The Newark Race Riots 50 Years On – Is the City in Danger of Repeating the Past?

 A man gestures to a National Guardsman during a protest in Newark in 1967. Photograph: New York Times/Getty
A man gestures to a National Guardsman during a protest in Newark in 1967. Photograph: New York Times/Getty

At least 26 people died in the rebellion of 1967, which devastated the city for decades. But as Newark moves on and memory fades, those who remember 1967 worry about losing the connection between oppression then and now


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The Newark race riots 50 years on: is the city in danger of repeating the past?” was written by Siddhartha Mitter in Newark, for The Guardian on Tuesday 11th July 2017 11.41 UTC

On 12 July 1967, a man named John Smith steered his taxi around a double-parked police car on a Newark street. It was a hot Wednesday in the Central Ward – the principal black neighbourhood of New Jersey’s biggest city. The cops took offence at Smith’s manoeuvre. They stopped him, pulled him from his cab, and beat him. Then they took him to the Fourth Precinct, and beat him some more.

Smith was black; the cops were white. The Great Migration and white flight to the suburbs had flipped Newark’s demographics, turning it majority-black by the early 1960s. The power structure, however, was still controlled by the old machine. The police force was almost all white. Brutality was the norm. “People had been getting the crap beaten out of them for years,” says community activist Richard Cammarieri, who grew up in one of the Central Ward’s remaining white families. A change was due.

A crowd formed at the precinct, opposite the Hayes Homes, a 13-storey public housing block built in the 1950s but slipping into disrepair. The doctrine of urban renewal, fuelled by federal dollars, had planted a forest of projects – Scudder Homes, Stella Wright Homes, Columbus Homes – so dense that it earned Newark a nickname: Brick City. Now the state wanted to build a medical school on 120 acres of the Central Ward. Many suspected it was part of a plan to drive away black residents.

Activists tried to calm the scene and organise a picket line, maybe a march to City Hall. A rumour spread that Smith was dead. “This time, the angry crowd didn’t go away,” writes activist Junius Williams, who was a Yale law student at the time, spending summers in Newark providing legal services. “This time, they didn’t listen to the leaders who urged non-violence.” Someone threw a firebomb. The Newark riots had begun.

A man is arrested and beaten near where a police officer was fatally shot during the clashes.
A man is arrested near where a police officer was fatally shot during the clashes. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Amina Baraka insists that she did not expect the rebellion. In July 1967, the artist and poet was a young mother with two children from her first marriage and a newborn with her new husband, the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka. They had not yet taken new names: she was still Sylvia Robinson and he, LeRoi Jones. He had moved from New York City to Newark, where they both grew up, to be with her.

“I was interested in visual arts,” Baraka says, in her home in the South Ward, full of art, books, records, and photos of Amiri, who died in 2014. She had known about uprisings in other cities, but didn’t make the connection. “Yeah, it surprised me. It shouldn’t have.”

In fact, the Watts uprising in Los Angeles, in August 1965, had started as Newark’s would, with a traffic stop. That confrontation lasted six days, with 45 deaths, and much looting and destruction. The next year saw trouble in Cleveland and Omaha, among other cities. The details differed but the general picture was the same: a black community packed into substandard housing, excluded from power, abused by police, and no longer willing to bottle its frustration. The response followed a similar pattern too, with authorities quick to send in the National Guard, which tended to escalate, not pacify, the situation.

Newark was under pressure. The city was an early industrial centre – a hub for leather, ironworks, brewing, manufacturing. But it peaked early, and the Depression hit hard. Prohibition boosted organised crime. The population hit 450,000 in 1948, then ebbed as whites, who could get mortgages, moved to the suburbs. Twenty thousand manufacturing jobs disappeared between 1950 and 1967. By then, many waves of black migrants had come from the segregated South. Despite the shrinking industrial base, there were other opportunities in the emerging service economy.

Amina Baraka in her home in Newark: ‘[The rebellion surprised me. It shouldn’t have’.
Amina Baraka in her home in Newark: ‘[The rebellion] surprised me. It shouldn’t have.’ Photograph: Siddhartha Mitter

Black Newark clustered in the Central Ward, herded by discriminatory real-estate practices into tenements and, later, the housing projects. The suburbs were out of bounds, but as white families left, some black families moved to the South Ward, which had long been Jewish – home of Philip Roth, among others – and the West Ward. The North Ward was Italian; the East Ward, across the tracks from the rest of the city, was increasingly Portuguese. To the south and east, the seaport and airport were formally part of Newark but run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and they might as well have been another country.

Springfield Avenue, which traversed the Central Ward, was Black Newark’s high street. “There were bridal shops, musical stores, pawn shops … it was a community,” Baraka says. “A thriving city.” Churches proliferated; so did bars and restaurants, nurturing a thriving jazz scene. There was a red-light district too, on Broome Street.

What was missing was political power. The political patronage machine doled out contracts and jobs. Corruption was rife. In 1962, an Irish mayor, Leo Carlin, gave way to an Italian, Hugh Addonizio. The system sought black allies to deliver votes, but excluded them from real influence. Opposition was growing. Activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (Core) took a harder line than the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), and in 1964 white activists from Students for a Democratic Society, including its leader Tom Hayden, moved to Newark – to mixed response from local organisers – to help mobilise the people.

Soldiers in an armoured personnel carrier patrol the streets of Newark during the riots riots.
Soldiers in an armoured personnel carrier patrol the streets of Newark. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

The Barakas, meanwhile, were in a heavy Afrocentric phase. They set up in a tenement on Stirling Street at the edge of downtown and called it the Spirit House. “We started an African free school,” Baraka says. “We had a block association. We tore up the first floor and made it into a theatre.” Regulars at the house wore dashikis and spoke Swahili.

The first night of the rebellion was uneasy. Mayor Addonizio offered to appoint a black police captain, Newark’s first, but no one found this adequate. Violence and looting spread in earnest on the second day. That night, Amiri was pulled from his car and beaten by white police. (Amiri would be charged with weapons possession, and later cleared.) Baraka found him at Martland hospital, known as the “butcher house”. He was shackled in a wheelchair. “His eyes were closed, the blood on them had stuck. His hands had been beaten by the butts of guns. They dragged me out of the hospital. I was half crazy.”

The police came to the Spirit House on a revenge mission, tearing up the theatre and destroying the equipment. “They put terror on that block,” Baraka says. Later, a police captain’s candid account would tell how cops used the riots to settle scores. On Friday night, the National Guard was called in – heavily armed white reservists, fearful of blacks and the city, with little training. “To see real army tanks driving up Springfield Avenue, it was like a movie,” Baraka says. “In the city?”

By Sunday night, the underlying agitation was waning. The soldiers were making things worse, firing into apartment buildings, supposedly against snipers, though none were ever found. Police were stealing goods and wrecking black-owned shops. Activists prevailed on Addonizio and Governor Richard Hughes to pull out the troops. By Monday, the city was returned to calm – but devastated.

Adrienne Wheeler, an artist and educator, was 10 years old. She remembers walking to Bergen Street, another shopping drag, with neighbours. “I’m just gazing from one end to the other and everything’s been burned out, it’s been looted,” Wheeler says. “And people like us, just surveying what happened in our back yards.”

Twenty-six people died, by the official tally – 24 residents, one policeman, and one firefighter. Activists suspect the toll was higher, but there is no way to know.

“Everything changed,” Baraka says. “People’s lives changed, property – everything. It was like after a war. It was devastated.”

Newark firemen play steady streams of water on a gutted structure at Court and Prince Streets in Newark.
Newark firemen play steady streams of water on a gutted structure at Court and Prince Streets in Newark. Photograph: Marty Lederhandler/AP

Fifty years later, the Newark rebellion leaves private memories but almost no public trace. A single marker sits in a grassy triangle where Fifteenth Avenue branches off Springfield. It is the size and shape of a gravestone, with no sign or landscaping to draw attention from passing traffic. Put up in 1997, it lists the 26 dead. Ten years later, a small plaque went up on the wall of the old Fourth (now the First) Precinct.

In the past, you could have looked from the memorial site down Livingston to the Hayes Homes housing project. That’s gone now, torn down in phases from 1987 to 1998. In its place are townhomes that follow newer philosophies of public housing design. Nearby, too, are complexes that community development groups such as New Community Corporation built from the mid-1970s, to help alleviate the shortage of decent, affordable housing.

“You don’t come here unless you live here,” says Jasmine Mans, a 26-year-old poet. As a teenager, she passed this corner each day when her father drove her to Arts High School. Though she knew about the rebellion from her family, she never noticed the memorial.

The minimal commemoration conveys an ambivalence – less to the events of 1967 than to the narratives around them. In 1975, Harper’s dubbed Newark “the worst city in America”. Stigma, laced with racism, clung to the city and its residents. Basic debates about the rebellion are only recently settled. In 2007, a series in the Star-Ledger made clear that the riots happened well into Newark’s decline, rather than causing it, and that the “snipers” were actually law enforcement crossfire. Several books and documentaries have filled in the record, but for many Newarkers, the topic breeds a kind of fatigue.

“We’re still trying to get people to stop thinking about Newark in that context,” says Fayemi Shakur, executive director of City Without Walls, a non-profit arts space founded in the 1970s. “To think of the city as a place for growth and opportunity, not a place of violence. It’s painful to have that conversation over and over again.”

The passage of time risks obscuring that the uprising ever happened. “There’s at least two generations and part of a third that don’t even know what it was,” says Williams, who now leads an urban education project at the Newark campus of Rutgers University. Newark remains a black-majority city, but the mix has changed, with a growing Latino population, as well as immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, who have no connection to the city’s past.

Letting the uprising fade away seems unwise in a time of renewed attention to racialised police brutality. For older Newarkers, the deployment of National Guard in Ferguson, in 2014, brought back memories of the rebellion. Many underlying issues are the same. “It speaks to burying the past,” says Wheeler. “Those of us who have seen history as it repeats itself, we know how dangerous that is. You’re uninformed, you’re unarmed.”

The memorial to the 26 people who lost their lives in the rebellion.
The memorial to the 26 people who lost their lives in the rebellion. Photograph: Siddhartha Mitter

By general agreement, things got worse in Newark after the rebellion before they got better.

There were early breakthroughs. Negotiations between activists and the state produced a much smaller footprint for the new medical school; vacant land was allotted to affordable housing; a jobs programme trained some 600 workers.

“Those were the biggest achievements coming out of the rebellion,” says activist Williams, who took part in these talks. “They were afraid there was going to be another riot. We had that nameless, faceless brother with the bricks with us at the negotiating table.”

Amiri Baraka and others, meanwhile, focused on the political prize: electing a black mayor, which meant uniting a fractious spectrum of moderates and revolutionaries. The consensus candidate, an engineer named Kenneth Gibson, was elected mayor in 1970, early in a wave of black mayors that would include Tom Bradley, elected in Los Angeles in 1973, Maynard Jackson in Atlanta in 1973, and Coleman Young in Detroit in 1974.

Newark’s economy was unraveling, however. The riots sped up the white flight; many businesses closed for good because suburban customers were reluctant to shop in the city. Completion of two highways made Newark easier to traverse at speed, avoiding its streets altogether. In the Central Ward, absentee landlords torched houses for insurance. “You had a huge amount of arson for profit,” says Cammarieri, who became a housing activist. “That was a key element in why there was so much vacant land, urban prairie.”

The new black leaders in City Hall adopted the old patronage politics, disappointing their revolutionary supporters. Gibson served 16 years; his successor Sharpe James, 20. Both later faced legal trouble, convicted of tax evasion and fraud respectively. An upstart city councillor from out-of-town, Cory Booker, took over in 2006, promising a new politics.

Market Street in Newark. The city remains one of America’s poorest cities, with one-third of residents below the poverty line.
Market Street in Newark. The city remains one of America’s poorest cities, with one-third of residents below the poverty line. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

By then there were signs of a downtown revival, spurred by a pair of prestige developments. The New Jersey Performing Arts Centre opened in 1997; the Prudential Centre, an arena for the New Jersey Devils hockey team, in 2007. Mayor James had fought for these projects; under Booker, corporations followed, lured by tax abatements. Newark’s first new office building in 20 years, a headquarters for Panasonic, opened in 2013. The Newark-based insurance giant, Prudential Financial Inc, expanded into a new glass complex downtown in 2015, in a sign of commitment to the city. Unlike the Gateway Centre, a set of office buildings put up in the 1970s and 80s that huddled fortress-like by the train station, connected by skywalks, the new development proposed that Newark could be attractive, walkable, and safe.

“Billions of dollars were invested in the city, but none of it had a fair share for Newark residents,” says Cammarieri. “There are people who held this town together, in their neighbuorhoods, tooth and nail, so these investments could happen.”

Newark remains one of America’s poorest cities, with one-third of residents below the poverty line. Residents hold only 18% of jobs in the city – far less than in “similarly situated” cities such as Baltimore and New Orleans – and only 10% of jobs that pay more than $40,000 per year, according to a new report by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. A 2014 study of six of the city’s anchor firms and universities found only 3% of procurement went to local suppliers. The data shows a city where a real downtown boom has brought, so far, little benefit to the broader population.

In 2014, Ras Baraka, a city councillor and high-school principal, became mayor of Newark, running a grassroots campaign on the slogan “When I become mayor, we become mayor.” He is also the second son of Amiri and Amina, born in 1970.

Newark Mayor Ras J Baraka, the son of Amina and Amiri, addresses a large gathering after being sworn-in on 1 July 2014.
Newark mayor Ras Baraka, the son of Amina and Amiri, addresses a large gathering after being sworn-in on 1 July 2014. Photograph: Mel Evans/AP

Since his election, Newark has established a civilian police review board, while hiring new cops and putting more on walking beats. It has launched a Street Academy to divert unemployed youth from crime. According to the city, crime is now the lowest since 1967. Last month, Ras Baraka announced plans to grow local employment, supported by the main employers – even the Port, long loath to revisiting its ties to the city. An inclusionary zoning rule, requiring large residential projects to set aside 20% of units for low and moderate incomes, with priority to Newarkers, with support from the real-estate industry, is heading toward passage. The final vote was due on 12 July – by coincidence, the rebellion’s 50th anniversary.

The mayor’s background links Newark’s current direction and its activist tradition. But the elders who remember 1967 argue that the history needs formal teaching as well. At Rutgers, Williams is working with the city schools to develop a Newark curriculum for high-school social studies. He hopes to have a trial unit ready for later this year.

“You don’t want to wallow in it, but you want to connect it with what’s happening,” says Cammarieri. “Understanding why it happened is critical, because it opens up the doors to understanding the continuity in how this country deals with race. The meaning 12 July 1967 and the five days that followed has is what it means to us today.”

Recently, Jasmine Mans and friends held an night of spoken poetry titled Newark Riots. “It was us acknowledging we felt it, too,” Mans says. “This could be Ferguson. The pull of a trigger and it could be our city on fire again. The new Newark that we’re trying to rebuild, this could be killed in a minute.”

Newark’s progress, with new comforts like a Whole Foods and a boutique hotel, is garnering a kind of chic. Its art scene, a mix of older institutions, longtime local artists, and new arrivals drawn to space and an alternative vibe 30 minutes from Manhattan, is gaining notice. The city earned a jaunty Vogue travel item this year – with no reference to racial and political history.

Last winter, Mans took part in an art project, organised in the front windows of a row of commercial buildings along Market Street. Her piece involved short texts in large black letters. One, directly facing passers-by, said “1967: THE RAVISHING.”

“I didn’t want to call it riot, or rebellion,” Mans says. “I wanted to give dignity to those who fought, to a time of fighting. That impeccable moment of change.”

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