Newark riots claimed 23 lives but not enough has changed

Cover of the July 21, 1967 edition of TIME Magazine depicting “Newark Cab Driver John Smith.”

The violence of the Newark riots claimed 23 lives and destroyed ten million dollars of property from July 14 through July 17, but authorities did not indict anyone in the killings over those five days and most of the grass-roots organizers were co-opted by the political establishment in the years that followed.

The riots drove away most of Newark’s white residents, along with many of the more affluent black residents and small businesses, effects that spread to other cities and towns throughout New Jersey.

An extensive inquiry produced a report that has virtually no impact on society in the 50 years since riots broke out.

The disturbances began after Police Officers Vito M. Pontrelli and John DeSimone arrested John Smith, a cab driver.

DeSimone and Pontrelli testified on November 3, 1967 before the Governor’s Select Commission on Civil Disorder.

DeSimone was 30 years old, Pontrelli was 27, and they each lived in Newark and were police officers about three and a half years at the time of this encounter.

DeSimone and Pontrelli say a cab driver named John Smith passed then near the intersection of South Seventh Street and Fifteenth Avenue, going west in the eastbound lane at about 9:30 pm on July 12, 1967.

DeSimone is chairman of the Union County Board of Elections and the Clark Township Public Safety Director

The cops say they pulled Smith over, but he became loud and verbally abusive, calling them motherfuckers’ and swinging his car door abruptly to strike the officers.

Smith had been in eight accidents the week of July 10th alone, and his driving license was recently revoked; however, being extremely low on funds he continued to transport passengers in the yellow taxi cab he rented for $16.50 a day.

They subdued the cab driver, who they say was “hollering, screaming, swinging” in a violent attempt to resist arrest, and they brought him to the police station.

Today, DeSimone is chairman of the Union County Board of Elections as well as the Clark Township Public Safety Director.

Smith described things differently. He said the police car was stopped at the intersection, he used his turn signal and went around the squad car. Smith that found himself unlawfully detained, being beaten in the back seat of a police car and tortured at headquarters.

The hearing transcripts of the Governor’s Select Commission on Civil Disorder (Lilley Commission) offer first hand accounts from over a hundred witnesses to the events that have come to be known as the Newark riots, civil disorders or even ‘rebellion.’

Beginning on the evening of July 14, 1967 and lasting through July 17th, violence in the City of Newark claimed 23 lives and destroyed ten million dollars of property. The unrest also spread to cities and towns throughout New Jersey.

On August 8, 1967, Governor Richard J. Hughes selected Robert D. Lilley, then the head of New Jersey Bell, to lead a commission “to examine the incidents and remedies for the civil disorders which have afflicted New Jersey.”

Over the next six months the Commission held 65 meetings, and examined 106 witnesses.

The transcripts record the sworn testimony of the taxi driver whose arrest and treatment sparked the violence, the police officers who arrested him, New Jersey officials, state and local police officials, affected business owners, community activists, clergy, and members of the legal and academic communities.

In charging the Commission, Governor Hughes said: “What I am seeking, and what the people of New Jersey expect, is not a meaningless and detailed repetition of studies, but a realistic analysis of the disorders…and practical proposal which, hopefully, will prevent their recurrence in our State.” The Commission ended its report with a detailed list of recommendations, many still relevant to today’s urban challenges.

The report and testimony show that substandard housing, the lack of affordable housing and joblessness were important contributing factors to the disorder.

The detailed collection includes about 6,000 pages of hearing transcripts and associated reports, which may provide essential information for anyone seeking to understand this critical moment in the history of our nation.

As time passes, some would romanticize the events of July, 1967, but as the city’s police force remains operating under a federal consent decree and groups emerge with names like “Black Lives Matter” is seems clear that not enough has changed.

By the long hot summer of 1967, “African American residents had suffered enough. Their public housing residences were falling apart. Their health care system was obsolete. Their educational facilities were inadequate, and most of all, their civil rights, their protection under the United States Constitution, was nowhere to be found.”

 

Angry crowds confronted police during a hot summer that erupted in violence.

William Furr, 24, was stranded in the city when the buses back to his home were stopped by the riot. Billy and his friends loaded up on cases of beer at Mack Liquors, which had been ransacked, and when police cruisers pulled up in front of the store he fled from the scene.

A police officer shot him in the back for holding a six­pack of beer, and two fragments ricocheted, striking twelve­ year old Joe Bass in the neck and thigh.

Joe was rushed to a hospital, but Billy Furr was left bleeding out on the Avon Avenue sidewalk, a sight shocking to freelance photographer Bud Lee and Life reporter Dale Wittner, who interviewed the dying man earlier in the day.

“We ain’t riotin’ agains’ all you whites. We’re riotin’ agains’ police brutality, like that cab driver they beat up the other night. That stuff goes on all the time. When the police treat us like people ‘stead of treatin’ us like animals, then the riots will stop,” said Billy Furr, during that interview.

Billy Furr was dead at the age of 24 after having been, in a matter of seconds, accused, convicted, and sentenced to death by Newark Police officers for the crime of stealing beer.

A Grand Jury found no cause for indictment in the fatal shooting of Furr, who “died of shotgun wounds in the back” fired by two Newark patrolmen who observed him leaving the liquor store with beer in his hands.

 

On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was shot and killed by Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez, after telling him he had a firearm as he reached for his license and registration.

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, an unarmed a 22-year-old African-American man, Oscar Grant III, was fatally shot in the back by Police officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California, while other officers restrained Grant, forcing him to lie face down.

While walking home from a convenience store, on February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American, was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, .

The death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York; the police shooting of John Crawford III who was holding a toy BB gun in a Walmart store near Dayton, Ohio; and the subsequent unrest following these incidents had attracted worldwide attention.

Thirteen police officers fired 137 times at Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, killing the unarmed couple in their car on November 29, 2012, at the end of a 22-minute chase in Cleveland, Ohio.

Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy, was gunned down on November 22, 2014, by 26-year-old Cleveland, Ohio police officer Timothy Loehmann.

 

John Smith and Billy Furr may not have been model citizens but like Philando Castile, Oscar Grant III, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland,Terence Crutcher, Jordan Edwards, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Michael Tyree, Elliott Williams and a thousand other Americans like them have been denied justice and there is no sign their wait is near an end.


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