Forty years ago today, on July 13, 1977, a few minutes after 9:30 p.m., the lights in neighborhoods all over New York City flickered and then went out. Although the blackout, caused by a lightning storm in Westchester County, clearly demonstrated the problems of the city’s grid, people remember it not so much as a technical failure but as a social one.
During the 25 hours before power was fully restored to all neighborhoods, more than 1,600 stores throughout the city were robbed — groceries, drugstores, clothing shops, even one auto dealership. In some parts of the city, stores and buildings were torched as well. This wave of spontaneous property destruction, occurring in all five boroughs and at least 31 neighborhoods, has dominated the way we remember the blackout, a moment that seemed to reveal the hidden truth of urban life: that if only the lights go out, civic order will break down entirely.
Usually forgotten is the harsh reassertion of social norms the next day: the mass arrest of more than 3,700 people suspected of looting, and the arrival of a new law-and-order rhetoric in the city. The experience of the blackout helped to legitimate a tough-on-crime conservatism in New York, one that leveraged fear to build support for policies such as stop-and-frisk and “broken windows” policing, while also insisting that poverty primarily reflected the bad choices of poor people. The road to Rudolph W. Giuliani’s New York, in other words, begins at the 1977 blackout.
In 1977, New York was still reeling under the impact of the steep budget cuts of the previous few years, as the city government closed hospitals, fire stations, health clinics, and schools. The city university began to charge tuition for the first time. Public employment — long a path to greater economic stability, especially for African American and Latino New Yorkers — shriveled by tens of thousands of jobs — more than 20 percent — over the five years that followed the 1975 fiscal crisis. Even before the blackout, the mounting anger toward austerity was palpable. Over 1975 and 1976, neighborhoods from Williamsburg to the South Bronx were rocked by community protests against the cuts.
After the blackout, voices on the right scoffed at the idea that the widespread lawbreaking might have had something to do with the economic desperation that followed the fiscal crisis. “If hunger was at the back of it all,” jeered Pat Buchanan, at that time fresh from the Nixon White House, “how come some of the welfare mommas filmed ripping off jewelry, clothing and liquor stores lumbered about like overfed heifers who could use six months on a liquid protein diet?” Mayor Abraham Beame vowed “harsh” punishment for any looters. One person wrote to the New York Times, “After experiencing all that violence and looting during the blackout, I have just one suggestion: Bring back police brutality.”
With the blackout, though, the jails were in some ways more brutal than the streets. Outnumbered on the night of the blackout, police made few arrests late on July 13, when most stores were broken open. The arrests only began the next day. And when they did, a bigger problem followed: The budget cuts meant that even the jails were in no condition to house thousands of prisoners.
Because the precincts were overflowing, prisoners languished in courthouse cells that lacked fans. The Tombs, a famed jail in Lower Manhattan, had been closed in 1974 following a riot a few years earlier over inhumane conditions; it was reopened after the blackout, and suspected looters were held in rooms without mattresses. In Brooklyn, one man died in custody, kept in a holding pen at Brooklyn Criminal Court that had never been meant to house people overnight. People were held for days awaiting arraignment, some unable even to call home.
Calls for even harsher responses to crime followed. Congressman Ed Koch, running for mayor, seized on fears of crime after the blackout to campaign on a platform of restoring capital punishment in the state. President Jimmy Carter refused to grant New York “disaster” status that would allow it to qualify for greater federal relief. In a September 1977 article in Commentary titled “Looting and Liberal Racism,” Midge Decter likened those who had participated in the wave of theft to insects, saying that “for anyone watching them at work, surging out of the shadows in a horde and then scurrying back under cover of darkness,” the epithet of “animal” seemed too dignified — and then argued that liberals effectively were to blame for the looting because they had failed to hold African Americans and Latinos to a common moral standard.
Not everyone thought the solution to blackout looting was simply locking up those who had taken food, diapers, and consumer goods. While the New York Amsterdam News decried the looting as “suicidal” for African American neighborhoods (where black-owned stores had been hard hit), it also argued that the “white-dominated government” had not understood “the depth of despair among our young people.” One editorialist at the paper wrote that people took TVs and food when they had “no Harvards, no Yales, no City Colleges to look forward to, no American Dream to chase.” In the New York Times, historian Herbert Gutman published an essay comparing the blackout looting to food riots led by Jewish women early in the 20th century.
And even in the city’s business institutions, there were some who saw the blackout as a wake-up call. One economist at Chase Manhattan Bank wrote an internal report arguing that “the disorders brought to light deep-seated economic and social difficulties that can and should be addressed.”
But these interpretations were the exception, not the rule. Far more common were responses that sharpened the law-and-order rhetoric let loose earlier in the decade. These condemnations would lend new momentum to a conservative interpretation of the city’s problems, helping to fuel stereotypes about the criminality and lawlessness of low-income New Yorkers.
Rather than counter the fears of social disorder that emerged in the wake of the blackout, this framework of demonization only fueled them further, and then used those anxieties to justify the expansion of the prison system in the 1980s as the only way to contain the nonwhite poor. Forty years later, the consequences of this turn seem clear: deepening hopelessness, racial division, rising inequality and a corrosive political pessimism.