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.