State Police officers and residents look at each other in Rochester, July 1964. Photo Credit: William Lovelace via Getty Images.

By David Kurlander

Content Warning: The following article contains accounts of violence and brutality. 

Over the past two weeks, Rochester, New York has become one of the hotbeds of protest in the nationwide reckoning with police violence. The unrest follows the release of bodycam footage from March that shows officers placing Daniel Prude, an unarmed Black man having a mental health episode, in a spit hood and restraining him, face-down and naked, on the street. Prude briefly suffocated during the interaction and died in the hospital seven days later. The police classified the case as a drug overdose. The anguished allegations by Rochester residents of a cover-up have resulted in mass police resignations and evoke another moment of racial reckoning in Rochester: a July 1964 riot that took place during a spike of intensity in the Civil Rights movement… 

Rochester in the mid-1960s was in a period of dramatic demographic transition. Southern Black migrant farmers started coming up to Rochester to harvest fruits and vegetables on the shores of nearby Lake Ontario. Many of the farmers stayed, and the Black population multiplied sixfold in the two decades after World War II, to around 30,000. Yet despite Rochester’s reputation as a flush employment hub—Eastman-Kodak’s dominance over the city’s economy had led to famed parks and social services—the opportunities for workers without a college education were comparatively few and far between. The housing situation in Rochester reflected these inequities, with many Black residents living in crowded conditions in the working-class Third and Seventh Ward neighborhoods. 

Just a week before the unrest in Rochester, NYPD officers shot and killed a 15-year-old Black youth downstate in Harlem. The resultant protests had injured hundreds and had intensified the year’s already-passionate conversation about racism surrounding voting rights across the South, Martin Luther King’s direct action in Alabama, and the increasing notoriety of Malcolm X.

Then, on Friday night, July 24th, 1964, Rochester officers responded to a call about an intoxicated male at the Mothers Improvement Association block party on Joseph Avenue, the central boulevard of Near Northeast. Police took the 19-year-old into custody, but other attendees blocked their way. Officers then called several K-9 units to join them—a move that many in the neighborhood felt reflected a larger willingness to meet minor disturbances with disproportionate force. The Chief of Police, William Lombard, raced to the growing crowd in his civilian vehicle, a 1963 Chevy. Within minutes, he had run away on foot, his car overturned and in flames. 

The state response was swift. Governor Nelson Rockefeller, still focused on the unrest in Harlem, was at Kykuit, his family’s massive estate in Tarrytown, when the first requests came in from county police for reinforcements. He granted the request and prepared a statement for the next morning. “Lawlessness, hoodlumism and extremism from whatever source or for whatever reason will be met by full force of the law,” Rockefeller wrote, adding, “Minority groups have the most to gain from the maintenance of law and order.”

The national coverage was often vague and focused on numbers—100 state troopers sent in on Saturday morning, 1,200 National Guardsmen on Sunday, almost 1,000 rioters arrested, the riot only dying out after three long days.  The human frustrations that accompanied the conflagration come into sharp relief, however, in a 155-page scrapbook of riot reportage from the city papers compiled by the Rochester Public Library.  

Local publications show the sheer dysfunction that swirled as Rochester burned. On the second night, Judson Brayar, an older white man, appeared in front of a grocery store into which a group of young protestors had thrown rocks. Brayar was wearing a white helmet. He stared wordlessly at the youths, still standing across the street, until one of them approached and punched him. He fell, unconscious, into the center of the busy thoroughfare in front of the store, where a driver struck and killed him. The same day, a police helicopter sweeping the riot area crashed into the center of a residential block, killing the pilot and a Black husband and wife who lived in a small yellow home. One of the blades came to rest upon the top of a car parked out front, burning along with the vehicle, for quite some time.  

Much of the coverage centered on local Black leaders, who attempted to offset oversimplifications of the riot’s causes. On the second day of the uprising—around the same time the state police arrived—a Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reporter accompanied Eddie Drake, an ex-boxer and representative of the city’s Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) office, on a walk down “debris-strewn” Joseph Avenue. Drake, pointing at the intact CORE headquarters and similarly untouched barbershops, pushed back on the popular police narrative that the looting was simply a result of rioters being “fired up” on stolen alcohol. “They all are Negro-owned,” Drake explained of the businesses that had not been looted. “Those people couldn’t have been too drunk.” Snippets of exchanges caught during the stand-off reinforced the political anguish behind the destruction. One local journalist watched as a young protestor ran towards a state police sergeant and yelled, “You’re only making it worse by bringing in all these armed men. You’re the ones who are causing the riot.” 

Father Gabre Kristos Mikael, a traveling Ethiopian-American priest who was in Rochester to open a branch of the Orthodox Ethiopian Church, had moved through the first night of the riot “in flowing robes, armed only with a large cross dangling from his neck.” Mikael condemned the looting, but also communicated the longstanding Black frustration with police—and particularly with K-9 units—saying the response was “community retaliation for long pent-up feelings.” Father Mikael also explained what he viewed as the next necessary steps: “The white community now has received violent notice that there’s going to have to be more rolling up of sleeves to get better understanding between the races.”

It has been 56 years since Father Mikael issued his instruction to the white community. And although some sleeves were certainly rolled up, a June essay by historian Mark Hare, “A look back: Riots of ’64 still haunt Rochester,” methodically details how many of the equality initiatives taken on in the aftermath of the riot ultimately foundered during the economic and value shifts of the 1970s and beyond. Now, the wrenching death of Daniel Prude—and the pain that its revelations have unleashed—require yet another renewed commitment to justice.

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