PBS documentary series "American Experience" (2015)
Length: 60 min
Director: Callie T. Wiser
On a sweltering evening in July 1977, lightening struck a Consolidated Edison substation in Yonkers, New York, setting off a disastrous chain of events that resulted in massive power failure in New York City and much of neighboring Westchester County. Seven million people plunged into darkness and when the lights went out, all hell broke loose. Neighborhoods from East Harlem in Manhattan to Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn were devastated. Shops were looted, windows were smashed, and cars and buildings were set on fire. Since then, many have identified the blackout of 1977 as New York City’s darkest hour.
How can we explain such a social phenomenon? This question is central to Blackout, a part of the new PBS documentary series, “American Experience.”
Blackout is a thoughtful and well-balanced documentary that brings together eyewitness accounts and archival footage. First responders, Con Ed employees, journalists, local residents, and shop owners tell their stories of what happened when the lights went out. Eyewitness experiences vary wildly based on location—some remember violence, chaos, and despair, while others remember spontaneous gatherings, singing, and neighborhood barbecues.
One of the eyewitnesses interviewed in Blackout is Kevin Zraly who was working as a wine steward at Windows On the World on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center at the time. He recalled watching how the lights went off borough by borough. Zraly’s boss provided sweaty customers (the air conditioning had stopped and the city was experiencing a heat wave) with free champagne and instructed the band to keep playing by candlelight.
In the absence of television or radio announcements, the diners were blissfully unaware of the rapidly escalating situation on the other side of the East River. In central Brooklyn, the first shops were looted within 30 minutes, according to local resident, Chris Vanager. He remembered hearing bumping noises outside of his apartment and when his mother opened the front door, they saw neighbors coming up the staircase with television sets, refrigerators, and record players.
Police officer Patrick Marshall, who was on the street at the time, recalled people everywhere, hundreds per block. While Con Ed frantically tried to get the power restored—a difficult task hindered by the fact that the energy restoration plan hadn’t been updated since 1965—police officers and fire fighters were instructed to do the best they could. Without an overview of the situation (no one knew exactly how widespread the blackout was) and clear instructions, it wasn’t easy said Marshall, who tried to stop the looting.
“We had sticks,” he said. “We had our hands. You’d grab people and just toss them out. We were so outnumbered, we’d push them back as far as we could. After a while there was, what can you do? It was insanity.”
The city, once famous for its bright lights and endless opportunities, was now known for widespread crime, burned out buildings, piles of garbage bags, graffiti, unemployment, and homelessness
Many of Marshall’s colleagues had been laid off due to large-scale cuts in public services. While the 1970s was an economically troubled time for the United States in general, New York City—where unemployment rates soared to 12 percent in 1975—was hit particularly hard. At the time of the blackout, the city was on the brink of bankruptcy and had been forced to adopt a number of austerity measures. Alongside firefighters and police offers, tens of thousands of other city workers had also been laid off. The effects were visible. The city, once famous for its bright lights and endless opportunities, was now known for widespread crime, burned out buildings, piles of garbage bags, graffiti, unemployment, and homelessness.
“When a population is neglected for so long, and then they keep cutting your social services, your education, your hospitals, your fire departments; it’s going to boil, and sooner or later, something is going to come out of that,” said Brooklyn resident Ernesto Quiñonez, reflecting on the night of the blackout.
The blackout provided the heat needed to go from boiling to boiling over. The event lasted 25 hours, during which there were 1,000 major fires, 3,176 arrests, 132 policemen injured, and 1,576 businesses looted or set on fire.
Burned-out building Charlotte Street, South Bronx, NYC 1980 © John Fekner
Brooklyn sporting goods storeowner Elzora Williamson and her husband were victims of the looting.
“We thought of it as more than a store,” Williamson said. “We taught the young people how to open a bank account, how to fill out the forms.”
When the Williamsons arrived at their store on the night of the blackout, they saw those same people looting their property. That night, the couple lost $350,000 worth of merchandise. They eventually reopened the store, but according to Williamson, it was never the same again.
Other shop owners, many without any insurance, lost faith in their communities and left. Their stores remained vacant for years.
“My neighborhood stayed that way for probably 15 years,” Vanager said. “New Lots Avenue (in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn) never opened back up again. Everybody that lived there, those mom-and-pop stores, they just shut down and they left.”
Why do rioters destroy their own neighborhood?
Being forced to live with the consequences of the damage raises the question of why rioters chose to destroy their own neighborhoods. Of all the people interviewed in Blackout, only Quiñonez attempted to answer that question.
“You can’t hit your mom because she’s your mom, so you hit your little brother,” Quiñonez said. “Something like that is what was happening. You couldn’t go after these politicians that were killing your neighborhood, so you went after your little brother. You went after each other.”
This answer is only partially satisfying and unfortunately, Blackout does not further investigate the issue. While the reasons that people riot and loot are diverse, in the past fifty years several social experiments have tried to determine why disenfranchised individuals would destroy their own community knowing that they still have to live there the next day.
In 1969, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo observed that certain environments “convey a sense of transient anonymity in those who live or behave in their midst.” People who live in such circumstances are deindividuated1 and do not have a sense of community, according to Zimbardo. When deindividuated people are unable to impact their environment constructively, they often resort to violence and destruction instead.
To demonstrate how situational anonymity is related to vandalism, Zimbardo conducted an experiment in Palo Alto, California and in the Bronx in New York City. The psychologist felt that—unlike in the Bronx—in Palo Alto community spirit thrived, people cared about the physical and social quality of their lives, and had access to resources to work at improving both.2 He instructed his teams to place abandoned cars (in good condition but without license plates and hoods slightly raised) in both places.
In the Bronx, within 10 minutes, passersby stripped the car of its battery, radiator, and the contents of the glove box. In the next 24 hours, the tires, seats, and dashboard parts were removed and when there was nothing left of value to strip, random destruction began.
In Palo Alto the car was not vandalized. Quite the contrary happened. A concerned citizen closed the hood when it started to rain a few days after the car was abandoned. Additionally, when the team drove the car back to the Stanford University campus a week later, three local residents called the police and reported that an abandoned car was being stolen.
According to Zimbardo, this experiment’s main message is that “conditions that make us feel anonymous, when we think that others do not know us or care to, can foster antisocial, self-interested behaviors” (Zimbardo 2007).
When we try to apply these lessons to the situation in New York City in 1977, we can see that the neighborhoods that suffered the most destruction were also the neighborhoods that had been the most neglected. Members of these communities felt anonymous, silenced, and robbed from an identity. Consequently, they did not experience these neighborhoods as their own.
Blackout emphasizes that residents of these neighborhoods fell into three categories: 1) criminals who quickly took advantage of the darkness and lack of police presence, smashing the first windows and stealing large expensive items, 2) people who wouldn’t normally steal, but decided to take advantage of the opportunity to loot stores because “everybody was doing it,” and 3) people who did not loot at all. Since these people and their motives were wildly different we can’t know the underlying reasons for their behaviors. It was clear, however, that many looters that night were both angry and impoverished, according to Quiñonez.
“It was the neighborhoods that had been neglected that rioted, and it was basically people who were poor and hungry,” he said. “The media paints it as ‘Look at these criminals, it’s race!’ but it’s not so much race as it is class. Black people didn’t go after white people. Latinos did not go after the Italians. It was more about class. We didn’t have, so we went, not even after those who had, we went after their stuff! It’s an expression of anger. It’s an expression of neglect, and it’s an expression of need.”
Other people in Blackout also point at an element of excitement.
“Looting is a complicated thing. People do it because they’re greedy, because they need stuff,” says historian Joshua Freeman. “It’s also sometimes fun. It’s the people at the bottom being on the top for a moment, and they know it’s only for a moment, but who’s going to stop you? […] That can be a thrill.”
Not every rioter is a protester with a political agenda
The fact that all of these different motives are discussed in Blackout is refreshing. After all, not every rioter is a protester with a political agenda. Some are criminals; others are thrill seekers or opportunists.
While Manhattan recovered from the blackout as soon as the power came back on, the same can’t be said for Central and East Brooklyn. New Lots Avenue wasn’t the only street where shops remained boarded up for the next 15 years. For instance, Broadway—once 4.5 miles of thriving economic and social activity—became one of the many streets to turn desolate and dangerous.
The final nail in the coffin was the crack cocaine epidemic that began in the mid-1980s and destroyed whatever was left of these already vulnerable communities. As such, it seems inaccurate to state that the black out of 1977 was New York City’s darkest hour. Perhaps for parts of Manhattan, in other boroughs however, such as Brooklyn and the Bronx, it was only just the beginning of an even darker period characterized by gang violence, drugs, family homelessness, and AIDS.
Zimbardo, Philip. 2007. The Lucifer Effect. Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Random House, New York.
Deindividuation: the immersion in a group to the point that one loses a sense of self-awareness and feels lessened responsibility for one’s actions. ↩
Zimbardo’s book that discusses this experiment, The Lucifer Effect (2007), does not provide any context as to why he felt that people in the Bronx did not care as much about the physical and social quality of their life. ↩