Grave of the Week: James Powell

The photo above is of the plot of grass that, as best I can tell, holds the unmarked grave of James Powell: Hemlock section, grave 860, Ferncliff Cemetery, Harstdale NY.

This has been a tough week in my classroom. For my juniors, who are learning about the post-Civil War US this year, we spent the week dealing with the structure of Jim Crow and  the reality of lynching. We discussed Jim Crow not just as segregation but as a system of humiliation and power, and looked at lynching as a violent, ultimate response against anyone who challenged that system. We talked about the most famous lynching photograph in history, that of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930, and of the crowd that watched them. We read Ida B. Wells and her unbending indictment of violence and death as she attacked the idea that lynching was a response to specific acts rather than a method of oppression.

In my Race in America class, we brought the conversation to the modern day to talk about Charlotte, and Tulsa. Hard conversations for a group of kids just getting to know each other, each from different backgrounds, each struggling to understand why this keeps happening, over, and over, and over. But we struggled with it together, and tried to walk in each other’s shoes. We tried to understand the pressures that erupt and the people they affect. We tried to think too about how our society, our media, or social networks respond as they do.

The conversation is a predictable one now: each interaction is picked apart clinically, movements are analyzed, intents umpired. We argue. Was that a threatening move? Was this a bad person? What did they own, what did they carry? How should protest look? If any minor infraction is found, too many of us say it was meant to be. And the whole time another body lies dead on the street, in the morgue, in a grave.

None of this is new.

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James Powell was a freshman in high school when he was shot and killed in Harlem in July of 1964. He stood 5 feet 6 inches and weighed just 122 – still growing. He and his friends were hanging out on a stoop when they were confronted by the building super; the surviving boys say he told them he’d “wash you niggers clean” before he turned a hose on them. The super denied the language, though not the action. The boys, including Powell, retaliated, pelting him with trash and garbage lids. Powell chased him into the building. The scene was witnessed by Thomas Gilligan, a veteran NYPD lieutenant, who shouted at the boys to stop and gave pursuit. As in most interactions before body cameras, helicopter pursuit, and street surveillance, what happened next remains  a shade of gray, but in the end, Powell was dead from two gunshots, a knife lay in the gutter near his body, and Lieutenant Gilligan held the gun.

Gilligan had survived World War II and seventeen years on the force before encountering Powell. He’d been involved in many confrontations, some of them dramatic. Just two years before, he had shot and killed another teenager, but had been cleared of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, this was no greenhorn: this was a combat and street veteran who knew what he was doing. On July 19, when he encountered Powell, he was off-duty, in plain clothes. After watching Powell begin to chase the superintendent into the building, Gilligan fired a warning shot, which went through a window. Here is where eyewitnesses and Gilligan begin to disagree.

Gilligan’s version of events was that Powell turned after the shot wielding a switchblade. Gilligan identified himself, but Powell lunged. The knife cut Gilligan on the finger. Gilligan shot him, then shot him again. It was self defense.

Eyewitness accounts differ. His friends say he had no knife, though one suggested perhaps he had. No one recalls Gilligan identifying himself as a police officer until after the shooting – just that he, in plainclothes, had approached and pulled a gun. The first person to mention the cut Gilligan received from the knife was the Police Inspector speaking in the aftermath; Gilligan doesn’t seem to have sought any medical attention on scene. After the fact, Gilligan is reported to have stood over the body, calling Powell his prisoner, as the boy bled to death. The knife Gilligan says had been in Powell’s possession was later found in a gutter, nearly ten feet from the body. The blade was closed.

Like many of these encounters, the exact sequence of events is lost in the varied memories and stories of the day. Powell was dead, and Gilligan was later exonerated. Powell was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Ferncliff Cemetery, north of the city; only a few months later Malcolm X would be buried only about 100 yards from him. But before his body was in the ground, Harlem rose up.

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The marches began angry but peaceful. The NYPD sent in riot troops. Over three days, confrontations ranged from shouting to bottle-throwing to shooting. Stores were vandalized and looted. Hundreds were arrested, dozens injured. One protester was killed. Most of the fighting took place around Powell’s funeral, some around Gilligan. In the heat of July, frustration boiled over – not just at Powell’s death, but at life in an American ghetto generally, and the police response specifically.

The riots were more of a preview of the urban unrest that swept through American cities later in the decade: Watts, Newark, Detroit, Chicago. Everywhere, after MLK. Like most of those, Harlem began with a violent encounter between the police and the mostly black community they were charged with corralling.  And that’s the right word, because urban black neighborhoods were and are often corrals: even today, the effects of decades of intentional redlining and housing discrimination remain on our maps and in our cities, creating steel traps disguised as city blocks. The police were charged with keeping order in cramped, poor, desperate areas. It’s not hard to create a narrative in your head from that environment; not for the police, not for the residents. It seems like war every day.

In Harlem, it seemed like one in 1964. How, residents wanted to know, could an NYPD Lieutenant, a six foot tall army veteran with sixteen years under his belt, get jumped by a 122 pound freshman? Why would he need to shoot twice to subdue him? Why did Gilligan feel the need to call a dying boy his prisoner instead of render aid? Why do these encounters always end like this?

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When Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, we saw this: a national conversation on acceptable murder. Martin’s life was dissected and analyzed for fault; so was George Zimmerman’s. We needed one of these people to be good, and the other one to be bad, so that we could understand what happened. The United States, we tell ourselves, is a meritocracy: good things happen to the good, bad things to the bad. It’s easy to explain that and easy to live with that, especially if good things have happened to you. If bad things happen to a good person, we call that a tragedy. If bad things happen to a bad person… well, whose fault was that, really?

And that’s what white society often looks for when something like this happens: a reason why it was the dead guy’s fault. Any transgression can mean a life is forfeit. Michael Brown stole cigars, Eric Garner sold loosies. Trayvon Martin looked suspicious. Tamir Rice had a fake gun, Philando Castile had a real one (and oh what an irony for that justification: a country that says we should have guns to protect ourselves from the government turns on a black man, killed by police for having a legal, licensed gun). The outcome was sound. It is not a cause for alarm. The system is not broken but functioning within normal parameters. Bad things happened to bad people. If each successive victim – each truckload of them, city of them, nation of them – does something (anything!) wrong, our country can look at that instead of itself.

James Powell had a knife. Maybe. We shouldn’t look too hard, for fear of what we’ll find. The only thing white America has going for it today is a cloak of perfection wrapped tight around a terrified frame. This emperor forces everyone else to be naked. It’s instinctual now, primal, self-defending. We’re all on a fragile ladder, but the people at the top are the only ones who are that terrified of having it fall apart – if it does, we’ll all be on the ground together.

Because here’s the thing: race isn’t real. At least, it isn’t biological or genetic. Humans are one of the most similar species on earth; we move around too much, and haven’t been around long enough, for real genetic divisions to be created between or within us. Race is a product of history and power, not of biology. And deep down we know this. Ask any group of people whether they could define race, and most will say yes. Ask them to do it, and you get ten different answers from every ten people. Because race is social – we invented it, and every day we reinvent it to fit our needs. If we believe in it hard enough, maybe we can ignore the structural problems our meritocracy has buried deep within it. Maybe we can ignore inequality, if we can explain it as biological (or, in the modern parlance, ‘cultural’). Maybe we can ignore segregation, or disease, or violence, as the product of an unsolvable difference. Maybe James Powell deserved to be killed and buried in an unmarked grave, so we don’t have to see him or talk about him or recognize him ever again.

But what if we stopped believing in it?