“HOUSING is the most serious special community problem of Harlem. The Negro’s labor short dollar is further clipped by the exorbitant rentals characteristic of the segregated areas where most Negroes must reside. Whereas rents should approximate 20 percent of family income, and generally tend to do so, in Harlem they average nearly double or 40 percent.”
– Harlem: Dark Weather Vane
Such was Harlem in the 1930s. On March 19, 1935, an Afro-Puerto-Rican young man named Lino Rivera was accused of trying to steal a small knife from a five-and-dime store in Harlem, New York City. The shopkeeper and two employees threatened to take him into the basement and beat him.
A woman noticed this and alerted the community, which noticed a hearse parked outside the store. This lead to the rumor that Rivera had been beaten to death. The police came, arrested the woman for “disorderly conduct,” and closed the store early.
This didn’t dissuade the people or mitigate their fears. A protest by local youth outside the store arose (there were several such groups in Harlem in the 1930s; they occupied street soapboxes and lectured to audiences of passersby). This gathering quickly sharpened into a riot, with stores being broken into and windows being smashed. There were also reports of shooting deaths among both members of the local community and law enforcement. Among the shooting victims were Lyman Quarterman, James Wrigley, and Roy Hobbs.
This riot was the first in Harlem and was followed by successive ones in 1943 and 1964. All three had the same root causes: oppression, anger, and conflict within the community reaching a breaking point.
Several decades later, lessons can be learned in regards to situations such as these. When a community is beaten down, robbed, and exploited mercilessly, these situations are all but expected.