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A Special Supplement: The Occupation of Newark

These are not isolated examples, but a selection from innumerable incidents of the kind that were reported throughout the riots. From them, we can draw three conclusions about the soldiers and the police. *

Trigger-happiness because of fear, confusion, and exhaustion: Many of the troops were assigned to round-the-clock duty. During that duty they were under conditions of extreme tension. They were kept moving about by incidents or reports of looting, burning, and shooting. They drove at speeds of more than fifty miles per hour; they ran continually along the streets after people. They were surrounded by unfamiliar and hostile faces. There were no foxholes or other shelters from attack. The troopers and Guardsmen knew little or nothing about the terrain, and often were unable to tell the direction of shooting. The New York Daily News of July 20 summarized:

Reporters in the riot area feared the random shots of the guardsmen far more than the shots from snipers…. Once a frantic voice shouted [over the radio], “Tell those Guardsmen to stop shooting at the roof. Those men they’re firing at are policemen.”…”They were completely out of their depth,” said one reporter. “It was like giving your kid brother a new toy. They were firing at anything and everything.”

In a report on police behavior for The New York Times, July 20, Peter Kihss quoted the police radio on Sunday night to this effect:

Newark police, hold your fire! State police, hold your fire!… You’re shooting at each other! National Guardsmen, you’re shooting at buildings and sparks fly so we think there are snipers! Be sure of your targets!”

Kihss adds: “After these appeals, there seemed to be a decrease in sniper alarms.”

General and deliberate violence employed against the whole community: On Friday night ten Negroes were killed, 100 suffered gunshot wounds, 500 were “treated” at City Hospital, and at least as many were arrested or held. By Sunday night another ten were dead, at least fifty more had gunshot wounds, and another 500 were in jail. People were stopped indiscriminately in the streets, shoved, cursed, and beaten and shot. On Thursday, Joe Price, a veteran of the Korean war and an employee of ITT for 15 years, was beaten on the head, arms, stomach, and legs by five Newark policemen inside the Fourth Precinct. He had protested police harassment of neighborhood teenagers earlier in the day. Later, Jerry Berfet, walking peacefully on the sidewalk with two women, was stopped by police who told him to strip, ripped off his clothes, and forced him to run naked down the street. No charges were entered against either man. A Negro professional worker was arrested while driving on a quiet street after 10 P.M. curfew, beaten unconscious, and then forced to perform what his lawyer describes as “degrading acts” when he revived in the police station.

Troops fired wildly up streets and into buildings, at real or imagined enemies. On Saturday before darkness fell, three women were killed in their homes by police fire. Rebecca Brown, a twenty nine-year-old nurse’s aide, was cut nearly in half as she tried to rescue her two-year-old child from the window. Hattie Gainer, an elderly twenty-year resident of her neighborhood, was shot at her window in view of her three grandchildren. Eloise Spellman was shot through the neck in her Hayes apartment with three of her eleven children present.

A child in Scudder Homes lost his ear and eye to a bullet. A man was shot while fixing his car as police charged after a crowd. When another man told police he was shot in the side, the officer knocked him down and kicked him in the ribs.

The most obvious act of deliberate aggression was the police destruction of perhaps 100 Negro-owned stores Saturday and Sunday. One witness followed police down Bergen Street for fifteen blocks, watching them shoot into windows marked “Soul Brother.” Another storeowner observed a systematic pattern. On his block three white-owned stores were looted Thursday night; no Negro stores were damaged. There were no other disturbances on his block until well after midnight Saturday when he received calls that troopers were shooting into the Negro-owned stores or were breaking windows with the butts of their guns.

Was it because the police hated black people indiscriminately? Was it because the police wanted to teach middle-class Negroes that they must take responsibility for what “criminal” Negroes do? Or because the police wanted to prevent Negro-operated stores from gaining an advantage over the looted white merchants? Whatever the reason, the result was summed up clearly by Gustav Heningburg, a Negro who is a lay official of the Episcopal Church. He told the Newark News of July 17 that “the non-rioting Negroes are more afraid of the police than the rioters” because the police were retaliating instead of protecting.

Governor Hughes said on Sunday that all reports of excessive behavior would be handled by the troopers’ own investigative unit. If charges were proved true, “and after all the police are only human,” the Governor was sure that “justice will be done.” As for himself, “I felt a thrill of pride in the way our state police and National Guardsmen have conducted themselves.”

Cold-blooded murder: An evaluation of the deaths so far reported suggests that the military forces killed people for the purposes of terror and intimidation. Nearly all the dead were killed by police, troopers, and Guardsmen. The “crimes” of the victims were petty, vague, or unproven. None were accused by police of being snipers; only one so far is alleged to have been carrying a gun. Several of the dead were engaged in small-scale looting at most. The majority were observers; ten, in fact, were killed inside or just outside their homes. Many were killed in daylight. Nearly all the dead had families and jobs; only a few had previous criminal records. Seven of the dead were women, two were young boys. Of those known to be dead, five were killed Thursday night: one by a hit-and-run car, one allegedly shot by mistake by a sniper, three others by Newark police. Ten were slain on Friday night; six between Saturday afternoon and the early part of Sunday; one on Monday night. All but one or two of these were police victims.

The killing of nineteen-year-old James Rutledge will not soon be forgotten in Newark. On Sunday afternoon, he was inside a looted tavern with several other teen-agers hiding from the fire of troopers and police. According to a witness, the troopers burst into the tavern shooting and yelling, “Come out you dirty fucks.” James Rutledge agreed to come out from behind a cigarette machine. He was frisked against the wall. Then:

The two troopers…looked at each other. Then one trooper who had a rifle shot Jimmy from about three feet away…. While Jimmy lay on the floor, the same trooper started to shoot Jimmy some more with the rifle. As he fired…he yelled, “Die, you dirty bastard, die you dirty nigger, die, die…” At this point a Newark policeman walked in and asked what happened. I saw the troopers look at each other and smile….

The trooper who shot Jimmy remained…took a knife out of his own pocket and put it in Jimmy’s hand.

Shortly after three men came in with a stretcher. One said, “they really laid some lead on his ass.”…He asked the State Trooper what happened. The Trooper said, “He came at me with a knife”…

For anyone who wonders whether this is an exaggerated youthful horror story, the photographs of James Rutledge’s chest and head are available from his mother.

CLEARLY THE EVIDENCE points to a military massacre in Newark rather than to a two-sided war. This was not only the conclusion of the Negroes in the ghetto but of private Newark lawyers, professors of constitutional law, and representatives of the state American Civil Liberties Union. They charge that the police were the instrument of a criminal conspiracy “to engage in a pattern of systematic violence, terror, abuse, intimidation, and humiliation” to keep Negroes as second-class citizens. The police, according to the complaint, “seized on the initial disorders as an opportunity and pretext to perpetrate the most horrendous and widespread killing, violence, torture, and intimidation, not in response to any crime or civilian disorder, but as a violent demonstration of the powerlessness of the plaintiffs and their class…”

Thus it seems to many that the military, especially the Newark police, not only triggered the riot by beating a cab-driver but then created a climate of opinion that supported the use of all necessary force to suppress the riot. The force used by police was not in response to snipers, looting, and burning, but in retaliation against the successful uprising of Wednesday and Thursday nights.

Responsible officials of Newark and the state gave the orders to the police. “The Governor’s word was interpreted as a go-ahead to shoot.” a federal officer confided after the riot. Certainly by “drawing the line” for all America in Newark the Governor was endorsing the use of massive force. The city’s political officials seemed to know what was going on as well. One of the Mayor’s aides, Donald Malafronte, told the New York Daily News on July 15: “We’re through sending out kids with armbands telling kids not to riot. From now on we treat looters as outright criminals.”

In the aftermath of the riot, a Committee of Concern consisting of solid and responsible white citizens, including the Episcopal Bishop, the Dean of Rutgers in Newark, and the vice-president of Newark’s largest department store, formally stated their own awareness of police brutality. One of the causes of the riot, in their view, was the feeling in the Negro community that the police are “the single continuously lawless element operating in the community.” The solid citizens agreed that this Negro view had merit. If Life magazine could bemoan the fact that the Negro community would not turn in its “lawless elements,” couldn’t the solid white citizens be asked to turn in the murderous element in their midst?

The riot made clear that if something is not done about the police immediately, the fears of white society will be transformed into reality: whites will be facing a black society which will not only harbor, but welcome and employ snipers. The troops did not instill fear so much as a fighting hatred in the community. People of every age and background cursed the soldiers. Women spit at armored cars. Five-year-old kids clenched bottles in their hands. If the troops made a violent move, the primitive missiles were loosed at them. People openly talked of the riot turning into a showdown and, while many were afraid, few were willing to be pushed around by the troops. All told there were more than 3000 people arrested, injured, or killed; thousands more witnessed these incidents. From this kind of violence which touches people personally springs a commitment to fight back. By the end of the weekend many people spoke of a willingness to die.

  1. *

    All of the instances cited in this article are documented by newspaper reports or eye-witness accounts.

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