Pegler: On the Harlem situation (8-4-43)

The Pittsburgh Press (August 4, 1943)

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Pegler: On the Harlem situation

By Westbrook Pegler

New York –
There is a disposition to give Mayor La Guardia much more credit than he deserves for the handling of the riot of a criminal element of Negroes in Harlem and to withhold from the New York policemen who faced the mobs and won the victory with a minimum of bloodshed and damage just that proportion of the credit which is due them. A correct proportion would be about 0.01% for the mayor and 99.09% for the cops, who are the best in the United States and probably the best in the world, their virtues and the problems considered.

In the first place, one reason why the looters and badmen and women could get out of hand was that the authority of the police has been undermined systematically in Harlem during La Guardia’s time in office. If, during all these years, the bad actors among the population of that Negro neighborhood had been held to the same standard of conduct and law observance that is required of Negro and white citizens alike in other sections of the city, rioters would have been no more likely to break loose there than in, say, Mulberry Bend or Murray Hill.

If, in one of these other regions, an individual or a group of three or four step out of line or refuse to break it up at the cop’s command, he simply picks his man and locks him up and that is that. In Harlem, on the contrary, the policemen have been victims of a special policy which has coddled the loafer and fancy-dan to the peril and embarrassment of the decent Negroes.

Harlem attracts bums, thieves

The decent Negro citizens know that the name of Harlem has attracted there an element of bums and thieves who were no good in their own hometowns and are no better here, and it was no compliment to the decent element when La Guardia put handcuffs on the policemen to hamper them in dealing with offenders who would be slapped down fast and locked up as a matter of routine if the law were faithfully and impartially enforced in Harlem. La Guardia has seemed to believe that the law-abiding, industrious Negro citizen would thank him for special lenience to the element of no-goods, of both sexes, who are neither an asset nor a credit to any community.

A couple of years ago, I made the mistake of criticizing a large number of New York policemen, many of them relatively young fellows, who, having served their 20 years on the force, were putting in for retirement on pension, according to their legal right. To my regret, I went so far as to suggest that their retirement was then comparable to desertion in the face of an emergency presented by a foreign enemy, without first consulting a few harness cops and others of the rank and file to get their side.

I got it, however, a few days later, in a large batch of letters from policemen, many of whom gave their names, in which the man complained bitterly of humiliations put upon them by La Guardia in public disparagements of individual policemen and in the discredit of their authority as cops in Harlem and in troubles with union pickets. If they stayed on, as many of them said they would have been willing to under any mayor whose fairness they could count upon, they had to take the risk of departmental charges and dismissal with consequent loss of all their earned pension rights.

The mayor was aghast

They felt that La Guardia had treated them badly and were unwilling to serve longer under him and were standing on their rights. Their version of conditions in Harlem was later confirmed by two able men then on the District Attorney’s staff who also said the communists of La Guardia’s left wing in Harlem, where Congressman Vito Marcantonio is a power and the mayor’s political protégé. Enjoyed special privileges and contrived to keep affairs in a touchy condition all the time by turning into a case of Cossack persecution every altercation between a policeman, whether Negro or white, and any Negro mischief maker.

Having helped stack the crates and barrels by his anti-cop policy over a number of years, the mayor was then aghast when the pile was touched off by a fracas between a policeman and two Negroes whose little mishap should have been a routine entry. But it was the cops, operating under reduced prestige who had to do the dangerous work in the streets to save the peace of the rest of the city and protect the lives of the great majority of law-abiding Harlem Negroes.

La Guardia was technically correct in saying that this was no race riot but nevertheless, in the imagination of the rioters, it was just that and for this reason certain elements of the Negro press cannot escape responsibility. Even Mrs. Roosevelt has mildly deplored this editorial policy of these papers which, frankly, is one of race hatred and incitation and of ennoblement of every Negro in any jam with the law, even though the subject be known to his Negro neighbors as a worthless badman.

It was grievously unfair to the brave and conscientious New York policemen and to the decent Negroes of Harlem to handicap the law in Harlem and this riot was due in no small part of that policy.