In 1973, four Black Muslims in their early 20’s went into a sporting goods store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with the intention of stealing guns to protect their families. It was intended to be an in and out job that quickly went south. Before they knew it, the four men—Shu’aib Raheem, Dawud Rahman, Salih Abdullah, and Mussidiq—found themselves in the longest hostage siege in New York City’s history. Revisiting that fateful event, director Stefan Forbes’ documentary Hold Your Fire examines how that incident forever changed the way the NYPD approached hostage negotiations.
Prior to the siege at John and Al’s Sporting Goods, negotiation tactics across the country had led to disastrous results. The United States alone was still reeling from the massacre at the Attica prison uprising—which is the subject of Stanley Nelson’s documentary Attica also playing the festival—and all signs were pointing to another failure in negotiations happening at the store. However, as Raheem states early in the film, it was not for lack of trying on the robber’s part. The men immediately knew that they were in over their heads once they were surrounded by the police. They wanted to give up but were never given a proper chance.
The minute the first police officer on the scene radioed for back up by stating there were “n******* with guns” their fates were sealed. The police immediately thought that they were dealing with members of the Black Liberation Army, a radical group known for ambushing and killing cops. The four men where not that; they were husbands, students and blue-collar workers who simply needed to protect their families and had run out of options. As Forbes’ film shows, Raheem and his pals had run afoul with the Nation of Islam, an organization whose uncompromising views conflicted with their own Muslim teachings.
As members of the Nation got increasingly violent and local police showed little interest in helping those who lived in the impoverished Brownville community where the men resided—they took two days to respond Raheem’s calls for help after a break and enter call—the four young men felt they had no choice but to take matters in their own hands.
While Hold Your Fire does not condone the actions of the four Muslims, even Raheem admits that “in retrospect, it was a fool’s idea,” the film shows how ingrained biases within the police force made the situation far worse than it should have been. As policemen at the time conveyed a macho persona, there was a tendency to overreact and embrace violence as the only option. One former NYPD patrolman interviewed admits that some cops simply can’t be reasoned with and crave physical confrontation. A point that hits home when the film documents how the police opened fired first, riddling the store with bullets while hostages were still inside. The ensuing shootout resulted in an officer dying, which only made the rising tensions worse.
What made the situation, and the film itself, even more unnerving is the blatant racism that is on display every step of the way. Some of the retired officers interviewed in the film still display the ingrained biases that they had while on the job. One even goes so far as stating that “we over define racism as something bad,” while arguing that cops aren’t racist or excessively violent, many of them just like being with their own kind. A statement that he inadvertently dispels later by admitting that officers were frequently rougher with individuals of colour. The parallels to today’s climate is apparent when one realizes how little policing, including the mentality of officers who patrol communities they have little personal connection with, has changed.
The snail’s pace of reform makes the breakthrough negotiation tactics of NYPD psychologist Harvey Schlossberg, a man who believed that “everything is resolvable by talking,” even more stunning. While the film does a good job of outlining Schlossberg methods, and its life-saving benefits, Forbes’ film could have delved into the fascinating and unassuming life of the man himself far more.
Considering the amount of information that is packed into Hold Your Fire’s brisk running time, it is a testament to Forbes’ approach that the film flows as smoothly as it does. Touching on numerous themes that are sadly still relevant today, Hold Your Fire is a powerful indictment of a police culture in need of change, one that frequently choose bullets over de-escalation and discourse.