JOHN SMITH STARTS A RIOT
As if to prove its inevitability, the Newark riot began with an ordinary police-brutality incident against a man with an ordinary name: John Smith, driver of Cab 45, in the employ of the Safety Cab Company. Early Wednesday night, Smith’s cab drove around a police car double-parked on 15th Avenue. Two uniformed patrolmen stopped the cab. According to the police story given to the Star-Ledger of July 14, Smith was charged with “tailgating” and driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Later they discovered his license had expired. The officers charged that Smith used abusive language and punched them. “They only used necessary force to subdue Smith, the policemen asserted.”
This “necessary force” was described more fully by Smith at his bail hearing on July 13. “There was no resistance on my part. That was a cover story by the police. They caved in my ribs, busted a hernia, and put a hole in my head.” Witnesses on the stoops saw Smith dragged, paralyzed, to the police station. Smith was conscious, however: “After I got into the precinct six or seven other officers along with the two who arrested me kicked and stomped me in the ribs and back. They then took me to a cell and put my head over the toilet bowl. While my head was over the toilet bowl I was struck on the back of the head with a revolver. I was also being cursed while they were beating me. An arresting officer in the cell-block said, ‘This baby is mine.”‘
It was about eight o’clock. Negro cab-drivers circulated the report on Smith over their radios. Women and men shook their heads as they stood or sat in front of their homes. The word spread down 17th Avenue west of the precinct, and across the avenue into Hayes Homes. Called the “projects” by everyone, Hayes Homes was erected in the wake of “slum clearance” in the mid-Fifties. Each of the six twelve-story buildings holds about 1000 people. People know them as foul prisons and police know them as “breeding grounds” for crime. As the word spread through Hayes Homes, people gathered at the windows and along the shadowy sidewalks facing the precinct.
What was unusual about John Smith’s case was the fact that the police were forced to let respected civil-rights leaders see his condition less than two hours after the beating. The police were trapped and nervous because they had been caught by civil-rights leaders whose account could not be discredited. A neighborhood resident had called several of these leaders—including activists from CORE, the United Freedom Party, and the Newark Community Union Project—minutes after Smith was brought in.
After they had a heated argument about Smith with officers in the precinct, an inspector arrived from central police headquarters and agreed to let the group see the prisoner in his cell. “Don’t listen to what he says. He’s obviously upset and nervous as you might expect,” the inspector…
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