Malcolmology 101, #10: Police Brutality in Queens

Malcolm had actively thrust himself into the Johnson X Hinton affair in 1957, gaining public prominence for the Nation of Islam. The following year, however, police violence came to him. While Malcolm spoke at Boston’s Mosque 11 on May 13, 1958, two New York police detectives, Joseph Kiernan and Michael Bonura, forced their way into the East Elmhurst home he and his wife shared with two other Muslim couples, including future NOI National Secretary John Ali. Allegedly searching for a mail fraud suspect, the officers were rebuffed at the door by 27-year-old Yvonne Molette when they failed to produce a search warrant. The officers were furious with the lack of cooperation and returned shortly with a federally issued warrant which was checked at the door by Molette’s husband, John, who had rushed home from work. He claimed police then kicked and shoved him aside, smashing glass in an attempt to enter. Meanwhile, another officer had climbed a rear stairway leading to the upstairs rooms of Malcolm and Betty; he then fired several shots into the home, just feet below six waiting women and children. One of the women, 17-year-old Audrey Rice, was six months pregnant, as was Betty with the couple’s first child, Attallah.

Malcolm returned to a home decimated by broken glass, bullet holes, and shattered windows. Furthermore, his wife had been arrested along with five others. Although significantly smaller than the crowd of the Hinton beating, a group of forty was quickly assembled and picketed the Astoria precinct. As he would do in later police brutality cases, Malcolm drew parallels between the well publicized police tactics of the South and the ongoing mistreatment of northern blacks by government officials: “Negroes in Mississippi could not have their civil rights as openly violated and stomped upon any worse than has been done here in Queens County Courthouse.”

The trial had a life of its own, lasting several weeks and featuring dramatic testimonies and evidence. The five on trial, including Betty, faced five years and one-thousand dollar fines each. John Molette testified to being beaten, kicked, and dragged out of the home, and his wife Yvonne gave such a stirring account that defense attorney Edward Jacko began crying and had to excuse himself from the courtroom. The Nation of Islam had a remarkable presence at the trial, filling the court daily with hundreds of followers. Surely due in part to Malcolm’s impeccable appreciation for details, as well his understanding of how to gather the sympathies of a crowd, the Nation also submitted a stack of photographs and several scale drawings of the East Elmhurst home (composed by John Ali); they also brought the front door as evidence before the court, replete with signs of struggle and gunfire. In fact, as one paper reported, the NOI provided its own court stenographer and even controlled who could enter the courtroom, their orderly presence so noticeable that one white court attendant remarked: “we should put their officers on our payroll. They do a better job that [sic] we do.”

Although the Nation of Islam is often understood as distinct from the Civil Rights Movement, due in large part to Elijah Muhammad’s own reluctance to involve what he saw as a economically pragmatic religious movement in political matters, Malcolm X had begun as early as 1959 to insert the organization in such discussions. Despite thirty-one outright acquittals and the edict of a mistrial, Malcolm charged that the court refused to see the case as a civil rights matter, despite clearly being a case of “Force of Authority vs. the Rights of People.” And, although the police involved were never charged, city officials felt heat from the case and eventually agreed to pay a small settlement in response to a lawsuit filed by Betty Shabazz.

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