For five days in 1967, New Jersey’s largest city burned. Newark was one of more than 150 cities across the country that were rebelling against widespread disenfranchisement and police brutality. As we’re now seeing again in other places, the skyline was pluming with smoke, and the National Guard drove in.
This past weekend, as these tensions again reached a fever pitch after the slaying of George Floyd, I was one of many Newark residents who was afraid of what might come back. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the protests that took place. There was no violence. No “looting,” or violent police. There was even dancing. It stood in stark contrast to five decades ago.
To understand what changed, I called Lawrence Hamm, a Newark elder and longtime activist who is now challenging Cory Booker for a seat in the United States Senate. He founded the grassroots outfit People’s Organization for Progress, or POP, and has been organizing actions against police brutality for more than four decades. He vividly remembers what happened in 1967—the furor broke out a mile from his house. On Saturday, he personally led the march that many expected to turn violent. It didn’t. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: One of the things that made me proud to be from Newark is anticipating looting, anticipating violence, and instead getting people doing the Cupid Shuffle. How did Newark avoid the violence playing out right now in some other cities?
Larry Hamm: It has to do with the history of the city. In particular, the history of the people of Newark and the struggle against police brutality. Police brutality has always been a problem here. The demand for a police review board goes back to the 1960s, the mid-1960s, and even earlier than that. The People’s Organization for Progress was formed in 1982. Almost from the time we were founded, we were dealing with the issue of police brutality.
Newark is a city of protest. So there’s been a lot of interaction between police and people who protest. Every Monday for three years, we’ve been in front of the federal building in Newark. And then the fact that I have had a relationship with Ras Baraka [the mayor of Newark]. As he said the other day, he’d marched with People’s Organization for Progress when he was still a student. So we have a history. And all of these things blend together to produce the outcome that we had.
Newark famously had one of the worst riots in 1967, which went on for five days. This unrest has been called the worst since those uprisings. Do you think the memory of that played a role in Newark’s reaction today?
It is a collective memory here. There’s still a lot of people here that were here then. There is a sentiment among the residents that they did not want to see the city go through that again. The people of Newark have a deep connection to the struggle against racial and social and economic justice. But I don’t think they want to see vandalism at this time. Because since the’60s, they still haven’t seen the city get back on its feet. And I’m not just thinking about the businesspeople. If you go into the South Ward and knock on doors and ask them if they want to see another riot, they’ll look at you sideways.
But you have to understand that rebellions are not the plan. They are like hurricanes and tornadoes. They show up when conditions are there and make them possible. Most of the rebellions in the ’60s, in fact 99 percent of them, were precipitated by acts of police violence, police terrorism, police brutality. That’s what triggered all those rebellions. It’s not something you can control. Nobody wakes up and goes “Yo, let’s start a rebellion.”
Aren’t the images of police responding to the protests with brutality, and images of peaceful protesters bleeding, not the perfect condition for that kind of rebellion? Were you not at all concerned ahead of your protest that the police might come prepared for a riot in Newark?
I was concerned. But then I was not overly concerned, because we’ve had 100 dress rehearsals for this in Newark. At this point, it’s so routine. The only thing that was unusual about Saturday was the number of people. In the New York Times, there’s an article that reports that there were 12,000 people there. And it looked like 12,000.
As this got way bigger than anyone expected, why do you think Newark’s protest didn’t devolve?
The police were really laid back. They consciously had as small a presence as possible, given the circumstances. I didn’t see any police in riot gear out there. And that’s because the leadership of this city. The mayor probably told the police that we know for a fact that the reason why all these other cities were escalating was because of police violence. The police are so aggressive with the protests, who reciprocate an act of violence, and then it’s on, you know? The police are familiar with the People’s Organization for Progress. We’ve had numerous marches were the police got accustomed to us. They didn’t really feel the need to have that kind of aggressive behavior that police usually have. And we also have a city administration, the mayor of which has an official policy that is anti-police brutality. He’s trying to establish the first police review board in the history of the city of Newark. And then there was the attitude of a lot of people from Newark who were there, who say, “Yes, we want to protest, but we don’t want to necessarily burn down our city in the process.”
What do you think protesters in other places can learn from Newark?
One thing is, they should continue to protest. Once you establish a reputation and a record, that makes it easier. It’s just like practice in basketball or baseball—the more you do it, the better you get at it. And when you make yourself a part of the environment, it becomes harder for people to deny you. The more they see you protest, the more difficult it is for them to deny you the right to protest. People should uphold their right to freedom of assembly, and they should exercise it often.
Newark has this dual reputation thing going on. Inside of Newark, people respect it for being this stronghold for people of color, where most people are black and brown. A lot of the businesses, especially in the downtown area, are owned by black business owners. That’s how Newark people see it. But on the outside, people are expecting Newark people to be violent. People think of Newark as this violent place.
And we fooled them this time. We changed the narrative. And I’m glad that makes people happy in Newark. But I don’t want that to be used to disparage other people’s actions in their protest. I don’t want to be seen as some kind of foil that people can use. Yes, we did not have vandalism and looting, but we were militant. We were strong. We were powerful. We were angry. We were determined. And by our numbers, we showed our power. The way people view “peaceful” has all kinds of connotations as lacking power. Had we had the other outcome, a lot of people would be scared to engage in more protests.
The reason why I brought up that dichotomy is that I’m sensitive to the ways that the media informs the narrative. What matters more than what happens is how it’s told. As someone who is from Newark, who’s conscious of how powerful stereotypes can be, what do you make of the way protests across the country are being covered? Do you think in general, coverage of the protests has focuses too much on looting?
If the media would spend as much time focused on the problem of police brutality and how to solve it as they do focusing on the looting and the violence, maybe we’d get somewhere with this issue. The very way that the protests are covered works against solving the problem. Because it takes our focus away. I mean, if there was looting, yes, you have to report it. But to me, it’s done in such a way that the looting becomes the whole story. I would never get calls from reporters to cover what we’re doing. We couldn’t even get the paper that’s in Newark to cover our demonstrations. The whole reason why the demonstrations that are happening and these disruptions and disturbances are happening is because of police brutality. If you want the looting to stop, then stop the police brutality. Because that’s what caused that spark that got all this going from the beginning.
I’ve read protesters in several cities have blocked stores to prevent looting. What kind of deescalation works, when it’s needed?
I didn’t see confrontations. I was leading the march—I was leading the chants, carrying the bullhorn and everything else. But I saw on Instagram, that when we were on Broad Street, there was a guy with a baseball bat looking into the Dunkin Donuts, and looking like he was about to bash the window. I saw protesters rush over to him and move him away from the window. It wasn’t the police. It was a group of young protesters. Not no old people like me.
As someone who was here in ’67, how would you compare it to what we’re seeing now across the country?
Do I think we’re heading in the same direction? I think there’s a possibility. Between 1960 and 1972, there were more than 1,000 civil disturbances in the United States. There were so many uprisings in this in the ’60s, particularly in like from ’66 to ’68, the year that Dr. King was killed. We were afraid to go right around the corner. Because there was so much rebellion, it made you think that a revolution was actually getting ready to jump off in America. If you combine that with the black power movement, the black cultural movement, it just all felt like change was like going to come soon. A revolution didn’t come, but change did. It just didn’t come in the manner that many of us thought it would happen.
Are you hopeful about these protests, based on what you’ve seen nationwide?
Frankly, I am pleased to see that people are standing up to fight against police brutality all across the country. We need people to be marching in every city in America. Because this is a problem that’s going to take the maximum amount of pressure to solve. So we need as many people as we can get. I’m glad to see people are standing up and fighting back. I’m not going to disparage what other people are doing in other places. I’m going to say something that’s more radical. I don’t believe what happened in Newark can necessarily be replicated in other places. Newark didn’t have violence. But Atlantic City did. Conditions differ from place to place. A lot of this has to do with the particular conditions, time, and circumstance of a particular place, whether or not things will become violent. We also have to weigh the impact of the discussion of protest, whether they should be violent or nonviolent, and how that takes away from the very thing we’re trying to fight—and that’s police brutality.