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Transcript: The Gilligan Case: Police Brutality and Civil Rights in Harlem 1964, an Interview with Damarius Johnson

Damarius Johnson

I really want you to think about the long history of police brutality in this country. The Gilligan case is an incident of police murder that happens in Harlem in 1964, in which Thomas Gilligan, an off-duty Lieutenant police officer in Harlem shoots and kills James Powell, who’s a 15-year-old African American teenager. And this essay is a chronicle of the, kind of, local outrage among residents in Bed Stuy in New York, and also the larger response from the African American community during the Civil Rights era across the United States, and some of the calls for police reform and police oversight that we saw in the 1960s, which have continued to the present. One of the important images captures the kind of long history of African American protests in New York, and we see that in a placard held by one of the men that reads, “If we must die, let it be with weapons in our hands”. This image is iconic, because it refers to a previous moment of black protests in New York City. The phrase “if we must die” is an allusion to a 1919 poem published by Harlem Renaissance poet, Claude McKay, which captures the long history of African American protests. McKay’s poem was published in 1919, which is referred to by historians as the “Red Summer”, which is another moment of African American protest and resistance, racial brutality, racial violence. And by capturing this phrase of Claude McKay, what the protester demonstrates, is that African American protest is not only a reaction to the politics of the day, to an immediate circumstance, but as part of a long continuum of African American resistance, and that protesters … link themselves to the past as a response to the present. And one of the ways that we can see this kind of relationship between the past and the present is in this placard.