The Ambush: At about 10 PM on Friday May 21, 1971, NYPD Officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini were returning to their car on foot after responding to a 911 call. The caller reported a disturbance from Colonial Park Houses on W. 159th St (now called the Rangel Houses), and investigators later determined that the report was a trap intended to lure officers into area to be ambushed. Jones and Piagentini parked their squad car on W 155th street, which is elevated above the riverbank after crossing the Harlem River as the Macombs Dam Bridge. A set of stairs leads down to ground level off of W 155th street, which the officers used to get to Colonial Park Houses.
(Google Earth) The Colonial Park Houses are in the distance, and the stairs are in the lower right of the image. The patrolmen likely parked close to where this picture was taken from, and went down the stairs to respond to the call.
When they were walking back to the stairs to return to their car, they were ambushed from behind. Jones was shot four times. The first round was fired from no more than six inches away and struck him in the back of the head, killing him immediately. Three more shots hit him before he fell: one in the neck, the next in the lower back, and the last in the thigh. Piagentini was shot a total of twelve times by two different .38 revolvers, and once by the same .45 handgun that killed his partner. He survived long enough to be rushed away in a police car to the Harlem Hospital, but was dead by the time they arrived.
The Site: 155th Street, where Jones and Piagentini parked their car, is considered the northern border of Harlem. Since the Great Migration around the turn of the 20th century, this area has arguably been the most important site of African American culture and development. The history of Harlem encapsulates the enormous complexity of racial dynamics in America in the 20th century: the artistic and political achievements of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1935 Race Riot, civil rights activities like Malcom X’s famous speech about fair representation at the Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 15, 1965, his assassination there a week after, and the murder of Jones and Piagentini less than a decade later. The 911 call that the two policemen were responding to was placed from one of nine X shaped apartment buildings constructed in the early 1960s, which stand on the site of several long-demolished Harlem tenements.
There is nothing marking the place where Jones and Piagentini were murdered, and nothing on the landscape reminds passersby of the crime that took their lives. Their deaths have become a small detail in the checkered past of New York race relations, and their lives are not remembered through commemoration or dedication because of the painful and unresolved dynamics that motivated their killers. This should be changed because confronting and analyzing our collective past through sites of memory, especially painful ones, is the best way to learn from and be cautious of violence (Schudson).
The Black Liberation Army and the Killers: After four years that included a lengthy manhunt, interrogation and interviews, evidence collection, legal procedures, and a mistrial resulting from a hung jury, Herman Bell, Albert Washington and Anthony Bottom were found guilty of homicide in the first degree of the two police officers on April 10, 1975. All three were members of the Black Liberation Army, a somewhat nebulous militant offshoot of the Black Panther Party that formed when the BPP began to dissolve in the late 1960s.
The BLA’s stated mission was to “take up arms for the liberation and self-determination of black people in the United States”(TRAC). The Fraternal Order of Police blames the organization for the murder of 13 officers between 1970 and 1976. Assata Shakur, a grassroots member of the BLA who was convicted for the 1976 murder of a New Jersey state trooper, wrote in her autobiography, “… the Black Liberation Army was not a centralized, organized group with a common leadership and chain of command. Instead there were various organizations and collectives working together and simultaneously independent of each other”(Griego). This is one reason that it is not clear what the leadership structure of the BLA looked like, or whether the murders of Jones and Piagentini were organizationally linked to similar killings of NYPD officers during the same time frame.
The Legacy: Bell, Washington, and Bottom were all sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Washington died of cancer in prison in 2000, but the other two are still alive and in custody, and have been denied parole several times.
Back row: (L-R) Albert Washington, Gabriel Torres, Anthony Bottom Front row: (L-R) Herman Bell, Francisco Torres before the first trial that ended in a hung jury. The Torres brothers were not tried in the retrial.
The current climate of racial tension and violence closely mirrors the America in which Bell, Washington, and Bottom were convicted. The Black Panther Party is similar in terms of mission to the Black Lives Matter movement, though BLM is more of a social movement than an organization. Radical anti-police violence has occurred recently outside of BLM in the same way the BLA committed acts of violence outside the structure of the Black Panthers. Most of these attacks have been perpetrated by individuals who feel that not enough is being done to liberate oppressed people, a sentiment expressed by Micah Xavier Johnson, the shooter who killed five Dallas TX officers last July.
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