‘The Only People They Hit Were Black’: When a Race Riot Roiled New York

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.

The new district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, still settling into a job that he would hold for 35 years, faced a raft of challenges: Violent crime, a soaring drug trade, a police department stymied by corruption, a budget in crisis and packed jails.The criminal justice system, in sum, was under pressure, perhaps as never before.

Robert M. Morgenthau, who became the Manhattan district attorney in 1975. Seen here in 1982, he would serve for 35 years.

For months, the D.A.’s investigation into the riot would play out in the tabloids and neighborhood bars. Right from the first, Washington Square offered a stage on which a disparate cast of political and civic actors could demand not only a fair hearing but also an overdue reckoning. The riot — a racist attack in the heart of Manhattan that left nearly three dozen injured and one man dead — became Mr. Morgenthau’s first big test.

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 I.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, and several had been in trouble with the law. At least three had gun violations — shootings, robberies or both — in their past. 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.”

It was an unusually warm evening. Groups of people were finishing picnics, meeting their dates, playing catch, drinking beer, smoking marijuana. Some of the people on the side of the attackers, like Michael Andriani, would later say they had no plan, but had only come to watch “a one-on-one fight.” Many, to be sure, were unprepared for the bloodshed to come, but to the witnesses, sitting on benches, lying on the grass, the racist shouts directed at the Black and Hispanic people were unmistakable: “Out of the park! Get out of the park!” 

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.

Dijuan Philyan was one of the injured during the riot in Washington Square Park.Credit…Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

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.” As a teenager, he’d served time for auto theft and robbery, and in the 14 years since he had held down two jobs: Mornings as a clammer on Long Island, and nights as a clerk in a liquor store near the park.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 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.

The word had come to the district attorney that evening. Within hours, the mayor was on the phone. For months already, Mr. Morgenthau had pressed Mayor Abe Beame for money to curb the drug trade. (He’d once taken the mayor uptown to an open-air heroin market. Mayor Beame was shocked. As the unmarked van carrying the D.A. and the mayor sat at a street corner, a dealer offered the mayor whatever he wanted: cocaine, marijuana, pills.)

Racial violence was another matter. The city, especially the Village, had seen a rise in attacks. And the record of the local Sixth Precinct was grim: at least five unsolved murders — “homicides by bat,” in the words of a prosecutor — in the last three years.

Mr. Morgenthau’s question was why? Why had they done it? In those first hours, as the police searched for witnesses, the ambiguity grew, and the district attorney’s fears mounted. The early reports were sufficiently contradictory. Given the factions involved — neighborhood leaders, local shopkeepers, and not least the fretful administrators of New York University — the jockeying to control the narrative was sure to be intense. The city’s Black leaders were already voicing outrage. The D.A. knew he could rely on Charlie Rangel to try to calm the waters; the African American congressman representing New York’s 19th District had served as an assistant prosecutor in Morgenthau’s U.S. attorney’s office in the 1960s, and he remained a close ally. But the stakes were high, and rising.

The Police Department quickly put out a report based on rumor: A Black dealer, unnamed witnesses said, had sold oregano to a white kid looking for marijuana. The story took hold, gaining detail by the day. Still, other reports, like one of the first in The New York Post, described a longstanding feud “between the Italians who live in or near the area and Blacks who use the park … for evenings of drinking, card playing and pot smoking.”

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.

Marcos Mota, a 22-year-old student and talented volleyball player, died from injuries sustained during the riot.

As the cries to act grew louder, the D.A. was concerned. The attacks were clearly racist, but the legal case had become murky. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s human rights commissioner, warned Mr. Morgenthau against “any hesitation or vacillation.” The city’s “local district attorneys have an undistinguished record in prosecuting such crimes,” she wrote to him, adding that she expected better from Mr. Morgenthau, given his reputation as a former federal prosecutor.

The D.A.’s greatest challenge, though, was the question posed by the ethnic range of the young men accused in the riot. Andre Sanchez, one of the presumed organizers, and another defendant, Mr. Boutureira, were reported to be Hispanic; Mr. McLamb was Black. That three defendants were young men of color appeared to undermine the motive — that a mob of white racists had stormed Washington Square to rid the park of undesirables. The ethnic identities of the defendants, The Postwrote, “tended to quell the original fears that the rampage had racial overtones.” 

Mr. Morgenthau worried, too, about the Police Department, especially the precinct detectives of the close-knit neighborhood. Six years had passed since Frank Serpico, the former undercover vice detective who’d lived in the West Village, had come to Mr. Morgenthau. The corruption Mr. Serpico described would lead to the Knapp Commission and its public investigations, but the specter of dirty cops, especially among the old guard in the Village, remained.

For weeks, the investigation went nowhere. The police unearthed few leads, but John Moscow, the 28-year-old lead prosecutor, did have one promising thread: the rumored drug deal that had gone bad. Two girls had said that on the night before the riot they’d seen a fight. A white kid had tried to buy marijuana, and somebody named Blue had broken his jaw when the kid claimed he was ripped off.

The witnesses, Theresa Cowan and Diane Brown, testified  before a grand jury that they had seen two boys who came to the park for drugs: Frankie Vales and Andre Sanchez. Ms. Cowan knew them from the neighborhood, just as she knew Blue, the dealer. And she remembered hearing a threat: “We’ll be back to get you tomorrow.” 

The police found the records at St. Vincent’s Hospital that showed Mr. Vales was treated for a broken jaw. But there seemed to be more: The fight may only have accelerated the timetable for a plan that was already been in place. More than one witness conceded that as early as two days before the violence, several boys had spoken of taking back the square. They had even stockpiled weapons.

Witnesses also spoke to Mr. Morgenthau’s investigators of a conspiracy: It wasn’t just the Village boys; the police had been in on it, eager for help in “cleansing” the park. Shopkeepers told of being hit up for money to pay off the cops. The Sixth Precinct, the D.A. would learn, had been warned of the plan in advance. Det. James Kingsley had taken the call and put it in the logbook at the station house: A male voice said that “one of the neighborhood kids got his jaw broken last night in Washington Square Park by a Black guy, and that his friends would be back tonight with bats and clubs to take revenge.

The detective had noted the warning in the logbook at 5:45 p.m. on the night of the riot — but his colleagues who came on duty after him, the prosecutors learned, either ignored it or changed their own entries to the log. At 7 p.m., David “Doc” Brown, the lone officer on duty in the park, was given the OK by his supervisor to leave for dinner.

In all, 38 officers from the Sixth Precinct would appear before the grand jury. One officer after another pleaded a poor memory.

Mr. Morgenthau announced an indictment in December. It pleased few among the Village’s politicians, neighborhood associations, or police precincts, but his office charged 10 young men with a racist conspiracy “designed to drive Blacks from the park.” 

On the first morning of the trial, supporters of “the baseball team” — as their family members now called the nine defendants — protested outside the courthouse. Inside, Mr. Moscow proceeded to name the defendants, one by one.

“These people did not come together spontaneously,” he told the jury. Mr. Moscow spoke of the plan hatched two days before the violence. He laid out the charges: conspiracy, riot, manslaughter, assault. He tallied the riot’s toll — fractured skulls, broken bones, an eye lost, and Mr. Mota’s death — though murder was not one of the charges. (The investigation had failed to determine who struck Mr. Mota.)

Mr. Moscow allowed that some among the mob had tagged along, motivated by “what they thought was a legitimate purpose of driving drug dealers out of the park.” But the investigation, he argued, had revealed the truth: “Other members of the conspiracy told drug dealers that there would be trouble.”

The trial lasted nine weeks. As Mr. Morgenthau expected, the hardest part was getting the witnesses to the courtroom. The D.A. would have to issue subpoenas, even holding two witnesses in custody. As the tabloids announced the disappearance of one witness after another (several fled), four others would be put in police protection. Several who did make it to court could not recall the riot clearly; one of the prosecution’s strongest witnesses contradicted his grand jury testimony and was declared hostile.

In the end, the victims made the case. Carl “Bonecrusher” Warren told how he had seen a rioter hit one of the Black youths. “I saw him as clearly as I see you,” Mr. Warren said with restraint. “He was less than 12 feet away from me. And I don’t intend to forget a person who calls me nigger.”

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.

Joey Chiappetti deserved “the severest sanction,” the judge said: four to 12 years in prison. Chucky Boutureira, the “most enthusiastic follower,” would get three and a third to 10 years, and Ronny McLamb would get the same. Michael Andriani, who “ran with the crowd,” got a maximum of six years, while Michael Doyle received four.

For most New Yorkers, the case of the Washington Square riot would soon recede, an aberration of episodic violence that seemed to have been resolved, even as its roots causes remained unaddressed. For Mr. Morgenthau, though, it would stand in his memory. He declared victory before the press. But in private, he considered the undercurrents of the riot and its aftereffects — racial animosities and neighborhood alliances, police connivance and the drug trade, civic pride masking a campaign of bigotry — and sensed they would all come back into play. In fact, he was sure of it.

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