The Village Race Riots of 1863 and September 8, 1976

Race Issues Continue to Haunt Us

By Arthur Schwartz

WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK IN 1962. Courtesy of the Washington Square Park Conservancy.

In July, readers of Village View read about what were called the NYC Draft Riots of 1863, but they were actually a race riot in Lower Manhattan, which killed more than 100 Black New Yorkers, and drove the entire Black population, most of them freed slaves, from Lower Manhattan.

They have rarely come back. And when they do, they often don’t fare well.

One sad part of Greenwich Village’s history unfolded on the evening of September 8, 1976. The New York Times report on September 10, 1976 tells the story better than I can.

In a sweep through Greenwich Village late Thursday and early yesterday morning, the police rounded up 10 youths who they said had been part of the marauding band that swarmed through Washington Square Park Wednesday evening attacking black and Hispanic men.

Lieut. John Yuknes, one of the senior officers in the investigation, said the youths, ranging in age from 15 to 20, had been arrested either at their homes or on the street and had offered no resistance. The lieutenant, who commands the First Homicide Zone, said the youths were not members of a formal gang, but simply “hung out” together in the little pocket parks in the Village. He said the youths appeared to be from neither particularly poor nor well-to-do families, but looked to him “like an ordinary slice of youth in the community.”

The attackers, armed with baseball bats and sticks, swept into the park with stunning swiftness shortly after 8 P.M. Wednesday, striking many of their victims as they lounged on park benches playing cards and chatting.’We were sitting down having fun as usual and these kids jumped up and started hitting us,’ said Dijuan Phiiyan, a 33-year-old construction worker who suffered a fractured collar bone and a cut eye. ‘They kept using the words, ‘Niggers, get out!’

Both white and black men and women, many of them shrieking in fear, scrambled to escape the youths, but quickly realized that only blacks and Hispanics were being hit. Lieutenant Yuknes said all the youths were charged with riot in the first degree, reckless endangerment, assault and unlawful assembly.

Mario Peraza, 27, who had been astride a 10-speed Japanese bicycle near Washington Square Arch at the north side of the park, said he looked up from a conversation with a friend just as a bat was crashing down on his skull. Bill McKenna, a 35-year-old railroad worker, who said he saw the blow being delivered, said “it sounded like a watermelon popping.”

The police said the attack lasted no more than six minutes and that afterward several of the youths regrouped on street corners in the western part of the Village.

The number of persons injured was put by the police yesterday at 13. Four persons remained under treatment at St. Vincent’s Hospital, one of whom has been unconscious and in critical condition since the night of the attack with severe head, injuries.

Several of the victims and other witnesses in the park charged that the assailants had been Italian youths, but of those arrested only three had surnames that suggested Italian ancestry…

Lieutenant Yuknes said that he now believed that the incident had grown out of a dispute between two whites and blacks over the sale of marijuana, as several witnesses had initially reported…He said the youths had gathered to retailiate against a black drug dealer, but added that as they charged into the park “they went berserk and struck out at every black guy and Hispanic in the vicinity.”

Andrew Meier wrote a book “Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty,” recently published by Random House, which dedicated a chapter to the riot. Again, I defer to the author.

“It was the summer of 1976. New York City verged on bankruptcy, struggling even to stage a celebration of America’s Bicentennial, when within weeks another drama played out in Greenwich Village, in the square that bears the name of the country’s first president. On the evening of Sept. 8, 1976, a race riot roiled Washington Square Park, and the city itself. The bloodshed lasted no more than 10 minutes, and has somehow receded from history. But today, more than four decades later, the root causes of the violence, and its fractious aftermath, are no less relevant. It’s a case that offers instructive reminders: of a different sort of “gang violence”; of a city rife with racist enmities and neighborhood loyalties; of allegations of police complicity; of the long-held distrust of any municipal authority among the city’s Black and Hispanic residents…”

On that sunny and warm Wednesday afternoon, word went around among the “neighborhood boys” of the West Village: We’re going to “clean out” the park tonight. The first of them arrived a few blocks away at Leroy Street Park, off Seventh Avenue — just before 6 in the evening. As dusk set in, their numbers had swelled. Later, when the violence had ended, not even the police could give a precise total: Some said there had been at least 50 attackers, others put it as high as 100.

They were sons and grandsons of immigrants, mostly Irish- and Italian-born, boys who went to the local schools — Our Lady of Pompeii on Bleecker, or P.S. 70, up on 17th Street. They played hoops at the Carmine Street Gym, stickball on West 11th. Some belonged to a graffiti crew, the Go Club… But their loyalties crossed ethnic divides — a common fact of growing up on the streets downtown in the 1970s, but one that would later confound not only investigators and reporters, but jurors as well.

Chucky Boutureira, Andre Sanchez, and Joey Chiappetti — the “ringleaders,” as Mr. Morgenthau’s prosecutors would later call them — explained the plan to the crowd: Tonight, they were taking back the park. The circle grew close, and several boys hoisted Ronny McLamb, the only Black youth in their crowd, up on a table. “Be sure not to hit him!” someone cried. “He’s with us.” They tied a red bandanna around McLamb’s head — a sign to leave him alone once the action began.

The mob streamed east toward Washington Square, filling the sidewalks. Bystanders saw them clearly. Some carried beers, nearly all had weapons: bats, sticks, chains, pipes. Later, amid the debris, table legs would be found, many of them studded with nails. They paused at the entrance to the park.

Chucky Boutureira climbed up on a car. Chucky was 18 and tall, a Bedford Street boy whose father cooked seven days a week at a Spanish place for $500 a month. There seemed to be hesitation in the crowd, and Chucky was trying to motivate the troops. Let’s take a vote, someone yelled: We going in? A witness interviewed later by the police recounted the loudest cry: “Anyone who wants to get the niggers out of the park, say aye.”

Nancy Trichter, a 25-year-old white law student at Rutgers, was crossing Washington Square with a friend, a young Black woman, when the mob arrived. “It was so sudden,” she told me, decades later. “They were chasing all of us,” reported the Times, who quoted her in a story the next day. “But the only people they hit were Black.”

The boys swarmed the park, swinging bats and sticks as they went. Everywhere across the asphalt, up by the arch and down to the southern end, by the raised playground, they seemed to hit anyone in their path who was Black or brown. A young man just off work from the McDonald’s nearby was caught unaware — a bat to the back of his head. A 33-year-old construction worker on a bike — hit in the eye and chest, cracking his collarbone. Nor did they spare women: More than one witness would describe an attack on a pregnant woman, who was kicked in her midsection. She struggled to run, writhing in pain.

Carl Warren had been sitting by the playground when he saw “a big disturbance,” as he would later testify, momentarily imagining it “a disagreement over the gambling games.” He realized at once his error; yelling to the Black women at his side to run, he turned toward the onrushing mob…Warren was tall, with a barrel chest, and was known on the street as “Bonecrusher.”…Warren met one attacker head-on, “challenged him on it,” he would testify, and that’s when he got hit: two blows in the back of the head, and then, as he tried to rise again, another attacker got him in the knee, splitting it to the kneecap.

Dozens more were struck, but the worst came last. Park regulars tended to know one another: the guitar players, the pot dealers, the three-card-monte scammers. And then there was Marcos Mota, who on most afternoons could be found on the park’s volleyball court. Mr. Mota was compact, 5-foot-9, but an athlete. He was born in the Dominican Republic, and before coming to New York with his mother three years earlier, he had played on the Dominican national team. Now 22, he lived with his mother in Brooklyn. He’d worked nights in a factory, graduated high school and found a dream: Days earlier he’d registered for another term at community college on Staten Island, and he hoped to become an electrical engineer. Volleyball, though, remained his passion. He was the anchor of a local Dominican team in the city, and they practiced as often as they could in the park.

MARCOS MOTA, a 22-year-old student and talented volleyball player, died from injuries sustained during the riot. Photo from Andrew Meier “Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty.”

“Marcos was a very clean guy,” a friend, Natividad Montilla, would recount to me decades later. “No drugs — never even smoked pot.” They’d been hanging out with two girls when the boys swarmed in. One of the girls yelled to Mr. Mota to leave, but he headed for the arch to see what was happening. Mr. Montilla was running to catch up with his friend when, in the floodlights of the volleyball court, he saw Mr. Mota get struck by a bat and fall. He ran to his side, but Mr. Mota was scarcely moving.

Only after the riot had ended did the bystanders realize that the park was strangely empty of police. The two patrolmen usually on duty were absent, and so were the radio cars that often circled the square. By 8:08, when the first witness reached a pay phone, and before any officers appeared, the mob was gone. The only thing left to do was tend to the wounded: At least 35 people were injured and 13 were sent to emergency rooms, including Mr. Mota, whose friends carried him to a cab and delivered him to St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Two days after the riot, nine young men were in custody. They ranged in age from 16 to 20. Many  lived near the Sixth Precinct station house in tenements where their families had lived for decades. Some of their parents knew the local patrolmen by name. That afternoon, their supporters formed an all-white parade to march on the precinct house. Some carried hand-drawn signs: “Don’t blame our youths!!! Curb Your Junkies.” Others shouted: “Don’t arrest our kids for doing your job!”

Four days later, Marcos Mota, who had fallen into a coma, died.

“…The trial lasted nine weeks. After six days of deliberations, the jury returned its verdict. Six of the nine were found guilty. At noon on May 12, 1978, nearly two years after the bats flew, Justice Robert Haft rose, reading from the paper before him. His audience was not the defendants, but their supporters. “Those who claim this incident was not racial,” Judge Haft said, “are totally naïve or don’t wish to see the truth.”

“All who were struck were Black or Hispanic,” he continued. “The sole reason that anyone was struck was the color of his skin.” As he spoke, the judge wiped his eyes.

This is a story which we cannot allow to fade. Does this riot and the one which occurred 113 years earlier have an impact today? Just look at these census statistics about who lives in the Village and our nearby downtown communities:


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