Police violently acting out on peaceful protestors in Lafayette Park next to a White House housing a President suppressing details of a global pandemic is nothing we haven’t seen before.
Donald Trump is not the first white supremacist to occupy the White House in a time when the entire planet was convulsed with a highly contagious disease that was ripping through our country at such a clip, corpses had to be stacked like cord wood.
And like Trump today, Wilson politically mined the white grievance felt by millions in the south, who even after a half-century, thought the wrong side had won the civil war.
‘BIRTH OF A NATION’
It was the former New Jersey Governor that infamously screened D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” at the White House. It was that film that lionized the Ku Klux Klan as the moral crusaders who restored the ‘Christian decency’ that was upended by the Yankee’s oppressive reconstruction with the freeing of the slaves.
As Greg Grandin wrote in the Nation in 2015, in June 1916, Wilson pushed “through Congress a remarkable set of laws militarizing the country, including the expansion of the Army and National Guard (and an authorization to place the former under federal authority) the nitrate plants for munitions production, and the funding of military research and development.”
He also reviewed a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue which included thousands of southern troops that marched behind the ‘Stars and Bars” of the Confederacy.
Grandin recounts that as the soldiers passed by the reviewing stand “the old men in gray offered their services in the present war” proudly proclaiming they would “go to France or anywhere you want to send us!”
The former Princeton University president had not only excluded African Americans from the Ivy League university but pushed to segregate the federal civil service as president.
Throughout the 1918-20 Spanish Flu it was President Woodrow Wilson who also concealed the killer disease from the American people even as it devoured them, killing 675,000 here and tens of millions worldwide.
In Wilson’s case the rationale for suppressing any awareness of the disease was to avoid undermining the WWI effort. As a practical matter, more American soldiers would end up dying from the Spanish Flu than in combat.
And to this day, our historic recollection continues to obscure Wilson’s deceit. We refer to the pandemic that killed tens of millions globally as the Spanish Flu only because it was that country’s press, not subject to Wilson’s wartime press restrictions, that reported on it.
But the historic corollary does not end there.
Even as Wilson, who had run on a pledge to keep the United States out of war, was building consensus for it, a small army of suffragettes led by New Jersey’s Alice Paul were taking residence in Lafayette Park, outside the White House to press for the vote for women.
WOMEN’S LIVES MATTER
Alice Paul, who was born to Quaker parents in Mount Laurel, was the leading architect of the 1913 Women’s Procession that brought thousands of women to Washington D.C. in what was for the time an unprecedented protest.
A master of the media and the use of images to convey a political message, Paul led a persistent presence outside the White House in 1917 that the protestors maintained for 18 months. The disciplined cadre of women became known as the “silent sentinels” because they refused to be deterred by the near constant heckling to which they were subjected.
“In January 1917, Paul and over 1,000 “Silent Sentinels” began eighteen months of picketing the White House, standing at the gates with such signs as, ‘Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?’” according to the Alice Paul Institute’s webpage. “They endured verbal and physical attacks from spectators, which increased after the US entered World War I.”
The institute’s narrative continues, “Instead of protecting the women’s right to free speech and peaceful assembly, the police arrested them on the flimsy charge of obstructing traffic. Paul was sentenced to jail for seven months, where she organized a hunger strike in protest.”
“Doctors threatened to send Paul to an insane asylum and force-fed her, while newspaper accounts of her treatment garnered public sympathy and support for suffrage. By 1918, Wilson announced his support for suffrage.”
On Saturday, news broke that Princeton University, which back in 2016 had refused to remove Wilson’s name from their public policy school, had decided to do so in the wake of the national protests that that were sparked by the murder of George Floyd in police custody.
As we head into the second month, the Black Lives Matters movement is upending the status quo at the local, state and federal level.
In the south, statues of Confederate soldiers that stood sentry for several generations. were knocked off their pedestals, or professionally removed and carted off to storage.
In New York City, City Council Speaker Cory Johnson and several members of the City Council have called for the removal from the Council Chambers of the statue of Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president, author of the Declaration of Independence, and a slave owner.
Over the last 72 hours in Newark the city has taken down an almost century old statue of Christopher Columbus and Mayor Raz Baraka signed a bill creating the Office of Violence Prevention that’s to be funded with 5 percent of the city’s police budget.
What most Americans are unaware, thanks to the way our history has been taught more as ancestor worship than open inquiry, Columbus was responsible for the enslavement of the Caribbean Arawak Native peoples which resulted in their extinction. These were the same people, who by the explorer’s own accounts, greeted him with kindness and generosity.
HISTORY IS ALIVE
For the signing ceremony, Mayor Baraka picked the same police precinct that in 1967 became the flashpoint for several days of civil unrest shorthanded by many as the “rebellion” that left 26 people dead, hundreds injured, and much of the city a smoldering ruin.
Under the legislation passed by the City Council and signed by Baraka, that police precinct will become a museum chronicling local activism in Newark and positive police changes, a trauma center for victim recovery and healing, workforce development, as well as the headquarters for the new Office of Violence Prevention.
Hopefully, the museum will be a place where we can commemorate the all too obscure parallel narrative that is the lived experience of the community in Newark that summer in 1967 which includes the state sanctioned violence carried out by the New Jersey State Police and National Guard that were called in.
On July 12, 1967, police pulled over John W. Smith, an African American cab driver for an alleged traffic violation. The police contended Smith cursed at them and that when the police went to take Smith into custody, he assaulted them.
According to the police, Smith continued to resist on the way into the precinct which was the backdrop for Mayor Baraka’s bill signing. Back in 1967, it was a passerby who just happened to witness the altercation, who started heckling the police, demanding that they take the handcuffs off of Smith. Large crowds quickly formed outside the precinct house where Smith was being held.
Community leaders demanded to see him and when they were granted access, they discovered he needed immediate medical attention. Smith was sent to the hospital for treatment for a skull injury and broken ribs.
By 7 p.m. the next day, Smith was released to his lawyer, but the damage was done. Word on the street was that Smith had been fatally beaten.
LONG TIME COMING
Over the next 24 hours, the Newark Police Department tried to keep a lid on a very dynamic situation. Cab drivers were mobilized to protest the treatment of their colleague, community members were protesting police brutality, and street conditions were deteriorating.
Racial tensions had been percolating in Newark for months before the summer of 1967. As the national civil rights movement gained momentum, the city’s black community was becoming more assertive.
Heavy-handed land use decisions by a corrupt white municipal power structure, like the decision to locate a new medical school in the heart of the black community, displacing long-time residents, generated organized push-back. African Americans felt they were being taken for granted by the white politicians they had supported for a generation and had little tangible to show for their loyalty.
In August of 1967, a month after Newark burned, Governor Richard Hughes convened a blue-ribbon panel of religious, political, and legal leaders and charged them with generating “a realistic analysis of the disorders….and practical proposals” to help prevent a recurrence of the unrest.”
The panel was led by AT&T President Robert D. Lilley and issued “The Governor’s Select Commission on Civil Disorder.” This document, known as the Lilley Report after its chairman, has slipped into undeserved obscurity.
I learned of the existence of this Lilley Commission when I was writing for New Jersey Monthly about the New Jersey State Troopers of color, who back in the 1990s, were blowing the whistle on the state’s systemic use of racial profiling on the state’s highways.
After years of obfuscation and denial, the State of New Jersey entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice which required it end the practice and submit itself to the scrutiny of an independent monitor and federal courts , an arrangement which was formally ended in 2009.
I figured the best way to get insight into the internal dynamics of New Jersey premiere law enforcement agency was to try and find the first African American New Jersey State Trooper.
It wasn’t easy.
Down at the New Jersey State Police Museum in West Trenton there was a faded framed photo of New Jersey State Trooper Paul McClemore, who broke the color barrier in the 1960s.
When I finally tracked down McClemore, who had become a civil rights lawyer and municipal court judge, he told me he would only grant me an interview if I did some homework and located the Lilley Report and read it.
After I located it at the Morris County Library and after I read it, I realized that McClemore’s assignment was one of the most important I had ever gotten. It introduced me to the authentic Newark narrative, obscured by a dominant white power structure unwilling to own its own history and trying to conceal its crimes.
Over months of investigation, the Lilley Commission took sworn testimony from more than 100 witnesses ranging from the Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police to Amiri Baraka, the activist poet and father of the current Mayor, whose politics had made him a frequent target for the local police.
STATE SANCTIONED BRUTALITY
After speaking with scores of Newark store owners and residents, the Commission concluded that members of both the police and the National Guard, motivated by racial prejudice, had used “excessive and unjustified force” on Newark residents, and had specifically targeted African American-owned businesses for destruction.”
“These raids resulted in personal suffering to innocent small businessmen and property owners who have a stake in law and order and who had not participated in any unlawful act. It embittered the Negro community as a whole when the disorders had begun to ebb,” concluded the Commission.
Back in 1967, McLemore was ordered to report to the New Jersey State Police barracks at Hightstown in his riot gear. According to media accounts, fires were burning out of control in the central city.
He joined a caravan of state police cars with hundreds of troopers heading up the New Jersey Turnpike, lights flashing. “The guys with me were just ecstatic, like they were going off to war,” McClemore said of the white troopers he rode with. “We got to where the Newark airport is. You could see Newark’s skyline and all you could see was smoke and flames. I thought `Lord, what is going to happen here?’”
McClemore continued. “When we drove through the central district of Newark things had gotten so bad——Newark police community relations had deteriorated so much, people were out on their porches applauding us. `Hooray! The troops have arrived. Everything will be fine. They will restore order.’ Black folks were welcoming the troops in.”
This welcoming attitude did not last long. Within days, Governor Hughes ordered the National Guard and the New Jersey State Police out of Newark. “When we left there,” McLemore says, “we were like a dog with its tail between its legs. People threw piss at us.”
During the days of unrest law enforcement and the National Guard claimed that they were fired on by snipers, whose shots led to the deaths of a Newark police detective and a Fire Captain responding to a fire call.
While not outright rejecting this claim, the Lilley Report noted the doubts of Newark’s own Police Director at the time, Dominick Spina: “A lot of the reports of snipers was due to the, I hate to use the word, trigger-happy Guardsmen, who were firing at noises and firing indiscriminately, it appeared to me, and I was out in the field at all times.”
McLemore’s own experience shows how indiscriminate shooting by the police and National Guard resulted in dangerous “friendly fire” exchanges. He recalls walking in a patrol formation at dusk when a streetlight came on and a Newark cop on patrol with him reflexively shot it out, prompting another patrol to blindly return fire in his direction. “It was the Keystone Cops. You had a situation where the National Guard and police were shooting at each other.”
Out of the 26 fatalities during the five days of unrest, 23 (including a number of innocent bystanders) were from gunshot wounds. The Lilley report estimated that the National Guard and N.J. State police fired some 13,000 rounds in all. No total was available for the local police, who reported killing people, seven “justifiably” and three “by accident.”