Featured image: Newark riots, 1967

The day after Governor Phil Murphy reopened New Jersey’s beaches, a Minneapolis police officer knelt atop George Floyd for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Mr. Floyd’s subsequent demise has replaced our old crisis with a new and more photogenic one. A world once preoccupied with a Chinese virus has now turned its attention to a dead Black American. And a quarantine unprecedented in modern times gave way to a rage that was all too familiar to Newark.

On the evening of July 12, 1967 two Newark police officers arrested a Black cab driver and aspiring trumpet player named John William “J.W.” Smith for tailgating, expired license, and driving the wrong way down a one-way street. The officers claimed that Smith resisted arrest and that they only used “necessary force” to subdue him. Smith, and witnesses watching from a nearby housing project, told a different story. As Smith later explained:

There was no resistance on my part. That was a cover story by the police. They caved in my ribs, busted a hernia, and put a hole in my head. After I got into the precinct six or seven other officers along with the two who arrested me kicked and stomped me in the ribs and back. They then took me to a cell and put my head over the toilet bowl. While my head was over the toilet bowl I was struck on the back of the head with a revolver. I was also being cursed while they were beating me. An arresting officer in the cell-block said, “This baby is mine.”

Tom Hayden, “A Special Supplement: The Occupation of Newark,” New York Review of Books, August 24, 1967

Between 1916 and 1970 six million Blacks left the rural South in what came to be known as the Great Migration. Many came to Newark, then New Jersey’s largest and most prosperous city. In 1920 Newark was home to 16,977 Negros and 397,223 Whites. By 1967 over 50% of Newark residents (some 220,000 people) were proud, angry and largely poor African-Americans. Color lines kept Black workers out of many unions and offices. The high rise housing projects built in the 1940s and 1950s were poorly maintained, vermin-infested, and crime-ridden. In a 1966 application for federal aid, 40,000 of Newark’s 136,000 housing units were classified as substandard or dilapidated

But a community which had spent decades seething was now organizing. A large and angry crowd, many of whom believed Smith dead, gathered outside the precinct: representatives of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the United Freedom Party and Newark Community Union Project demanded to see Smith then insisted he receive immediate medical attention. Smith was transferred to Beth Israel hospital and police officers gave a bullhorn to community leaders who urged the protestors to remain peaceful. The first Molotov cocktails were thrown shortly after midnight. The following day Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio cleared police to use firearms to put down the riots.

“We ain’t riotin’ agains’ all you whites,” Billy Furr told Life reporter Dale Wittner. “We’re riotin’ agains’ police brutality, like that cab driver they beat up the other night. That stuff goes on all the time. When the police treat us like people ‘stead of treatin’ us like animals, then the riots will stop.” Shortly afterward Billy Furr was gunned down outside a looted liquor store with a six-pack in his hand: the shotgun blast that killed him also seriously wounded 12 year-old bystander Joe Bass, Jr. From his room J.W. Smith watched armed battles in the street until “One time I was looking out the window and a gun was pointing right at me. It was frightening. The place was in an uproar. I didn’t stand at the window any more.”

The first two or three days there was a sense that this was the relief and the release that people needed. But in the second three days, once the combined police force — local, state and the National Guard — had been fully deployed, there was fear, because the police rioted. If this was a rebellion, the police rioted. They took it in their own hands to seek retribution against people for the slightest infraction.

Junius Williams, eyewitness: “Five Days of Unrest That Shaped, and Haunted, Newark”, New York Times (July 11, 2017)

Five days and 3,000 National Guard troops later, the Newark riots ended on July 17. 26 people were dead, over 750 wounded and over 1,000 in police custody. 10 year-old Eddie Moss was shot in the head when Guardsmen opened fire on his family’s car. Teddock Bell was shot at the tavern where he worked after police mistook him for a looter. James Rutledge tried to surrender when police found him inside a store and was shot 39 times. Eloise Spellman, mother of 11, was cooking dinner when a Guardsman mistook her for a sniper and fired into her 10th floor window. 12 year-old Michael Pugh was killed taking out garbage. $10 million in property was burned or damaged, most of it in Newark’s “Little Harlem.”

Hahne Building 1908
Hahne & Co Building, Newark, 1908
Hahne Building, 2007
Hahne & Co. Building, Newark, 2007

In February 1968 Governor Robert Hughes’ Select Commission on Civil Disorder criticized police actions harshly, but no police officers or members of the National Guard were ever prosecuted for their actions in putting down the uprising. That same month President Johnson’s Commission on Civil Disorders released a 708-page analysis of Newark and the 158 other riots which had marked the “Long Hot Summer” of 1967. The Kerner Report (after Chairman Otto Kerner) warned us “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The Kerner Report became an unlikely bestseller, with over two million Americans reading its stark indictment of America’s race problem and its warnings that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” 53% of White Americans disagreed with the Report’s conclusion that racism was the primary catalyst for the Long Hot Summer, while 58% of Black Americans agreed. Rev. Martin Luther King called the Report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life” but feared that it would be widely read “and then the book will be closed because for many people simply to acknowledge evil ends their responsibility.” A few weeks later King’s assassination would spark riots across America.

Hahne & Co. Building, Newark, NJ, 2020

The BLM protests in Newark have been peaceful so far. There are a few reasons for this. Newark has taken serious steps to address police corruption and brutality. Current Mayor Ras Baraka is the son of Amiri Baraka, one of the leading figures in the 1967 Newark uprising. From 2010-14 Newark paid out $1.8 million in police brutality lawsuits. Since Baraka took office in 2014 they have paid out only $51,000. Things are far from ideal in Newark, and the city still struggles with crime and violence, but there are channels of communication open between all parties.

But there is another reason that Newark has stayed peaceful: the 1967 riots are within living memory. You can walk through the Central Ward today and find green space and vacant lots where there once were homes and businesses. White Flight started in 1950 but took off hard after 1967: people stopped coming to Newark’s department stores and nightclubs. In the 1940s and 50s people would travel from New York to Newark’s jazz clubs to hear Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker (who couldn’t get an NYC cabaret card due to his narcotics convictions), and Newark-born Sarah Vaughan. That scene went away altogether and fifty-three years later Newark is still recovering.

White America has always found it more comfortable to blame “outside agitators” than to accept Black rage. We have always sought to regain control of the narrative by reinventing ourselves as “Allies” and “Good White People.” Already we are seeing efforts to foreground “White Supremacists” or “White Antifa radicals” and to minimize Black agency. I strongly suspect state actors were involved in these riots. We armed rebels in Crimea and supported protestors in Hong Kong: it would be naive to expect them not to return the favor. Antifa has been present at quite a few protests, perhaps most notably in Seattle. But these riots were rooted in long-standing grievances which will not be satisfied by Tweets of support or by a few scapegoats.

In 1970 54.2% of Newark’s 400,000 residents were Black and 12% were Hispanic. J.W. Wilson returned to North Carolina after he recovered: many Black locals followed his exodus. Today around 52% of Newark’s 282,000 residents are Black, while 33% are Hispanic. Political power in the city is divided between Hispanic and Black council members. While Newark has always been famous for its bare-knuckle politics, relations between politicians and between Black and Hispanic Newark are generally cordial. This has not been the case in Chicago or in southern California. I expect a summer of Black/Latino violence which will claim more lives than the riots. Because it involves two Groups of Color and hence cannot be fit into a White narrative this violence will largely be ignored by the mainstream media and by virtue-signalers.

Rioters in many major cities are about to discover the hard truths we learned in Newark. Their cities will become browner, poorer and more dangerous. The companies that gave you lip service on Instagram and Twitter are going to leave your community alongside the smaller businesses that burned. You will be surrounded by resentful ex-Minneapolis natives who blame you for the damage. The oncoming Depression will make funding scarce, and a summer of social unrest will likely sway the election for Trump in 2020 as it did for Nixon in 1968 and 1972. The riots may bring social changes for the better. But those benefits will be slow in trickling down to the burnt cities. It was that way in Cleveland. It was that way in Detroit. It was that way in Newark. It will be that way again.

One thought on “THE FIRE LAST TIME

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