Hold Your Fire

Powerful documentary recounting the events of the 1973 hostage taking inside John and Al’s Sporting Goods store in Brooklyn, New York. It speaks to all the people involved, cops, hostages, gunmen. And because the incident became a media circus, it’s full of contemporary footage showing exactly what went on.

For me, this is another one for the file marked All Cops Are Bastards. Although, maybe two exceptions can made in this case. Ben Ward, the only cop the gunmen trusted to arrest them, who was the first African-American police commissioner in New York. And Harvey Schlossberg, a beat cop with a PhD in Psychology, who from this incident goes on to have a world-renowned career in hostage negotiation and de-escalation tactics. He, along with Jerry Riccio, are the heroes of this film, responsible for saving the lives of as many people as possible.

Guns, racism and toxic masculinity are the major problems in this, and maybe not in that order. The cops’ blatant disregard for life is sickening, and the hostage takers have an entirely accurate idea of what awaits them if they step outside. So the innocent bystanders in the shop become their only bulwark against wholesale slaughter, and thus they in turn terrorise others to feel safe.

The story begins before they ever set foot inside the store. Shuaib Raheem was a 24-year-old African-American Sunni Muslim from Brooklyn. After a troubled youth, he converted and found peace. However, he drew the ire of the Nation of Islam for debating doctrine with their members. Without having time to go into it, I’ll just say the Nation of Islam is to Islam what the Mormon church is to Christianity. This was very dangerous at the time because the Nation of Islam included many fanatics, who attacked non-Nation Muslims.

After he started receiving death threats, and in fear for his family’s safety, Shuaib applied for a license for a gun. But even while filling it out, they were like, ‘You know you’re not gonna get this right? You’re a Black Muslim with a history of troublemaking.’ Cue total silence from the NRA. Then the Hanafi Muslim Massacre occurred, where 7 Sunni Muslims were murdered by Nation of Islam members. And Shuaib felt he couldn’t wait any longer. He made the decision to rob the John and Al’s Sporting Goods store, and take 4 guns, one for him and one for each of his three friends who were experiencing the same intimidation.

Jerry Riccio was the owner and working the cash register that day. Four men burst into his shop, drew a handgun on him and demanded 4 shotguns in a bag with plenty of ammo. He kept calm, complied, and tried to keep the robbers calm too.

But as they were leaving, a witness outside the shop had alerted the police, and a cop was standing out front. They tried to exit through the back, and holy god, there was every cop in Brooklyn armed to the teeth and staring down their guns at them.

It’s here the nightmare began.

Jerry noted that the bunch of them didn’t seem to have thought this through. They picked a store with a giant glass front, where they could be seen from anywhere on the street. Anybody outside could see them stick up the cashier, and call the cops, and that’s exactly what happened. They hadn’t thought about how they would carry a bag full of shotguns and ammo, which was actually quite heavy and not easy to move.

In fact most of the guys have never been in any trouble with the police. They were total amateurs, punks with no experience, who were just scared shitless by the Nation. Dawd Rahman, referred to by Jerry as “The Quiet Guy”, was 22, an undiagnosed autistic, and completely out his depth. Yusef Abdallah Almussadig was 23 and Salih Ali Abdullah was 26, all of them Shuaib describes as “squares”. Their lack of experience actually works against them in this situation, as they struggle to understand and anticipate police reaction.

Shuaib says they actually initially tried to surrender when they first opened the back door and saw all those cops out there. But he had been holding his gun at the time and they just started screaming conflicting instructions at him – “Freeze!” “Put down your weapon!” “Don’t move!” – and he started to lower the gun, they opened fire on him.

As the police fired blindly at the store, they nearly hit the hostages, who subsequently were moved to the upper level of the shop with a bit more cover. Yusef was gut-shot and looked likely to bleed out there on the shop floor. When Shuaib returned fire to beat a retreat, he injured two policemen. And somewhere among the gunfire, officer Stephen Gilroy was shot in the head. He was 29 years old, had a family, and was just weeks away from taking up his promotion to sergeant.

Debate has always raged about whether Gilroy was killed by friendly fire or by shots from the hostage takers. The fact the forensics were never presented against them suggests it wasn’t the robbers, because if they were able to match that bullet to their guns, they would all be going to the lethal injection room for cop-killing no doubt in my mind. But as Shuaib says himself, “It don’t really matter”, ultimately he is responsible. If he hadn’t tried to stick up the shop, Gilroy would never have been there. Doesn’t matter whose bullet it was on the day.

Inside the store, the gunmen were terrified. One of them was badly wounded and lying in a pool of his own blood, they’re listening to the radio to try to find out what was happening outside. They heard reports come over the wireless, saying 4 terrorists from the Black Liberation Army were holding hostages inside John and Al’s Sporting Goods. And their blood just runs cold. Because they realise they are not being viewed as petty criminals who need to be taken in, but as members of a terrorist organisation known for killing cops. This means the police will have no hesitation in killing them, and would probably prefer that outcome to send a message to terrorists in general.

And then they hear on the radio that a cop has been killed. And know they’ve signed their death warrant.

How they manage to survive, how Jerry manages to protect the hostages, how Harvey Schlossberg manages to convince the NYPD to use a different tactic to resolve the situation without further loss of life, is one of the most fascinating, compelling, and moving stories.

Honestly go see this, it’s incredible.