After the social upheavals of the 1960s failed to trigger the vast systemic changes many protesters sought, the early 1970s saw a number of militant groups form secoret underground cells that pledged to use violence in an attempt to fight for civil rights, end the Vietnam War and, in the minds of the hard core, trigger a violent revolution in the streets of America.
While groups like the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army and the Symbionese Liberation Army were vehemently anti-war, their core motivation was rallying the black community toward open revolt. It was a time when police brutality was rampant—far worse than today, by most measures—and white police officers rarely were prosecuted when they killed black civilians. The underground groups of the ‘70s thus made police their first and most frequent targets. The Weather Underground did so with bombs, until one went off accidentally, killing three of its members, leading the group to disavow murderous violence.
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But it was the Black Liberation Army, known as the BLA and a violent offshoot of the Black Panther Party, that posed the greatest threat to police. Loosely led by the Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, then in exile in Algeria, the group emerged in May 1971 with a pair of attacks on New York policemen that left two cops dead; there were later ambush attacks on police in San Francisco and Atlanta as well. The BLA’s most notorious attack, however, came in 1972, when it carried out perhaps the most gruesome assassination of police officers in the history of New York, killing two patrolmen, Greg Foster and Rocco Laurie, on an East Village sidewalk. Officially the killings remain unsolved. This is the untold story behind them.
At 9:30 in the morning on December 20, 1971, in Queens, two patrolmen spied four people in a green Pontiac—one woman and three men—parked in front of a Bankers Trust branch on Grand Avenue at 49th Street, acting suspiciously. When the cruiser approached, the Pontiac pulled from the curb. Following at a safe distance, the officers checked its license plate and discovered the car was stolen. When the cruiser lit its rolling lights, the Pontiac took off, racing to the corner of Flushing Avenue and 57th Street, where it turned southwest, toward Brooklyn. As the chase continued, someone in the Pontiac rolled down a window and lobbed something toward the cruiser. It was, of all things, a hand grenade—an M-26 fragmentation grenade to be exact, the kind used by the U.S. Army in Vietnam. To the officers’ amazement, it exploded beside the car, wrecking it. As the officers leaped unhurt from the burning cruiser, the Pontiac roared off toward Brooklyn, where a few minutes later its occupants jumped out, rushed toward a man at a Sunoco gas station and stole his car. Later, the man identified Joanne Chesimard, who had been with the BLA since its foundation that spring and had taken part in its training camp outside Atlanta, as one of his assailants. The NYPD immediately issued a 13-state alarm calling for her arrest.
In the Black Liberation Army’s first-ever phone call to the press, a caller to United Press International took credit in the name of the Attica Brigade of the “Afro-American Liberation Army’’—exiled Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver’s name for the BLA—saying, “We have more grenades, and we will be back.”
The police dragnet would explain why Chesimard, the groups other leader, a 28-year-old ex-Marine named Ronald Carter, and four comrades swiftly relocated to the Miami area. There they rented an apartment in the suburb of Hollywood and quickly robbed a bank in Miami, running out in less than five minutes. According to Thomas “Blood” McCreary, one of only three members of the group still alive, the Carter-Chesimard group took its cash and began making plans to sharply expand the BLA’s reach, creating a string of safe houses across the Midwest. Within days they had left Miami, scattering out to rent apartments in Cleveland, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Kansas City. Carter and McCreary then returned to New York, where they met with other BLA leaders, who agreed that the group’s immediate focus should be freeing BLA members who had been captured in New York and Detroit.
“We were going to break them out,” McCreary recalls. “I went with Assata to Detroit and looked things over, but it was clear it would never work. It was obvious we could never get near them.”
Afterward, members of the cell rendezvoused at their new Cleveland safe house, a set of three apartments on East 84th Street. Once it became clear there was no easy way to free the prisoners, two new plans were sketched out. Both involved actions in New York. “Cleveland was our new home,” McCreary remembers, “but New York City was to be our battleground.” All through the first days of 1972, BLA members shuttled back and forth between Cleveland and New York; after another BLA group was broken up following a shootout in North Carolina, they eschewed cars and began traveling by Greyhound bus. The drawback was the Pennsylvania State Police’s penchant for boarding busses to search for drugs. “Every time they came on board, you know, we were strapped (with guns),” McCreary recalls with a shiver. “Those were some pretty hot moments.”
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In short order the Cleveland cell grew in size to ten, as McCreary tracked down four soldiers who had lost their way, including an especially violent 20-year-old, Twymon Meyers, who he stumbled across one night in the East Village, and a new recruit, Henry “Sha Sha” Brown. In Cleveland, they quickly went to work on an audacious plan that originated with Eldridge Cleaver and his aides in far-off Algeria. Black guerrillas had launched a civil war in the South African country of Zimbabwe, and the white-led government had responded with a string of indiscriminate killings. Cleaver suggested they attempt to storm the Zimbabwean consulate in New York.
“We wanted to make a signature statement in New York, something that would get us noticed internationally,” says McCreary. “So we scouted out (the consulate); it was off Park Avenue in the 50s. We went in. We could see it was gonna be too much trouble. Too much traffic, it just didn’t work out. So we found out (the diplomats) all lived in homes on Long Island, like in a compound. The place was guarded by these huge dogs, Rhodesian ridgebacks. So we go out there to poison these dogs, and needless to say, it didn’t work. And so we went to the alternate plan. And I don’t want to talk about that.”
The night of January 27, 1972, was freezing, frigid winter winds whistling down the garbage-strewn streets of the East Village. Snow was on the way. Down on Avenue B, two young patrolmen were walking their beat. Greg Foster, who was 22, was black. Rocco Laurie, a year older, was white. The two had served together as Marines in Vietnam and, as close friends, had received permission to be partners, patrolling one of New York’s most dangerous and drug-infested neighborhoods.
The two were walking south along Avenue B around 10:30 p.m. when they noticed a car parked in front of a hydrant. They ducked into a luncheonette across the street, the Shrimp Boat, and asked the owner if he knew the car. He stepped outside, glanced at it and shook his head, no. Satisfied, Foster and Laurie turned and began to walk back north. As they did, three black men passed, parting to allow the officers to walk between them. One of the men wore a long black coat, another a green fatigue jacket and a black Australian-style bush hat.
A moment after the officers passed, the three men turned and drew pistols, a .38 automatic and two 9-millimeter automatics. Foster and Laurie were a few strides away when the three men began firing directly into their backs. Foster was hit eight times and fell in a heap onto the icy pavement. Six bullets hit Rocco Laurie. All but one struck his arms and legs, but the last pierced his neck, and he staggered forward, clutching at his throat before dropping to his knees and falling, slowly, on his side. As the two men lay dying, their three assassins marched calmly toward them. A witness later claimed one of the shooters hollared, “Shoot ‘em in the balls,” and as the trio stood over the fallen officers, all three again opened fire.
Three bullets were fired directly into Greg Foster’s eyes; two more were shot into Rocco Laurie’s groin. When both men lay still, two of the assassins reached down and wrenched loose their pistols. They then ran toward a waiting Chrysler, while the third man, apparently intoxicated by the moment, reportedly danced a jig over the dead man’s bodies, firing his pistol into the air Wild West-style. Startled to be left behind, he ran off alone, disappearing into the night.
The whine of police sirens echoed within minutes, and the first officers to respond, several answering a disturbance call two blocks away, were quickly on the scene. The sight that met them was stomach-turning. Greg Foster’s head had been destroyed; a sludge of blood and brain matter formed a three-foot long puddle around his corpse. Rocco Laurie had been shot to pieces, bullet wounds up and down his body. An ambulance took Laurie to Bellevue, where he died. Almost everyone who responded had the same thought: These were planned assassinations, no doubt by the same people who launched the first police attacks in New York eight months before, this so-called Black Liberation Army. It took only a few hours to confirm it. Fingerprints found in the getaway car suggested the assassins were Ronald Carter, Twymon Meyers and at least one other member of the Cleveland cell.
The Foster-Laurie murders presented New York Mayor John Lindsay’s administration with much the same dilemma it had confronted after the first attacks the previous May. Within hours, in fact, a series of debates erupted within the police department and the mayor’s office. Were these in fact planned assassinations, or something else? If they were the work of the same group behind the attacks in May, as was widely assumed, did this mean there actually was a genuine Black Liberation Army? Was there really a nationwide black conspiracy to murder policemen? And if so, should the public be told?
What police knew was this: Ten officers had now been attacked and six killed in a nine-month span in New York, San Francisco, North Carolina and Atlanta, seemingly all by onetime Panthers claiming to be a Black Liberation Army. Some of these attacks were linked, some were not. Many in the NYPD believed this constituted a legitimate national conspiracy. But others, including several aides in Mayor Lindsay’s office, felt the killings were unrelated. There was no black army, they argued. This was the work of a few disgruntled Panthers borrowing a discarded Panther term to make it appear as if there was.
The pivotal figure in these debates was a newcomer to the NYPD, a deputy police commissioner named Robert Daley. Daley was a writer for New York Magazine who had attracted the attention of Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy while writing a profile of him; when Murphy offered him the department’s top public-relations job, Daley accepted. He was a divisive figure, a publicity hound who, as the Times noted later, “was always mugging for the cameras.” What Daley loved most was a good detective yarn, and the story of the BLA was one of the best he had seen. Gunsmoke had barely cleared over Foster and Laurie’s bodies when he began arguing that the NYPD had an obligation to go public with its suspicions that the murders constituted a planned assassination by a national conspiracy of black militants.
This kind of talk startled aides to Mayor Lindsay, who had announced his campaign for the presidency a month earlier; Lindsay placed second to George McGovern in the Arizona caucuses just two days after the Foster-Laurie murders. Talk of black terrorists loose in the streets would undercut his candidacy, inflame race relations and have every cop in the city looking askance at young black men. Lindsay’s press secretary, Tom Morgan, made clear he didn’t want to see a single word about black conspiracies in the press.
Swarmed by reporters the morning after the murders, the chief of detectives, Albert Seedman, went along, pooh-poohing the conspiracy angle. But the next day, a Saturday, the UPI office received a handwritten communiqué, signed by the “George Jackson Squad of the Black Liberation Army.” Mailed the previous day, it referenced “the pigs wiped out in lower Manhattan last night” and promised: “This is the start of our spring offensive. There is more to come.”
This was too much for Daley. That same afternoon—even as citizens in far-off Arizona were voting—Daley strode into an East Village precinct house and, standing before a bank of microphones, raised Rocco Laurie’s blood-drenched shirt for all to see. He called the murders an assassination, carried out by a conspiracy of urban guerillas—black urban guerillas. “Always in the past the police have been quiet about this conspiracy because of fear of accusations of racism,” he said. “But it isn’t the black community that is doing this, it is a few dozen black criminal thugs. … It’s terribly serious, much more serious than people seem to think. The police are the last barrier before chaos.”
Suddenly the rhetorical cat was out of the bag: The mayor’s people were apoplectic. But the New York newspapers, sensing a story too hot to handle, downplayed Daley’s dramatic press conference; the Times buried the story on Page 35. Talk of a black conspiracy then ebbed for several days as reporters focused on the officers’ funerals, massive affairs, hundreds of uniformed officers lining Fifth Avenue in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But Daley would not let up. In off-the-record chats all that week, he told reporters there was a true national conspiracy, that the NYPD’s intelligence, gathered over the previous seven months, showed there really was a Black Liberation Army with hundreds of would-be assassins divided into revolutionary cells. For the most part, no one believed him; no one, at least, printed more of his theories. It was all too inflammatory, too far-fetched.
Finally, a week after the murders, a Times reporter cornered Commissioner Patrick Murphy. All evidence, Murphy admitted, suggested the Foster-Laurie murders were in fact not the work of a national conspiracy to kill police, but of roving bands of militants—“crazies,” Murphy termed them—who moved from city to city, murdering policemen. Daley, however, went much further. He told the Times there was a BLA, “nationwide in scope,” adding, “We have here a very, very dangerous and criminal conspiracy. The public really doesn’t seem to be aware of it. The time is over when the Police Department should keep its mouth shut on this kind of thing.”
Working with incomplete information, neither man was entirely correct; the BLA was far too disorganized, far too decentralized to be called a true national conspiracy. But it was more than “roving” bands of “crazies.” Still, Daley would not be deterred. Over the vocal opposition of the Manhattan District Attorney, Frank Hogan, he persuaded Murphy to hold an unusual press conference on Wednesday, February 9, in which Murphy detailed the BLA’s involvement in not only the Foster-Laurie murders, but the May attacks and the murder of policemen in San Francisco and Atlanta. He named nine BLA figures sought by police, including Ronald Carter, Joanne Chesimard and Twymon Meyers. Prosecutors had adamantly opposed going public, arguing it would complicate any case they brought. The mayor’s office objected as well, finally persuading Murphy not to use the word ‘conspiracy.’
While political debates raged in Manhattan, Carter and his eight comrades pored over New York newspapers, following the investigation. After two weeks, they began to fear they had remained in one place too long. “So we took a vote,” Blood McCreary remembers. “We decided to go to St. Louis.” A safe house there was already in place. On Monday, February 14, they rented a U-Haul truck, which the group crammed with furniture, books, mattresses and personal belongings. The next day they left in a three-vehicle caravan for St. Louis. “On long trips, I drove,” says McCreary, whose family was originally from South Carolina. “I had the southern manners, you know, ‘Yes sir,’ ‘whatever you say, sir,’ which we needed at toll booths or if we got stopped. Our younger guys, Twymon and them, they didn’t have the manners. If a cop car stopped us, they always wanted to shoot.”
They reached the St. Louis safe house without incident. “It was late afternoon,” says McCreary. “Later we decided to go looking for out-of-state newspapers. Four of us went: Me, Twymon, Ronald Carter and Sha-Sha Brown. We drove downtown looking for a newsstand. That was a mistake. Seemed like everything was closed. Then I saw the cop’s car.”
It was 9:30 p.m. when two St. Louis patrolmen, cruising North Grand Avenue in a black neighborhood, spotted a green 1967 Oldsmobile sporting, of all things, a set of cardboard Michigan license plates. The cruiser lit its rolling lights. McCreary was behind the wheel. “I said, ‘We got lights,’” he remembers, “and Ronnie leaned forward—he was in the backseat—and said, ‘Be cool, just pull over.’”
One officer hung back while the second walked to the drivers-side window. “We had all been taught that, if you get stopped, the first thing you do is roll down all the car windows,” McCreary says. “That way, if you have to shoot, you don’t want glass exploding all over you. So we rolled down our windows. I took out my wallet. When he came to the car, I had everything in my hand. Everything he needed was in my hand. But you know, it wasn’t right. The car had Michigan temporary plates. It was registered in Florida. My driver’s license was my alias, Frank Reece of Windsor, North Carolina. Poor cop, he was as confused as anything. (He says) ‘I’m going to have to ask you guys to step outta the car. And you know, I was doing everything I could to get outta this. I kept saying, ‘Why is that necessary? Why?’
“We all had on shoulder holsters,” McCreary says. “Twymon was beside me in the front. I saw he had the nine millimeter between his legs. In the trunk we had like seventeen different guns, an M-16, a bunch of Browning nine-millimeters. I had a .357. Sha-Sha had a nine-mill. I had been through several situations with Twymon, and I knew that when he was about to shoot, he always started rocking. Rocking back and forth. And I realized he had started rocking in his seat. I’m talking to the cop, and I feel Twymon pulling at my sleeve. He wants me to lean back so he can shoot the cop. I know he’s about to shoot, and I’m trying everything I can do to make this cop go away.
“The cop keeps saying, ‘Get out of the car.’
“I keep saying, ‘Officer, why is that necessary? All our papers are in order. Why is that necessary?’
“And finally, you know, he had enough. He said, ‘Nigger, get out of the fucking car!’ And when he said that, I just leaned back and all I saw then was red and blue streaks of fire going past my face. Twymon was shooting, and then, well, the whole car kind of exploded.”
The officer beside the car fell, struck in the stomach and legs. As the Olds roared off, he fired all six shots in his revolver. As luck would have it, two narcotics officers were on a stakeout a block away and heard the shooting. They gave chase. Spying their pursuit, McCreary mashed the accelerator, hitting speeds close to 100 m.p.h. as the Olds zigzagged through narrow streets toward the Mississippi River waterfront. By the time he got there, there were four police cars behind him, their sirens echoing through the downtown streets. When one approached his fender, he swung the steering wheel violently to the left. The Olds veered into a vicious left turn, turning completely around, until it hopped a curb, all four tires blown, and came to rest against a high chain-link fence bordering a vacant lot.
When the car stopped, McCreary turned to face Ronnie Carter, only to find him slumped forward, a sick gurgling noise coming from his throat. He had been shot in the chest; an autopsy would reveal he had accidentally been killed by a BLA bullet fired by Sha Sha Brown. McCreary leaped outside. A hail of bullets drove him toward the chain-link fence. “We were trying to get to the trunk,” he recalls. “If we could’ve gotten the M-16 or the 30.06, we would’ve gotten away.”
Up and down the wide boulevard, policemen were crouching behind their cruisers, firing. All three BLA men ran to the fence. McCreary turned and provided covering fire as the others, Meyers and Sha-Sha Brown, climbed it and vaulted into the vacant lot. When he ran out of ammunition, McCreary threw down his pistol and surrendered. The police captured Brown a few blocks away, bleeding from a wound in his wrist. Only Twymon Meyers somehow got away, disappearing into the night.
In the first confused hours after the incident, not even a week after Murphy’s press conference, there was nothing to link it to the BLA; both McCreary and Brown gave false names. What triggered a barrage of early-morning phone calls to New York was the discovery that a pistol Brown had thrown down had until two weeks before belonged to Officer Rocco Laurie. This changed everything: For the first time the NYPD felt obliged to tell all it knew. At a press conference two days later, Murphy called on the White House, the attorney general and the FBI “to give the highest priority to the hunt” for the Foster-Laurie assassins and the BLA. After Murphy spoke, the NYPD’s assistant chief inspector, Arthur Grubert, detailed the attacks on police in New York, San Francisco and Atlanta and gave reporters the most reasoned, lucid overview of the BLA to date.
He noted: “Intelligence fails to identify a formal structure of a firm organization known as the Black Liberation Army. It is more likely that various extremist individuals, 75 to 100 in number, are making use of the name Black Liberation Army in order to give some semblance of legitimacy to these homicidal acts. These individuals form and dissolve and reform in a small groups, or cells…”
The NYPD might not want to call the BLA a true “army,” but what it described sounded martial enough. The Times’ skepticism, for instance, began to fall away. The headline on its front page story Feb. 17 was: “Evidence of ‘Liberation Army’ Said to Rise.” It was at that point, with its notoriety near a zenith, that the BLA went utterly silent. Not a single word would be heard from it again for months.
The Chesimard cell would remain at large another 18 months, eventually triggering a final confrontation with New York police by launching a series of ambush attacks on New York patrolmen in early 1973. Chesimard herself was captured after a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that May. Other soldiers and cells were eliminated in a string of riotous shootouts that lasted the rest of the year, culminating in the death of the last significant BLA soldier, Twymon Meyers, in a firefight with NYPD detectives on a Bronx sidewalk in November. A successor militant group known as “The Family,” made up of veterans of the BLA and Weather Underground, managed to break Chesimard out of a New Jersey prison in 1979 and smuggle her to Cuba, where 36 years later, now known as Assata Shakur, she remains the highest profile American fugitive still under the protection of the Castro government. The Foster-Laurie killings remain officially unsolved, in large part because two of the three men believed to be responsible—Meyers and Twymon Meyers—were soon killed. A third suspect, now in his 70s, remains under investigation to this day.
Forty-five years later, the kinds of police behavior that so enraged the BLA, especially the killings of unarmed black civilians, has returned to the headlines. But while there were riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and the killing of two officers by a troubled man in New York, public reaction has been largely devoid of the kind of retaliatory violence we saw in the 1970s. The main reason for the difference, one suspects, is that today’s activists have learned from history. Violence against police in the ‘70s brought little but death and condemnation. It’s a protest model that few are likely to follow again anytime soon.
Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair and the author of six books. This article has been adapted from his recent book, DAYS OF RAGE, which published April 7, and reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House, Inc. Copyright (c) 2015 by Bryan Burrough.
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