Fifty years ago, 1967, urban warfare broke out in cities throughout America. It happened in Milwaukee and Chicago and Buffalo. It happened in Cincinnati and Atlanta and Boston. And most notably, it happened in Detroit and Newark. Depending on your perspective these were either riots or rebellions. Either way it was street warfare between black inner city residents and white police and troops. Invariably it was over-aggressive policing that set the fire and usually it was over-aggressive policing that ended it.
I was a teenager at the time growing up in an all-white middle-class town not too far from Newark, living with my blatantly racist father. He and people like him processed this as blacks looting stores and burning buildings until the National Guard came in and restored peace. That narrative conveniently leaves out the cause, both the short-term cause and the long-term cause. To acknowledge either would have skewed his oversimplified vision of the world.
On this 50th anniversary I saw two movies about the urban chaos of that summer. One, Detroit, is a fictional account of an individual act of police brutality, although police brutality may be an understatement. It was really murder, two unarmed black men killed by police for no crime other than being black in Detroit in the neighborhood where the disturbances were taking place. And, oh yeah, for being with white women.
The other, Revolution ’67, is about Newark before, during and after the riot/rebellion. Made by lifelong Newark residents this movie is 10 years old and has been shown on public TV, but was screened locally on this anniversary year. It covers police brutality as well but focuses on much broader issues like poverty, housing, education and jobs.
I think of the urban chaos of 1967 as a turning point. It represents the end of the civil rights movement and the beginning of the an angrier, more militant and more demanding era of black activism: Black Power, Black Muslims and Black Panthers. It wasn’t going to be enough to be able to sit in any seat on the bus, not if you didn’t have any money to get on the bus or any job to take the bus to.
The question these movies raise is are we really better off now than we were 50 years ago? In Detroit, the movie ends with an all-white jury finding the sadistic cop not guilty in a courtroom half-filled with other cops, showing their support though surely some of them know what happened. That of course is the same verdict delivered in the case of the Baltimore cops who killed Freddie Grey in the back of a police van. It is the same verdict delivered in the case of the Cleveland cop who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice whose crime was to play with a toy gun in a public park. And it is the same verdict delivered to the cop who strangled Eric Garner to death in Staten Island after he was caught selling loose cigarettes. One of the many disconcerting scenes in Detroit is when a Michigan state trooper comes upon the scene where the Detroit cops are holding and terrorizing a group of black men. He sees that something very wrong is going on and tells his men to get the hell out of there so they have no part in it
Many attribute Newark’s continuing problems to the events of 1967. But the city was suffering from a loss of people and jobs even before that. Some 400,000+ lived in Newark in 1960. The population was down to 277,000 in 2010. The migration to the suburbs started after World War II. The unrest of 1967 exacerbated an already existing trend. Those who could afford to and who were not restricted by discriminatory lending policies headed out. The city became progressively poorer and blacker. We didn’t have legal segregation in New Jersey, but when it comes to housing we have been and continue to be a substantially segregated state.
One of the commenters in Revolution ’67 points out that in the mid 60’s there were no black faces in city hall, no black police chiefs, you couldn’t even find a black store clerk downtown or a black bank teller. Well now the city has had black mayors since 1970, there is a black police chief and lots of black faces behind the registers in downtown stores. Yet some 30% of Newarkers are living in poverty, a rate that is up from 25% in 2007 when the movie was made.
Newark is seen by some as enjoying something of a renaissance. That is happening downtown where a Whole Foods just opened in an old abandoned retail building. It joins a Starbucks and a Nike Store on Broad Street. Prudential has a new downtown headquarters building and Audible and Panasonic have moved operations there. The city boasts a performing arts center and an NHL hockey arena. New housing is being built downtown and a hotel opened for the first time in decades. It has provided some jobs and it is bringing more people into downtown Newark thus opening up some opportunities for small businesses. But many residents will point out that all of this downtown development is doing nothing for the neighborhoods. Nothing to address the substandard housing, under-achieving public schools and the crime and drugs associated with poverty.
There is a larger trend in America of cities growing and of younger people who prefer an urban environment to the suburbs. That’s really easy to see if you watch people pouring into cities like Denver and Nashville. It’s maybe not as clear that cities like Detroit and Newark will benefit as well.
Finally there is the issue of our federal government. In 1967 Lyndon Johnson was president. LBJ was a foreign policy disaster and the commander in chief who sent tens of thousands of Americans to their death in southeast Asia, including an overrepresentation of poor, city kids. But on the domestic front, he was a champion of civil rights, of voting rights and a staunch opponent of segregation and discrimination. By all accounts he truly believed in this. Who knows what our current president truly believes in, aside from maybe accumulating wealth. But it has become pretty clear that we have a racist attorney general and that white supremacists have been welcome in the White House. And the ruling Republican party is actively trying, in several states, to restrict voting rights.
So as I think back to 1967 and watch these both fictional and documentary stories of that time, I’d like to think it was a different era and that we’ve moved past that summer of urban warfare. But when you take a long look at the underlying problems that triggered it, it’s hard to make that case.