Greetings again from the darkness. Common sense tells us that attempting to resolve conflict by talking through the issue is far superior to jumping right into violence or other extreme measures. Of course we all know that common sense doesn’t always win, and it certainly didn’t in 1973 when four young Black Muslims attempted to steal guns from a Brooklyn store called John & Al Sports. It’s been 50 years since the incident, but director Stefan Forbes allows some of the key players to give their perspective and recount the unfolding of events.
It was not a good plan. In fact, it was barely a plan at all. Shu’aib Raheem was 23 years old and living in fear in his own community. Cops were slow to respond to calls in his neighborhood, so he wanted protection for himself, his family, and his friends. He was joined by fellow twenty-somethings Dawud Rahman, Salih Abdullah, and Mussidia in waltzing into the store and loading a bag with guns. We know this because Raheem is one of the many interesting interviews conducted. We hear from others including police officers that were on the scene that night, the owner of the store, Raheem’s cohort Dawud Rahman, and hostages that were detained. This event became the longest hostage situation in New York City history.
It’s the hostage element that brings us to one of the most important developments of the event. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and looking back, the hero was a Jewish intellectual named Harvey Schlossberg. Harvey passed away after giving his interview for the film, and he is the man credited with starting hostage negotiations, and was later instrumental in the capture of Son of Sam. It’s inconceivable to think one of the first responses from the cops was to fire into the front of the store despite knowing full well hostages were present. Raheem recalls never even being offered a chance to safely surrender.
Surely one of the things that will stand out to anyone watching this is the blatant racism expressed by the cops all these years later. They admit to assuming the four burglars were part of the Black Liberation Army, and proceeded accordingly. However, these four were really average locals with jobs and families, looking for a way to feel safe. This division between the cops and the neighborhood locals was clearly an issue, and seems all too familiar even today. This is not to defend the criminal act of these four men, but it does highlight how law enforcement can escalate, rather than de-escalate a situation. These four deserved to go to jail, but the actions of the police force dragged the situation out, further endangering the hostages.
Thanks to Schlossberg’s approach, this standoff became known as ‘the birthplace of hostage negotiation.’ He spearheaded the advancement of training for conflict resolution and de-escalation. This was a significant cultural shift within the New York Police Department, and the cops we hear from (some with disturbing views on race) make that very clear. One of the interviewed (former) officers says, “we over-define racism as something bad.” I re-played this part to make sure I heard it correctly, and then paused it to try and understand.
This was a chaotic scene and when it was over, one cop had been killed. Director Forbes has accumulated an impressive array of archival footage and photos to go with the insightful interviews. It’s fascinating to hear the conflicting recollections, but it seems clear that aggressive action was not the best strategy in this case. At times this feels similar to DOG DAY AFTERNOON, but the images are real, not dramatized. We can only hope training continues and law enforcement consistently reacts in a way to de-escalate criminal situations whenever possible. The stress is indescribable, but the reward for talking before shooting can often be saved lives.