The Newark Rebellion of 1967
By Rachel Swanwick
We find ourselves in a moment of reckoning. Fearless protests and outcries of support for the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the globe have taken place in the wake of George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, 2020. These protests, specifically in the US, have been targeted with militia level police force and excessive violence; the brunt, once again, being felt most heavily by communities of color. We have witnessed senseless acts of police brutality, discrimination and loss of life in black and brown communities. This is a time when our ability to confront and fight systemic racism, injustice and inequality is paramount.
But this story is not new, it is part of the development in the fight for racial equity in the US, that has been taking place in this country for over 400 years. It is part of a process of lather, rinse and repeat on the lives of marginalized people of color (POC) in this nation. A never-ending attempt by the US to wash away its past with the same fervent effort it takes to stain the present. In the hopes of building a new future, it is essential to learn from our nation’s marred past to establish new systems that empower rather than perpetuate.
The Newark Rebellion took place from July 13th-18th 1967. It was a pivotal moment in the plight of the Newark New Jersey black community’s efforts to gain equal shares of economic, political and social capital which they had long been denied access to. Rebellions such as this one, took place throughout the nation during what is now known as The Long Hot Summer of 1967. Over 150 race rebellions took place in opposition to a history of institutionalized unemployment, failed education reform, housing discrimination and police brutality.
The Newark Rebellion was triggered by acts of police abuse perpetrated on John Smith, a local taxi driver who was severely beaten by cops after signaling to pass a police car that was double parked on the evening of July 12th. After local community members saw Smith being dragged into the police precinct, it was not long until over 250 people gathered outside in protest. Community leaders insisted Smith be taken to the hospital due to the injuries he sustained from police abuse. Although the police agreed and Smith was transported to hospital; it was clear by the unrest in the crowd that Smith’s case was merely one incident among a routine of brutalization and racism that had so severely oppressed communities of color in Newark.
Activists attempted to manage the energy and anger of the crowd, but by midnight a firebomb was thrown which exploded against the precinct wall. The following night, protests and conflict resumed and although community leaders instructed police not to wear helmets or carry batons, as a symbol of peace, they emerged fully armed. Around 2:30 am on July 14th, Newark’s Mayor Hugh Addonizio turned control of the city over to the State Police and National Guard who were entirely unfamiliar with Newark. As tanks drove through the streets, a state of emergency was declared. Residents were subjected to a curfew, blockades throughout the city, a ban on alcohol, and prohibition on the sale and possession of firearms.
Governor Richard Hughes of Newark ordered police to “take any and all measures requisite to quell disturbances and outbreaks of violence.” While establishing these blockades, police reported sniper activity in the city. No evidence of this alleged sniper was ever found and local reports suspect the shooting was actually as a result of police cross fire in the city. However, law enforcement responded by indiscriminately shooting into high rise family apartments. This blatant abuse of force and militaristic response to unrest resulted in the death of ten individuals including ten-year-old boy, Eddie Moss.
According to community activist Robert Curvin, the following two days of “the rebellion on the part of the community was essentially over and…now we were in a period of retaliation by the police forces that were sent into the city to restore order but were in fact continuing the disorder by their shooting and their attacks on the community.” After five days of violence, community leaders finally convinced government officials to withdraw troops from Newark and by July 18th the rebellion had concluded. By the time the rebellion had ended; over 13,000 rounds of ammunition had been expended by the National Guard and State Police, 1,000 community members were injured, 1,500 arrests were made, and 23 individuals were murdered with no police indictment (http://riseupnewark.com/chapters/chapter-3/).
Ultimately, these five days had lasting impacts in disrupting the status quo and breakdown of political systems that had been perpetuating racism and abuse in Newark. In the months following the rebellion, government officials who were in a state of shock slowly strategized how to move forward in a city which had experienced such palpable unrest. However, before these antiquated systems of power could recover, new leadership emerged in Newark whose perspective and ideas put the needs of the black community in the forefront of city relations.
The memory of the rebellion was utilized as a point of leverage to provide negotiation power in urban renewal proposals, improve access to jobs, receive federal money for the War on Poverty Program and provide better health care services for Newark residents. In 1970, Newark elected their first black Mayor, Ken Gibson, whose campaign was formed on the same grassroots community groups who led the rebellion and fought for equal rights in Newark. It was clear that voices of color needed to be brought to the table in order to form solutions and move the community forward. Edna Thomas, a community member, described her feelings of hope and change that she felt from the rebellion due to a realization by the Newark community that “the answers were not in the police, the answers were not in city government, it was with the people.”
Today, we are beginning to see small acts of change through global solidarity and community organization. Similarly, in the way that the Newark Rebellion acted as a foundational launch point for action, we can hope that recent protests will be another step in the direction of dismantling the systems which oppress black lives in America. Whether that is in the removal of statues representing slavery and racism, the banning of police choke holds and no-knock warrants in some states, and debates over reductions in police funding in favor of social services. Although these actions represent small victories for racial justice today, the foundations of systemic racism in a nation which was built on the backs of slaves will require significant momentum for social change.
Recent reports have uncovered a series of six potential lynchings of POC throughout the U.S., law enforcement’s escalation of violence against protestors continues, and our media perpetuates an emphasis on looting, placing a hierarchy of importance on property over black lives. Therefore, it remains essential to remember that this is part of a much bigger battle that has been taking place in the U.S. for centuries. These are pieces of what equality means in this nation but this is by no means a balancing of the scales of justice. We must situate this movement as part of a historical agenda for civil rights in order to fully grasp its importance and long-term goals.
The Black Lives Matter movement is poised to be an evolution in the fight for equity that has long underpinned American society and a necessary recognition of its brutal past. Now more than ever there is a feeling of hope in America for long-term change in the U.S., for genuine justice and a pressing need to voice opposition to the mainstream policies which undermine it.
If you want to take action and support the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts to build systems of change check out some of the following resources: