By Tom Hayden
Published with The New York Review of Books, Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 1967
Recently, we have seen uprisings in Baltimore, Maryland, Ferguson, Missouri, and several other cities where Black men had been murdered by the police. Only after the rebellion in Baltimore did a State Prosecutor issue indictments against six police officers involved in the murder of Freddie Gray.
Tom Hayden’s 1967, book Rebellion in Newark – Official violence and ghetto response demonstrates that both rebellions and police violence are nothing new in this country. While this book continues to be well worth reading, in my opinion, there was one significant weakness. Hayden’s book failed to place the rebellion in Newark in a historical context. This review will attempt to correct that flaw.
The history of racist violence
An undeniable fact about the history of the United States is that thousands of Black people died as a result of lynchings. Many if not most of these lynchings took place in rural areas in the south. The film Rosewood documented how racists destroyed an entire Black community in 1923. A similar event happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. Rarely, if ever, did the government of this country make any attempt to prosecute those who organized these lynchings.
Racist violence wasn’t limited to the United States. Before the Second World War most Jewish people lived in Eastern Europe. At that time there were a series of racist raids on Jewish communities where thousands lost their lives. Jews used the Yiddish word pogrom to describe these racist attacks. The Tsarist government of Russia had no problem with these pogroms and even encouraged the murderers.
One of the definitions of the word pogrom is: A massacre or persecution instigated by the government or by the ruling class against a minority group, particularly Jews.
However, when many Jews and other Europeans came to this country, something happened. The writer James Baldwin argued that there was a price to be paid by Caucasians who came to this country. He called this the Price of the Ticket. This meant that many Caucasians forgot their experiences in Europe and viewed themselves as white.
Becoming white meant they needed to forget some of the horrors of Europe so they could feel some sense of entitlement. This so-called entitlement was about the illusion of an expectation of being treated better because they were not Black.
The civil rights movement erupted because Black people had been systematically denied citizenship rights in this country partly because of the Jim Crow laws. In 1963 Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama. At that time, there were religious officials who criticized King for being arrested. They argued that he needed to be patient and that change would come eventually.
King responded to this argument with his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He wrote that his daughter asked King why she wasn’t allowed to play in a local park. King didn’t like the fact that he had to tell his daughter that she wasn’t allowed to play in the park because of the color of her skin. This was one reason why Martin Luther King decided he wasn’t going to be patient and took direct action.
Malcolm X lived most of his life in cities in the northern states that didn’t have Jim Crow laws. Malcolm argued that it wasn’t sufficient to argue for civil rights. He argued that the government routinely denied Black people human rights throughout this country. For this reason Malcolm argued that the United States government needed to be put on trial in the World Court for its human rights violations against millions of Blacks living in this country.
The Newark rebellion
The rebellion in Newark, as rebellions in many other cities, started with an incident of police brutality. The police arrested a cab driver by the name of John Smith on July 12, 1967. One of the charges against Smith was that he used “abusive language.” This is what Smith had to say about his time in police custody:
“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.”
The rebellion in Newark wasn’t about protesting this single incident. In January of 1967 business officials issued a report where they argued that Newark’s problems were “more grave and pressing than those of perhaps any other American city.” City officials applied for funds under the Model Cities Act using the following argument:
“Newark had the nation’s highest percentage of bad housing, the most crime per 100,000 people, the heaviest tax burden, the highest rates of venereal disease, maternal mortality, and new cases of tuberculosis. The city was listed as second in infant mortality, second in birth rate, seventh in absolute number of drug addicts. Its unemployment rate in the Black community was 15%.”
We might also think about the fact that rebellions had been erupting in Black communities all over the nation four years before 1967. Some people were surprised, not that the rebellion happened in Newark, but that it didn’t erupt before 1967.
After John Smith’s arrest civil rights leaders demanded to see him. After some resistance from the police, these leaders saw John Smith and demanded that he receive medical attention. Smith was taken to Beth Israel Hospital.
John Smith had initially been taken to the Forth Precinct Police Station located on 17th avenue near what was then Belmont Avenue. Today, the former Belmont Avenue is called Irving Turner Boulevard.
Across the street from the Forth Precinct were the former Hayes Homes housing projects. Tom Hayden reported that the Hayes Homes consisted of six buildings each housing about 1,000 people on twelve floors.
Cab drivers throughout the city had been communicating to one another about the brutality John Smith experienced. A demonstration took place at the Fourth Precinct that evening. The anger of the 500 demonstrators turned into rage and missiles started flying at the police station. These missiles would break 110 windows.
The police came out of the station with helmets and clubs. They were met with a torrent of bricks and bottles. Afraid for their lives, the police retreated back into the station.
Tom Hayden gives this useful description of the thinking of Black people who participated in the rebellion:
“Fathers and mothers in the ghetto often complain that even they cannot understand the wildness of their kids. Knowing that America denies opportunity to black young men, black parents still share with whites the sense that youth is heading in a radically new, incomprehensible, and frightening direction. Refusal to obey authority—that of the parents, teachers and other adult ‘supervisors’—is a common charge against youngsters. Yet when the riot broke out, the generations came together. The parents understood and approved the defiance of their sons that night.”
The so-called “looting” of white owned stores started that evening.
James Baldwin spoke about the so-called “looting” that took place in the Black community during the rebellions. He argued that when a young Black man takes a television from a store, he doesn’t really want that TV. Baldwin argued that what that young Black man wants is for people to recognize that he exists and is in fact a human being.
We might also consider that the United States became a nation as a result of a political revolution. The Declaration of Independence states clearly that when the people are subjected to a “long train of abuses” it is not only, “their right, but their duty” to throw off their oppressors and establish new guards for their security.
At the Boston Tea Party of 1773, insurgents boarded three ships in Boston Harbor. It took them three hours to throw 342 chests of tea overboard.
The so-called “looting” of white owned stores was partly about the routine cheating these storeowners practiced in the Black community. Well-dressed working people participated in the rebellion and felt entitled to get even for all the money these stores effectively stole from the community. The insurgents left the Black owned stores alone.
While the Black community felt a sense of empowerment from the rebellion, the police took a different approach. On Thursday, July 13, 250 people were treated at City Hospital. At least fifteen had gunshot wounds. The next morning there were 425 people in jail.
However, the brutal police response was incapable of stopping the rebellion. Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio asked Governor Richard J. Hughes for assistance. Governor Hughes mobilized over 3,000 National Guardsmen to carry out, what was in effect, a pogrom against the Black residents of Newark.
Governor Hughes toured Newark on Friday morning July 15. He called the uprising, “An obvious open rebellion.” This description by Hughes differed descriptions by the press and the history books that have routinely called the Newark rebellions “riots.” Hughes was open about his hatred for the tax-paying residents of Newark with his statement:
“The line between the jungle and the law might as well be drawn here as any place in America.”
A Committee of Concern that included the Episcopal Bishop, deans of Rutgers Newark campus as well as their law school, and the vice-presidents of Prudential Insurance Company disagreed with Governor Hughes statement. They issued a statement arguing that a major cause of the rebellion was a belief held in the Black community that the police are, “the single continuously lawless element operating in the community.”
During the government-organized pogrom about 24 people lost their lives. This number may be higher given that the hospitals were overwhelmed with residents who had been injured or murdered.
Friday evening July 15 was the time of most of the murders. Among those who lost their lives was Detective Fred Toto and Fire Captain Michael Moran. Tom Hayden reported that in all probability these men died as a result of gunfire coming from the police or national guardsmen. Also on Friday evening ten Black people were killed, 100 suffered gunshot wounds, 500 were “treated” at City Hospital, and as many were arrested or held.
One clear example of vandalism was the police organized destruction of Black owned stores. As I mentioned before, those who participated in the rebellion didn’t damage any of the stores owned by Black people. Those stores were marked “soul brother.” Witnesses observed police destruction of 100 stores that had been marked soul brother.
Tom Hayden quoted a statement made by lawyers that included members of the American Civil Liberties Union. They argued that the police were an instrument of a conspiracy, “to engage in a pattern of systematic violence, terror, abuse, intimidation, and humiliation. They went on to say the police “seized on the initial disorders as an opportunity and pretext to perpetuate the most horrendous and widespread killing, violence, torture, and intimidation, not in response to any crime or civilian disorder, but in a violent demonstration of powerlessness of the plaintiffs and their class. . .”
In 1967 I happened to be fourteen years old and living in a section of the South Ward in Newark known as Weekquahic. All I knew about the rebellions were the National Guardsmen stationed at the end of the street where I lived. I also remember stories of how there were snipers who were firing at the guardsmen from rooftops. In Hayden’s book I don’t recall anyone being convicted of being a sniper.
There were however three young people who died in the rebellion. If I had a different skin color and lived a few miles from where I was living at the time, I could have been one of those young people.
One was ten-year old Eddie Moss of 240 Rose Street. Eddie was sitting in his family car on the way to a White Castle for dinner. Guardsmen shot at the car and Eddie lost his life.
Another was twelve-year old Michael Pugh of 340 Fifteenth Avenue. Michael’s mother sent him to take out the garbage. Guardsmen apparently heard someone say something derogatory. They shot Michael Pugh dead.
Another was sixteen-year old James Sanders of 52 Beacon Street. Police records indicate that James lost his life because of gunshot wounds. The circumstances of his death are uncertain. However, his father said he had never been in trouble before.
Governor Hughes dismissed the charges of police and National Guard brutality arguing that this was, “standard operating procedure.” He went on to state that he was “thrilled” by the performance of the troops.
The war against Vietnam
We might also consider that while the National Guardsmen invaded Newark, the U.S. military was at war against the people of Vietnam. Le Ly Hayslip wrote her book titled, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places that describes what the war meant to her family. Her book was made into a film titled Heaven and Earth.
The story of Le Ly Hayslip's family shows concretely what this war was all about. Ms Hayslip's oldest brother, Bon Nghe spent most of his adult life in the army that forced the U.S. out of his homeland. Another brother, Sou Bon was reported to have been blown up by a land mine that was made in the U.S.A. The death of this brother was never confirmed and to this day Sou Bon is what the newspapers refer to as "Missing In Action". Because of the war a sister of Ms Hayslip (Lan) was forced off the family's farm and became a prostitute in order to survive. Both Ms Hayslip and her mother were also forced off their land and experienced homelessness as a result.
Ms Hayslip was held in prison and tortured on three separate occasions. Ms Hayslip's father, Phung Trong remained on his farm that was located in the middle of a war zone. The separation of the father from his wife and six children, the fact that he was tortured in prison by the U.S. and its allies, and the fact that he had to endure the complete destruction of his way of life provoked Phung Trong to commit suicide.
In all, millions of people lost their lives in the U.S. war against the people of Southeast Asia. While these stories are unimaginably horrendous, the Vietnamese people eventually forced the U.S. military out of their country.
The aftermath of the rebellions
Tom Hayden argued that the National Guardsmen left Newark just a few days after they arrived. We might appreciate that there was seething hatred of the guardsmen by the people of in the city. The government that gave orders to the guardsmen apparently were concerned about what might happen if this anger was mobilized.
Martin Luther King visited the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts after the rebellion in 1965. King asked the question: “What did it profit the Negro to burn down the stores and factories in which he sought employment?”
Clearly, there was considerable destruction that took place during the rebellions. I went to Arts High in the Central Ward of Newark. Every day on the bus ride to school I saw block after block of burned out stores that hadn’t been torn down.
However, we might speculate that those who have power in this country understood that when cities erupt in rebellion, that this is bad for business. We might also speculate that that this awareness prompted business and government officials to promote affirmative action programs in education and employment.
When I attended the 40th high school reunion of my graduating class, I learned that many of my former classmates had educational and employment opportunities their parents never had. Most of my former classmates are Black. Martin Luther King didn’t live to see this development.
We must also state that today the government has targeted Black people for prison. The numbers of Black people in prison is grossly out of proportion to their percentage of the population. Anyone living in this country has a better chance of going to prison than citizens of any other nation in the world. Understanding these facts, my opinion is that we need to stop calling the prisons of this country, prisons.
A better description would be to call these institutions concentration camps.
So, what can we learn from the rebellions that have erupted all over this country? My opinion is that we first need to think about the worlds in the Declaration of Independence. That declaration argued that people don’t normally take up arms against a government. But when there is a “long train of abuses,” it is not only “their right, but their duty,” to throw off the old regime and establish new guards for their security.
The rebellions demonstrate clearly that the people of this country are not apathetic. When we are pushed to the point where they need to respond, we have responded. The problem has been that we need an organized leadership that can transform the justifiable rage people feel into action that can make a profound difference.
This did happen in the nation of Cuba. A nation that experienced routine police brutality and extreme poverty, was transformed into a nation that leads the world in health care and education. While Cuba continues to have pressing problems, their example is inspiring for all those seeing human dignity for everyone in the world.