the number, another summer

If these cop cars had been going west on Flatbush in 1989, the drivers would have been looking into my living room. I lived at 76 6th Avenue, right above Royal Video.

I’m thinking about the summer of 1989 not because it was wild bruh, but because of the ways in which it wasn’t. It felt like the streets might explode, and a vaguely hopeful kind of anxiety was common. But nothing exploded. The summer of 2020 is the summer people were expecting then. Don’t let anybody tell you that this protest stuff always happens and then things snap back. This protest stuff does not always happen. Do not let anyone trick you out of your optimism or make you doubt your surge of energy. Do not listen to me, though. Listen to Angela Davis.

This piece by Garrett McGrath is a decent summary of 1989 New York. If you’re pressed for time, start here:

For the City of New York, three events defined 1989, exposing the knotted ligaments of race, justice, crime, and power.

On April 19, a white woman was assaulted and raped during a nighttime jog through Central Park. Five teenage males — all black or Latino, all from Harlem, all between the ages of 14 and 16 — were arrested, charged with, and convicted of the crime.

On August 23, Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old African American male, was shot to death after being attacked by a crush of white youths in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

And on November 7, the city of New York elected its first (and to this date, only) African American mayor, David Dinkins.

In 1989, I was starting a band called Ui and socializing with people who listened to the same music as I did. I watched Dee Barnes present videos on Pump It Up and listened to rappers who believed in, or at least repeated bits of, Five Percenter philosophy. VHS tapes of Elijah Muhhammad were sold on street corners. Nkiru Books, on St. Marks, was the bookshop closest to our apartment. I read Malcolm X in the summer of 1989 because Nkiru had lots of his books and I didn’t want to walk all the way to Park Slope to find a different bookstore. My participation was ambient, my commitment unexamined. It was deceptively easy for me to think that a cultural program might induce political change, that political power was diffuse and could be overcome by non-political means. I really did think that if everyone started reading Angela Davis or listening to Julius Hemphill, the message would osmotically do its thing.

I was in the dark about the nature of both mutual aid and direct action. I experienced these practices as reactive—someone got killed, and then there was a march—because I wasn’t engaged with them as active, daily operations. The cops in New York were not being filmed and they were very much in control of the cop-friendly media. There was no internet to circulate information, accurate or otherwise. And on July 21st, a movie came out that very much suggested things were going to catch fire no matter what.

With all the pressure, why didn’t things pop off? I asked Melvin Gibbs, my bandmate in a new thing called Body Meπa. The summer before this period, in August of 1988, he played at the original Knitting Factory on Houston Street. This is a version of the Lightnin’ Rod breakbeat classic, “Sport.”

Melvin: “Yusef Hawkins’ death reminded me of the time in high school I got this Italian girl’s phone number on the B train and decided to go visit her. I got off at the 86 Street station in Bensonhurst and walked a block and a half. I decided the vibe in the neighborhood was too thick (dangerous). I turned around, got on the B train and went home. When I heard Yusef got killed near that stop, I just shook my head.

“I think probably part of the reason things didn’t pop off was by August it looked like Dinkins had a real shot. Remember that Tribe line ‘Mr. Dinkins won’t you please be my mayor?’ Of course, in those days I didn’t vote. I didn’t start voting until after Gore lost. Now, social media is making all the difference. This is America’s Arab Spring, and hopefully it won’t end like theirs did.”