“Marcos was a very clean guy,” a friend, Natividad Montilla, told me decades later. “No drugs – never even smoked pot.” They were hanging out with two girls when the boys burst in. One of the girls yelled at Mr. Mota to leave, but he headed for the arch to see what was going on. Mr. Montilla was running to catch up with his friend when, in the floodlights of the volleyball court, he saw Mr. Mota being hit by a bat and falling. He ran to her side, but Mr. Mota was barely moving.
It wasn’t until after the riot was over that passers-by realized the park was eerily empty of police. The two patrolmen usually on duty were absent, as were the radio cars which often circled the square. By 8:08 a.m., when the first witness reached a payphone, and before officers appeared, the crowd was gone. All that remained was to treat the injured: at least 35 people were injured and 13 were sent to the emergency room, including Mr. Mota, whom his friends carried him to a taxi and drove him to the Saint Vincent’s Hospital.
The word had come to the prosecutor that evening. A few hours later, the mayor was on the phone. For months already, Mr Morgenthau had been pressing Mayor Abe Beame for money to curb the drug trade. (Once, he had taken the downtown mayor to an outdoor heroin market. Mayor Beame was shocked. As the unmarked van carrying the district attorney and the mayor sat on a street corner, a dealer offered the mayor anything he wanted: cocaine, marijuana, pills.)
Racial violence was another matter. The city, especially the Village, had seen an increase in attacks. And the local Sixth Precinct’s record was grim: at least five unsolved murders — “bat homicides,” in the words of one prosecutor — over the past three years.
Mr. Morgenthau’s question was why? Why had they done it? In those early hours, as the police searched for witnesses, ambiguity grew and the prosecutor’s fears mounted. The first reports were sufficiently contradictory. Considering the factions involved – neighborhood bosses, local merchants, and especially the restless New York University administrators – the maneuvers to control the narrative were certainly intense. The city’s black leaders were already expressing their outrage. The prosecutor knew he could count on Charlie Rangel to try to calm the waters; the African-American congressman representing New York’s 19th District had served as an assistant district attorney in the Morgenthau U.S. Attorney’s Office in the 1960s, and he remained a close ally. But the stakes were high and growing.
The police department quickly released a report based on a rumor: a black dealer, according to anonymous witnesses, had sold oregano to a white child looking for marijuana. The story took root, gaining in detail every day. Yet other reports, like one of the first in the New York Post, describes a long-running feud “between Italians who live in or near the area and black people who use the park… for evenings drinking, playing cards and smoking pot.”
Two days after the riot, nine young men were in custody. They were between 16 and 20 years old. lived near the Sixth Precinct station house in apartment buildings where their families had lived for decades. Some of their relatives knew the local patrollers by name. That afternoon, their supporters formed an all-white parade to march on the police station house. Some carried hand-drawn signs: “Don’t Blame Our Youth!!! Curb your junkies. Others shouted, “Don’t arrest our children for doing your work!”