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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Soul brothers vs. the Man

Forty years ago this weekend, the city in which I was growing up -- Newark, N.J. -- was rocked by brutal race riots that went on for nearly a week. The death and destruction took place "uptown" -- in the black neighborhoods on the other side of the railroad tracks from where we lived, particularly along a shopping street called Springfield Avenue. By the time the rioting was over, 26 people were dead, 725 were injured, and close to 1,500 were arrested. Property damage exceeded $10 million, which was a considerable chunk of change in those days.

We lived on the east side of town, in the melting-pot Ironbound section, where things remained fairly calm. A half-block from our house, there were public housing "projects" which were mostly black, and the folks on our all-white street, who watched the projects warily all the time anyway, were really watching them closely that hot week. But nothing much happened in our neck of the woods. I think one storefront around the corner had its display window broken, but that was about it within a mile or two of our place.

Not so elsewhere in Newark. Scores of white-owned businesses in the central part of the city were looted and burned to the ground. Jewish merchants were particularly targeted by the rioters' rage. Indeed, entire blocks were destroyed, adding to the devastated landscape that had already been created by the "urban renewal" process of razing dilapidated buildings and leaving the lots vacant. Black-owned businesses painted the words "soul brother" on their shop windows to avoid being cleaned out and then torched. City police, state troopers, and National Guard troops marched through the streets with machine guns. Martial law was in effect. Mail delivery was suspended citywide. Two of the drawbridges across the Passaic River between Newark and the much whiter town of Harrison were left up all night to stop the havoc from spreading. The Portuguese immigrants on the east side of Penn Station posted signs daring the "soul brothers" to bring the action down to their neighborhood, but the mayhem never got past the tracks.

When the violence got too intense, my parents suddenly whisked us three kids off to my mother's sister's house in the Philadelphia suburbs for the weekend. But we got back to Newark in time for me and my high school buddies to sit out on the front stoop on Ferry Street, where we used to while away each and every sweet, romantic teenage summer night, and watch the troops as they pulled out of Newark in an eastbound convoy. It was the afternoon of the day after the riots.

I'll never forget the sight. That long line of vehicles, many wrapped in barbed wire and most loaded with heavily armed troops, seemed to go on forever. The uniformed military men, mostly white, were filthy and exhausted. But they were quite comfortable with, even boastful about, the number of black people they had taken down. Several vehicles sported handmade signs proudly noting how many "soul brothers" that particular group of Guardsmen had killed.

History has a way of placing events like this under an amber glass, like the Declaration of Independence, where it all seems so neat and tidy. Look at the Wikipedia entry -- hardly anyone remembers, it seems, or even cares. "Maybe it should be merged with the Plainfield riot entry" -- sheesh.

This was a civil war, played out in our own America. All hell broke loose. Many men on both sides of the color line behaved like animals. Cops and troops opened fire on people for looting a case of beer. The uniformed men shot first, and asked questions later (if at all). Most of the casualties were African-American civilians. Organized groups of black snipers shot at the lawmen from upper-story windows. Kids were hit by bullets from both sides. A firefighter was shot dead off a ladder as he investigated an alarm. At least one hospital was fired upon. The dam of hatred built by years of injustice broke open, and vengeance flowed.

That was pretty much the end for Newark. It had already been on a decline, and the riots sealed its fate. Businesses never rebuilt, most of the remaining white residents ran as fast as they could, and the conditions of the poor African-American community never improved much. For years, they had nowhere to shop, because the shops had all been burned down. Then came AIDS, and crack, and the gangs. Heroin had always been there, and it never left. The local government was, and still is, fundamentally corrupt -- rotten to the core. There are some pockets of modest prosperity in the city, but not where the riots were. If you're smart, you won't go into those neighborhoods, ever, under any circumstances. You wonder if the city could ever really stage a comeback.

What did it all prove, besides how much people had grown to hate each other? Nothing.

As a teenager, I never fully grasped what I had witnessed that afternoon on the front porch on Ferry Street. The friendly messages that were pouring out of our stereos from Motown artists and other black performers provided a nice distraction from the realities that had rolled past my friends and me that day. Pretty soon there were other stories. Vietnam started showing up on the TV news, and Woodstock, and Kent State. We lived in Newark five more years after the riots; then yet another war, inside our own house, forced my mom and us kids to move over one of those drawbridges. By the time of Watergate and Nixon, the events of July 1967 had faded into a misty haze.

But the older I get, the more I think back in horror about what I saw with my own eyes. And how far have we come in the intervening four decades? Not far enough. God help the human race.

Comments (9)

A friend who lived just up the street from us has his memories posted here.

I remember the horror of seeing those pictures in Life Magazine. All the worse because I had teen-age boys at the time and my heart ached for the mother of the boy bleeding in the street. I cried.

I remember that summer, though it was vicariously through the eyes of an emergency room nurse. We sat on the porch in another world overlooking a lake where the nurse and family came every summer to the cottage next door for a week. Our little rural town doubled in population with refugees from the heat of the "Big Cities" of the Boston-New York corridor where the water wasn't fit to swim in and the black-top absorbed and rebounded the heat of summer.

I remember the nurse talking about those horrible nights and about one of the good guy cops, they interacted with a lot in the emergency room when he brought in the aftermath of uncontrolled disputes and rage in what we referred to in our small town so far away as slums. His gun still in his holster he had died from being run over by a shopping cart then beaten and stuffed in it. She talked about the fear of those nights.

It was hard tucked a way in the country only seeing immages in black and white to imagine the horror, but it became real when the tears creeped from her eyes as she told of all the carnage they tried to patch back together in the hospital fearing for thier own lives and homes.

Don't forget that Portland had a riot too. Trashed Alberta street.

Maybe others.


Surely ALL the hotbeds of 'troubled youth,' (definition: A coming-of-age politically-aware and -hopeful youth, who opposes CIA-created Vietnam War; supports CIA/FBI-hated Civil Rights), got their own, and "had one" of them there chaotic urban RIOTs that were going-around. Quite a popular epidemic. Maybe something in the water. Oh, no, that couldn't be -- Portland had its own water.

The next Spring, 1968, very evidently Hoover's FBI conducted Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. All manner of admissions reveal the rightwing Gestapo-mentality (CIA/FBI) infiltrated Black Panthers and urban organizing black groups, as 'one of them' but truly agents provocateur inciting in the groups for outrageous brazen criminal over-the-top 'actions.'

( For example: While Malcolm was in prison, he converted to the Muslim religious sect, the Nation of Islam. When he was released in 1952, he changed his last name to X because he considered the name “Little” to have been a slave name. The Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, made Malcolm a minister ... The FBI began surveillance of him and infiltrated the Nation of Islam.)

Even this, recently admitted:

Several memos deal with “MHCHAOS,” otherwise known as “Operation CHAOS.” The CIA “recruited, tested, and dispatched … Americans with existing extremist credentials” who infiltrated peace organizations, one memo states.

Operation CHAOS also involved the illegal compiling of a database of 300,000 names of law-abiding American people and organizations, shades of the Patriot Act and the warrantless wiretapping ordered by George W. Bush.

Another flurry of memos warns against dissemination of a 1968 report, “Restless Youth,” and another on “Black Radicalism in the Caribbean,” arguing that “the likelihood that public exposure of the Agency’s interest in the problem of student dissidence would result in considerable notoriety particularly in the university world.”
[ ... ]
Another lesson, Byrne said, is how hard it is to curb these abuses: “When Congress enacts a law that limits the CIA as happened in the early 1980s, the White House turns to another agency to get around the restriction.”

When Congress banned aid to the anti-Nicaraguan contras, Byrne noted, President Reagan assigned Lt. Col. Oliver North and the National Security Council to sell arms to Iran and funnel the profits through numbered Swiss bank accounts to the contras.

“Nowadays we see the Pentagon and the National Security Agency engaged in a lot of those activities,” said Byrne.

He added, “It only underscores the importance of opening up the historic record so we can maintain a level of accountability.”

Very interesting post, Jack. Thanks. I didn't even know this had happened...

There were others -- Watts (L.A.) being a prominent example.

Why not add some content to the Wikipedia entry? Anyone can, and I would think they'd be pretty happy to have eyewitness content...


I also grew up Down Neck in The Pru, but left before the riots (the revolt?) occured.

By 1967 my parents were living on Brill Street, and they also soon moved away from Newark and south to Florida.

You're right about Newark being in a long and slow economic decline well before that watershed event of 1967. But I believe that the riots just hastened the inevitable.

If they hadn't occurred, the city would still probably be somewhat as it is now.

But the process of economic failure and social and political dysfunction would have been longer and more drawn out, and not so abrupt and dramatic.

Anyway, Portland's a long way from Down Neck, and you made a good choice of cities to live in (if in fact you came to live there by choice).

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