The Newark Riots of 1967 and how it was Ignited by Police Brutality

The Newark riots, which stand as one of the most devastating urban uprisings in American history, were part of a wave of riots in the 1960s that were sparked by long-standing racial tensions, economic deprivation and ignited by a specific incident of police brutality.

The Newark Riots of 1967 and how it was Ignited by Police Brutality

In the decades leading up to the 1967 riots, Newark, New Jersey, underwent significant demographic and economic changes. Once a thriving industrial hub, the city faced economic decline post-World War II, leading to a decrease in job opportunities. As industries moved to suburban areas or other regions, many white residents followed. The outflow of white residents from Newark was rapidly replaced with an influx of black people moving into the Central Ward; blacks, however, faced discrimination in jobs and housing, ultimately making their lives more likely to fall into a cycle of poverty.

By 1967, Newark was one of the United States’ first majority-black cities. Despite their numbers, African Americans in Newark faced systemic discrimination and exclusion from political power. Employment opportunities for black residents were limited to low-paying jobs, and access to adequate housing and education was scarce. Most critically, the police force, which was overwhelmingly white, often behaved like an occupying force rather than a community protector, contributing to a pervasive sense of distrust and resentment.

The Newark Riots of 1967 and how it was Ignited by Police Brutality

On the night of July 12, 1967, the arrest of John William Smith, an African American taxi driver, became the flashpoint for the Newark riots. Smith was pulled over by two white police officers for allegedly passing a double-parked police car. According to reports, Smith was beaten unconscious by the officers and then dragged into the 4th Precinct station.

Rumors quickly spread through the black community that Smith had been killed by the police, fueling outrage. When Smith was eventually taken to the hospital, the sight of his battered condition confirmed fears about police brutality. Activists and community members gathered outside the precinct, demanding justice and Smith’s release. The police’s heavy-handed response to the crowd only inflamed tensions further, leading to a full-scale uprising.

The following five days saw Newark descend into chaos. What began as a peaceful protest erupted into widespread looting, arson, and violence. As the rioters targeted symbols of oppression, including police stations, businesses, and vehicles, the city’s infrastructure crumbled under the assault.

The Newark Riots of 1967 and how it was Ignited by Police Brutality
The response from law enforcement and the National Guard was swift and severe. Governor Richard J. Hughes deployed 7,917 members of police and National Guard to restore order. However, their presence and methods worsened the violence. Over these five days, law enforcement’s actions were marked by indiscriminate gunfire and excessive force, leading to numerous deaths and injuries.

By the sixth day, the riots, looting, violence, and destruction had resulted in the deaths of 16 civilians, 8 suspects, a police officer, and a firefighter.

In an effort to contain the riots, every evening at 6:00 p.m. the Bridge Street and Jackson Street Bridges, both of which span the Passaic River between Newark and Harrison, were closed until the next morning.

By the time the riots subsided on July 17, the devastation was stark: 26 people were dead. The turmoil left 353 civilians, 214 suspects, 67 police officers, 55 firefighters, and 38 military personnel injured. Additionally, 1,465 suspects were arrested, with property damage estimated to have exceeded $10 million. Newark was left in ruins, and the long-term impact on the community was profound.

Despite the violence and destruction, the riots brought national attention to the systemic issues plaguing not just Newark but many cities across the United States

The riots prompted a national conversation about race relations, leading to significant government investigations, such as the Kerner Commission, which identified “white racism” as a fundamental cause of the riots. The report also concluded that the primary driver of the riots was the deep frustration within the Black community over limited economic opportunities and their treatment by white society, particularly by the police and stressed the need for reforms in policing, housing, employment, and education to address the grievances of African American communities.

The Newark Riots of 1967 and how it was Ignited by Police Brutality

The Newark riots of 1967 ignited a powerful wave of Black activism, leading to significant reforms in law enforcement and economic policies. This period of unrest also spurred a political awakening in Black communities, resulting in historic milestones such as the election of African American mayors in major cities, including Kenneth A. Gibson in Newark and Coleman A. Young in Detroit. These leaders embodied a new era of Black political influence and championed the fight for racial and economic justice.

Mr Madu
Mr Madu
Mr Madu is a freelance writer, a lover of Africa and a frequent hiker who loves long, vigorous walks, usually on hills or mountains.

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