A new documentary from filmmaker Stefan Forbes (Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story) takes you inside New York City’s longest hostage siege from 1973 with Hold Your Fire, part of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), pulling back the curtain on effective, and less effective, policing and hostage negotiation techniques.
In 1973, four young, Black, Muslim men in their 20s, Shu’aib Raheem, Dawud Rahman, Yusef Abdallah Almussadig and Salih Ali Abdullah tried to rob Jerry Riccio at a sporting goods store in an effort to acquire guns to protect their families from threats of violence.
The men made the 12 people in the store hostages and eventually a gun battle occurred with police, which led to the death of officer Stephen Gilroy outside the store.
For Forbes, he had been looking to pursue a story about conflict resolution for years.
“You’ve got four young guys trying to steal guns for self defence and this crazy reaction from the cops, and this violent pitch battle in the middle of the street that onlookers liken to Vietnam. OK, I'm interested,” he told Yahoo Canada.
Hold Your Fire not only shows archival images from 1973, but it features interviews with Raheem, Rahman, Riccio, a number of individuals who were in the New York Police Department, family members of the hostages and the now late-Dr. Harvey Schlossberg, the man who analyzed the psychology of gunmen in these circumstances, effectively proving that a peaceful resolution can occur with the right communication techniques, instead of gunshots.
“There was so much unfinished business, a lot of these hostages, they weren't even in contact with any other hostages, they didn't even really know the facts behind what had happened, or why those four young men were in there, or why they needed those guns for self defence,” Forbes explained.
“These hostages were carrying around huge amounts of trauma, a lot of them had never really talked about it, and as we talked and I interviewed them, I was able to shed some light for them on why this happened.”
A particularly impactful aspect in this film is when we see family members of hostages, Raheem and Riccio getting new information, at least new to them, about where some of these individuals ended up after that night in 1973.
“Sometimes I had to give them information that they didn't have that was potentially very healing and could help them release some of this mental strife and agony that they've been living with,” Forbes said. “Other times, they would tell me stuff that was shocking to me and it would take me a minute to even realize.”
One moment that stands out to the filmmaker is when the daughter of Fonnie Buckner, a hostage, reveals her mother had a miscarriage while she was being held hostage in the store. Then Forbes had to share that information with Raheem, that there is another death linked to the events of that night.
'[The] police department won’t admit to a lot of things that they did'
Some police officials interviewed for this documentary were willing to be open about what they went through emotionally, while there still seems to be a lack of accountability in terms of what really happened, some even going so far to say in their interview that “I know for a fact that cops aren’t racist" and "yeah there was slavery, but think about how great America is."
“[The] police department won’t admit to a lot of things that they did,” Riccio says in the film.
But there are moments where officers admit that it is a “humiliation” to be an officer who expresses emotions or is struggling with their mental health.
“I see America as like a family and you've got people you really love but have a lot of disfunction, and family secrets and lies, and we're kind of airing out a lot of that stuff, and hopefully, we can be a healthier family, in terms of violence and policing, after we see this movie," Forbes said. "And we start talking about some of the messy conversations that we need to have as a country.”
With so many recent questions around excessive use of force by police, it’s particularly interesting to hear about Schlossberg, someone officers at the time called “fruity,” who developed and tried to train officers on the tactics of “holding your fire,” staying calm and creating an effective line of communication in these situations.
“Don't shoot back, stop, put the gun away, pick up the phone and talk to these people, find out why they're in there,” Forbes explained about Schlossberg’s work. “There are these deep issues of masculinity around the use of violence and force, and here was a guy who told them, no, we need deep listening and radical empathy.”
“I was shocked that back in the '70s, he was a guy who was teaching this stuff to them, and that we have the solution, and we know it works… Every single cop in America needs to be trained in these techniques that we talk about in the film.”
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs until Sept. 18 with both in-person and digital screenings of films.