Eight people in a Harlem clothing store were killed Friday in a fierce, smoky blaze that police believe was deliberately set as part of bitter landlord-tenant dispute that led to angry protests in the neighborhood. Among the dead was a man police suspect set fire to the store.
The fire consumed the building on Harlem’s main thoroughfare, 125th Street, shortly after a tall gunman, waving a revolver, burst into Freddie’s Fashion Mart across the block from the storied Apollo theater.
Police said Friday night they believed the gunman was one of a group of demonstrators who had picketed the store in recent weeks in a dispute over the threatened eviction of a sub-tenant, the Record Shack, a neighborhood institution.
Police say the gunman, whom they did not identify, was found dead with a revolver in his hand, reeking of accelerant. Beside him was a white container that officials believe held the accelerant that spread the blaze. Four other people were shot in the incident, and escaped from the store before the fire enveloped it.
According to officials and residents of the neighborhood, the fire followed a months-long dispute that involved the owner of the building, a black Baptist congregation called the United House of Prayer, the owner of the clothing store, Fred Harari, and Sikhulu Shange, owner of the neighboring Record Shack.
Shange, a South African black whose shop has specialized in blues, Motown, African and Carribean music for over 20 years, was being evicted as a sub-tenant of Harari, apparently at the instigation of the church, according to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
In the past several weeks, there have been a dozen or so pickets outside Freddie’s, urging a boycott of the store because, it was believed, it did not employ blacks and was behind the eviction of Shange’s business.
The commander of the 28th Precinct, Deputy Inspector Joyce Stephen, said the Police Department, in addition to sending uniformed officers to monitor the pickets, had opened a racial bias investigation of an incident that arose during the protesting Nov. 29. Stephen said a security guard told the police that one of the demonstrators had said, “We’re going to burn and loot the Jews.”