Harlem Riot (1935)

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On the afternoon of March 19, 1935, Lino Rivera, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican youth, was observed stealing a ten-cent pocket knife from the E. H. Kress store on 125th street in New York's Harlem. When two store employees attempted to detain him, Rivera resisted, biting both of his captors. A police officer was called. To avoid a hostile crowd gathering at the front of the store, the patrolman escorted the suspect from the store through the basement to a rear entrance. Rumors began to circulate that Rivera had been beaten by the police. Soon reports claimed that he had been killed. Police attempted to persuade irate shoppers that no harm had come to the boy, but they refused to be calmed. At 5:30 the store was closed and the crowd spilled out onto the streets. A group of men tried to hold a public meeting to protest the alleged beating, but two speakers were arrested and charged with "unlawful assembly."

The mob spread to 7th Avenue and Lennox Avenue, smashing store windows and looting shops as they went. More than five hundred police officers were summoned to put down the disturbance. They were pelted with rocks and bottles; eight were injured. The New York Times reported that one hundred people were treated at local hospitals. Four people, three of them African American, died from injuries suffered during the night of rioting. More than one hundred persons were arrested. Two hundred stores were sacked and property damage was estimated at two million dollars.

The following day, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia claimed that the riot was "instigated and artificially stimulated by a few irresponsible individuals." District Attorney William C. Dodge announced that he was launching a grand jury investigation into Communist influence behind the rioting. Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., writing in the New York Post, discounted charges of radical agitation. He blamed the unrest on "empty stomachs, overcrowded tenements, filthy sanitation, rotten foodstuffs, chiseling landlords and merchants, discrimination in relief, disenfranchisement, and ... [a] disinterested administration."

The committee of prominent citizens appointed by LaGuardia to investigate the causes of the riot found no evidence that it had been instigated by Communists, terming it a "spontaneous outbreak." Their unpublished report echoed Powell's charges, identifying the riot's causes as "the injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and the racial segregation." Another factor, not mentioned by the committee, was the "don't buy where you can't work" campaign against white merchants organized by Powell and other community activists.

The Harlem Riot has been identified by sociologist Allen D. Grimshaw, in his work Racial Violence in the United States (1969), as the first manifestation of a "modern" form of racial rioting. He cites three distinctive features that set it apart from previous instances of urban racial conflict: (1) violence "directed almost entirely against property," (2) the absence of clashes between racial groups, and (3) "struggles between the lower-class Negro population and the police forces." Previous race riots had been characterized either by mobs of whites attacking blacks or by clashes between groups of both races. Most subsequent racial disturbances would resemble the Harlem riot.



Greenburg, Cheryl. Or Does It Explode?: Black Harlem in the Great Depression. 1998.

Greenberg, Cheryl. "The Politics of Disorder: Reexamining Harlem's Riots of 1935 and 1943." Journal of Urban History (18) 1984: 395–411.

Paul T. Murray