Blueprint for a New Newark

NEWARK — On July 12, 1967, residents of Newark took to the streets to protest the abuse of a black cabdriver, John W. Smith. That night, Newark police officers had beat him into paralysis and dragged him into the police station, simply because he drove his cab around their double-parked police car.

After word quickly spread throughout the city, hundreds of residents gathered outside the Fourth Precinct station house and demanded to see Smith. So began the Newark Rebellion, which lasted for five days, claimed the lives of 26 people, left more than 700 people injured and resulted in millions of dollars in property damage.

Violent encounters with the police catalyzed the Newark Rebellion, just as they did the protests in hundreds of other cities across America in 1967. But these events came after decades of frustration and justifiable anger about the enduring effects of poverty, racism and a lack of opportunity. Indeed, Life magazine described what happened in Newark as a “predictable insurrection.”

As such, what happened in Newark was not a riot. It was a rebellion, an act of empowerment meant to resist the oppressive conditions under which Newark residents had been forced to live. Consider the extreme racial polarization in the city at the time: White people virtually monopolized political power, and the police force was about 90 percent white in a city with a substantial black population.

That year, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looked to Newark and other black communities and explained in a speech at Stanford University that the country consisted of “two Americas,” sharply divided by race. In one America, millions of young people were growing up “in the sunlight of opportunity.” In the other, people were “perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Fifty years later, too many people in Newark, and in numerous other cities throughout the country, still struggle under the weight of the conditions that precipitated the rebellion: in particular, a lack of economic opportunities and a range of indignities from local law enforcement.

Indeed, law enforcement abuses in Newark have been so pervasive that in July 2014, the Department of Justice announced a pattern of widespread civil rights violations in the Newark Police Department. It found that Newark’s police officers had no legal basis for 75 percent of their pedestrian stops from 2009 to 2012, which were used disproportionately against black people. In addition, the Newark police detained innocent people for “milling,” “loitering” or “wandering.”

But police abuse is just one of the many challenges that Newark residents face. The city is home to one of the largest transportation hubs in the United States, Fortune 500 businesses, world-class research universities and cultural institutions, and a large network of hospitals and community health centers. And a majority of the people who work here earn more than $40,000 a year, according to a report just released by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

But this prosperity is not shared by a majority of Newark residents. Nearly one in three of the city’s black residents lives in poverty.

It is not uncommon to see residents waiting to receive unemployment and other benefits in a line that extends as long as a city block, while on the other end of the street, billion-dollar construction projects are underway.

Such contradictory phenomena coexist because Newark residents hold only 18 percent of all jobs in the city.

In this regard, Newark is a stark outlier among similarly situated cities. In Baltimore, for example, residents hold 33 percent of jobs. In New Orleans, it’s 46 percent. And while almost three-quarters of Newark residents are people of color, 60 percent of the people employed in Newark are white.

These disparities in employment cannot be explained by a lack of desire or ability to work. Newark residents have the same labor force participation rate — the percentage of the population that is either employed or actively seeking work — as the rest of the United States at about 63 percent, but higher unemployment. This means that Newark has a greater proportion of people who are ready and willing to work, but who cannot find either full- or part-time jobs, than the rest of the country.

These challenges require systemic solutions. Perhaps now more than ever, the solutions are emerging from the ground up.

Under the leadership of Mayor Ras J. Baraka, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the Newark Alliance, along with many companies and community organizations, recently started Newark 2020, an initiative to combat poverty by connecting 2,020 unemployed Newark residents to meaningful, full-time work that pays a living wage, by 2020.

But Newark 2020 is much broader than a numeric goal. Our ultimate aim is to build a self-sustaining public and private work force system that provides career opportunities, not just jobs. We are working as a community to create this system by identifying various career pathways to our large employers for a range of residents, from people with limited work experience to those with college degrees.

This work has required that we break down the silos of the public and private work force systems in the city. And together we will train and educate residents in a way that aligns with employers’ current and future needs so that they are competitive for the growing job opportunities in our city.

We are also building a new relationship between the police and the communities it serves. This requires us to advance a transformative vision, one in which law enforcement is a trusted community partner and not just an armed force; where it respects and honors the humanity of the people it serves; where police officers are held accountable for misconduct; and where police officers join with communities of color to be both peacemakers and peacekeepers.

Last year, the Justice Department and the City of Newark reached a settlement to reform the Newark Police Department, which involves improving training, equipping police with body cameras and rewriting department policies on the use of force and search-and-seizure practices.

Newark is poised to realize the kind of policing that residents have long urged.

As former Mayor Kenneth Gibson said, “Wherever American cities are going, Newark will get there first.” Newark has an opportunity to serve as a bright light for progressive action on criminal justice reform and jobs growth, and to build a new city based on a revolution of values that Dr. King and so many Newark residents envisioned 50 years ago.

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