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A Special Supplement: The Occupation of Newark

The youth were again in the lead, breaking windows wherever the chance appeared, chanting “Black Power,” moving in groups through dark streets to new commercial areas. This was more than a case of youth stepping in where parents feared to tread. This was the largest demonstration of black people ever held in Newark. At any major intersection, and there are at least ten such points in the ghetto, there were more than a thousand people on the streets at the same time. A small number entered stores and moved out with what they could carry; they would be replaced by others from the large mass of people walking, running, or standing in the streets. Further back were thousands more who watched from windows and stoops and periodically participated. Those with mixed feelings were not about to intervene against their neighbors. A small number, largely the older people, shook their heads.

People voted with their feet to expropriate property to which they felt entitled. They were tearing up the stores with the trick contracts and installment plans, the second-hand televisions going for top-quality prices, the phony scales, the inferior meat and vegetables. A common claim was: this is owed me. But few needed to argue. People who under ordinary conditions respected law because they were forced to do so now felt free to act upon the law as they thought it should be. When an unpopular store was opened up, with that mighty crash of glass or ripping sound of metal, great shouts of joy would sound. “Hey, they got Alice’s.” “They gave that place what it deserved.” “They did? G-o-o-d!”

The riot was more effective against gouging merchants than organized protest had ever been. The year before a survey was started to check on merchants who weighted their scales. The survey collapsed because of disinterest: people needed power, not proof. This spring the welfare mothers spent a month planning and carrying out a protest against a single widely hated store. The owner finally was forced to close his business, but only after nineteen people were arrested in a demonstration. There was no effective follow-up against the other stores, though frightened merchants cleaned up their stores, offered bribes to organizers, and chipped in money to outfit a kid’s baseball team. It was too late for concessions.

The Negro middle class and “respectable” working people participated heavily on Thursday night. Well-dressed couples with kids in their cars were a common sight. One woman, who said she already could afford the “junk” sold in the ghetto, decided to wait until the rioting spread to fancier sections where she could get expensive furs. Doubtless the Mayor’s failure to act on issues such as education caused disaffection among the black middle class. Doubtless, too, the middle class’s willingness to consider rioting legitimate made it more likely that a riot would happen.

But it is doubtful that any tactics by the Mayor could have divided the black middle class from the ghetto in such a way as to prevent a riot. The poor were going to riot. The middle class could join. Many did, because their racial consciousness cut through middle-class values to make property destruction seem reasonable, especially when the white authorities cannot see who is looting. During the Watts riot the story was told of a black executive who regularly stopped to throw bricks before attending suburban cocktail parties and barbecues; the same attitude was present in Newark. When police systematically attacked Negro-owned stores later in the week, they were only confirming what the black middle class, reluctantly, was starting to understand: that racism ultimately makes no distinction between “proper” and “lowly” colored people.

Black unity, solidarity, spirit, the feeling of being home: by whatever name, the fact was plain. There is no question that a majority of Negroes gave support. People on the street felt free to take shelter from the police in the homes of people they did not know. What concerned Governor Hughes greatly the next morning was the “carnival atmosphere” of people looting even in daylight. What for Hughes seemed like “laughing at a funeral” was to many in the community more like the celebration of a new beginning. People felt as though for a moment they were creating a community of their own.

Economic gain was the basis of mass involvement. The stores presented the most immediate way for people to take what they felt was theirs. Liquor was the most convenient item to steal. The Governor’s announcement Friday morning that he would “dry the town out” came a little late. But more useful things were also the object of the looters. Boys who had few clothes took home more than they had ever owned before. Mattresses were carried into apartments to replace the second-hand or overused ones purchased on installment. New television sets, irons, tables and chairs, baseball bats, dishware and other household goods were carried out in arm-loads. People walked, ran, or drove off with their possessions. There were Negro gangsters and hijackers, with connections in the white mob network, on the scene too, but most of the people were taking only for themselves. One reason there was so little quarreling over “who gets what” was that there was, for a change, enough for all.

For the most part the rioting was controlled and focused. The “rampaging” was aimed almost exclusively at white-owned stores, and not at such buildings as schools, churches, or banks. The latter institutions are oppressive but their buildings contain little that can be carried off. To this extent the riot was concrete rather than symbolic. There were no attacks by Negroes on “soul brother” stores. There were people injured by glass on the streets where they fell, but they typically fell because police chased them, not because of stampeding in the rush for goods.

Basic feelings of racial hate were released at white people far less often than was suggested by the media. Many missiles were thrown at cars driven by whites but not often with murderous intent. Several times such cars were stopped, the occupants jeered at and terrified, and a few actual beatings occurred. However, no white passers-by or storeowners were killed and very few, if any, were shot at. No white neighborhoods were attacked, though rioting reached the borders of at least four separate white areas. Several white community workers felt able to move around on foot freely by day and even at night, especially in the company of Negroes. Driving was more difficult because all white people appeared to be outsiders motoring home. These conditions remained the same throughout the week, though the tensions between whites and blacks intensified as the stage of spirited looting was replaced by that of bitter confrontation with the troops.

POLICE BEHAVIOR became more and more violent as the looting expanded. The size of the rebellion was far too large for 1400 patrolmen. Their tactic seemed to be to drive at high speeds, with sirens whining, down major streets in the ghetto. Thus they were driving too fast for rock-throwers while still attempting a show of force. As a result of this maneuver a woman was run down and apparently killed on 17th Avenue. The sight and sound of the police also stirred the community into greater excitement.

As darkness fell, the number of arrests increased sharply. Police started firing blanks. According to the Times of July 14, police were asking by radio for “the word” to shoot, and when news came in that policemen in one car were shooting real bullets, another voice shouted over the radio: “It’s about time; give them hell!” At midnight orders were given for police to use “all necessary means—including firearms—to defend themselves.”

Murdering looters was now possible. A short time afterward, twenty-eight-year-old Tedock Bell walked out of his Bergen Street home to see what had happened to the nearby bar where he was employed. When the police came, his wife left in fright. But Tedock told his sister-in-law and her boyfriend not to run because they weren’t doing anything. They did run, however, while he walked. He became the first victim a minute later. About 4 A.M. patrolmen Harry Romeo and David Martinez reported they saw four men emerge with bottles from a liquor store on Jones Street. They called halt, the officers told the Newark News—calling halt is a preliminary to shooting someone—but the looters ran. Martinez shot and killed one of them going through a fence.

More than 250 people were treated at City Hospital that night, at least fifteen reportedly for gunshot wounds. Less than one-quarter of them were held for further diagnosis and treatment. The police took over the ambulances from the Negro drivers and rescue workers. Snipers were shooting at the ambulances, police said. By 2:20 A.M. Mayor Addonizio was revising his midnight estimate that the situation was under control. Announcing that things had deteriorated, he asked Governor Hughes for aid in restoring order.

By early Friday morning 425 people were in jail. In addition to five dead, hundreds were wounded or injured. The Newark News that morning expressed hope that Newark might again become a city “in which people can live and work harmoniously in a climate that will encourage, not repel, the expansion of the business and industry that provide jobs for all.”

III. THE OCCUPATION

An obvious open rebellion,” asserted Governor Hughes after his tour of Newark at 5 A.M. Friday. From that announcement until Monday afternoon, the black community was under military occupation. More than 3000 National Guardsmen were called up Friday morning from the surrounding white suburbs and southern Jersey towns. Five hundred white state troopers arrived at the same time. By mid-afternoon Friday they were moving in small convoys throughout the city, both clockwise and counter-clockwise, circling around seven parts of the ghetto. Guardsmen were moving in jeeps or small open trucks, usually led or followed by carloads of troopers or Newark police. Bayonets were attached to the Guard’s 30-caliber M-1 rifles or 30-caliber carbines, which they carried in addition to 45-caliber pistols. Personnel carriers weighing as much as eleven tons, and trucks mounted with machine guns, appeared here and there among the jeeps and police cars. The presence of these vehicles was designed, according to Governor Hughes, to build the confidence of the Negro community.

Confidence in what? Hughes defined the issues over and over in television, radio, and press interviews, as well as in meetings with community leaders. “The line between the jungle and the law might as well be drawn here as any place in America,” he announced shortly after arriving in Newark. On Saturday he talked again of the line between society and the jungle, adding that the Negroes “had better choose sides” becauses the “side of law and order has joined this to the finish.”

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