“White Tigers Eat Black Panthers:” New York City’s Law Enforcement Group
By Jarrod Shanahan
In September 1968, three young members of the Black Panther Party (BPP) were arraigned in Brooklyn Criminal Court on charges stemming from a raucous Brooklyn street demonstration where uncollected garbage was set afire. BPP members and supporters rallied outside the court, hemmed in by New York Police Department (NYPD) cops who arrested two Party members for refusing to move behind a barricade. Upstairs, supporters were dramatically outnumbered by roughly 150 off-duty cops, many coming directly from the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, “barely concealing the guns and blackjacks tucked into their belts,” recalled mayoral aid Barry Gottehrer. “Some wore police badges.” The raucous crowd shouted “Win with [George] Wallace!” and “White power!”
Inside the courtroom, New York Panther Abayama Katara recalled, uniformed police sought to provoke the Panthers by poking them with nightsticks. But Katara and his comrades “weren’t fools and were completely outnumbered.” Facing around 250 cops in and out of uniform, the Panthers attempted to leave in peace. As they filed out, however, an off-duty cop with a gun scarcely concealed in his right hip pocket shouted: “There’re the Panthers! Let’s get ‘em!” At this, the mob of cops attacked, throwing punches and kicks, and swinging blackjacks high above their heads and down onto the heads of the young activists and militants while maniacally chanting “Wallace for President,” and “White Tigers eat Black Panthers!”
Rather than intervene, uniformed cops dropped their nightsticks for the plainclothes cops to pick up and swing. New York State BPP chairman David Brothers was kicked to the ground and his briefcase stolen. Instead of returning it, NYPD used its contents for intelligence gathering. Initially cops misread the entry for Gottehrer in Brothers’ address book—entered as “Mayor”—as “Major,” and placed him under surveillance, imagining that the Jewish Lindsay aide secretly held the rank of “Major” in the Black Panther Party.
The cops’ actions revealed that at least some portion of the NYPD had transformed itself into a white supremacist street gang. Nor was the riot a spontaneous outburst. During the days leading up to the arraignment, a flyer had circulated in stationhouses urging cops to “Support your fellow policemen” and to “Stand up and be counted in court.” The source of the flyer was a Brooklyn desk officer named Leon Laino, a co-founder of the ultra-right NYPD rank-and-file organization Law Enforcement Group (LEG). LEG had announced itself the previous month with a seven-point program calling for a grand jury to investigate the “coddling” of criminals, abolition of the civilian board overseeing brutality claims against cops, removal of civilians from police clerical duties, and to “wholeheartedly support the United States Senators who are trying to prevent another Warren Court.” Ira Glasser of the New York Civil Liberties Union called the document an “undisguised declaration of war against the black militants.” It was that and more.
LEG had emerged from another courtroom dispute between cops and Panthers the previous month, an extension of the tension erupting on city streets. In August, two Panthers were beaten and arrested while demonstrating outside the Party’s Brooklyn office. The following day, two cops responding to a call near the Panthers’ office were wounded by an unseen shooter. Norman Frank, spokesman for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), announced “war has been declared against the Police Department.” When the arrested Panthers appeared in court, comrades packed the gallery, peppering police with insults and, allegedly, saliva. PBA leaders claimed presiding judge John Furey did nothing to discipline the Panthers, while rank-and-file cops began a petition drive to remove Furey from the bench—threatening to withhold their dues from PBA if the union didn’t follow suit. The organizing effort, which collected thousands of signatures, served as the basis for what became the Law Enforcement Group.
More broadly, LEG was the product of a shift toward organized right-wing politics among the NYPD rank-and-file. New York City cops had been amassing political power since the city recognized municipal unions under Mayor Robert F. Wagner, enabling the PBA to take a more direct role in city politics. As the civil rights movement began to reverberate on the streets of New York, cops increasingly emulated the southern white resistance, especially that of the ultra-right John Birch Society (JBS), which established a presence in the NYPD in 1964 and was linked to LEG in the press. While groups like the Congress of Racial Equality picketed police stations to protest police brutality, the JBS front group “Committee to Support Your Local Police” led its own pickets to protest civilian oversight of brutality claims. PBA President John Cassese led this campaign to victory, drawing heavily from the race-baiting, anti-Communist line of JBS. “I’m sick and tired of giving into minority groups,” Cassese wailed, “with their whims and gripes and shouting.”
Since his insurgent victory in 1958, Cassese had built considerable power in the PBA by embracing the right-wing movement for “law and order” and deploying the racially-charged rhetoric of the JBS, George Wallace, and 1965 mayoral candidate William F. Buckley. Yet, as one NYPD lieutenant put it, LEG was product of a “dissident youth on the police force—like around the universities… Just as there’s a New Left on the campuses, there seems to be a New Right among some younger men on the Police Department.” Cassese now looked like the kind of old guard he had toppled a decade prior. Following the establishment of LEG, he hastily attempted to get in front of the movement, promising to buck the wishes of Lindsay’s police commissioner and “get tough” in protest situations.
In doing so, Cassese found himself squeezed from both ends. His sally against the commissioner put him in the wilderness of city politics. Mayor Lindsay was said to remark that this power struggle would determine “whether we are going to have a police state.” At the same time, despite mimicking “the battle cries of a small group of Birchites,” as one New York Post columnist put it, Cassese failed to appease the bloodlust in his own ranks. Ultimately, the PBA chief backed down, meekly affirming his support for Lindsay and NYPD Commissioner Howard Leary. The Times editorial page celebrated Cassese’s “retreat” under the headline “The P.B.A. Sees the Light.” The department’s radical right wing, however, had seen no such thing.
While official society recoiled, LEG moved forward, renaming itself the Law and Order Society and announcing plans for a formal membership structure. Cassese had to pick a side. The following day, without naming the organization, the PBA delegate assembly passed a motion condemning groups promoting “unlawful, antisocial, or violent acts” and threatening to expel LEG members from its ranks. LEG was put on the defensive. The group denied involvement in the courtroom violence, a claim disproven by the PBA itself, whose leadership announced LEG’s direct involvement in the flyer that had circulated before the riot. LEG softened some of its positions, such as the demand for new height standards for cops, widely believed to target Puerto Ricans, and threatened legal action against PBA for excluding them. It was an empty threat. Under the weight of the union officialdom, LEG faded into obscurity almost as suddenly as it had erupted onto the scene.
Cassese quickly found his footing, harnessing the militant energy of the NYPD’s New Right to push back against anyone who would limit cops’ ability to police working-class black and brown communities as they saw fit. Simultaneously, his PBA ramped up an aggressive contract campaign, demanding significant raises above those received by other municipal unions. “[I]f we’re really New York City’s finest,” one cop remarked after a picket outside City Hall, “how come the city doesn’t recognize it? How come the transit police, the housing police, the firemen and the garbage men are getting just about what we get?” Cassese couldn’t have said it better, and the principle formed the basis for a newly militant PBA. “Sick-outs” and ticketing slowdowns heralded a new era of workplace militancy that would allow PBA and other “law and order” unions, including the city’s jail guards, to capitalize on the city’s 1974 fiscal crisis and carve out an oversized and largely unaccountable role in city life for the forces of law and order.
As for the Panthers, the responsible voices of law and order had better ideas than disorganized fisticuffs. On April 2, 1969, the NYPD conducted a coordinated raid of five BPP houses, arresting twelve of the twenty-one Panthers indicted on a specious conspiracy charge alleging a plot to bomb the Bronx Botanical Garden and several police stations. The evidence was flimsy and all twenty-one defendants were eventually acquitted, including several who were never captured. Still, the trial of the “New York 21,” then the longest in City history, kept core leaders of the BPP in jail or on the run for upwards of two years, assured that Party work on the outside revolved around defending the 21, and dried up recruitment efforts amid suspicion of infiltration.
Looking back on this tumultuous period, which has shaped in so many ways the contours of our own, what is most striking about LEG is less the group's in-your-face tactics than its underlying consonance with what would become the NYPD's political agenda in the coming years. From this perspective, the LEG was less a group of rogue operators than a too-honest expression of politics that were in fact shared by PBA and department leadership. The law and order movement demanded not just the defeat of the organized left by any means necessary, but an ever-expanding role for cops, courts, and jails in American life, with as little civilian oversight as possible over how the conduct of cops in the non-white working-class communities policed most violently. For decades to come, the PBA worked tirelessly to secure this agenda in New York City, while vehemently opposing activists, journalists, and politicians who dared criticize the unchecked encroachment of the NYPD into nearly every facet of daily life. In hindsight, then, the defeat of the LEG was temporary and superficial. One wonders if, after witnessing the triumph of their agenda in decades to come, Cassese, the White Tigers, and their supporters would be unhappy with how things turned out.
Jarrod Shanahan is a criminologist and doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.
David Burnham, “Off-Duty Police Here Join In Beating Black Panthers,” New York Times, September 5, 1968; Carl J. Pelleck and Helen Dudar, “Leary to Act in Panther Attack,” New York Post, September 5, 1968; John Murphy, “Probe Cops’ Roles in Attack on Panthers in Courthouse,” New York Daily News, September 5, 1968. Barry Gottehrer, The Mayor’s Man(New York: Doubleday, 1975), 222.
Gottehrer, Mayor’s Man, 222-225; Abayama Katara, in Look for Me in the Whirlwind: From the Panther 21 to 21stCentury Revolutions(New York: PM Press, 2017); Burnham “Off-Duty Police;” Pelleck and Dudar, “Panther Attack;” Murphy, “Attack on Panthers.”
; Charles Grutzner, “Law Enforcement Group is Creation of Protest,” New York Times, September 7, 1968; Sidney E. Zion, “Rights Groups Assail Demands of New Police Unit,” New York Times, August 9, 1968; Joseph Novitski, “Brooklyn Police Set up Group to Back ‘Vigorous’ Enforcement,” New York Times,August 8, 1968; David Burnham, “P.B.A. Condemns New Police Group,” New York Times, September 13, 1968.
Irving Spiegel, “P.B.A. Will Issue ‘Get Tough’ Advice,” New York Times,August 12, 1968; James P. Gifford, “Dissent in Municipal Employee Organizations,” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science 30, no 2. (December 1970): 159-172; Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party(Berkley: University of California Press, 2013), 149-154;
New York Times, “Picket Oppose Civil Review of Complaints Against Police,” May 17, 1964; Charles G. Bennett, “Police Decry Bill for Review Panel,” New York Times, June 17 1964; Edward Kirkman, “PBA Chief Says Commies Battle for Review Board,” New York Daily News, September 20 1966; Grutzner, “Law Enforcement Group is Creation of Protest;” William J. Bopp, “The New York City Referendum on Civilian Review” in The Police Rebellion: The Quest for Blue Power, ed. William J. Bopp (New York: Charles C. Thomas, 1971) pp. 120–22. Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort(New York: The Guilford Press, 2000), 176-181.
Irving Spiegel, “P.B.A. Will Issue ‘Get Tough’ Advice,” New York Times, August 12, 1968; Vincent D. Austin and Anthony Scaduto, “PBA Defies Mayor, Leary,” New York Post, August 14, 1968: Sylvan Fox, “Many Police in City Leaning to the Right,” New York Times, September 6, 1968.
James A. Wechsler, “Dangerous Hour,” New York Post, August 15, 1968; David Burnham, “New P.B.A. Order is Reaffirmation of Present Rules,” New York Times, August 16, 1968; New York Times, “The P.B.A. Sees the Light,” August 16, 1968; Nicholas Pileggi, “Barry Gottehrer’s Job is to ‘Cool It,’” New York Times Magazine, September 22, 1968.
Charles Grutzner, “New Police Group Is Incorporated,” New York Times, September 12, 1968; David Burnham, “PBA Condemns New Police Group,” New York Times, September 13, 1968; David Burnham, “New Police Group Maintains Stand,” New York Times, September 14, 1968.
David Burnham, “New York’s ‘Finest’ Want Pay to Be Finest, Too,” New York Times, October 22, 1968; Peter Millones, “Police ‘Sick’ Calls are Put at 2,000,” New York Times, October 22, 1968; Rebecca Hill, “‘The Common Enemy Is the Boss and the Inmate’: Police and Prison Guard Unions in New York in the 1970s–1980s”, Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas8, no. 3 (2011): 65–96; Jarrod Shanahan, “Solidarity Behind Bars: New York City’s Correction Officers Benevolent Association,” The Brooklyn Rail(September 2017), 12-14.
Safiya Bukhari, The War Before(New York: Feminist Press, 2010), 24-25; Bloom and Martin, Black Against Empire, 213-4.