Brooklyn 1973: Gunmen, Hostages, and the Revolution
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January 25, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 4
Two days in Brooklyn: 'Better than the Bowl'
by Clark Whelton
The rain had stopped but the el tracks overhead were still dripping. The cop behind the steel support pillar looked up as the water hit him on the back of the neck. Cradling his 12 gauge riot gun, he stepped out into the street. When the water stopped, he went back behind the pillar. A few minutes later he repeated the maneuver. Down the block four gunmen held 10 hostages somewhere inside John and Al's Sport Shop. The lights on the Sport Shop door reflected on the cop's badge as he moved from behind the pillar.
"We're going to be reading about you in the papers tomorrow," somebody said from the shadows.
"I'm getting soaked, for Chrissakes," the cop answered. He looked up, getting his timing down so he'd be out of the way when the water began again.
Five shots from John and Al's. From behind the bus barricade at Broadway and Stockton you could see the muzzle flashes and the jets of smoke from the doorway. Nobody knew what the gunmen were shooting at. Nobody shot back. Huddled in a steel lump in front of the store, the police rescue ambulance -- an armored personnel carrier called "The Tank" -- was talking to the shattered plate glass window.
"Ain't nobody going to hurt you," the bullhorn on the tank was saying. "Ain't nobody going to shoot you. Just come out with your hands in the air. You completely surrounded. Ain't no way out of there. No way."
Somebody grabbed my arm.
"Excuse me," a man said. "I'm a minister of God from Harlem and I've got to find some way of getting into that store. This is being done all wrong. Tanks, guns, spotlights, that's what the brothers are raging against. Can't you see that? They don't mean any harm."
"They killed a cop a few hours ago," I said.
"Now whose fault was that?" the minister said. "What could you expect with cops running all over the place like this? Everybody should just clear away and let me talk to them. Why don't you use your influence and get me in there?"
"I don't have much influence around here," I said.
"Where's Cardinal Cooke?" the minister asked. "Why isn't he in there now talking to those men? He can go to Vietnam, why can't he go into that store? This what those men need." He held a Bible in one hand and patted it with the other. "The word of Jesus will bring them out before guns will."
"I don't think Jesus will cut much ice in there," I said. "They're Muslims."
The minister moved along the bus. "Excuse me," he said to somebody else.
"Pasion Oculta" is playing at the Rio Piedras movie theatre on the corner of Broadway and Stockton. It used to be one of the biggest cinemas in this part of Brooklyn. This evening it has been emptied by the police. By going in the fire escape door and cutting through the lobby, I come out under the marquee on Broadway, a few yards across the street from John and Al's. The tank crawled back around the corner where a gasoline truck waits. John and Al's is dark. The street is in deep shadow, and very quiet. No trains pass overhead. The traffic lights click back and forth along the green-yellow-red triad. This is 3-D tv at its best. Suddenly a photographer with a modest IQ pops a flash bulb. Six cops jump for cover and another dozen feel for wounds. A few minutes later the press is herded back into the Rio Piedras. The candy counter and popcorn machine are closed, but the rest rooms are terrrific.
Broadway and Myrtle Avenue, Saturday afternoon. The gunmen have been in John and Al's for almost 24 hours. One of them is wounded. The el stops coming down outside the door. The corner.
"Give me a hint," I say to the cop.
"Well it was in a movie."
"The French Connection?"
"Right," the cop says. He points up at the el tracks. "This is where they shot that chase scene, where the car gets smashed. Right along here someplace."
"What's happening down at John and Al's?" I ask.
"Nothing," the cop says.
"Can I peek around the corner?"
The cop shakes his head. "You might get hurt," he says.
"If I'm killed I'll take full responsibility."
"I'll have to fill out the reports," the cop says.
I walk back up Myrtle Avenue to the Red Cross wagon and try the Irish stew. Not bad. On the wall across the street, tattered, peeling posters cover the brick. Mario Procaccino smiles through the work of four years' weather. Abe Beame has lost an eye. Only one man still looks good. He walks between Herman Badillo and Shirley Chisholm. "Mayor Lindsay Needs Your Vote," the poster pleads.
Sunday afternoon. The hostages have escaped over the roof. The gunmen fire blindly into the ceiling. Too late.
The cops pace back and forth. They have maintained a steady, professional cool. Now, in the 44th hour of the siege, they let the tension show. Their shields are masked with a black mourning band in memory of Stephen Gilroy, the dead patrolman. Off-duty policemen and firemen crowd into the area for the showdown. The neighborhood gathers at the sawhorse barricades, 15 deep, pressing automobiles right down to the pavement as they climb up for a better view.
"This is better than pro football," somebody says. "This is better than the Super Bowl." The crowd laughs. Half the people want the gunmen to come out fighting. The other half want the cops to go in shooting. Everybody wants blood. From two blocks away, the cops watch the crowd grow.
"What are you looking at?" a cop asks.
"They're looking at four punks who have tied up 1000 men and a whole neighborhood," somebody answers. "You think that doesn't give them ideas?"
A few minutes later the crowd suddenly breaks and runs up Lewis Avenue. "Assist officer" calls come over the police radio and bottles begin to fly. If the siege goes on much longer, the fever will spread and police know it.
"What are they waiting for?" a cop mutters.
"Didn't you hear?" somebody says. "The 'rebels' are sorry anybody got killed. They called it an 'accidental necessity.'"
The first cop checks his watch. "Be dark soon," he says.
On Lewis Avenue the crowd surges back and forth, lobbing bottles, while a couple of kids play one-on-one in the housing project basketball court. On Myrtle Avenue the police warm themselves around a trash barrel fire and wait. The latest rumor: an armored train is coming up the el.
The, at 4:45 p.m., 47 hours after the four gunmen walked into John and Al's on an armed robbery, the police radio crackled on. "They're coming out! They're coming out the bottom of the door! Number one is out! Number two is out! They're all out."
I stepped around the corner for the first time in two days. Three gunmen were standing in front of the store, their hands in the air. The fourth lay on a stretcher at their feet. It was all over. A few minutes later the first el train in two days rumbled by. From all directions kids ran forward, hopping up and down to see over the heads of the cops on the police line.
I walked up Myrtle Avenue and cut through the housing project. A post-ballgame crowd was everywhere, some happy, some sad. One kid kept punching another on the shoulder and teasing: "You gave up. They walked out with their hands in the air. There goes your revolution, man."
I walked quickly between two buildings and out to the street. My car was still there.
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