Newark Remembers: 'The city exploded 40 years ago in a...what?'

Five miles from my living room, in a world about which I know very little, men and women are gathering in a public space in downtown Newark, N.J., to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a riot.

The city of Newark exploded 40 years ago this month. It exploded because of a rumora cabdriver, it was said, had died in police custody. The cab driver was black; the police, white. Newark in 1967 was a majority black city ruled by white politicians seemingly indifferent to rampant discrimination and injustice. A depressing if not unfamiliar tale from the 1960s.


A black cabbie had indeed been taken into a stationhouse that night, and for good reasonhe was driving recklessly. But as the false report of his death at police hands made its way through the city on a hot summers night, an angry crowd gathered outside the stationhouse. Some in the crowd began looting nearby stores.

The National Guard and state police, woefully unprepared, were dispatched to downtown Newark. Parks were turned into staging areas. City streets were crowded with armored military vehicles. Newark was quite literally under siege. Within a week, parts of the city were in ashes; and all these years later, all that has risen from those ashes is despair.

It seems an odd series of events to commemorate, but Newark is doing so all the same. The rest of the summer will feature exhibits and lectures in museums, libraries and other public spaces. Newspapers, magazines and the Public Broadcasting System have contributed to the discussion with retrospectives and debates.

Civic commemorations are usually associated with more positive events: a proud milestone, the anniversary of a notable achievement or the celebration of a life worthy of imitation. In Newark, however, the subject being commemorated is a riot. Or is it? Some of the celebrants, if that is the right word, insist that no riot took place during a terrible week in July 1967. In fact, it was an uprising, a rebellion. The words are meant to convey something noble, something inspired by a cause. Others are perfectly comfortable with the more judgmental description, for in their eyes, what they witnessed in Newark 40 years ago was an explosion of criminal behaviora riot. Politicians generally choose a middle ground. They call it a disturbance.

More than two dozen people are not in a position to call it anything. They were killed in the uprising, the riot, the disturbance. Most of the victims were African-Americans; most were innocent of any wrongdoing; most were killed by state police or National Guard.

The commemorations in Newark have national implications, because the conversation underway in that city is a foreshadowing of a larger conversation we will have next year. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were murdered 40 years ago next spring. Cities went up in flames after Kings murder. In Chicago, antiwar demonstrators tried to lay siege to the Democratic National Convention, and were assailed in turn by law-enforcement officers. Throughout the country, young people protested what they saw as a pointless, wasteful and even criminal war in Vietnam.

Next year, middle-aged men and women will gather to talk about the awful year of 1968, and then we will all understand what Newark is trying to achieve this summer. It used to be, I suppose, that 40th anniversaries werent very different from 39th anniversaries. But ever since Europe and the United States so memorably commemorated the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984, 40 has become the new 50, to coin a phrase. The actuarial tables offer a hint about how and why this change has come about: People with grown-up memories of an event often do not make it to the 50th anniversary. For the sake of posterity, then, the 40th anniversary of event has become an important marker.

So it is for Newark this summer, and so it will be for the nation next year. There will be renewed discussion of what 1968 and the 60s in general meant, and whether anything has really changed. That is precisely the conversation under way in Newark. Its a good conversation, even when it becomes heated, as it has done. It is a good conversation because any conversation is better than embittered silence.

So in Newark, they talk about a riot, and talk about whether it was a riot at all. If that seems odd, then so be it. But it will not be the last odd conversation about the trauma of the 1960s, nor should it be.

Forty years after the massive protests against a faraway war, we find ourselves in another one. Issues of race, of equality, of opportunity, of neglect are with us still. Schools are segregated not by law but in practice. African-Americans have joined the middle class in great numbers, but inner-city poverty is as grinding as ever.

Voices in Newark say that nothing has changed since 1967, although that is absurd. The city clearly changed for the worse as the middle-class, black and white, moved to surrounding towns like mine. Lately things have improved with new investment and the election of a mayor with no ties to the citys corrupt old machine, but still, progress is measured in inches rather than in miles.

The conversation in Newark will continue, and then the rest of us will join in next year. Sadly, there will be far too many parallels between 1968 and 2008. But that is certainly worth a conversation or two.

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