Category Archives: Commentary

In Baltimore, What Comes Next? Lessons from the Washington Heights Riots of 1992

WashingtonHeightsRiotsKiko (2)

By Pedro Regalado

Cross-posted at The Urban Opus

On the evening of July 3rd, 1992, a man of color died at the hands of white police. That night, plainclothes officer Michael O’Keefe and two other officers patrolled the lower section of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, located just above Harlem beginning at 155th street. O’Keefe claimed to notice 23-year-old Jose “Kiko” Garcia carrying a weapon.[1] After an attempt to surround Garcia failed, O’Keefe pursued him.[2] Soon, the officers received radio cries from their distressed fellow officer. When they arrived at 505 West 162nd street, they found O’Keefe standing over a lifeless body. WashingtonHeightsRiotsDRFlag (2) This story has become a familiar one. Less than a day after Garcia’s death, Washington Heights erupted. Similar to the events that unfolded in Baltimore in recent weeks, outraged residents looted, desecrated storefronts, and set cars and buildings ablaze. They also marched and protested the police abuse that had too frequently affected residents both young and old. Like West Baltimore, Washington Heights symbolized the grim circumstances that urban communities of color faced then and now. Widespread poverty, high unemployment rates, deteriorating housing, underfunded schools, lack of social services, and high crime rates prevailed. For Washington Heights’ Dominican residents, police brutality, which often involved intimidation and personal invasion practices like frisking, only worsened matters. “You would come outside your apartment and they would frisk you[…]You would be dehumanized on a regular basis,“ remembered one resident.[3] In recent weeks, Baltimore’s African American residents have expressed similar sentiments.

As we witness Baltimore’s uprising develop, as rioters and protesters alike struggle to communicate their own disgust, part of our focus should attend not only to the underlying origins of the unrest — gracefully articulated by social critics the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates — but to the larger structural effects of the upheaval locally and nationally. We should focus on the long-term political outcomes of the unrest equally as much as we attend to the immediate outcomes of the riots for Charm City’s African American residents. For among Washington Heights’ many lessons, the dual legacies of urban riots help us to see the possible future of urban policing in Baltimore.

Certainly, these two events and communities have their differences that make their respective uprisings unique. New York in 1992 is far different than Baltimore in 2015. However, a look back at the Washington Heights riots can help to reveal how uprisings function as social and political crossroads. It also elucidates the dangers of allowing right-wing political backlash to overtake the increased visibility of racialized urban poverty and violence.

Not long after the dust settled in Washington Heights, the neighborhood began to experience some of the changes that its residents sought when they rebelled on those warm summer days. In the years following the riots, Washington Heights became home to several new schools, increased representation in city government, new social services, and, perhaps most important, city-wide awareness of a working-class community that had previously been painted and treated as criminal by media and politicians alike. Community leader and councilman Gregorio Linares remembered, “We have gained tremendously from the experience of the disturbances…You can never say that something like this can never happen again…But this community is no longer what it was prior to the disturbances.”[4] He continued, “The reason this neighborhood did not go down in flames is because the community was able to respond quickly.”[5] Indeed, Dominican unity became a shining legacy of the Washington Heights riots for its community members whose common goal focused on the area’s peace as well as respect for its immigrant residents. However, their achievements, while significant, were limited as the visibility that the uprising created was soon manipulated for political ends entangled in New York City’s mayoral politics.

In September of 1992, two months after fires and rage adorned the hills of upper Manhattan, thousands of off-duty police officers had an uprising of their own. Beginning as a rally at City Hall Park organized by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, off-duty police officers chanted “Dinkin’s must go!” and “No justice, No Police!” The officers lambasted then-Mayor David Dinkins for his treatment of police during the riots, including his visit to Garcia’s family days after the shooting, and also for his attempt to create an All Civilian Review Board that would investigate instances of police abuse and misconduct. Not unlike in recent months, city police felt threatened and their backlash was difficult to avoid.

In attendance was Republican mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani, who had lost the mayorship in a close race with Dinkins in 1989 and would run again in 1993. Giuliani stood high above the crowd during the rally and shouted, “The reason the morale of the New York Police Department is so low is one reason and one reason alone, David Dinkins!”[6] In a New York Times op-ed published just a month earlier, Giuliani had criticized Dinkins for his handling of not only the Washington Heights riots but also the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn a year prior. He asserted that Dinkins ceded “to the forces of lawlessness,” he called the rioters “urban terrorists.”[7]

Indeed, much of Giuliani’s campaign relied on chastising Dinkins and appealing to the white ethnic working classes of the city. Certainly, the NYPD served as a perfect group for the former prosecutor to appeal to. And among others standing on stage with him in the midst of an increasingly fervent rally was police hero and Garcia’s slayer, Michael O’Keefe.[8] As the rally’s intensity grew, thousands of off-duty officers swarmed past barricades at City Hall, trampling cars and blocking traffic from the Brooklyn Bridge. 300 on-duty police officers did little to stop them.[9] “The 2 ½-hour PBA demonstration was punctuated with chants of ‘Rudy! Rudy!’” noted one news report.

On November 3rd, 1993 — partly riding on the fear that he fostered among the city’s white residents concerning both the Washington Heights and Crown Heights riots — Rudy Giuliani became the mayor of New York City and would serve as such into the 21st century. Despite losing Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, Giuliani swept white ethnic strongholds in Staten Island and Queens, winning the mayorship by approximately three percent. Addressing his supporters at the New York Hilton Hotel just moments after his 1993 victory, Giuliani stated, “You know, nobody, no ethnic, religious or racial group will escape my care, my concern and my attention.” Through policing, the new mayor would make this certain.

Soon after taking office, the mayor appointed William Bratton as the city’s 38th Police Commissioner. With Giuliani’s backing, Bratton introduced Broken Windows policing in New York City. He also pioneered the use of CompStat, a police management tool rooted in statistics that sought to reduce the city’s severe crime rate. In tandem with Broken Windows, CompStat made police officers more accountable to statistical objectives that served political agendas than to the poor communities that they were intended to serve. They also placed considerable pressure on police officers to make arrests, which helped to increase cases of police abuse, summons, and stop and frisks throughout the city. While crime in New York dropped steadily and rents continued to increase in the years following Washington Heights’ uprising, New York’s poor residents benefitted little from reduced crime. Instead, they faced displacement to more impoverished and dangerous areas of the city.

As the 1990’s continued, both Broken Windows and CompStat’s negative implementations circulated throughout other major cities in the U.S. with similar socio-political landscapes and similar politicians facing high crime rates. Baltimore was no exception. In 1999, the city adopted CitiStat, modeled closely after Compstat. And in 2007, current Maryland governor and Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley, who instituted CitiStat as mayor, rebranded it as Maryland StateStat, widening the program’s scale.

As we reflect on Baltimore’s current tense situation, we must be reminded that while the uprising presents new possibilities for organizing and solidarity that may lead to local success, it also provides the opportunity for police and political backlash that threaten to take advantage of increased awareness of African American plight in Baltimore. Recent headlines include “Baltimore Proves the Need for ‘Broken Windows’ policing” in the New York Post and “The Underpolicing of Black America” in the The Wall Street Journal. The dual legacy of the Washington Heights riots of 1992, should remind us of the larger stakes of urban governance for Baltimore and, indeed, the nation. We are at a new crossroads; the future is unclear. And as the dust settles in the streets of West Baltimore, we must turn away from the type of policing that leaves underprivileged residents further estranged and our cities in ruins.

Pedro A. Regalado is a PhD student in American Studies at Yale University. He interests include twentieth-century urban history, race, politics, and immigration. 

[1] Dennis Hevesi, “Upper Manhattan Block Erupts After a Man is Killed in Struggle with a Policeman,” The New York Times, July 5th, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Interview with Black.

[4] Garcilazo, “A Positive Legacy: Dominican Unity.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Rudolph W. Giuliani, Rumor and Justice in Washington Heights,” The New York Times, August 7, 1992.

[8] Ibid.

[9] James C. McKinley Jr, “Officer’s Rally and Dinkins is Their Target,” The New York Times, September 17, 1992.

The City as Text

A guest post by Michael Carriere.

I became an urban historian in no small part because I love cities. Since I was a child, I have been captivated by the sights, smells, and sounds of the urban environment. I’d like to think that this passion informs both my writing and my teaching on the subject of urban history, allowing readers and students alike to hopefully create their own attachments to cities. Yes, I am an historian, but the boundaries between past, present, and even future prove quite blurry when you’re dealing with something as alive and dynamic as the city.

Such a perspective does not mean that I’m a naïve optimist when it comes to the state of the city in the early twenty-first century. For the past ten years, I have lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city that – like other Midwestern cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis – is often held up as a decaying model of “Rust-Belt” urban decline. Sadly, there is much truth in this depressing narrative of declension. I see the poverty, violence, and disinvestment that marks Milwaukee, as well as countless other American cities, on a daily basis. Through a variety of texts, guest speakers, and other teaching tools I try to impart to my students the history behind this present moment of crisis. That’s pretty much what I try to do with my writing as well.

Continue reading The City as Text

Starbucks, Israel, and the Irrepressible Politics of the Global

A Guest Post by Bryant Simon

Fans and critics of Starbucks like to joke, or bemoan, that the idea that Starbucks is everywhere. A cartoonist once imagined Starbucks opening stores in its own bathrooms. Some urban planners worry about the so-called Starbucks effect, about the creation of a global monoculture, where everyplace has a Starbucks and every place is the same. But that’s the thing, Starbucks isn’t everywhere. It isn’t in Rome, it isn’t in Narobi, and it isn’t Tel Aviv.

Where Starbucks isn’t tells us something about cities and spaces, and it tells something about the enduring power of politics and meaning of politics in everyday consumption in age of the global. It tells about the particular, about the nation, and the pushback against the universal. This, then, is a first look at one place Starbucks isn’t, Israel, and what this absence can tell us.

In January 2009, just after Israel had launched an offensive in Gaza to stop Hamas rocket fire, a group of protesters converged on a Beirut Starbucks. The demonstrators pasted a Star of David over the company’s green-and-white logo. “The children of Lebanon and Palestine,” read one banner, “warn that Starbucks drinks lead to buying deadly weapons.”

As it had done before, Starbucks quickly denied the charges leveled by the Beirut protestors. A public relations representative issued a statement saying, “rumors that Starbucks Coffee Company and its management support Israel are unequivocally false.” It added, “Starbucks is a non-political organization and does not support political causes.”

With that last remark, Starbucks showed, despite having coffee houses in fifty countries around the world, that it didn’t yet fully understand the global marketplace.

The global economy surely opens possibilities and larger markets for companies, but it creates along the way pitfalls and problems. That is, in essence, the lesson of Starbucks’ brief life in Israel and it’s longer tenure in the Middle East. Companies can try to avoid politics as much as they want and as loudly they insist (like Starbucks did in the states when it said it didn’t want to ban guns from its stores and get involved in politics), but there are some places and some issues where and when that just can’t happen.

In 2000, Starbucks, the Seattle based coffee giant, opened a few cafes in Israel. Within three years, all six of the stores with the familiar green logo and comfy couches in Tel Aviv and Herzeliya Pituach, launched in partnership with the Delek Group, were closed after the company had failed to catch on and ran up $6 million in debt. Starbucks executives told reporters that the Intifada – in other words geo-politics – had done them in. “We knew that we were a target in Israel,” a Starbucks official gravely explained to a journalist. Yet this retreat didn’t end the politics for the coffee company or all of the sudden simplify its global position.


Even before Starbucks opened in Israel, pro-Palestinian groups in the United States and England launched a series of boycotts against the company. In a well-rehearsed bit of guerrilla theater in 1996, thirty soldiers from the self-styled Badger Defence Force stormed a Starbucks on London’s Oxford Street armed with water pistols. Using what they labeled, “the logic of Israeli settlers,” the badgers “evicted customers and erected the first badger settlement in London near the espresso machine.” At the same time, they handed out fact sheets designed to prove that Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ CEO, was “a major supporter of the Israeli state.”

That wasn’t the end of the Starbucks story in the Middle East or its global involvement in Middle East politics. The idea that Schultz was pro-Israeli won’t go away. Backers of the Boycott Israel Campaign put Starbucks near the top of its list of Pro-Israeli companies. The group complained that in 1998, the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah honored Howard Schultz, as they had well-known conservatives Margaret Thatcher and Jeanne Kilpatrick politicians before him, citing his key role in “promoting close a alliance between the United States and Israel.” They also pointed out that Starbucks boasted about Schultz’s honor from the group on the company’s official web-page, thus making clear Starbucks’ politics and justifying its call for a latte boycott.

On July 4, 2002, a year before Starbucks pulled out of Israel for good, Schultz gave a speech at a Seattle synagogue that fueled pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist enmity toward his company. “What is going on in the Middle East,” he contended, “is not an isolated part of the world. The rise of anti-Semitism is at an all-time high since the 1930s. . . . This isn’t about Israel or land. It’s about legitimizing attacks on and murder of Jews. Nothing less.” He concluded his talk, calling on “every Jew in America” to defend Israel.

American Muslims for Global Peace and Justice could hardly believe what they heard. What they heard was not the thoughts of a private citizen, but the political views of corporate CEO. The US based-group felt like the Starbucks chairman “delegitimize[d] the Palestinian desire to achieve the right of freedom, and to defend themselves against attacks by asserting that the struggle is based on religious as opposed to political grounds.” Based on this assessment, they urged “Muslim[s] to take up this boycott in every city, in every neighborhood where Starbucks operates. . . . You Might Save a Life in Palestine.”

When Starbucks started to scout out locations near the American University in Beirut in 2003, protestors met them at one of the proposed sites. No doubt, attacks from Muslim groups in the US and abroad made Starbucks, a company that trades on image perhaps more than coffee, nervous, especially as it began to open stores not just in Beirut, but also in Riyadh, Dubai, Jakarta, and eventually Cairo – all growth areas for the company.

For some, this anxiety explained Starbucks’ pull back from Israel. Perhaps the company had to, given the tinderbox that is the Middle East, pick Israel or one of its neighbors a place to do business. Even that, though, did not safeguard it from political reprisals.

Many Israelis didn’t buy Starbucks’ story about leaving the country either. They insisted that Starbucks stumbled not because of the Intifada, that is politics, but because people there didn’t like the American company’s coffee. For some, it was the pushback of consumer nationalism and pride in place that hurt the company. Israelis, some said, didn’t think they needed to be taught about coffee from an American company, a company from a country that didn’t know that much about coffee to begin with. Others didn’t take well to Starbucks’ takeaway coffee operation – a product of the relentless movement and non-stop driving of US culture and life. Like most Europeans, Israelis tended to stop for a moment and drink their coffee in the café out of porcelain cups, not on the go out of paper containers. And while Starbucks skipped out of the Tel Aviv area, several chains serving American and Italian style coffees have thrived in Israel over the last decade opening multiple stores and gaining loyal followings. There is another angle. Though Starbucks has over the year forced its way into other markets in other urban places – Paris, Madrid, and Vienna for instance — that didn’t immediately take to its tastes or take-away impulses, it eventually endured some early losses and established a foothold in these locations. But not in Israel. The company showed little patience there. That brings the story, then, back to politics and the global.

In another globalized twist on the story, Starbucks’ hasty flight from Tel Aviv and the areas around it earned it the enmity of pro-Israel groups in the United States. “Disgraceful!” one activist wrote of the company’s decision. He thought Starbucks backed out of Israel in response to Arab-led boycotts. “Let us as Jews, let them know that we will not patronize their stores for their position on Israel”.

Even as it insisted it was making simple, straightforward business decisions, Starbucks got ensnarled in Middle Eastern politics again in 2006, even after it left Israel. Throughout the summer as the border skirmishes between Israel and Lebanon blew up into a deadly war, rumors swirled across the web that Howard Schultz was funneling money to Israeli defense forces. The chairman and the company’s PR department moved quickly – at the time Starbucks had multiple stores in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and other places in the Arab and Islamic world – to rebuff the charges. “Starbucks,” Schultz insisted on the company’s website, is a “non-political organization” that does not “support political causes.” Western and Middle Eastern media outlets backed him up saying that the rumors about his funding the Israeli army were false. But still the charges – really the feelings behind them – didn’t go away. “I believe Starbucks is supporting Israel,” a young Kuwaiti argued even after he read the disclaimers, “it is an American company therefore it is an obvious conclusion.” When asked if he would back a boycott of the company, he answered, “Of course . . . they are killing children in Lebanon.”

In end, maybe that was it. Globalization expanded the latte market, but these opportunities came with pitfalls. Starbucks, then, weighted it possibilities. Israel was just too hard of a market, but the move out of Israel was at the same time just as surely about navigating the tight channels of the global markets, about the politics that were never that far from the business in some parts of the world. There were too many global possibilities in Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, and Beirut, with too many free-spending, luxury seeking customers in these different parts of the Muslim world, to make the company want to do the hard work and make things run profitably in Tel Aviv.

But even that move couldn’t save Starbucks from the repercussions of persistent political divides. Even in the US, Starbucks faced pressure over its Middle East business decisions. Muslim college students boycotted the brand because, they said (with little credible evidence), that Howard Schultz funneled money to the so-called “Israeli Defense Force.”

Again that is a peril of the global economy. Rumors can flow perhaps even easier than money, brand names, and investment across national boundaries. But nothing can escape politics in those places and communities where tensions run so deep.

Bryan Simon is a professor of history at Temple University.  His most recent book, Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks, was released in paperback in 2011.

Carbon, Cities, and What We’ve Done

A Guest Post by Andrew Needham

In the wake of President Obama’s announcement of the new EPA guidelines aimed at cutting carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants by 30% by 2030, I’ve been growing increasingly frustrated about how this story is being reported. We’ve gotten a heavy dose of political analysis about how this ruling will affect the midterms –reporting that focuses on the short term political effect of a policy meant to create long-term changes, the type of reporting that, as Jon Chait writes, is an excellent proxy for figuring out which newspapers think their readers are idiots. There has also been some pretty good reporting from coal country, like the story on NPR this morning from Greene County, Pennsylvania, where people legitimately wondered, in heart rending fashion, what they will do when the area’s coal mines see a 30% cut in production.

What’s not being covered at all is how we got in this situation. Some of this is the personal frustration of someone who just finished a book about the rise of coal-burning power plants. I know some things. Why aren’t they talking to me? But beyond my personal pique, there are some pretty big historical questions that have gone begging, not only in the reporting of this specific policy decision, but in the way that climate change gets covered more generally. And they’re questions that are central to figuring out strategies that are not only effective but just. Questions like “why does the US generate electricity by burning coal in the first place?” “when did this start?” and “why don’t most people living in cities and suburbs see all these coal burning power plants everyone’s talking about?” The answers to those questions, as I hope to show in what I fear may be a long post, lie in the ways residents of metropolitan America have been promised boundless electricity since World War II and in the ways the source of that electricity has been deliberately located outside the daily spaces of those same people.


Continue reading Carbon, Cities, and What We’ve Done

The Case for Repair, Part 2

A Guest Post by N. D. B. Connolly.  See Part 1 Here.

Policemen Choking African American Rioter

So, what do we do? With ‘nuff respect for all the bandwidth Coates has burned through making the case for racial justice over the years, and with a tip of the hat to the work of Congressman Conyers, Randall Robinson, and many others, I offer these recommendations for reframing old issues and marshaling new ones in the name of repairing a racist government, in the name of making reparations.

First, I believe we need to use the history of white supremacy to revise, fundamentally, the rules of capital accumulation, racial segregation, and violence that continue to fuel the wealth of nations, ours and others. We need a new blueprint, at a policy and political level, that reverse engineers the state-sponsored taking of black people’s futures, one that halts social processes that have made it in every group’s interests not to be black, look black, talk black, learn black, or live black. Putting the “repair” into reparations essentially means using constitutional amendments, political organizing, and the courts to restructure the very government that has enabled the wretched and enduring history that Ta-Nehisi Coates so vividly details.

Continue reading The Case for Repair, Part 2