July 13, 2017

Fifty years ago, Newark was in flames


Fifty years ago this week, one of the biggest, wildest urban convulsions in American history took hold of Newark, New Jersey.

As usual, there were mounting tensions, and then there was a spark.

The tensions were many. In 1966, Newark had become one of the first American cities with a black majority population; still, nearly all of its public officials, including about ninety percent of its police officers, were white. Brutality, poverty, unemployment, deprivation of public services, low standards of education, and civic disrespect were chronic problems. Police were notoriously corrupt, regularly shaking down citizens and businesses. In recent years, they had killed a series of unarmed black men, always escaping prosecution, and a state inquiry found that many in Newark’s black community considered them “the single continuously lawless element operating in the community.” Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Stokely Carmichael had come to speak the previous year and, addressing a crowd of about 400 members of the African-American community, said, “Whether you know it or not, you are the majority in this town. You should already have taken Newark, New Jersey over because it belongs to you.” It was a city seething in the anger of unheeded voices and deferred dreams, ravaged by years of white supremacist rule.

And then, there was a spark. In mid-July 1967, two white police officers stopped a black cab driver named John Smith for passing a double-parked squad car. They proceeded to beat him badly, then arrest him for assault. He was seen being dragged into a precinct house, and a rumor sprouted up that police had killed another black man. It was the saturation point for a community that had spent years weltering in racist violences — physical, economic, affective, and political.

And the violence that community could no longer absorb quickly flooded into the streets. Precinct house windows were broken. The police took up rifles. Crowds surged in fury. Buildings burned. Injuries began appearing on both sides. The National Guard was called. Bridges were closed. Upheaval spread to the smaller nearby city of Plainfeld. By the time it was all over, four days later, twenty-six people were dead, and more than 700 injured. More than twice that number had been arrested. Whole buildings had been leveled. And the cops had gone apeshit.

Other rebellions in big and small American cities followed shortly. In the town of Cambridge, Maryland, a July 24 speech by then-SNCC President H. Rap Brown (now Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) ended in a brawl that grew into a furor. Injuries were reported and nearly twenty buildings destroyed. At the very same time, Detroit was embroiled in a massive rebellion that would leave twenty-three dead and nearly 700 wounded.

Newark, as it appears today.

This week, news publications are marking the Newark uprising’s fiftieth anniversary with a series of retrospective articles and specials. In the New York TimesRick Rojas and Khorri Atkinson have compiled an impressive oral and photographic history. PBS is airing Revolution ’67, a documentary by filmmaker Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno. Newark’s own Star-Ledger is running a series of pieces on the anniversary, including a great one by Jessica Mazzola and Karen Yi pieced together from sixteen interviews with current Newark residents.

These are all very interesting. Behind them stands one definitive document of Newark in ’67: Ronald Porambo’s 1971 study No Cause for Indictment. Porambo lived in Newark, knew Newark, and—while many journalists were fleeing to the outskirts of the city and parroting official reports—he dove headlong into the heart of the conflagration. What he went on to spend the next three years refining was an impassioned, idiosyncratic brand of reporting, one that had affinities with New Journalism but was decidedly its own thing, scrappily rigorous, lyrical, and unsparing in its criticism of official conduct. As Warren Sloat writes in the book’s introduction, “Ron called it ‘sifting through the ashes’” — a phrase he uses in the book.

One amazing passage from the book concerns the trial of Newark’s greatest poet. Under his birth name, LeRoi Jones, he’d become a major figure in the white-dominated milieu of Allen GinsbergDiane di Prima, Frank O’Hara, and Charles Olson. Then, in 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, he’d moved back to Newark, changed his name to Amiri Baraka, and become, in Porambo’s words, “black Newark’s writer and militant-in-residence.” After the events of that hot week, he was charged with the illegal possession of two revolvers. Thirtyfive years later, Baraka would be named the poet laureate of the State of New Jersey, controversially; today, his son, Ras J. Baraka, is Newark’s mayor.

This is a little in media res, but here’s Porambo (who refers to Baraka as LeRoi Jones, even though he had already changed his name, and “the playwright,” which he was, though his poetry is better known):

Amiri Baraka, shortly before his death. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Is It Conceivable Men in Blue Would Commit Such an Outrageous Act?

The trial of LeRoi Jones for carrying concealed weapons was held outside of Essex County in Morristown where the playwright thought he might have a better chance at, to use the euphemism, “a fair shake.”

“There weren’t any guns,” Jones added to his previous statements on his arrest. “I don’t keep guns. And I certainly wouldn’t be so stupid as to carry guns into the middle of a riot.” LeRoi, who had made a blunder just being where the police could get their loving hands on him, was begging the question. The critical point was whether or not the guns police said they had foundin the camper bus had been fired.

Jones was dressed in a dashike and played his role to the hilt. “You got a hundred white people here,” he shouted at a panel of potential jurors. “They’re not my peers, they’re my oppressors.” LeRoi then attempted to walk out of the courtroom but was instead escorted to the county jail. He labeled the legal proceedings “a kangaroo court” and interjected at least one obscene word, “shit,” to be precise. Jones also insisted on arguing with Essex County Judge Leon W. Kapp, who didn’t appreciate his wisdom being questioned quite so overtly and who, as it turned out, was saving his ire for one onslaught at the trial’s conclusion. Five arresting officers swore they didn’t know who Jones was at the time of the arrest and that the two guns were found in the van. It seemed that no one knew who Jones was, even the two witnesses who testified for the defense.

These witnesses, a husband and wife who had been standing on their porch at the time, were unable to identify the playwright by name. They had seen, however, police officers encircling a man dressed in a dashike who then disappeared from view. From other movements of the police and some screams—coming from LeRoi no doubt—they felt that someone was being beaten. Another defense witness, a neighbor who lived near The Spirit House on Sterling Street, had happened along at the time of the arrest, he testified, and distinctly heard LeRoi interrogating one of the police:

“Why don’t you stop hitting me with that stick?”

The reply, said the witness, had been another rap, this one on LeRoi’s head.

Yet another defense witness, a woman who had viewed the arrest from a window in her second-floor apartment, remembered a prisoner being kicked by one of the throng of police officers.

Medical testimony corroborated that Jones had suffered a nasty cut on his head and another on his lip. Also, McCray had a cut head and a broken arm. All of which was routine as far as Newark police-community relations were concerned and quite beside the point. It was Jones who was on trial, not the police.

Naturally enough, Jones and his two companions were found guilty as charged on the testimony of the five police officers, which was—despite Judge Kapp’s later thoughts on the subject—not particularly reliable. This was substantiated by the officers themselves, who also testified that no one had beaten or even struck Mr. Jones. How, then, had he gotten that messy cut on his head that had bloodied his dashike? And who had broken McCray’s arm? Jones had been injured, police said, by a bottle that had flown mysteriously through the air, coming from they knew not where. The second question they didn’t even bother to answer.

Judge Kapp told the jury that the police were “the shields against violence and lawless acts,” and then, referring to Jones’s claim that he had been framed with the police planting the guns, asked the jury: “Did they appear to you to be evilly disposed and wicked men who would resort to such calumny? Is it conceivable that these five men in blue would confer and agree together to commit such an unconscionable, outrageous act? In the final analysis, ladies and gentlemen, what interest did these officers have at the time of the arrest other than to restore law and order under extremely hazardous conditions?”

In his clearly prejudicial charge, Judge Kapp even got to the testimony in Jones’s defense, asking the jury if it wasn’t introduced “merely in an attempt to contradict and discredit the testimony offered by the officers.”

The final push to the jury shortened the time it took them to reach a verdict. It deliberated all of one hour.

LeRoi Jones can be bad enough himself at times, but he certainly brings out the worst in other people. First, he had goaded peace-loving officers of the law into beating him to a pulp and, not stopping there, here he was enticing a decent, God-fearing judge into railroading him into prison. The playwright was lucky to have escaped with his poetry, but Kapp would even get around to that, too — in another chapter of LeRoi’s march up Calvary.

The sentencing of LeRoi Jones took place back home in Newark in January and was the final push to the playwright’s crown of thorns. Before sentence was passed, Jone’s lawyer, Irvin Booker, asked Judge Kapp for leniency. Booker noted that Jones had four natural children and two step-children. The balck lawyer also said his client couldn’t pay a large fine and nothing would be gained by incarcerating him, which was certainly not the feeling of the Newark police. At one point Booker also said that Jones regretted his acts — while his client sat slumped in a chair, shaking his head no. Asked if he had anything to say before sentencing, Jones was game to the bitter end: “I don’t agree with Mr. Booker. I don’t think this is a righteous court.” Then with his homework behind him and a Greenwich Village literary magazine before him on the bench, Judge Kapp let fly. If LeRoi insisted in his cantankerous way of being a critic of Judge Kapp’s courtroom procedure, thyen the judge would reciprocate by reviewing some of LeRoi’s poetry. The man in black robes had the right audience—LeRoi Jones, bearded and scowling, bushy haired, and arrogant as ever, plus a gallery well laced with fans—but the wrong place for a poetry reading, particularly verse written by Jones, who seems to have a fixation on the word “shit.” Judge Kapp, reading from the Evergreen Review, circumnavigated this problem by tactfully introducing “blank” for all the nasty words:

[The judge reads Baraka’s poem BLACK PEOPLE]

Judge Kapp read a second poem for good measure, then commented: “This diabolical prescription to commit murder and to steal and plunder… causes one to suspect that you were a participant in formulating a plot to ignite the spark… to burn the city of Newark… It is my considered opinion that you are sick and require medical attention…”

“Not as sick as you are,” said Jones, breaking into what was meant to be a soliloquy.

“…Your talents have been misdirected,” Judge Kapp carried on. “You have the ability to make a wholesome contribution to ameliorate existing tensions… Instead we find that you are in the vanguard of a group of extreme radicals who advocate the destruction…”

“The destruction of unrighteousness!” shot in Jones, making it a duet.

Kapp’s gavel smashed down and Jones, sentenced to an additional thirty days for contempt of court, was led away.

The liberals leaped to the playwright’s defense like he had become a helpless, dangling participle — as indeed he had:

“This season it’s LeRoi Jones who gets ten times the average jail sentence for his part in the Newark disturbances,” wrote Murray Kempton in the New York Post. “The charge: being caught with a .32 caliber pistol and imperiling the peace of a city into which the National Guard had fired 10,414 rounds of automatic ammunition that weekend. His actual crime, judging from the court’s emphasis at sentence time: offensive poetry.”

“LeRoi Jones got the toughest sentence to come out of the Newark riot because he writes lousy poetry,” Jimmy Breslin announced on ABC television.

“The sentence is clearly a violation of Jones’s right to free speech,” said Henry di Suvero, executive director of the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union. “Judge Kapp is punishing Jones not because of what he is charged with, but because of who he is and what he is.”

No matter, Jones may have been free of mind but his body was soon enough en route to Trenton State Prison. The playwright stayed long enough for them to shave off his beard and give him a haircut. He appeared clean-shaven back in Newark a few days later, free on $25,000 bail — a sum LeRoi termed a ransom. Jones waited while Raymond Brown, prominent New Jersey attorney, appealed the conviction of the playwright and his two companions. It would be a long wait.

A final and interesting note concerns the fate of Ronald Porambo, whose life after writing No Cause for Indictment was not easy. Shortly after the book’s publication, Nat Hentoff wrote in the Village Voice that “the murderous question is whether Porambo is going to be added to the victims” of the violence he had documented. Someone in Newark had already shot at him and missed; the day after Hentoff’s piece was published, someone shot at him again, this time hitting him in both legs.

But Porambo, who had been raised well-off as the heir to a cruller-machine fortune (yes), turned increasingly to crime. Before long he was, bizarrely, making a living robbing drug dealers, often while posing as various public officials — cops, fire inspectors, and so forth. It seems to have been a strange, dark choice. Baraka would later describe it as “struggle for the sake of struggle.”

On April 10, 1983, Porambo and an accomplice broke into the home of a drug dealer named Sidney Davis, with the intention of robbing it. Things went badly. His accomplice raped Davis’s girlfriend, and Porambo shot and killed Davis. A month later, he was found in a car in Newark—alive—with three gunshot wounds to the head, and promptly arrested.

Ronald Porambo, near the end of his life. Via the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Porambo would go on to spend the last twenty-three years of his life in prison, severely impaired from the impact of the bullets that hadn’t killed him. What finally did kill him was an orange he choked on, alone in his cell, in 2007 — shortly before Melville House republished his book. He was sixty-seven years old.

As our publisher, Dennis Johnson, told the Star-Ledger’s Brad Parks at the time, “In some ways, Ron’s life really depicts the tragic trajectory of the city of Newark. It had so much wasted promise. But you know what? His life also had this one great piece of work. And, by God, if you accomplish one great thing like that in your life, is it really a wasted life?”



Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.