Certainly the police and much of white America agreed. In the carrying out of the Governor’s weekend definitions and policies at least twenty Negroes died, nearly all from police shooting, another 1000 were injured and 1000 jailed; more than 100 Negro-owned businesses were attacked by police and troopers; and hundreds of apartments were fired into along the ghetto’s streets. The average white citizen was convinced that these things had to be done in order to halt what Governor Hughes called a “criminal insurrection.” The troops, the public was told, had to be brought in to put an end to the looting, burning and sniping. But were the troops really brought in for these purposes?
The police themselves reported that looting was on the decline when the troops arrived: “the police radio which put out alarms at a frantic pace Thursday night,” said Saturday’s Newark News, “was less hectic last night, but a majority of calls were for sniping.” Most of the looting was at an end. When Hughes spoke of the “funeral of the city” Friday morning, he referred to the visible fact that most of the ghetto’s stores were destroyed by that time. Certainly, this was true of those stores which contained merchandise that could be carried away. Nearly all the damage had been done in twelve hours Thursday night. If the troops had been concerned to prevent looting, they could have grouped themselves in such a way as to protect the business districts downtown and in white neighborhoods. If they wanted to protect the remaining ghetto stores, they could have stood in small teams with machine guns in front of these stores, but the fact is that they were patrolling aggressively against people inside the ghetto.
If the troops were supposed to prevent stores from burning, they were not needed. A motoring caravan of troops cannot prevent people from setting a building on fire; troops are not equipped to fight blazes already set. Nor can they do much to shield firemen from missiles that are thrown, dropped, or fired. Moreover, the facts show that arson was insignificant in the Newark riot. Although the fire department reported 110 alarms from Thursday afternoon to Friday morning, it later admitted that most of the alarms were false; and a drive through the city on Friday morning showed evidence of no more than twenty-five fires throughout the ghetto. There was a clear reason for this: most of the houses are woodframe firetraps, and Negroes live above most of the stores that were looted. Burning would have risked the lives and property of black people. At the end of the riot, the fire department figures showed only ten major fires.
But the major justification for the use of troops, especially as looting and burning diminished, was the need to counter the attacks of snipers. There were 3000 National Guardsmen, 1400 Newark police, 500 state troopers, and several hundred firemen who were standing and riding in the open during the riot. They were exposed, it was claimed, to a “withering sniper fire.” With a pistol, and certainly with a rifle, an amateur sniper could have killed several soldiers. But only one policeman and one fireman were killed, both after the troops were brought in. The circumstances of their deaths are unclear. Both were described as sniper victims, although they were caught in the middle of police fire, and no one knew even the direction from which the snipers were shooting. But even if we assume they were sniper victims, two killings from Wednesday to Monday, in an area swarming with troops, suggest that the sniper fire from Negroes was far more limited than was claimed.
Life published an interview with a sniper who said that few whites were killed because the snipers were shooting in the air in order to distract the police from looters. If this was so, the officials who reported direct and heavy fire on police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, jeeps, and armored cars were being less than accurate about a very important issue. A shot in the air can be distinguished from withering fire aimed at human targets or vehicles.
No snipers were killed. No one was arrested in the act of sniping. Many people in the community knew that guns and ammunition were around, but only a tiny handful of people did any shooting. Some of these were isolated individuals, some operated in small teams. However, it must be emphasized that it was impossible for the snipers to initiate the riot. In the judgment of those who were present at the crucial incident on Wednesday, July 12, none of the people who could be considered “organized snipers” were even on the scene. They only began to emerge on Thursday after large numbers of young people had made their decision to riot. It is entirely possible that the riot would have been over had the troops not entered the community on Friday afternoon. The snipers were the pretext used by officials to commit thousands of violent acts against the whole Negro community. If the Governor was concerned about snipers, people in the ghetto said, then he should not have sent in the troops who served as targets.
BUT THE TROOPS came flooding in. John V. Spinale, an assistant to the Governor, stated that they had been instructed to act with the “utmost restraint” and to “shoot only when necessary, primarily in self-defense.” The reality was very different.
In the heavily looted Clinton Hill area (to take one example), the troops arrived early Friday afternoon. Parking their tank, armored cars, and jeeps in a lot ordinarily used by shoppers, the troops made their way up and down the avenue brandishing rifles and bayonets. Hundreds of people were on the street before they came, mostly people looking in wonder at the shattered remains of stores. When the troops arrived, however, young people and men came to the avenue in larger numbers than before. To show the troops that securing the area was impossible by military means, several youths set fire to a store the soldiers were “guarding.” Several fire engines and troop reinforcements rushed to the scene, drawing thousands of people into the street. Periodically squads of soldiers would march down the street driving people away with outstretched bayonets. But when the clearance was over, the people returned.
As dusk came, about fifty Guardsmen and troopers took up positions on the four corners of Clinton and Hunterdon. Several of them stood in the center of the street directing pedestrian and automobile traffic. Along Hunterdon Street people lined the stoops and stood in front of their homes. About thirty men, mostly young, stayed around the corner, alternately talking and arguing with the troops. The troops were all white, a fact that was not lost on one person who shouted that her son was in Vietnam.
At one point a car bearing Newark police drove down Hunterdon. A curse was uttered at the car by a man on the stoops, and the policeman slammed to a halt. The driver backed the car up to where the man was standing, stopped, got out, and approached the man, wrapping the leather cord of the nightstick around his wrist. “What did you say? What did you say, Mister?” the club grazing back and forth over the motionless black face. “Do you want this over your head? Well, get back inside. Do you hear me, get back inside. Get inside your house!” The policeman’s eyes were bulging and his voice was trembling. the man backed up to his porch, the policeman backed up to his car. Two hundred people had formed into a quiet audience.
When the police drove away, the young men went back up Hunterdon to taunt the Guardsmen. The soldiers marched toward them, bayonets pointing. The kids kept coming, a few spreading out into the street or behind the cars. Face to face, ten soldiers with guns against twenty-five kids with two bottles. The Guardsmen pushed the kids back with their bayonets. One bayonet went too far through the shirt and the victim turned around screaming into the soldier’s face. Quickly the troops circled around him and the rest of the kids moved into a wider circle. With the bayonets on his skin, the young man continued yelling. Down the street troopers rushed with pistols and clubs swinging. The soldiers opened their circle to allow the trooper to crack the captured one across the back. Two blows and he fell to the street, and twisted in a convulsion. Rocks and bottles flew at the troops and four black men ran up to the writhing body. They sat on the victim to prevent his body from snapping. At the corner all the Guardsmen were in a square formation pointing their rifles at people along the street and in their houses. They marched around in a tight step. The people retreated into homes and alleys. The street fell silent except for the soldiers’ footfalls. A neighborhood worker, deputized by the police to cool people off, put down his bullhorn and swore, “If they’re going to do this, fuck it. I can’t do anything.” After a moment he picked up the bullhorn and started speaking: “Please, people, take your little children inside, take your children inside. Someone is going to get hurt out here.”
IV. THE TERROR
We will never know the full story of how these troops and the police hurt the black people of Newark. But there is now sufficient evidence to establish the main features of their behavior.
Less than 2 percent of the guardsmen and troopers were Negro. Virtually none of the 250 Negro Newark policemen took part in the violent suppression. The New Jersey National Guard, like that in other states, is a lily-white organization which seems to have the character of an exclusive “club” for middle-income businessmen from the suburbs. The New Jersey state troopers also are predominantly white, and many are from conservative South Jersey towns where the troopers act as local police. It was understandable that these men would bring into the ghetto racist attitudes that would soon support outright sadism. A captain who commanded helicopter-borne infantry told a New York Times reporter on July 14:
“They put us here because we’re the toughest and the bestâ€Ś. If anybody throws things down our necks, then it’s shoot to kill, it’s either them or us, and it ain’t going to be us.”
On Saturday, the 15th, troopers charged up the stairs of the Hayes houses, shouting, “Get back, you black niggers!” There was shooting up each flight of stairs as they charged. Later, a trooper pumped more than thirty bullets into the body of a fallen teen-ager while shouting, “Die, bastard, die.” A Guardsman asked a witness, “What do you want us to do, kill all your Negroes?” A Newark policeman chipped in, “We are going to do it anyway, so we might as well take care of these three now.”