NEWARK, NJ — By Monday morning, after a weekend of nationwide protests against police brutality that turned to spasms of violence and chaos in many cities, Newark emerged with the distinction of having led a peaceful demonstration of thousands with minimal destruction.
The city of 280,000, where about half of residents are black, still bears the scars of the 1967 uprisings that left 26 dead and hundreds more injured in a week of terror. Neighborhoods burned and white residents fled in droves in the following years, giving way to decades of economic malaise.
Community members present on Saturday carried with them the trauma of their elders, determined not to revisit a dark moment in history during Newark’s tribute to George Floyd, the man from Minneapolis who died as a result of a police officer kneeling on his neck.
So when a group of about 15 mostly white young people attempted to incite riots at the 1st Precinct, where the 1967 rebellion began, and elsewhere in the city, Newarkers noticed, and they weren’t having it, according to Czezre Adams. He said that as a group of protestors broke off to march to the historical site, he began hearing people confirmed to be outsiders discussing burning the city down.
“That’s when I got really involved and let them know that they weren’t going to start a riot, that people like myself and others who live here have parents and grandparents who lived through the 1967 riots, and we’ve come a long way for us to go back down that same road again,” Adams said. “One individual wound up jumping on a police car and attempted to smash a window when I grabbed him off.”
Other community members and officials quickly arrived at the scene, including Central Ward Councilwoman LaMonica McIver and resident Donna Jackson, who streamed part of the ordeal via Facebook Live on Saturday.
The antagonists began throwing bottles at police, and a few had ice picks, knives and much bigger plans for the fate of the police station, according to Jackson.
“They had planned to try to set fire to the 1st precinct, and we told them that they were not doing that and endangering all the residents around there. Three of them on the right side of the precinct had rocks and bricks in their bags,” Jackson said. “They were so disrespectful, and this is this group that’s going across the country, starting all of this nonsense.”
The response of the Newark Community Street Team and native Newarkers deescalated any would-be violence, the only casualties being the hood of a police vehicle, a few slashed tires, broken windows and mirrors and a burned American flag. No arrests were made and police held their line.
Adams, Jackson, McIver and Newark Community Street Team Director Aqeela Shirrell all said the group of agitators, some of which wore red cloths over their faces throughout the day, provided different accounts of where they were from, claiming New Jersey towns like Linden, Passaic, North Arlington and Manalapan to out-of-state locations like Colorado and Brooklyn.
“That’s something I was told personally (by the antagonists). Everyone who was attempting to start these riots, like the burning of the flag, which was making headlines, that was all done by outsiders,” Adams said.
Elsewhere, as city officials, protestors and even President Donald Trump look to pin the looting and violence occurring nationally on extremists, many black Americans worry that their communities and cause will suffer blame for the rioting.
While it’s unclear whether the individuals who arrived in Newark were affiliated with a particular group, community activists and leaders say they were there with an agenda to incite violence.
“It was just unreal to see these agent provocateurs who came to our city with the intention to cause chaos,” McIver said, pointing to elected officials in other cities who have cited outsiders as the drivers of lawlessness. “From that day on, we’re skeptical of any protests that are happening because while we are outraged about brother George Floyd being killed by the police, we don’t want to burn down our city.”
Far-right adherents have been pointing the finger at ANTIFA, a supposed militant anti-fascist group who they claim is responsible for sowing opposition amid peaceful protest. Trump Tweeted on Sunday that the United States would designate the alleged group as a terrorist organization, though there is no evidence that the organization actually exists.
Others have proposed that those inciting violence are white supremacist groups looking to set up peaceful protestors to look like rioters.
Sherrill described Saturday’s aspiring arsonists as “young, white anarchists” from their appearance and behavior. Throughout the day, all instances of damage monitored by the NCST were perpetrated by the same group, he said. At certain points, other individuals were riled up by the instigators.
“They had on backpacks, and in there they had all types of stuff. At one point, when they burnt the first flag, they had rocks and shit. (A young woman) pulled out alcohol and matches, and I was like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Sherrill said. “They were just here to tear up our city and then go home back to wherever they live.”
In a clear message to outsiders, the collective action of local leaders and organizations insulated Newark from the destruction dozens of U.S. cities are sweeping up this week.
Here in the Brick City, 1967 won’t soon be forgotten. Or repeated.