JOHN SMITH STARTS A RIOT
As if to prove its inevitability, the Newark riot began with an ordinary police-brutality incident against a man with an ordinary name: John Smith, driver of Cab 45, in the employ of the Safety Cab Company. Early Wednesday night, Smith’s cab drove around a police car double-parked on 15th Avenue. Two uniformed patrolmen stopped the cab. According to the police story given to the Star-Ledger of July 14, Smith was charged with “tailgating” and driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Later they discovered his license had expired. The officers charged that Smith used abusive language and punched them. “They only used necessary force to subdue Smith, the policemen asserted.”
This “necessary force” was described more fully by Smith at his bail hearing on July 13. “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.” Witnesses on the stoops saw Smith dragged, paralyzed, to the police station. Smith was conscious, however: “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.”’
It was about eight o’clock. Negro cab-drivers circulated the report on Smith over their radios. Women and men shook their heads as they stood or sat in front of their homes. The word spread down 17th Avenue west of the precinct, and across the avenue into Hayes Homes. Called the “projects” by everyone, Hayes Homes was erected in the wake of “slum clearance” in the mid-Fifties. Each of the six twelve-story buildings holds about 1000 people. People know them as foul prisons and police know them as “breeding grounds” for crime. As the word spread through Hayes Homes, people gathered at the windows and along the shadowy sidewalks facing the precinct.
What was unusual about John Smith’s case was the fact that the police were forced to let respected civil-rights leaders see his condition less than two hours after the beating. The police were trapped and nervous because they had been caught by civil-rights leaders whose account could not be discredited. A neighborhood resident had called several of these leaders—including activists from CORE, the United Freedom Party, and the Newark Community Union Project—minutes after Smith was brought in.
After they had a heated argument about Smith with officers in the precinct, an inspector arrived from central police headquarters and agreed to let the group see the prisoner in his cell. “Don’t listen to what he says. He’s obviously upset and nervous as you might expect,” the inspector told the group. The group was incensed after seeing Smith’s condition. They demanded that he be sent immediately to the hospital. The police complied, while others searched for witnesses, lawyers, and members of Smith’s family.
It was at this point that witnesses who were in the precinct house say the police began putting on riot helmets. None of the activists felt there was going to be an explosion, and none remembers a crowd of more than a hundred in the street at this point.
POVERTY-PROGRAM officials, who had been called to the precinct by the activists, arrived next. Among them were Timothy Still, President of the United Community Corp., a resident of Hayes Homes and for ten years president of its Tenants Council, and Oliver Lofton, administrator of the Newark Legal Services Project. A former assistant US attorney, Lofton during the riot was to become the Governor’s informal liaison with different elements of the organized Negro community and, afterward, a member of the Governor’s “blue ribbon” commission to investigate the riots. With the knowledge of the police, the leaders determined to organize a peaceful but angry demonstration in front of the precinct. They were given a bullhorn by a police official who hoped they could calm the crowd, which was now growing. It was eleven o’clock.
Outside the precinct Bob Curvin of CORE, Still, and Lofton called for a militant demonstration from atop a police car. Curvin declared that the police were conducting a war against the black community. Still spoke not as an official, but in his informal role of neighborhood leader, expressing anger at “sadists” in the precinct but urging the people to be peaceful. Lofton reiterated the need for an orderly demonstration, promising that all his legal resources would go to the defense of the cab-driver.
But this was one of those occasions in which people take leadership in their own hands. Although each speaker was loudly cheered, the people were in no mood to march, as certain of the organizational leaders could sense. A few marched behind Tim Still, but the line soon fell apart. A local man took the police bullhorn and simply said, “Come down the street, we got some shit.” In the darkness across from the precinct young men from the neighborhood were picking up bricks and bottles, and looking for some gasoline.
Missiles started to fly at the precinct, where 110 windows would eventually be broken. A friend pulled Curvin away from the front of the station, and the rest of the assembled crowd moved back in anticipation of the police. The police came out with helmets and clubs but were driven back inside by a torrent of bricks and bottles. People were starting to move across the street as the front of the precinct became a battle zone.
Just after midnight, two Molotov cocktails exploded high on the western wall of the precinct. A stream of fire curled fifty feet down the wall, flared for ten seconds, and died. The people, now numbering at least 500 on the street, let out a gasp of excitement. Fear, or at least caution, was apparent also: many people retreated into the darkness or behind cars in the Hayes parking lot.
After three years of wondering when “the riot” would come to Newark, people knew that this could be it. While city officials pointed with pride to Newark’s record of peace, most of the community knew it was only a matter of time until the explosion: “And when Newark goes,” according to street wisdom, “it’s going to really go.” Despite millions in anti-poverty and job-training funds during the last three summers, the ailments which afflict every black community had become no better. According to the city officials themselves, Newark has the highest percentage of bad housing of any city in the nation, the highest maternal mortality rate, and the second highest infant mortality rate; the unemployment rate in the ghetto is higher than 15 percent. Every effort to create an organized movement for change has been discredited, absorbed, or met with implacable hostility by politicians. The city’s 250,000 Negroes—a majority of the population—felt with good reason excluded from the institutions of business and government.
Much of the community viewed the police as the tool of more direct intimidation, harassment, and violence. Dominated by the Italians who run Newark politics, tainted by alleged underworld connections, and with a token of only 250 blacks among 1400 members, the Police Department was seen as the spearhead of organized hostility to Negro action, an armed unit protecting the privileges of the shrinking white community of the city. A year of federally sponsored workshop meetings of police and neighborhood people apparently was not enough to modify “police-community relations.” On the wall of Headquarters there are two signs which hint at the police world view: “BOMB HANOI” and “GO TO COLLEGE AND LEARN TO RIOT.”
On the front lines against the police that night were men between fifteen and twenty-five years old from the projects and the nearby avenues. They were the primary assailants and the most elusive enemy for the police. They were the force which broke open the situation in which masses of people began to participate. Few of them had ever been involved in civil-rights organizations, although some were known to SNCC Newark Community Union Project organizers who had been working from an office three blocks away since 1965. They were friendly to the organizers, approved of the program of community organizing, but “joined” only to the extent of hanging out or playing music. They liked and understood the slogan “Black Power.” They were “organized” very loosely: Newark has not had gangs in any organized sense since the early Sixties. But these youths still are capable of communicating and acting effectively on a citywide basis.
FATHERS AND MOTHERS in the ghetto often complain that even they cannot understand the wildness of their kids. Knowing that America denies opportunity to black young men, black parents still share with the whites the sense that youth is heading in a radically new, incomprehensible, and frightening direction. Refusal to obey authority—that of parents, teachers, and other adult “supervisors”—is a common charge against youngsters. Yet when the riot broke out, the generations came together. The parents understood and approved the defiance of their sons that night.
So while the young men grouped their forces, shouted, and armed themselves against the helmeted police with whatever they could find on the ground, the older generation gathered in larger and larger numbers in the rear. The Hayes projects are a useful terrain for people making war. The police station is well lit, but the projects are dark, especially the rooftops 100 yards above the street. Each room in the projects can be darkened to allow people to observe or attack from their windows. There is little light in the pathways, recreation areas, and parking lots around the bases of the tall buildings. The police thus were faced with the problems of ambush and of searching through a shadow world where everybody appears to be alike to an outsider. It was in this sanctuary that parents came together. It was here also that their sons could return to avoid the police.
Less than an hour after the bomb hit the precinct, the looting phase began. A group of twenty-five young people on 17th Avenue decided that the time was ripe to break into the stores. They ran up 17th Avenue toward Belmont as the word of their mission spread along the way. “They’re going up to Harry’s,” a mother excitedly said. She and her friends looked quizzically at each other, then started running up to the corner. A boom and a crash signaled the opening of the new stage. Within fifteen minutes burglar-alarms were ringing up and down Belmont and 17th. People poured out from the project areas into liquor and furniture stores as the young people tore them open.