Police Power and the Election of Newark’s First Black MayorRoundup
tags: African American history, Newark, urban history, police brutality, Amiri Baraka, policing, Ken Gibson
Andrew Grim, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is at work on a dissertation on anti-police brutality activism in post-WWII Newark, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @andyleegrim.
Fifty years ago, Newark, New Jersey, elected its first Black mayor—Kenneth Gibson—at a moment when there was an urgency to address police violence. Three years earlier, the 1967 Newark Rebellion, which began in response to the police beating of a Black cab driver, resulted in dozens of deaths—including two children—at the hands of police and the National Guard. Police violence was nothing new for Black Newarkers. For years the Newark Police Department had earned a reputation for the violence it meted out to Black and Puerto Rican citizens. But the city had never before experienced police violence on such a scale as in 1967.
In the aftermath of the Rebellion, activists worked tirelessly to counter police violence. Some came to the conclusion that in order to rein in the racist, out-of-control police department, they needed to go beyond street protests. Many of these activists believed that countering anti-Black police violence in Newark necessitated electing Black city leaders who would be more sensitive to the experiences of Black residents. Activists saw electing Black and Puerto Rican city council members, and especially a Black mayor, as the most effective means of bringing the Newark Police Department (NPD) to heel. Their experience, however, illustrates the pitfalls of relying on electoral politics to solve the problem of police violence.
Newark at the time had a majority Black and Puerto Rican population, yet was governed by an entrenched white political machine and patrolled by an overwhelmingly white, mostly Italian-American police force. Black activists concluded that if they could harness the electoral strength of the Black and Puerto Rican community, they could dislodge the white political machine, elect sympathetic Black officials, and gain control of the police department. Speaking to a reporter months after the Rebellion, Amiri Baraka, the great poet and activist, explained his movement from protest to electoral politics, saying, “We’ve come to the conclusion that the city is ours anyway, that we can take it with ballots.”1
In the 1970 mayoral election, Kenneth Gibson campaigned to unseat the incumbent mayor Hugh Addonizio. Gibson, a city engineer, had a reputation as a political moderate. His campaign messaging focused on competence and a return to good, responsible governance after the rampant corruption of Addonizio’s administration. But, as the wounds of 1967 still festered, activists and Black radicals kept policing at the center of the campaign.
Baraka, with his usual rhetorical flair, laid out what was at stake in the election. “Newark is in the control of an Italian nationalist army called the police department,” he declared, evoking images of Black Newark as a colonized people living under the ever-present threat of police violence. “We are moving in Newark to gain our political control, not because we are interested in American democracy,” Baraka continued, “but because we are interested in black survival. We are trying to control the police.”
The Newark example serves as a cautionary tale for activists today. Righteous demands for accountability and justice had seemed victorious as Newark’s first Black mayor was sworn into office that hot summer day fifty years ago. But as activists celebrated their hard-fought victory, police power—far from retreating in the face of a rising tide of Black political power—reasserted itself in new ways. As beatings and quotidian acts of disrespect and brutality persisted in the Gibson era, the police message to Black Newarkers seemed to say: a Black mayor will not protect you, this is still our city. Newark’s experience cautions today’s activists to be wary of channeling the urgency, the radicalism, the moral authority of this current moment into electoral politics. In Newark’s case, this strategy proved woefully inadequate to the problem at hand.
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