Newark riots recall era echoed by Black Lives Matter
Newark, N.J. — The rumor spread quickly: A man had been beaten to death by police. For blacks — frustrated by high unemployment, inadequate schools, substandard housing — yet another abuse by police was too much to bear, and they erupted.
There were no shouts that black lives mattered. This was Newark in 1967, long before deaths at the hands of police in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, gave birth to another movement in another era.
For four days in July, Newark was the epicenter of black rage. The rioting left 26 dead, more than 700 injured and nearly 1,500 arrested, mostly black. In addition to the $10 million in property damage, the riots left economic and emotional scars on Brick City that, in many ways, have not yet healed.
Newark was a deadly entry in the long list of major urban areas that exploded over a five-year period, among them Watts in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston and New York’s Harlem. Days after Newark burned, Detroit followed. The disorders exposed — for the first time to much of white America — racial and economic disparities that went far beyond the familiar scenes of segregation in the South.
“A riot is at the bottom of the language of the unheard,” the Rev. Martin Luther King wrote in his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” in 1967. “The amazing thing about the ghetto is that so few Negroes have rioted.”
The rioters spoke loudly, but were they heard? The echoes of 1967 in today’s America would suggest they were not, and the lessons not learned linger for a new generation where racial tensions, indifference and inaction persist.
‘Unacceptable’ situation exploded
“People were thinking about who they were, and thinking that they deserved more as American citizens,” said Komozi Woodard, who grew up in Newark and was 18 years old at the time of the riots. “It went from a situation that was unbearable, to the community feeling it was unacceptable.”
As a 12-year-old black boy, Woodard was beaten by a street gang in his neighborhood. His mother called the police for help, and when they arrived, the officers beat her son, too.
It was 1961, and Woodard had learned his first lesson about the relationship between police and his community.
“I believed in the system, and the system came out and beat me up,” said Woodard, now 68 and a history professor at Sarah Lawrence College. “It was an everyday occurrence for police to just beat people up. There was no place you could go.”
By 1967, as whites fled for the suburbs and were replaced with a wave of black and brown residents, Newark was New Jersey’s largest city and the country’s first majority-black city aside from Washington. Many blacks were part of the Great Migration to escape the de jure Jim Crow of the Deep South, only to find de facto segregation in the North.
Most of Newark’s power structure remained white. Only 11 percent of its police force was black; citizen complaints about treatment by police routinely went unanswered and the few black officers on the force had little opportunity for advancement or leadership.
By July 12, Newark’s black residents had had enough.
John W. Smith, a black man, was driving his cab when he was pulled over by two white Newark police officers. Smith and the officers’ version of events diverged — there were no body cameras then to record the exchange — but Smith was badly beaten during his arrest.
Smith was taken to a police precinct directly across from Hayes Homes. Residents who saw him dragged inside assumed he’d been killed by the officers, and word spread quickly through the crowded housing project.
Though Smith was treated at a hospital and later released, a riot broke out that night, followed by looting. The unrest continued for three more nights. State police and National Guard troops were called in to quell the uprising.
Fred Means, a teacher and activist with the Congress of Racial Equality in Newark at the time, recalled seeing police join in the looting along with some residents.
“That really symbolized the whole tenor and system of corruption that was going on,” said Means, now 84 and living in Monroe, New Jersey. “It was like a war scene. There was that fear, there was that possibility, that the police would shoot you and nothing would happen — much the same as what happens today.”
Many of the scenes that unfolded in Newark have resembled the conflict of the last few years: Residents clashing with police wearing riot gear and driving armored vehicles down city streets, mass arrests, and government officials calling for curfews in an attempt to restore order and frustrated citizens burning neighborhood storefronts.
Junius Williams was a law student at Yale University fighting gentrification in Newark when the riots broke out. He was driving back from a “black power” conference in Philadelphia when news of the riots came across his car radio.
“This was the rebellion that people had predicted because it had been happening all over the country, and Newark was no different,” said Williams, 73, now a professor at Rutgers University in Newark. “There was no representation in government and people were taking advantage of black folks and it was only so much people were going to take. It was on.”
As he was driving friends home on the second night of the riots, Williams faced down a police officer wielding a shotgun during a traffic stop. He was spared, he says, when a sergeant defused the situation by searching Williams’ car for guns. He found only law books.
President ordered inquiry
The 1967 riots prompted President Lyndon Johnson to launch an inquiry into the cause of the racial disorders. Among the findings of the Kerner Commission were that the country “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The report identified police practices as among the primary factors that led to the unrest in black communities.
“The abrasive relationship between the police and the minority communities has been a major — and explosive — source of grievance, tension and disorder,” the report read. “The blame must be shared by the total society.”
The commission recommendations to improve police-community relations included a review of police operations to eliminate abrasive practices, more police protection to inner-city residents, more hiring and promotion of black officers and a means for residents to file complaints against the police.
Nationally, there are now greater systems of accountability for police officers, who are the best trained generation of law enforcement officers in the country’s history, said Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity. Still, a lack of national metrics to track police behavior shows an uneven progress.
“What it says is that we have not taken seriously the problem of race in America on a number of fronts, including policing,” Goff said. “As a result, we’re doomed to repeat the history from which we have not learned.”
The conclusions reached in the 2015 Justice Department report on Ferguson sounded similar to the Kerner Commission’s findings.
In 1970, Newark became the first Northeastern city to elect a black mayor. Its police force became more diverse, and more officers lived in the city they were charged with serving. Today, 38 percent of the police department is black and 40 percent is white. The city’s overall population is much the same as in 1967: 52 percent black and 26 percent white.
In the immediate aftermath of the riots, more affordable housing was built and the city was forced to provide better health care in a deal to build a new medical center.
“We could not have done that without that invisible brother with the brick standing with us in the negotiating room,” said Williams. “The power structure was afraid. They thought it was going to happen again.”
In other ways, progress has been slow to arrive.
In the wake of the riots, economic development was largely limited to the city’s downtown, where whites worked. The poverty level for black residents is 33 percent, and Newark residents hold only 18 percent of all jobs in the city.
In 2016, the police department was put under federal consent decree after a Justice Department investigation found officers were making unlawful stops and arrests, using excessive force and retaliating against residents. Fifty years after Newark, similar recommendations are still being made as part of the federal consent decrees reached between cities and local police departments — including Ferguson, Chicago, Cleveland and New Orleans — found to have discriminatory practices against minority residents.
“We are a long way from 1967, but we are even further away from where we need to be to prevent 1967 from happening again,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, whose father, poet and activist Amiri Baraka, was badly beaten during the riots. “There were a myriad of things that were suggested, and frankly they were ignored. People need to feel like the government and the police are there to protect them and not to prey on them.”