Friday, November 4

Review: The Savage City, by T.J. English

T.J. English's non-fiction book, The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge, tells three interlocking stories about race, corruption, and the police in 1960s and 1970s New York City. Like the best non-fiction works, this book may leave you wanting to read all of its source material. The Savage City is a page turner, and serves as a nice reminder that 1960s New York was not solely about the boozing and vintage dresses of Mad Men. English also seeks to shine a light on the New York of today, through the lens of the past. In the introduction, he writes:
The past is not past: a city's identity is composed not just of events in the present moment but also of all that came before. If New York City today is a place of prosperity, safety, and good times, as its civic leaders and financial developers contend, it is useful to remember that these things have come at a price.

 Describing a Decade With the Lives of Three Men
The book is dedicated to George Whitmore, the falsely accused murderer in the Career Girls Murders, and one of the central figures of the book. An African-American teen, he is swept up by a corrupt police force, and similarly unscrupulous DA office -- interrogated for hours, he confesses to a crime he clearly didn't commit. Police questioning before Miranda rights, and video tapes, is deeply terrifying.

Dovetailing nicely with the theme of police corruption and immorality is the second main story: Bill Phillips, the bad cop to balance Frank Serpico's good cop. Phillips, a policeman so corrupt he was able to buy several planes and provide fellow cops with free flight lessons, becomes a whistle blower when he is caught.

The third central figure is Dhoruba Bin Wahad, a top member of New York's Black Panthers -- his story is a good entry point into the tension between the police and the panthers. I don't know much about the Black Panther movement, so I was shocked reading about FBI interference in, and infiltration of, the Panther movement.

Recommended For...
My one reservation about this book is stylistic: English is fond of superlatives, in a way that sometimes feels irrelevant. The story is vivid enough without us being constantly informed that a crime is the most horrific, or that this is a height of corruption. The superlatives obscure the story, rather than enhancing it.

Other than that, this book is heartily recommended, particularly if you're interested in the history of New York, crime, corruption, or race relations. In the most complimentary way, it often felt like I was reading a Law & Order episode.  Even though it's a historical book, about events forty or fifty years in the past, at time it feels shockingly relevant. Reading newspaper articles ticket fixing scandals, police planting evidence, gun control laws, and the watching the Occupy Wall Street movement (particularly vis a vis the police misconduct), makes me think of the themes and events in The Savage City, which is deeply discouraging.

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