A Brief Legal History of Gang Violence in New York City

BY: Jennifer Linares

Jennifer is a sophomore in College at Georgetown University studying history, government, and French. She is currently a blog editor for the Georgetown University Undergraduate Law Review.

New York City has been an enclave for Puerto Rican immigrants since the 19th century and saw the greatest influx during the “Great Migration” of 1946-1964, in which the already-established Puerto Rican communities of East Harlem, the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side saw an increase in population and expanded their borders.[1] With these changes in the city’s demographics came a change in the perceptions of delinquency. While the juvenile delinquency in New York City included gangs of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, there was a much larger sense of sympathy for White gangs than there was for Black or Latino gangs.  

In the summer of 1954, the District Attorney for Kings County, New York charged four white male teenagers, who later became known as the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, for crimes committed in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, including the murder of a Black homeless man named Willard Menter and an assault on two girls. However, the “bookish” nature of the teens garnered public sympathy throughout the trial and caused many spectators to question the structural causes for youth juvenile delinquency.[2]

The charges of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers case were eventually dismissed, but the same could not be said for the Michael Farmer case in 1957. In this case, Black and Puerto Rican members of two gangs – the Egyptian Kings and the Dragons – murdered fifteen-year-old Michael Farmer, who was believed to be a member of a rival gang. During the trial, Dr. Maurice Greenhill, a psychiatrist and director of the New York City Community Mental Health Board directed an investigation of people’s reactions to Farmer’s murder, the findings of which revealed that many residents believed that the murder was not due to structural factors but to racial tensions and to the presence of newcomers in the city.[3] This increased speculation towards ethnic migration and neighborhood borders also occurred in other urban cities in the 1950s and 1960s such as Chicago, where Puerto Rican gangs such as the Young Lords became increasingly controversial due to their calls for Puerto Rican empowerment and self-determination and began to be targeted by the FBI.

In a hearing on juvenile delinquency after the Brooklyn Thrill Killers case, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham found that all the crimes committed by the teenagers were inspired by those in crime comics and claimed the psychological harm of mass media was the prevalent cause of these acts of violence, not the city’s failures.[4] However, the discrepancies between this case and the Farmer case indicate that negative perceptions of racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants in New York City in the 1950s did also influence public reactions to instances of gang violence. On the one hand, the public upheld that the Brooklyn Thrill Killers were good people that were wronged by society and remained sympathetic towards them. On the other hand, the murder of Michael Farmer seemed to validate the public’s concern about immigrant communities and reinforce negative stereotypes about them.

The biases present in these two cases, as well as the general perceptions of gang violence in New York City, also highlight the limitations of New Deal liberalism. The mayor of New York City at the time, Robert F. Wagner Jr., was a New Deal Democrat that gained support from liberals, labor unions, and moderate Democrats during his mayoral campaign. His father, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner Sr., also sponsored some of the most important New Deal legislation during his time as senator, including the Social Security Act of 1935, and the Housing Act of 1937. However, Mayor Wagner largely failed to improve race relations in New York City, suggesting some of the failures of New Deal liberalism in the area. After the Farmer murder, Wagner promised to crack down on crime by strengthening law enforcement and counseling programs, but failed to address other underlying issues that may have contributed to the murder, such as discrimination against Black and Latino communities and underestimation of what needed to be done to address race relations. The Wagner administration also silenced many reactions from Black and Latino families, many of whom feared that the case would worsen pre-existing stereotypes and generalizations. In doing so, New York City’s leadership created a narrative that downplayed the effects of race relations on youth gang violence and “clung onto a vision of their city as a place that was not divided into hostile camps – even as it became just that.”[5]

[1] Clara E. Rodriguez, Puerto Ricans: Immigrants and Migrants, a Historical Perspective (Project Portfolio, 1990), 2-3.

[2] Anders Walker, When Gangs Were White: Race, Rights, and Youth Crime in New York City, 1954-1964, 55 St. Louis U. L.J. 1371, 1371-1372 (2011).

[3] Robert W. Snyder, A Useless and Terrible Death: The Michael Farmer Case, “Hidden Violence,” and New York City in the Fifties, 36 JUH 236, 236-237 (2010).

[4] Walker, supra note 2, at 1372.

[5] Snyder, supra note 4, at 243.


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