The police now began patrolling on foot in small teams. It was clear that they were both outnumbered and uncertain of themselves in the streets. Police violence grew. The next day Newark Human Rights Commission Chairman Al Black reported to the Mayor what the police did when “order” collapsed: a Negro policeman in civilian clothes was beaten by white policemen when he entered the Precinct to report for duty; Mrs. Vera Brinson was told to “get the hell upstairs” and hit on the neck with a club in Hayes Homes; Gregory Smith said police shouted “all you black niggers get upstairs” at project residents; two men were seized by police as they returned from work, one beaten by eight police at the precinct and the other punched and kicked by fifteen police at the entrance to his building. These people were not “criminals,” Black told the Mayor, but were working people.
But in the first hours the police could not control the streets in spite of nearly 100 arrests and numerous attacks on people. After a while they developed an uneasy coexistence with the crowd, the police in twos and threes taking up positions to “protect” stores which were already looted, while the people moved on to other stores. More police tried in vain to regain control of 17th Avenue and Belmont but were trapped in a pattern of frustrating advance-and-retreat.
One hope of the police may have been to keep the riot from spreading. Again, however, this was beyond their control. If they had used greater force on Belmont and 17th, the result probably would have been to spread the riot by making people move beyond the zone of fire. Furthermore, though all of Newark’s 1400 police were being mobilized, it is doubtful there were enough men to cordon off effectively a spreading mass of rioters. Therefore the question of when and how the riot would spread was in the hands of the people rather than the police. That it did not spread may indicate the lack of real organization. All around the original riot zone people were sitting on their stoops or sleeping in their homes within earshot of the window. Yet word did not spread until the following day.
Moreover, an incident involving Smith’s fellow cab-drivers Wednesday night tends to indicate that the spreading word by itself is not sufficient to spread the action. The cab-drivers were the one group equipped to let thousands of people in the city know what had happened. Within a few hours of Smith’s arrest, the black cabbies were deciding by radio to meet at the Precinct and form a protest caravan to City Hall. Between 1 and 2 A.M. at least twenty cars were lined up along Belmont at the corner of 17th, creating new noise, excitement, and fury. After nearly an hour of waiting and planning, the cabs roared down to police headquarters, located behind City Hall, to demand the release of Smith. They carried close to 100 passengers from the riot area with them. At headquarters they were able to secure a promise that Smith would be adequately treated and released after arraignment in the morning. At the same time the police closed off traffic on Broad Street in front of City Hall, thus helping further to alert citizens who had not been affected by the rioting or the cab-drivers’ caravan. Police by this time were swinging their clubs freely, even at confused motorists, perhaps out of fear that bombs would be thrown against the City Hall building itself.
Yet the riot did not spread. By 4 A.M. most of the participants had gone home. About fifty people, mostly young, stood on the corner of 17th and Fairview watching and occasionally taunting police who had “secured” 17th Avenue. Police cars and wagons patrolled up and down 17th; now and then, policemen would leap out of their cars to charge at the people on the corner, only to watch them vanish up alleys and between houses. By 5 A.M. everyone had vanished from the streets, except the police.
THE COMMUNITY TAKES POWER
Thursday morning’s papers denied what everyone knew was true. Mayor Addonizio called the events of the previous evening an “isolated incident,” not of genuine riot proportions. In their behavior, however, city officials showed that they were worried.
The Mayor called in civil-rights leaders, including both moderate ministers and some of his more militant opponents. Concessions were made. Addonizio decided to ask for City Council funds to allow additional police captaincies so that a qualified Negro officer, Eddie Williams, could become the first Negro captain. He requested that Human Rights Director James Threatt and Police Director Dominick Spina separately investigate Wednesday’s conflict. He reassigned the two patrolmen who beat Smith to “administrative positions.” He referred the Smith case to the County Prosecutor and FBI. He announced formation of a Blue Ribbon Commission, like the McCone Commission which investigated Watts, to examine this “isolated incident.” The Mayor was doing what militant politicians were demanding. But when someone told him point blank that the people had lost confidence in his administration, Addonizio replied, “That’s politics. Sit down. You’ve said enough.”
There was no civil-rights leader, no organization, capable of determining what was to come. Sensing this, some community activists refused to engage in what they felt were fruitless meetings downtown. Others tried to warn the Mayor of what might happen, in full knowledge that the Mayor was now powerless. Others worked desperately for a solution that could be brought into the community in a bargain for peace. Many jockeyed for position, worrying about who had the Mayor’s ear, who might be blamed, who would be the channel for resources from the establishment to the community.
Some community activists settled on the idea of a demonstration at the precinct in the evening. At a neighborhood anti-poverty center near the precinct, they ran off a leaflet which simply said: “Stop! Police Brutality!” It would be given out to motorists, calling for a demonstration at the precinct at 7:30 P.M. Some organizers of this demonstration probably thought it might channel energy away from violence. Others knew the violence was there, and was not to be channeled into conventional protest, yet protest was the only avenue of expression familiar to them. So they proceeded. Police Director Spina would later claim that this activity helped to “fuel” the explosion later that night.
Regardless of what the Mayor did, regardless of what civil-rights leaders did, regardless of what planners of the demonstration did, the riot was going to happen. The authorities had been indifferent to the community’s demand for justice; now the community was going to be indifferent to the authorities’ demand for order. This was apparent to community organizers who walked around the projects Thursday afternoon talking to young people. All the organizers urged was that burning of buildings be minimized so as to spare lives.
Meanwhile the leaflets were going out as planned. By late afternoon about twenty-five people, mostly young kids, were picketing the precinct. By 6 P.M. a somewhat larger number were picketing in the street where traffic had been blocked off. More than 100 people gathered in the parking lot of the projects. An equal number lined 17th Avenue on both sides. These were people of the community. Almost no one from the poverty program or existing organizations was involved in leading the pickets. An Afro drum group arrived and started playing.
Word spread. At a bar five blocks away, for example, people heard the news and started for 17th Avenue. Out of about twenty-five, only one remained behind, because he thought that if a riot occurred, Negro prisoners would be beaten in the jail he had just left.
Back at the precinct where the tempo was increasing by the minute, Human Rights Commission Director James Threat arrived with a message to the crowd from the Mayor. Threatt said Addonizio promised a Negro police captain by July 17 if the demonstration would stop. People told Threatt to get off the precinct steps where he was standing. A Negro detective, possibly FBI agent Jong Randall who was identified in The New York Times, July 14, started moving back the crowd now surrounding Threatt. When he failed several community activists cleared the stairs. Another Negro detective then stood on the steps and asked, “Why don’t you people just go home?” Someone threw an object at him, but the man did not move. Rocks and bottles started flying. The detective was pulled out of the way, then rocks and bottles were thrown at the precinct. A lady in white smashed one of the precinct windows with a stick.
David Crooms, a black free-lance photographer, was on the scene. “The rioting would have broken out anyway,” he believes; but it began at the precinct when the demonstration was disrupted by Threatt’s appearance with the empty offer. With other press members, Crooms moved across the street to the gas station. There he heard one officer inside the station yelling “When the hell are we going out there?” Then the side door opened. Crooms tells this story:
Big white cops came out yelling “let’s go get these mother-fuckers.” Myself and the other newsmen, four of them, ran along behind the charging police. We followed them out to the court in the middle of Hayes Homes. On the way, they caught one black newsman off to the side and beat him. They chased this colored fellow who was running in the court. Twelve of fourteen cops got on him, dropped him, and beat him. We were still behind the cops. Next thing I knew, one yelled, “get that black mother-fucker.” The rest of the newsmen stood and wondered what was going on. There were no questions asked. They hit me on top of the head, and I went out for maybe five seconds. When I came to, one of them hit me just below the eye. They ran off. I went back to the precinct. The captain said he was sorry and told me to file a complaint.
Al Black, the chairman of the Newark Human Rights Commission, was around the Fourth Precinct from seven that evening to three-thirty the next morning. He heard the police “using vicious racial slurs on Negroes, including calling them black S.O.B.S.” He saw police beating young Negroes under arrest as they were being taken to the Precinct. Police dragged in Negroes who had their hands handcuffed behind their backs, while officers were striking with night sticks on their heads and bodies. “I tried to prevent [them] from beating Negroes they arrested. I demanded that the police take jailed persons who were bleeding profusely to the hospital, and they complied.” Director Spina was inside the station.
HEAVY LOOTING SOON began on Springfield Avenue, three blocks from the precinct and the largest commercial street in the ghetto. By midnight there was action everywhere in the ghetto, although the Mayor announced that the disturbance was being brought to an end. Partly the expansion was caused by people moving in new directions, outward from the looted areas where police were concentrated. Partly it was people in new neighborhoods following the example of people in the original area. A human network of communication was forming, with people in the streets as its main conductors.