BY SUNDAY the crisis was nearing a new stage. If the occupation of Friday and Saturday was going to continue, the community would have started to counterattack in a real way. “Why should we quit,” one kid wanted to know, “when they got twenty-five of us and only two of them are dead?”
Perhaps some fear of this trend led Governor Hughes to pull the troops out Monday morning. Perhaps he could see what another three days of occupation and siege would bring. Perhaps, on the other hand, he had no choice. The troops were tired, riots were spreading to other cities of the state, a railroad strike was beginning, and there were all those political engagements awaiting a man with large ambitions. It may also be true that the Governor knew the situation all along but knew as well that 90 percent of New Jersey is white and frightened. In this view, the Governor took a tough line in support of the troops at the beginning so that withdrawal would be politically acceptable to white voters later on. As late as Sunday night, a top State Police official was concerned that his men would consider him “chicken” if a pull-out were discussed openly.
Does it matter what Richard Hughes believed? Whatever it was, the consequences are what matter finally. The average view of Negroes as “criminals” to be suppressed was reinforced throughout the suburbs of New Jersey. The Negro community learned more deeply why they should hate white people. The police remain a protected and privileged conservative political force, the only such force licensed to kill. With all this coming to pass, few people were joyous as the troops went home on Monday.
V. FROM RIOT TO REVOLUTION
This country is experiencing its fourth year of urban revolt. Yet the message from Newark is that America has learned almost nothing since Watts.
There is no national program for economic and social change which answers the questions black people are raising. On the national scene, youth unemployment is well over 30 percent in the ghettos, in spite of the draft and manpower and make-work programs. Congress can pass laws against guns and riots, the FBI and local officials can bring criminal conspiracy or redbaiting charges, but until this country does something revolutionary to support the needs and aspirations of its youth—black and white, as the youth themselves define them—there will be no end to social crisis.
Those in power seem to regard the “riot problem” more and more as another form of natural disaster rather than as a problem capable of solution. Businessmen still hem and haw about the “profitability” and “viability” of building new homes where slums now stand. The summer issue of Newark Commerce, the Chamber of Commerce magazine, is entitled, “New Life in Newark.” The magazine complains that the good side of Newark life—its closeness to New York City, its rich undeveloped resources—is often overlooked because of “partially true” rumors that “Newark is crowded, it has slums, and the Negro population is growing rapidly.”
Political bankruptcy leads to the use of military force. As in Vietnam, American reactionaries, especially those in the military bureaucracies, are trying to pull the rest of the country into the use of terror to maintain the free world. The terror is usually covered over—civilians have weak stomachs—or “regretted” as the price of securing law and order. Inflammatory tales about the terror practiced by the natives, which often only reflect the projected guilt of the oppressors, spread widely through the white community.
The result is that the white community is moved into adopting the very jungle attitude of lawlessness which it fears in Negroes, “Go kill them niggers,” white crowds shouted to the Guardsmen as they rode into Newark. During the riot, a Times reporter was stopped at 2:30 A.M. in Mayor Addonizio’s west side neighborhood by a pipe-smoking man carrying (illegally) a shotgun. He informed the Times reporter that a protection society was forming in case “they” should come into the neighborhood. Negroes, on the other hand, were stripped of the smallest weapons and not even allowed in the streets after midnight. Such are the ways in which a society becomes militarized. Just as a military “takeover” in Washington is not necessary to expand the war in Vietnam, a police “takeover” of local government is not necessary to declare war on Negroes. Once the civilians believe there is no political way to deal with the issue, the problem is turned over to the troops.
The use of force can do nothing but create a demand for greater force. The Newark riot shows that troops cannot make people surrender. The police had several advantages over the community, particularly in firepower and mechanical mobility. Their pent-up racism gave them a certain amount of energy and morale as well. But, as events in the riot showed, the troops could not apply their methods to urban conditions. The problem of precision shooting—for example, at a sniper in a building with forty windows and escape routes through rooftop, alley, and doorway—is just as difficult in the urban jungle as precision bombing is in Vietnam. There is a lack of safe cover. There is no front line and no rear, no way to cordon an area completely. A block which is quiet when the troops are present can be the scene of an outbreak the moment the troops leave.
At the same time, the morale supported by racism soon turns into anxiety. Because of racism, the troops are unfamiliar with both the people and layout of the ghetto. Patrol duty after dark becomes a frightening and exhausting experience, especially for men who want to return alive to their families and homes. A psychology of desperation leads to careless and indiscriminate violence toward the community, including reprisal killing, which inflames the people whom the troops were sent to pacify.
The situation thus contains certain built-in advantages for black people. The community is theirs. They know faces, corners, rooms, alleys. They know whom to trust and whom not to trust. They can switch in seconds from a fighting to a passive posture. It is impressive that state and local officials could not get takers for their offer of money and clemency to anyone turning in a sniper.
This is not a time for radical illusions about “revolution.” Stagnancy and conservatism are essential facts of ghetto life. It is undoubtedly true that most Negroes desire the comforts and security that white people possess. There is little revolutionary consciousness or commitment to violence per se in the ghetto. Most of the people in the Newark ghetto were afraid, disorganized, and helpless when directly facing automatic weapons. But the actions of white America toward the ghetto are showing black people that they must prepare to fight back. The conditions are slowly being created for an American form of guerrilla warfare based in the slums. The riot represents a signal of this fundamental change.
To the conservative mind the riot is essentially anarchy. To the liberal mind it is an expression of helpless frustration. While the conservative is hostile and the liberal generous toward those who riot, both assume that the riot is a form of less-than-civilized behavior. The liberal will turn conservative if polite methods fail to stem disorder. Against these two fundamentally similar concepts, a third one must be asserted, the concept that a riot represents people making history.
The riot is certainly an awkward, even primitive, form of history-making. But if people are barred from using the sophisticated instruments of the established order for their ends, they will find another way. Rocks and bottles are only a beginning, but they get more attention than all the reports in Washington. To the people involved, the riot is far less lawless and far more representative than the system of arbitrary rules and prescribed channels which they confront every day. The riot is not a beautiful and romantic experience, but neither is the day-to-day slum life from which the riot springs. Riots will not go away if ignored, and will not be cordoned off. They will only disappear when their energy is absorbed into a more decisive and effective form of history-making.
Men are now appearing in the ghettos who might turn the energy of the riot into a more organized and continuous revolutionary direction. Middleclass Negro intellectuals and Negroes of the ghetto are joining forces. They have found channels closed, the rules of the game stacked, and American democracy a system which excludes them. They understand that the institutions of the white community are unreliable in the absence of black community power. They recognize that national civil-rights leaders will not secure the kind of change that is needed. They assume that disobedience, disorder, and even violence must be risked as the only alternative to continuing slavery.
The role of organized violence is now being carefully considered. During a riot, for instance, a conscious guerrilla can participate in pulling police away from the path of people engaged in attacking stores. He can create disorder in new areas the police think are secure. He can carry the torch, if not all the people, to white neighborhoods and downtown business districts. If necessary, he can successfully shoot to kill.
It is equally important to understand that the guerrilla can employ violence during times of apparent “peace.” He can attack, in the suburbs or slums, with paint or bullets, symbols of racial oppression. He can get away with it. If he can force the oppressive power to be passive and defensive at the point where it is administered—by the case-worker, landlord, storeowner, or policeman—he can build people’s confidence in their ability to demand change. Such attacks, which need not be on human life to be effective, might disrupt the administration of the ghetto to a crisis point where a new system would have to be considered.
These tactics of disorder will be defined by the authorities as criminal anarchy. But it may be that disruption will create possibilities of meaningful change. This depends on whether the leaders of ghetto struggles can be more successful in building strong organization than they have been so far. Violence can contribute to shattering the status quo, but only politics and organization can transform it.
The ghetto still needs the power to decide its destiny on such matters as urban renewal and housing, social services, policing, and taxation. Tenants still need concrete rights against landlords in public and private housing, or a new system of tenant-controlled living conditions. Welfare clients still need the power to receive a livable income without administrative abuse, or be able to replace the welfare system with one that meets their needs. Consumers still need to control the quality of merchandise and service in the stores where they shop. Citizens still need effective control over the behavior of those who police their community. Political structures belonging to the community are needed to bargain for, and maintain control over, funds from government or private sources. In order to build a more decent community while resisting racist power, more than violence is required. People need self-government. We are at a point where democracy—the idea and practice of people controlling their lives—is a revolutionary issue in the United States.