These days, 927 Broadway is known as Enrique’s Unisex Salon, the storefront a burst of rainbow colored signage. But in 1973, it was John and Al’s Sports, as it had been since the 1930s. That sporting goods store was founded by a man named Speilberger who eventually died after being hit in the head by robbers in 1967. A pair of employees, Samuel Rosenblum and Jerry Riccio, took over.
Jan. 19, 1973, was a cold, rainy Friday; the window display cases at John and Al’s were packed with hiking boots and small tinsel Christmas tree decorations leftover from the holidays. Four men entered and browsed the merchandise, joining around a dozen or so other shoppers spread throughout the place. Their names: Shulab Abdur Raheem, Dawd A. Rahman, Yusef Abdallah Almussadig and Salih Ali Abdullah, all in their early-to-mid twenties. After a few minutes, they drew their weapons – a sawed off shotgun and three handguns.
Robberies were a regular occurrence at the store — “It had been robbed at least once every three months, as had almost every other store on the block,” noted Harvey Schlossberg, the police psychologist who will play a pivotal role in the coming events. But this one was different. The gunmen were Sunni Muslims performing, in their view, a hastily organized liberation of weapons for revolutionary self defense.
The previous day had seen a horrific massacre of seven Sunnis in Washington D.C., in a house purchased by basketball star Kareem Abdul Jabar for his religious mentor Hamaas Abdul Khaalis. Khaalis, a high ranking member of the Nation of Islam and associate of Malcolm X, had seemingly turned away from the sect, taking converts with him. The seven killings were carried out by members of the Black Mafia. Most of the victims were Khaalis’s young children.
FRIDAY, 5 P.M.
The gunmen, calling each other “one,” “two,” “three” and “four,” lined up employees and shoppers; it was a young crowd. The door was locked. To those walking by outside, it seemed John and Al’s was closing early. Some of the many rifles available for sale at the store were collected in a duffel bag. But the police had already been alerted by a silent alarm and a Bushwick High School student who slipped out at the start of the robbery. Officers began swarming from every direction to surround the store.
Soon, a gunman emerged from a side door with Rosenblum. Both the gunman and police have maintained that the other fired first. (“I was trained in the service to fire back,” explained Raheem, an Air Force veteran turned subway clerk, later on.) Almussadig was shot in the abdomen, Officer Jose Adorno in the arm. Rosenblum escaped. The bloody exchange kicked off a three-hour firefight.
Former NYPD officer Al Sheppard recalls arriving at the scene in his memoir: “Gunfire was sounding through the streets. Unbelievably, (our car) was taking rounds, so both of us bailed out of the driver-side door and onto the wet, cold street. I crawled under the car and emptied my service revolver in the direction of the store. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing to do since I had no idea of who was shooting at who, but I did not want anyone thinking of me as an easy target… as we later found out, there were also hostages.”
Friday evening, Broadway was a war zone. Diners and shoppers scrambled for whatever cover was available behind glass storefronts. Police took aim from behind dumpsters, cars, subway pillars, chimneys and signs. They shot out the streetlights to operate in the darkness, Sheppard recalled in his book. Eventually all power was cut and the whole area went dark.
Patrolman Stephen Gilroy was killed after being shot in the head. Another officer was shot in the knee. An Emergency Service Squad in an armed truck – NYPD special ops, similar to a SWAT team – laid down heavy fire to go in and collect them, Sheppard recalled in his book.
It isn’t known who fired the fatal shot; later it was argued in court as possible friendly fire. Either way, a dead officer upped the stakes, and the gunmen, learning the news on a radio inside, knew it. For the rest of the crisis, they communicated to the world with the grave fatalism of would-be religious martyrs. They wanted a doctor for Almussadig; the NYPD wanted surrender.
A darkened train crept into the nearby stop to collect passengers who had been stranded, mingled with police crouched and taking aim. Players in a nearby pool hall escaped down a ladder over the joint’s marquee after being trapped for hours. Many locals had to wait until later to be evacuated under the cover of a tank-like vehicle the NYPD had obtained from the Department of Defense known within the department as Annie, or simply The Tank.
Two hostages were released by this point, bringing the police a grim message:
Almussadig is dying; if they aren’t allowed to escape, the rest are promising to end the standoff in a blaze of violence.
The Tank, Schlossberg reckoned, was a nice touch – looming just outside the store, its slow, rumbling laps put just the right amount of pressure on the gunmen.
Schlossberg, the pipe-smoking former traffic cop recently promoted to head NYPD psychologist, had been summoned overnight to oversee the situation. His cool headedness was needed: another psychiatrist in contact with the NYPD had advised storming the store and throwing tear gas, decidedly also the prevailing sentiment amongst the rank and file cops. Up until this point, it’s more or less the NYPD’s official policy.
It is an approach that, in this case, would have almost certainly led to a chaotic massacre of hostages and hostage takers alike, along the lines of the one that ended the Attica Prison Uprising in 1971.
But Schlossberg was dismissive of both police machismo and ‘Hollywood’ negotiation tactics, favoring more introspective techniques. “Let me see if I can see the world the way he sees it,” he said of his approach, “see what he’s feeling, what’s pressuring him… It’s kind of entering into his madness to help him find solutions.”
In practice, it’s an approach heavy on basically just waiting stuff out – “anti-action.”
A half dozen makeshift bases had been set up along Broadway, in a Chinese restaurant, a bank and other spaces. Cops warmed their hands over barrel fires; a Salvation Army truck served stew. They drank cheap coffee and rehashed one particular fun fact over and over again: isn’t this where they filmed “The French Connection” a few years ago? It is – the scene where Gene Hackman’s jumpy, pork-pie-hatted cop, Popeye O’Doyle, frisks and barks orders at the patrons of an all-Black bar.
The previous night hadn’t gone well: A walkie talkie had been delivered to the store only to be promptly yeeted back out by the four. Communication via flashing lights and bullets as a kind of Morse code had taken over as ministers of various faiths attempted to reason with the gunmen. A Muslim minister scored four minutes of face time, only to return bearing another grave dispatch from the group: “This is the end. This is glory. We’ll go out in a hail of bullets.”
Still, Schlossberg stuck to his agenda, with various higher ups yielding to his analysis. Just focus on saving the hostages, he said, and if need be, “you can always catch the criminals later.”
“There’s always a 747 sitting around,” agreed Deputy Police Commissioner Ward of the possibility of letting the men escape.
In the afternoon, Riccio walked out with his hands up to retrieve another walkie talkie. This time it was agreed that one more hostage would be released, in exchange for a doctor to treat Almussadig. Dr. Thomas W. Matthew, a neurosurgeon, prominent businessman and crony of President Nixon, was called. Dapper looking in a bow tie and white coat, he and a nurse crossed the police barriers and approached the store, broken glass crunching underfoot. He brought food and spent several hours working on Almussadig, emerging with a letter from the four: part prayer, part vague revolutionary declaration, it mentions the hostages “who will not be intentionally harmed by us” and blames Officer Gilroy’s death on his “trigger happy comrades.”
Though the young men had their guns trained on him the entire time during the surgery, the doctor handled them brusquely. “I have a bigger gun than you,” he said. “I’m not afraid. The truth holds me up in here.”
In his estimation, they “had not really formulated their own ideologies.” Schlossberg concurs; their request for sandwiches, he believes, means that the men didn’t truly want to die for any cause; their apparent bid for martyrdom was merely a rationalization.
Early in the afternoon, after another visit from Dr. Matthew, Riccio persuaded the gunmen to let the remaining hostages hide on the store’s second floor. Beyond a layer of drywall was a hidden staircase leading up to a hatch on the roof. With the four distracted by the noise of cops attempting to drill through the basement next door, the hostages ripped the wall open and hustled to safety, surprising the officers positioned above.
Down below, the neighborhood was out in full force, gathered behind police barriers, looking on from windows and fire escapes. People waved to cameras and raised their fists in solidarity. They were, in the words of Village Voice writer Clark Whelton, “15 deep, pressing automobiles right down to the pavement as they climb up for a better view. ‘This is better than pro football,’ somebody said. ‘This is better than the Super Bowl.’ The crowd laughs. Half the people want the gunmen to come out fighting. The other half want the cops to go in shooting. Everybody wants blood.”
The journalists probably weren’t helping matters much: “This is 3-D TV at its best”, Whelton, later a speechwriter for Mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Guiliani, crowed of the spectacle.
“The media combed the streets, looking for eyewitnesses and inciting more trouble wherever they turned their flashbulbs and camera lights,” Sheppard bitterly remembers. Schlossberg, too, had mixed feelings about the presence of the press, thinking the presence of live reporting could work against successful negotiation.
A rumor had spread that the gunmen were members of the Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Panthers. Broadway was a sponge soaking up the socio-political anxiety of an entire city. It probably didn’t help matters that off duty police and firemen were mixed in with a neighborhood crowd eager to soak up the scene, joining the hundreds of police that had been occupying the neighborhood during what is now called “The Siege.” It had been too many cops for too long; too many Popeye O’Doyles and Al Sheppards. The crowd seethed and surged, throwing bottles at them and breaking windows.
Without hostages, the group in John and Al’s futilely fired sporadic rounds off throughout the afternoon. A final round of negotiations took place. Maybe it was one of the men’s mothers begging them to stop. Eventually, Raheem walked backwards out of the store with his hands in the air, followed by the two others dragging a stretcher. It had been 47 hours since the initial robbery began.
There was still a crowd later on, outside the 90th Precinct as the men were taken in. Raheem looked breezy and defiant, dressed in camp, a knit cap and trench coat. Several men in the crowd make Black Power fists. Caught amidst the spectacle, cops smirked or sneered.
The top brass were relieved. “If we killed these four people, they would have been raised to the level of heroes,” Deputy Commissioner Ward told The New York Times.
The grunts less so: “In the cop bars that evening and for many evenings after, we rehashed the incident,” wrote Sheppard. “Most thought we should have just blown away the scumbags, too bad for the hostages. A lot of guys took on some anger that night and may still be living with it.”
The group’s religion, a more novel concept for the average American at the time, was treated with a mixture of awkwardness and pre-9/11 gingerness by the press. TRIAL OF MUSLIMS GOES TO JURY, read one headline; The New York Times noted their “Arabic style” garb and Raheem, whose last name means ‘Merciful’.
“We didn’t intend to kill (or) kidnap anybody.” Raheem contended, “We were forced to defend ourselves from an unprovoked attack by police officers.” He acted as his own lawyer, offering the legally dubious argument, “People have the God-given right to take the law into their own hands.”
“No one has the right to take the law into his own hands,” the judge interjected. On a sweltering June day in 1974, the four were convicted on 41 of 45 counts of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and robbery.
Harvey Schlossberg is today referred to as the father of police psychology. Following the standoff, he authored a book, “Psychologist with a Gun,” coined the term Stockholm Syndrome, and investigated the Son of Sam murders. His methods of hostage negotiation are utilized worldwide — though, as an upcoming documentary on the standoff, “Hold Your Fire,” notes, by few U.S. police.
Dr. Matthew received a commendation from the mayor for his work during the siege and later became embroiled in a financial scandal involving his relationship with the Nixon White House.
A few years later, Khaalis and 12 gunmen would take over 100 hostages in Washington D.C. for three days, demanding the convicted killers of his family, and of Malcolm X, be handed over to them. The attack resulted in two deaths and three injuries.
(The Jericho Movement, an organization that advocates for the release of political prisoners, including the four, claims the initial D.C. Murders were “instigated by the FBI through its Cointelpro (Government Counterintelligence Program) to create a war between Muslims.”)
Broadway would go on to suffer rioting of the 1977 New York City Blackout; dozens of blocks would burn.
Interviews with Raheem and Schlossberg feature prominently in Stefan Forbes’s upcoming film “Hold Your Fire,” which posits the ‘radical empathy’ of the psychologist’s de-escalation techniques. “’Hold Your Fire’ has the potential to revolutionize American policing,” trumpets the film’s website.
Freed in 2010, to a predictably furious reaction and legal challenges from the police union, Raheem is now a social worker helping youths in the criminal justice system. Almussadug was released quietly in 1998 and passed away a few years later. Raman, freed in 2019, studied music in prison, and Abdullah, who tutored other prisoners on the inside, suffered a fatal stroke in the middle of a parole hearing in 2020.
“I wish there was some way I could go back to the moment I decided to enter the store,” Raheem said in 2008. “I’m not an animal. I understand the pain I caused.”
Featured image: Brian Kraft. Of a New York Times piece, digitally available here.
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Very well written article. Had no idea about this event! So interesting.