What We Learned from the Newark Riots: Looking Back to Move Forward

Linda Stamato
Sandy Jafffe

Over a period of four days in 1967, Newark was one of over 150 U.S. cities rocked by rioting, looting, and property destruction, with 26 deaths and hundreds injured. This week on EJB Talks Associate Dean Stuart Shapiro takes a look back at those tumultuous events with Linda Stamato and Sandy Jaffe, co-directors of the Bloustein Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. Sandy chaired the Lilley Commission which recommended changes in the wake of the riots and Linda has spent a career advocating for the improvement of conflict resolution. They draw lessons from their experiences to discuss the protests in recent weeks, and discuss the parallels between two very different eras, the importance of educating leaders about long-standing disparities, and the necessity of building community in order to move forward.

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to another episode of EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Associate Dean of the Faculty at the Bloustein School. And the purpose of this podcast is to talk with my colleagues, our alumni, and our students about issues affecting people in New Jersey, the United States and the world. Once again today, we will be addressing the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd.

Linda Stamato and Sandy Jaffe, for years, have run the Bloustein School Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. Equally important for our purposes today, Sandy was the executive director of the Lilley Commission, which was formed in the wake of the Newark riots in 1967, and whose work certainly echoes today, Sandy and Linda, thanks for joining me.

Linda Stamato
Happy to be with you, Stuart. Thanks.

Sandy Jaffe
Thank you. Sure.

Stuart Shapiro
For some background for our younger listeners, can you briefly describe the Newark riots and their causes?

Sandy Jaffe
Well, you know, it’s hard to do that briefly. There was a period of really terrible unrest and a lot of deaths. Twenty-six people were killed, millions of dollars of property damage were incurred, and the city was in utter chaos for about four or five days. And in fact, the Newark Police Department was not really adequate to handle this. And Governor Hughes who was then the governor of New Jersey called in the New Jersey National Guard. And the New Jersey National Guard came into the city and helped police the city for about four or five days. And so that, that gives you a sense of what occurred.

As to what actually caused it, Stuart, that’s a more complicated question. Let me give you three comments… three answers that might help. One, there was considerable unrest in the community because of the proposed land that was being taken for the Martland Medical Center. And it was proposed that about 50 acres of land would be taken under eminent domain to build a medical complex. This was right in the central ward, in the heart of the city, and would displace a lot of very poor, marginal people who would find it very, very difficult to be thrown out with very little alternative. So that was one set of issues.

The second issue that happened was a complete unhappiness with the culture and the system of government that existed in Newark then, which had no concept of what the needs were of the minority black community and Latino community. And the unhappiness there and the problems there. So that was the second cause. The third major issue was that one night, and I forget the date, there was an arrest of a black man by the Newark Police Department. And then there were allegations that this gentleman was being beaten in the precinct which was located in the central ward. And that brought out a huge crowd. And that crowd brought more people out. And it was from that crowd, that the rioting began.

It’s hard to say that one factor caused the riots. This was the underlying issues and some of the factors that led to to the riots. And we’ll talk a little bit more about it, when I talk about some of the things that the Commission did, andsome of the things the Commission was asked to do.

Linda Stamato
I would just interject, Stuart, that the underlying conditions as they are now, having to do with vast amounts of poverty, discrimination, perception of educational inequities, those were present in great dimension in Newark at the time. So I think that the takeover, the proposed takeover, for the hospital was the precipitating factor.

Sandy Jaffe
One of the factors, right.

Linda Stamato
But those other things were systemic and problematic and was like a powder keg ready to explode.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, you took the words right out of my mouth there Linda. In hearing Sandy talk about that it is impossible not to hear the echoes of many of those same underlying factors in what we’ve been seeing over the past week.

Linda Stamato
Right.

Stuart Shapiro
And so, while the specifics may be different, the general themes are certainly the same. And I definitely want to get to that. Before we do let’s go back to the 1960s there, and when we ask what the central themes and the principal recommendations made by the Kerner Commission were.

Sandy Jaffe
Well, I’m going to focus more on the New Jersey commission rather than the Kerner Commission. The Kerner Commission really did not look at the state of New Jersey.

Linda Stamato
It was national.

Sandy Jaffe
It was A, national, they were more focused on LA and on Detroit. And any attempts on my part to cooperate and work with the Kerner Commission were kind of rebuffed. So, we went pretty much on our own, and they went pretty much on their own. And in my opinion, our report was much more analytical, (laughing) had much more analysis, came closer to hitting what the issues were, and the recommendations were much, much more structural and more far-reaching, than I think the Kerner Commission’s were.

But let me talk a little bit about our commission. I think, one of the underlying themes in our commission was the notion that it was really important to get the community in New Jersey, in the suburban parts of New Jersey, and throughout the state, and the legislature, to understand what kind of despair existed in Newark in the black community. And to that end, I think the governor did an excellent job. He appointed a commission that had on it two ex-governors, two bishops, and three lawyers–the former president of the State Bar Association, a prominent African American lawyer, and a newspaper publisher–and it was chaired by the president of the Bell Telephone Company. So this really was a commission of I guess you would call the intellectual and political elite of the state.

The issue was, educating that group of people as to what the issues were, and the sense of despair that was being faced in the community. And how would you go about doing that so you could make a series of recommendations that would be very meaningful on a structural basis? To that end, Stuart, we called 99 witnesses before the commission, and we had a small staff of investigators, and they conducted over 700 staff interviews. And all this was presented to a Commission, which at first was somewhat, I wouldn’t say not understanding, but somewhat hesitant to really understand what was happening. By the end of the Commission’s process of education, there was absolute accord and unanimity in a series of very far-reaching structural recommendations.

Linda Stamato
Sandy mentioned the time the commission invested in this.

Sandy Jaffe
That’s right. It was something like, we met five days a week for about 20 weeks, almost every day, from four o’clock in the afternoon to seven or eight or nine in the evening. In fact, lunch or dinner was usually on the Bell Telephone Company, and I put on 30 pounds. (laughing).

Anyway, it pointed out something which was very important to m,e and I think very relevant today, which is the value of education. The value of people listening to people explain what the issues are, as they see it. And how you bring people together to be able to articulate what their needs are, and what their concerns are. And even more important, how you could get people to listen, because it’s not just educating. It’s also listening, as you know. And then based on what the listening part, acting on that. So those were, that’s really sort of the groundwork we had done. Maybe Linda wants to say something…

Linda Stamato
Yes, I want to say one thing about this, because I think it’s important for those who are listening to think about how something like the commission gets launched. To have a governor who recognized that he couldn’t just end the riots, but needed to do something to add constructive outcome potential. So you had leadership by the Governor of New Jersey, you also had leadership by Lyndon Johnson who was president of the United States, in appointing the Kerner Commission. And in a sense, it’s basically telling the population, we’re not moving on, we are going to investigate and find some opening, some paths. And it seems to me that when you think about what you need to effectuate change in the wake of protest, it’s got to be leadership at the top and sustained support.

But it also has to convince community members that what’s being undertaken is serious and not just glossing over or, you know, a fake process of investigation. And when people in Newark saw how frequently that commission met, and how serious it was taking its role, I think they were more willing to accept and deal with the recommendations that came from it because it had its own legitimacy just by the very nature of how it functioned.

Sandy Jaffe
I also think, to add to what Linda said, and I’m going to talk and sum it all up a minute. But let me just specify some of the recommendations that I think are very significant. And they’re very significant, much of which is even relevant today because they played a key role in the acceptance of the overall commission report. And the commission report was very important because it prefaced the changing of attitudes, and the recognition and acceptance of legitimate concerns and the sense in the black community that there seemed to be some reason for hope.

Well, what were the reasons for that? One was recognition by the Commission that there was political corruption in the city administration. That was very important. Although the commission was not a grand jury and did not have subpoena power, note the fact that this commission could come out with a statement of that nature was very significant in the community. By the way, that first supper meeting led to a federal grand jury and the indictment of the mayor and the police chief and a number of other people in that administration. So that was number one.

Secondly, was looking at the other structural issues. Because as you know, if you have corruption, you cannot have representative democracy. And if you can’t have representative democracy, there is no way for people’s concerns and needs to be articulated. So that’s very fundamental. Secondly, the commission recognized that the educational system in Newark was so poor in its ability to educate these poor kids, that it was, it was really something that had to be done radically. And so, it recommended a complete takeover, state takeover the educational system, and a series of specifics under that. And I think that was also extraordinary when you think about that time period that that was done. But that was also, the Commission also moved into areas that were also very important. Like, for example, criminal justice reform. It looked at the magistrate courts, it looked at the court system in Newark, which at that time, didn’t even provide record of what had transpired. And if you don’t have a record, you can’t take an appeal. And you can’t take a look at other kinds of issues. So that was very important.

Also, it looked at jobs, housing, inadequate housing, inadequate employment. It looked at the credit issues, it looked at the banking structure, and it looked at economic development. And took each one of those very important issues, and structurally developed methods and methodology to deal with each one of those issues. And recommendations to the business community, the political community, and the state legislature. And I think this is very important Stuart because I think you’ve got to look at the structural basis for the problems, I think you’ve got to look at the political structure. And I think you need to put those two together and figure out how you can create a sense of hope, and a sense of recognition of which is important to hope.

Linda Stamato
And I’d add there that when all this is going on, there was a sense of not only hope, as Sandy said, but confidence that change might happen. And I remember being active with the League of Women Voters and we went to Newark to register new voters. And when Ken Gibson, who was the first African American Mayor elected in Newark was elected, he won by 9000 votes. And we had registered 10,000 people. So, there was a sense that there was actual investment by only the residents of New York, but those outside to try to make the riots turn to have some positive potential.

And I would say that when there was a retrospective some 50 years, and then 60 years later, it was pretty clear and made clear to the Newark community by members of that community, how much progress they had made. Yes, how much more to be done, but how much progress they had made in creating a sense of community there. Which I think probably had a good deal to do with the fact that, the recent protests had very rare instances of any kind of violence or destruction, but rather were a testament to outrage as everyone in the nation should have felt.

Sandy Jaffe
Linda raises such an important point about the League and I remember that. But I also want to point out, that reminds me, that I also need to mention that in addition to the commission report, which I think was extraordinarily useful and extraordinary hopeful, there were other actors on the scene in Newark. There was the beginning of neighborhood development. There were leaders in Newark who came in and noted the beginnings of organizations, black organizations that were beginning to be important too. So this combination of factors led, I think, to the election of Ken Gibson, which then led to a whole political change in the city, and eventually to the present Mayor Ras Baraka, who is an extraordinarily good mayor and creates a lot of hope for the city. I think what is important to remember too, is that you don’t do it alone. You do it with parts of the community, and with important actors in the community, and other organizations in the community. But you do need something that starts as a catalyst, and you need some recognition that you understand these issues. You want to put them together, which enables people then to meet together to try to move them.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s a nice segue to what I want to move us toward, the present here and Linda alluded to that somewhat. As you sort of look back on the events of the late 1960s there in Newark and nationwide, and then sort of reflect forward to today. What, you know..do you feel like here in New Jersey or in Newark in particular, we have learned some of the lessons and that that resulted in the peaceful protests in Newark, although not all over the state. And do you feel that nationwide maybe we haven’t learned those lessons. And that’s why we saw what we saw in many, many other cities.

Linda Stamato
Yeah, I’m sure local conditions have a lot to do with the protests nationally, but I do think in New Jersey, and it was particularly remarked upon by Ras Baraka as well that Newark members are invested in their community. They don’t destroy what is theirs. So, the perception that you are not only in, but you are of, community tends to make you, not less willing to protest grotesque violations of a human being, but to recognize there are ways to do it in a sense that will prove to be constructive. And I think, you know, it’s interesting Stuart, because Rutgers-Newark campus now is so much more integrated in the city than the higher education institutions were at the time of the disorder in the 60s, when basically they were like islands in a place. Rutgers even made some thoughts years ago, should we end our campuses in the other regions, and fortunately did not. But now you have a Chancellor in Nancy Cantor, who when she was president of Syracuse said, can’t be a thriving university in a dying city. So part of what Syracuse had to do was to invest in the city of Syracuse. She brought that same attitude to Newark. And she is an integral part, and the University is, of the Newark community in a variety of ways. So there’s a sense of building strength in the community from a number of sources that are really making a difference between then and now.

Sandy Jaffe
I also think, to add to what Linda said, as one other point I should have stressed too, is that, you know, the issue of law enforcement and how law enforcement deals with a minority community is an extraordinarily important issue. Obviously, that’s what’s happening throughout this country today, is a reaction to that issue. And the commission took that issue on. It looked at the Newark Police Department, it looked at the National Guard, it looked at that 26 people were dead, how they were dead. It got ballistics analysis of all the bullets. It went through all the training manuals and made serious recommendations on training, on accountability, on oversight, and on community relations. All those four factors for law enforcement, both police and National Guard, most of those were followed. And they became very significant. And I think, in the relationships in Newark, and in the state of New Jersey. And today, much of the National Guard even functions under those kinds of rules and that kind of accountability. So that’s got to be part of the picture, too.

Linda Stamato
But you know, what, showing how entrenched police culture is. It was only recently that Newark emerged from oversight because its police were acting, once again, as they did in the past. And so there’s a sense that while we recognized then what needed to be done about the police, and efforts were made, there’s been a lot of movement backward. And I think what we’re seeing now is, the corruption that Sandy talked about that was so prevalent in Newark is prevalent across cities in America. Because of the corruption of the police, exacerbated by unions that effectively function as a protection racket, you basically have a government that’s intimidated, or can’t afford the years of litigation when charges are brought against the police. And so I think that’s why we’re beginning to see such moves that seemed radical. Defund the police. You know, end budgeting for the police. Well, I think maybe one more constructive way of looking at that is, how do we provide safety and security to our communities? How do those communities want that safety and security delivered? And I think those conversations will lead to a redefinition of the role of police. And you know, after all, you so much of the militarizing of the police, and the use of military equipment, that’s exacerbated things as well.

But I was reading just the other day, which I think was just fascinating, that we turn to the police now for almost every kind of social service that we once supported in other ways. And so, the police are being forced into positions of responding to things they’re not trained or capable of doing. So we need to rethink how we’re going to provide those services to communities when people are in need.

Sandy Jaffe
Stuart that raises, in my mind, a bigger issue that you’ve raised. And one, which I think is very relevant for a public policy school to think about. And that’s the really serious question of implementation of public policy issues. We do an awful lot of work in the Bloustein. School, and throughout the university. We have a lot of research. We come up with a lot of findings. We deal with a lot of issues that are really important in environmental, job creation, transportation, and so forth. But what we don’t really spend a lot of time on and a lot of rigorous analysis and research is implementation. How do you implement a public policy question? Just the other day, the governor announced a couple of months ago, he wants to do X, Y, and Z with the oceans and with the fish in the ocean? Well, it’s good to announce it. But how do you go about implementing that? What role does a public policy school have in building a great deal of work and…

Linda Stamato
Capacity.

Sandy Jaffe
…and analysis so we can deal with that? And you know as well as we do. You teach administrative law so you know how important implementation is on a legal standpoint. And I would follow that up, I would love to see a public policy focus on implementation on a broad interdisciplinary way. You and I know, both know, and my colleagues will join me, that the future is in interdisciplinary studies. You can’t look at an environmental issue without looking at other divisions of the university and the way they’ve looked at it. You can’t look at a science question without looking at the whole range of different courses in the university and their impact on it. And the Bloustein School can be a leader in interdisciplinary studies and implementation. And I would think that’s something we should really focus on. And I think we’d make a major contribution at this period of time if we thought about how we want to implement public policy, and what are the range of issues to implement.

Stuart Shapiro
So let me sort of, I want to pick up on something Linda said, and it certainly applies to what you were just talking about Sandy. If I want to take a big picture lesson from this, Linda talked about the lack of a stake that certain communities, particularly brown and black communities, feel in In their cities, and their states, and maybe in the country as a whole, as an underlying root cause here. Is that something that you feel was the central lesson here? And if so, what would you like to see happen about that to change that?

Linda Stamato
I think that’s such a compelling question, Stuart. The sense that, you know, for so many of us, we just take it as a matter of course, that we live in a neighborhood, in a community, and we’re part of it. But I think the sense that, you know, you could be arrested or beaten for walking through your community if you don’t look like you belong there, is such an estranging phenomenon. And I think that what we need to begin to do is, do some of what we did in the wake of the national problems in the 60s, which have largely waned since then. And that is the federal government, for example, in the Department of Justice created a Community Relations Service, which basically deployed trained facilitators in conflict resolution to communities that were on the brink of exploding. And helping them to manage their own conflicts in a way that they’d be useful to understand and deal with the issues that were bringing them to such a state of being.

And at the same time, there was state and, actually, a good deal of philanthropic investment, in community justice centers. Basically suggesting that communities need to be seen as, and act as, responsible for their own members. And so, you saw vast numbers of community people being trained as mediators to provide services in their community. And it had something of a transforming effect when all of a sudden, your problem solving is in your own hands. And that’s empowering. And I think to the extent that we can create some things that look like that, but also begin to use some of our public and private spaces in more creative ways. I was just reading that the Smithsonian received a $25 million grant from the Bank of America, to use its space to provide forums for examining the issues of greatest concern to black and brown Americans. I think that’s a phenomenal idea.

Sandy Jaffe
You know, to also build on what Linda just said, is that there’s no question in my mind that a stake in the venture– that old comment–is absolutely crucial and very, very important. The issue is how do you get a stake in the venture? And Linda is pointing out the whole background in the Community Relations Service. And the Community Justice Centers. One of the first things I did when I got to the Ford Foundation was to recognize some of this and funded an outfit in San Francisco called the Community Boards Conflict Resolution Center. And what that did is it used local members of the community, who were trained in problem-solving, trained in mediation, trained in restorative justice issues. It then worked out an arrangement with the local prosecutor’s office, with the state attorney general, that low misdemeanors that involved no violence, and that could be treated on a community level, would be handled by this group of people. That all kinds of commercial matters, that domestic violence matters, would be handled, with the consent of all the parties. That organization still exists today. And I think it was one of the great successes.

But I think it points out, as Linda’s pointing out, we’re really talking about the field that Linda and I spend a lot of time in, obviously conflict resolution. But conflict resolution in the sense that, you teach people how to problem solve, you teach people how to get together with groups with good leadership to work out their needs and their concerns. And they build up a stake in the venture because that’s what they want to work on.

Linda Stamato
One of the things that you just kept hearing in all the protests, so, so strongly above so many of the other shouts was, you know, just listen to us. Hear what we have to say. And the notion that you know, we talk all about having a voice. But it’s not only to have a voice, you want to be sure somebody’s listening to it. And I think that’s also part of being a recognized part of your community. I think we have a lot of what we call “third sector” institutions, churches, mosques, synagogues, but also schools and nonprofits of all kinds that can have a role here in trying to help the community have presence. And again, express their voices in ways that not only communicate their experience but also give them an opportunity to help shape their future.

Sandy Jaffe
Give you a sense of how we feel, Stuart? (laughing)

Stuart Shapiro
(laughing) Just a little bit, there! So many great issues raised, and we’ll have to have you back on to talk more about community building and conflict resolution. Thank you both so much for coming on today.

Linda Stamato
Thank you, Stuart. And thanks, Amy.

Sandy Jaffe
I want to thank you Stuart, and I hope we didn’t give you too big an assignment as Associate Dean to create this whole program on implementation and interdisciplinary study. (laughing)

Stuart Shapiro
(laughing) I’m on it! Let me also give a big thank you to our production team, Tamara Swedberg, Amy Cobb, and Karyn Olsen. We’ll be back next week with another talk from another expert from the Bloustein School. Until then, stay safe.