movement which is having an effect similar to what Reconstruction had in its day. In the book I use King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as the signpost of that. That speech was a challenge, a throwing down of the gauntlet to the whole society, ‘I challenge you to live up to what you say you are.’ The way that played out was especially sharp at the street level. You can make declarations about law, you can say what’s right and what’s fair, but the way people interact in the street on a daily basis is a whole other matter. So yes the whole process of the Sixties in a lot of ways was indicative of the Foner quote, of society having to go through a process of redefining itself and figuring out how to be fair in ways that weren’t going to pull the place apart.
Why, in the larger sense, do you think you wrote this book now?
I was writing the book during the Presidential campaign and Obama emerged -- it was a wonderful counterpoint to the history that I was exploring. It made me feel like, perhaps, Obama’s emergence and the whole fact of Obama was making it possible for us to take a big step forward in our analysis and acceptance of the difficult nature of this history. Maybe we could be a little more honest about it. Just as Whitmore being exonerated had moved things incrementally a little bit forward, that Obama’s emergence was moving things incrementally a little bit forward in terms of how we perceive and think of this history.
I know one of the more controversial things in the writing of this book is that I am asking readers to accept as a given the notion that the police department in New York City, and other cities at the time, was a racist institution. The police existed as a means of enforcing segregation and therefore police departments were inherently racist in the way that they dealt with the Great Migration. I’m asking readers to accept that as a given. A lot of people are not willing to do that even in this day and age. That’s perhaps the biggest challenge of the book, asking people to accept that as so that we can get to a deeper level of discussion. And this goes to today, where you have an inordinately high population of people of color within the prison system. Or this phenomenon in New York City, where a young Black or Latino male is nine times more likely to be stopped and frisked by the police than a white male of a similar age. The fact that these racial attitudes, still, in this day and age, with all the advances we’ve made as a society, with an African American in the White House, that these racial preconceptions still are so deeply entangled in the way we conduct criminal justice in the US. That is the answer to the question, Why now? This is an issue that still dogs us as a culture and I don’t see much honest debate about it. These issues of race and criminal justice go uncommented upon by our political process and so all of that makes it seem very pressing, relevant and important.
T.J. English is a noted journalist, screenwriter, and author of the New York Times bestsellers Havana Nocturne and Paddy Whacked, as well as The Westies, a national bestseller, and Born to Kill, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. He has written for Esquire, Playboy, and New York magazine, among other publications. His screenwriting credits include episodes for the television crime dramas NYPD Blue and Homicide, for which he was awarded the Humanitas Prize. He lives in New York City.
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