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The Darkest Hour of NYC’s 1977 Blackout

On the night of New York City's infamous blackout, rioting and looting ensued ... and heads starting to roll. Literally.


Stealing, looting, drug dealing—we expect these behaviors from criminals. But not cops. In Mike McAlary’s tell-all, real-life blue bloods from Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct share stories of their crooked ways, and they’ll change the way you look at law enforcement.

Especially when you read about what happened on the night of the blackout in New York City back in 1977. Officer Tony Magno went from playing house with his wife to playing ball with the residents of Brooklyn—as in using their heads for batting practice.

As the streets filled with looters—men, children, and women—he was knocking them out one by one with a stick he was using for a bat. Yes, even the women. Magno’s repulsive behavior is explored in depth in the excerpt below.

Give it a read, then hunt down McAlary’s Buddy Boys for the rest of the hellacious and salacious story on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.


Buddy Boys

If it’s true that one day can change your life, Tony Magno’s life was forever changed by what he saw and did in the 77th Precinct on one humid summer evening when the whole city went dark, Wednesday, July 13, 1977.

Tony, the cop who rarely left the sanctuary of his home, was sitting on his living-room couch after finishing a day tour and dinner when the lights went out at 9:34 P.M. Like several million other New Yorkers, he figured that he had blown a fuse. But on the way to the basement, he heard people yelling in the streets. No one in Brooklyn had power. The fourth-largest city in the world was plunged into darkness on a humid ninety-five-degree night.

At first, the blackout was just inconvenient. Tony set up his house, lighting candles, loading fresh batteries in radios and flashlights. His neighbors gathered on stoops, quietly swapping ghost stories. The neighborhood kids all agreed that the blackout was a novelty, a reason to stay up late. But as Tony listened to the radio and heard the call for all city police officers to head into their precincts, he became concerned. Thousands of people throughout Black Brooklyn were rioting and looting, gutting shops and burning down buildings.

He decided that he had to go into work and fight the ghetto looters, leaving his own family unguarded. It seemed to be a clear choice. He was a cop and on this night the city needed cops.

“You are not going in to work,” Marianne advised him.

“I have to go in,” he explained. “It’s my job.”

Assuring his family that they’d be all right, Tony called Zeke Zayas, another police officer who lived nearby, and the two agreed to accompany each other into work. Neither Zeke nor Tony was prepared for what they would see that night—a night of madness when it seemed that every Bedford-Stuyvesant resident had taken to the street, looting shops of everything from cars and bikes to aspirin and toilet paper.

In the next 24 hours police made 3,300 arrests and heard 45,000 phone complaints throughout the city. The fire department received 23,722 alarms and responded to 900 fires, 55 of them serious. One hundred cops were injured while trying to restore order. A dozen people were shot dead by armed shopkeepers, snipers, and frightened police officers. Looters in the Bronx broke down the metal door to an automobile showroom and drove away 50 cars. Roving bands in Harlem carried off stolen television sets and stereo equipment. In Queens, looters rushed away from broken stores carrying couches and beds. Airline pilots flying over Brooklyn reported that the borough was aglow with fire. Mayor Abe Beame later described the blackout as “a night of terror.”

It was an evening perhaps best captured in one headline and one anecdote—both of them from the Village Voice, a week after light had been restored. The article, which included a photograph of several looters running down the streets with televisions and furniture on their backs, was entitled, “Here Comes the Neighborhood.” Written by Denis Hamill and Michael Daly, it included the story of one young black man who rushed home to his mother in the middle of the blackout with a stolen air conditioner. Using a flashlight, she plugged the air conditioner into an electrical outlet and pressed the “On” switch. When the machine failed to start after several tries, she was furious and threw the air conditioner out the window. “It don’t work,” she screamed. “Go get another one.”

garbage on street

“We got into the precinct without any trouble. As soon as we hit the shitty area—I hate to say it but it was the black area—we saw a lot of people all over the place. The streets were a mess. There was trash and garbage everywhere. The place looked like one big broken window. We got into the station house and went downstairs to get our helmets. I had never worn one before and I felt like an idiot with this stupid pot on my head. I was scared but excited too. I wanted to be out there.

“I remember one of the first calls was a ten-thirteen on Atlantic and Bedford—assist patrolman, shots fired. As soon as we pulled up I heard a shot, then one or two more. I thought, ‘Oh, fuck. What did we get ourselves into here?’ All the guys were ducking. Some of us had our helmets on backwards. No one knew where the shots were coming from. There must have been twenty cars there, and we all just got back in them and left. There was utter chaos. We didn’t know what to do.

“Then we went out on patrol, if you can call it that, in two cars—one unmarked car followed by a patrol car. The unmarked car would pull up to a store and drive up on the sidewalk, pointing the headlights into the store so we could see what we were doing. The place was a shambles, it didn’t even look like a store anymore on the inside. One group of guys would run into the store and start slamming the looters with their sticks. I figured, I ain’t going in there and get hit by a stick. I stayed outside and put my deviant mind to work. They could only hit one person at a time inside the store, but I could get six people as they ran out of the store. I stood by the door and waited. And I got every one of them as they came out. Whack, whack, whack. I couldn’t hit the women in the face. They’d come out and say, ‘Officer, please don’t hit me.’ I had my stick raised but I said, ‘All right, I won’t hit you.’ But as soon as they ran past me, I hit them in the back of the head. I couldn’t look them in the face. And it kept going on like that for hours and hours. I was Babe Ruth that night. No one got away from me.

“People fired at us later on that night too. We didn’t know where the shots were coming from. It was crazy. The only light on the street was coming from a burning Thom McAn shoe store. People were still inside the burning store stealing shoes. That really got to me. Guys were taking a chance on burning up for a pair of shoes. I really let those looters have it with the stick. I hit this one guy right in the face and he didn’t even look like a human anymore.

police baton

“One time on Nostrand Avenue we turned around and just starting firing back down the street toward a building. The shooting stopped. They were like rats out there. We’d walk into a store and the place would be crawling with them. They cleaned out the jewelry stores and the grocery stores. I mean everything. And I knew some of the people I was hitting. I was just about to bash this one lady and she yells, ‘Tony, it’s me.’ I looked and it was the school crossing guard. I couldn’t believe it. I told her, ‘Just drop the shit and get the fuck out of here.’ Even the people that I liked, my friends in the neighborhood, were out there looting. I lost all respect for the neighborhood after that night. There were some cops taking things too. Guys were loading up their trunks with stuff. I saw a lot of liquor being passed around the precinct that night.

“I was never so happy to see the sun come up in my life. My arms were falling off. I couldn’t swing the nightstick any more. I was exhausted. I couldn’t hit another person. But even after daylight people were still out there looting. We got called to a furniture warehouse on Grand Avenue, and people were running down the streets with couches and beds on their backs. They just wouldn’t let the stuff go, either. We split their heads with the stick and they’d still hold onto the shit. It was like they already owned it. It scared me to see people like that. It made me think about the neighborhood a lot. Before the blackout, I just figured that we were working with the scum all the time, that there were still good people out there in the community. But after that night, after I saw everybody in the community looting, I just didn’t give a shit about what happened on the street any more. I used to just drive through the precinct sometimes and wonder: How far will they go the next time the lights go out?

“It would have made a difference if I could have done something—if I could saved someone’s store or something. But when it was all over I felt like a jerk. We went back to the precinct and drank beer. We stayed there and got drunk the whole morning. The cops that came in gave me shit. ‘You gotta be some kind of jackass, Magno. You were home with your family and you came into this cesspool in the middle of the blackout?’ And they were right. I should have stayed home. All I really did was crack some heads. We didn’t arrest anybody. One of the guys told me, “Magno, you batted .900 out there tonight. I only saw you swing and miss once.’ Eventually, a day or two later, I got home. But I didn’t tell Marianne much about what happened. What was there to say? That I didn’t trust people anymore?”

Want to read more? Download the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.

Photos: Alec Perkins / Flickr; Davidlohr Bueso / Flickr; Tony Webster / Flickr