by Bennett Muraskin
PRIOR TO THE 1960s, race riots were indeed what they sound like: Violent clashes between mobs of Whites and Blacks. Whites were typically the aggressors. The best (or worst) examples were the 1863 Draft Riots in New York City where, in addition to protesting the military draft, poor Irish attacked Black people and their property, and the 1919 riots in Chicago, where White mobs rampaged through Black neighborhoods after a Black child had accidentally drifted into a beach restricted for use by Whites.
In Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark and other sites of “race riots” in the 1960s, the trigger incident was typically an instance of police brutality. Then, after local residents began to loot and burn small businesses in their neighborhood, the police and soldiers were sent in to restore “law and order.” Whites stayed in their own neighborhoods and Blacks made no attempt to invade them. The casualties were nearly all Blacks and a small number of police. In sum, these were not really race riots at all.
The underlying factors that triggered these “race riots” in Newark (July 12-17, 1967) and elsewhere were poverty, unemployment, poor housing, and hostile or indifferent local governments — all of this within the framework of racial discrimination. As noted, incidents of police brutality generally provided the spark. However, the outbursts they provoked were not “rebellions” — as some are inaccurately describing those events today — in the true sense of the term.
Americans rebelled against British colonialism in 1775. The South rebelled against the North in 1861. The Wobblies called themselves “rebels.” What these disparate movements have in common is organization and purpose. The Continental Congress and independence; the Confederacy and the preservation of slavery; industrial unionism and the overthrow of capitalism. Wikipedia lists many rebellions throughout the history of the U.S., including Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831, but not the “race riots” of the 1960s.
THE “RACE RIOTS” of the 1960s were unorganized and chaotic. To be fair, there was an organized, albeit violent, protest in front of a Newark police precinct after a Black cab driver was arrested and beaten by the police. But the community response quickly degenerated into looting and burning of neighborhood stores. Firefighters who came to douse the flames were attacked. In certain instances, snipers fired on police or soldiers. No Black organization active in Newark at that time, including the NAACP, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) or the Black Muslims, assumed leadership.
Where were the strikes, protest marches, rallies or sit-ins? The flyers or press conferences that set forth grievances and made demands for remedial action? These are the hallmarks of a rebellion. Rather, people broke into stores, robbed them and burned them. These are the characteristics of a riot. “Burn, Baby, Burn!” (a slogan associated with the LA Watts riots in 1965) was not a program. Burn what? It was an expression of blind or, at most, misdirected rage. And even if one wishes to make the case that violence, or the threat of violence, might sometimes be justified, there was also no attempt to storm police headquarters, city hall or any government buildings — of which there are many in Newark, since it serves as the county seat and the site of various state and federal offices.
A commission appointed by the governor of New Jersey ultimately found that the police and National Guard were responsible for most of the bloodshed in Newark. Looters or even arsonists did not deserve to be beaten, shot or killed. Innocent bystanders were also among the victims. But the rioters and innocent bystanders were not social activists. They were either out for themselves or just trying to mind their own affairs.
Remember the movie Do The Right Thing? It provides an excellent example of what a riot looks like. After police choke to death a Black youth who assaulted the White owner of a local pizzeria, a Black employee of the pizzeria (played by director Spike Lee) throws a garbage can through its window. This prompts the crowd that witnessed the police killing to destroy and burn the store, but not before robbing the cash register. The mob ignores the pleas of a neighborhood elder (played by Ossie Davis) to desist. Far from being the enemy, the White pizzeria owner had chosen to remain in the neighborhood despite its dangers. He took pride in feeding generations of neighborhood kids and was a decent employer. The only complaint against him was that he posted photos of Italian American celebrities on the walls, rather than Black ones.
THE AFTERMATH of the Newark riot tells a sad story. Springfield Avenue, the shopping district that was the focal point of the mayhem, lay into ruins. The White storekeepers and merchants did not reopen, nor were their businesses replaced. Whites still living in Newark headed for the exits, depleting the city’s tax base, not to mention its diversity. Yes, Newark elected its first Black mayor, Kenneth Gibson, in 1970, but its downward spiral continued. Were the riots to blame? Not entirely, but in part, yes. Newark’s reputation was tarnished for decades.
I attended college and graduate school in Newark from 1970-78, worked there from 1979-1988 and lived blocks from the municipal border from 1979-1983. Since then, I have often visited the city on job-related assignments. I was never the victim of a crime, except for one case when my car radio was stolen. But I did witness the shuttering of major department stores and the derelict state of the housing stock. Not only was there an abundance of boarded-up homes, but huge swaths of empty lots were visible to anyone driving through the city. Thankfully, over the last few decades, many new affordable homes have been built and supermarkets have returned to formerly blighted neighborhoods. This is progress — but it did not come from the riots.
There is a Black-led progressive organization in Newark and other northern New Jersey towns called the People’s Organization for Progress. I have proudly participated in some of its actions. It has a radical-left program and engages in spirited street demonstrations, as well as other forms of social and political protest. They are always well-organized and peaceful. Although the organization would never advocate violence or the destruction of property, it is currently commemorating the 1967 Newark “rebellion” as if it was a glorious event. Such is the power of myth.
Working with progressive forces of all colors, Ras Baraka, the current mayor of Newark, has done an excellent job of reforming the police and promoting a revitalization that includes all the city’s residents, rather than just real estate interests and business elites. One of his greatest challenges is to reduce street crime and murder, not downtown, but in the Black neighborhoods. Yet he, too, is memorializing the 1967 riots as a “rebellion.”
Unfortunately, this distortion — mislabeling what was a riot and turning it into a “rebellion” — diminishes the achievements of the true fighters for social and racial justice, both then and now.
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.