MLK DAY 2021 – Racism: The Problem We All [Still] Live With

MLK

Here in New Jersey, on this Martin Luther King Day 2021 we are forced to process two contradictory narratives born of our enduring ambivalence about race that has haunted our nation and our state from when it was a colony that relied heavily on slavery.

On Jan. 20, with President-elect Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris expected to be sworn in as President and Vice President, we will see the unprecedented elevation of a woman of color to the second highest office of the land.

Yet, in the foreground of this tableau that validates our ideals of racial and gender equality, will be tens of thousands of armed members of the National Guard. They have been deployed to fend off a potential attack by aggrieved Trump supporters and white supremacists who on Jan. 6 violently stormed our Capitol

That attack resulted in the suspension of Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote for several hours and the murder of Capitol Police Officers Brian Sicknick, a New Jersey native.

Fifty-seven years ago, Norman Rockwell created the iconic painting of Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African American girl being escorted into a racially segregated New Orleans elementary school by U.S. Marshalls.

Rockwell’s iconic painting “The Problem We All Live With” enjoyed a new life recently as a meme on social media because of Senator Harris’s own history as a child of color who was bused to school so as to break the white color barrier.

On Wednesday, Senator Harris will be sworn in Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, under the watchful eye of tens of thousands of members of the National Guard and a small army of local, state and federal law enforcement.

Meanwhile, across the county a once in a century public health crisis, which hits the poor and people of color the hardest, continues to grip the nation killing more Americans in a single day than died on the day of the Sept. 11 attack.

Is this what progress looks like 20 years into the twenty-first century?

After the Jan. 6 attack in FBI court filings and news reports we learned of the central role of active duty as well as retired members of law enforcement and the military in the violent insurrection which resulted in the parading of the battle flag of the Confederacy for the first time in American history inside our Capitol.

Multiple news outlets, including the New York Times, reported instances where on the day of the insurrection individual Capitol Police were videotaped opening up the barricades to the seething mob and even posing for selfies with the rioters.

USA Today reported that two Capitol Police officers were suspended and ten more were under investigation.

General Russel Honore, who was subsequently tapped by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to investigate the attack, told MSNBC he was “surprised the Pentagon did not have the National Guard on standby” and that there was a “major failure in intelligence” by the FBI.

Moreover, Honore, who rose to prominence by virtue of his leadership during Katrina, raised the possibility the lack of internal preparations for the long-planned mass event suggested there could have been “complicity” at the highest levels of the on-scene command structure.

The possibility of law enforcement complicity in the riot would not come as a surprise to Paul McLemore, 83.  In 1961 McLemore became the first African American to join the ranks of the New Jersey State Police that’s celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

McLemore, stayed on the New Jersey State Trooper until 1976, and would go on to become a civil rights attorney and municipal court judge.

“No question about it—there is no way that could have happened without the active participation and cooperation of law enforcement and I say that based on experience in law enforcement, having been in the Marines and being on the bench,” McLemore said during a recent phone interview. “I draw on all of those experiences.”

The retired judge said that historically racist sentiments and actions by the police have long been tolerated internally and rarely were seen within the command structure as being equivalent with lawlessness or other forms of enterprise corruption.

“I have seen evidence of that, no question,” McLemore said. “In addition to the morbid brutality that’s been imposed on African American communities in our cities by police officers, they have committed crimes against the same population—stealing money from them, planting evidence of them, I know that happens.”

I first interviewed McLemore over twenty years ago when I was writing for New Jersey Monthly researching the allegations by a New Jersey State Trooper of color Sgt. Vincent Belleran who blew the whistle on the systemic use of racial profiling within the elite unit.  Belleran was punished for bringing attention to the unconstitutional practice which ultimately the state had to promise to end once it entered a consent decree with the Department of Justice in 1999 after decades of enabling the illegal behavior.

On this Martin Luther King Day, it’s important to keep in mind what was happening during that period when McLemore joined the NJSP. King’s civil rights message, which embraced antiwar and pro-labor themes, was considered a threat to national security by FBI Director Jay Edgar Hoover who with his covert operation COINTELPRO illegally tried to subvert and discredit King and his movement.

In the 1950s, McLemore, who was at the top his high school class in Buffalo, New York, had wanted to become a physician but was steered by his guidance counselor to go into military instead. When high school graduation came and he missed out on winning the scholarships his classmates were garnering, McLemore took his guidance counselor’s advice.

“I was in Marine boot camp on Paris Island when I found out I got five scholarships,” McLemore recalled. “That was my fault with my impetuosity. I had been just a little bit patient my whole life could have been different. But I don’t regret how things went down because I would not be the man I am now.”

McLemore stayed on the New Jersey State Troopers until 1976 going on to pursue his career as a civil rights attorney and then a municipal court judge. In the summer of 1967 during Newark’s civil unrest McLemore was an African American New Jersey State Trooper on the ground in the Brick City.

Our paths crossed in the 1990s when I cold called McLemore to see if he would be willing to discuss the internal culture of the NJSP. He put me off with a kind of homework assignment. I would get my interview but first I would have to find and read something called the Lilley Report issued by a panel convened by Gov. Richard Hughes to investigate the circumstances surrounding the several days of unrest in July of 1967 in Newark that left 26 dead and more than 700 injured.

I located the “The Governor’s Select Commission on Civil Disorder” aka the Lilley Report, after its chairman, then AT&T President Robert D. Lilley in the Morris County Library. I spent hours with it because what it described was what Newark civil rights activist Junius W. Williams told the New York Times in 2017 was actually a “police riot.”

Racial tensions had been simmering in Newark for months before July 1967 when the brutal police beating of a black cab driver, who had been pulled over for a traffic violation, caused things to boil over.

The national civil rights movement was gaining momentum and the city’s black community was becoming more assertive. Heavy-handed land use decisions by the white municipal power structure, such as 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 generations but were systematically cut out of city contracts that went to the white power structure’s patrons.

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. Police were being pelted by debris and looting started to break out.

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 says 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?’”

“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.”

What accounted for the New Jersey State Police and the National Guard’s precipitous fall from community grace?

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, a poet and playwright whose activism had made him a frequent target for the local police.

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.

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,” he recalled.

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.”

What makes the Lilley Report required reading today is not just its detailed summary of what happened during the five days of civil unrest in Newark. Like the Kerner Commission, which then-President Lyndon Johnson created to look into the issue of urban unrest on a national scale, the Governor’s Select Commission took pains to place the 1967 disturbances in historical perspective.

What was clear was that the police were imposing a kind of draconian law and order on the people of color in the city while the political power structure that owned the police had turned the municipal government into an ongoing white collar criminal enterprise.

The 200-page Lilley Report cast a critical eye on the City of Newark’s economic and political power structure. It identified a widening gap between the white-dominated municipal government and the overwhelmingly black electorate the city’s leaders were supposed to serve. It documented how African American businesses and local contractors were systematically excluded from public contracts, and it characterized the pervasive corruption of Newark’s officialdom by quoting the words of one informant: “There is a price on everything in City Hall.”

If further confirmation of the Lilley Report’s jaundiced view of Newark’s elected leadership were needed, not long after the report was released the city’s Mayor Hugh Addonizio was indicted and convicted on multiple corruption charges at a trial that linked him to organized crime.

Among the statistics the report laid out to describe Newark’s endemic poverty: the city had the highest maternal and infant mortality rate in the nation and the highest rate of tuberculosis infection, and it ranked ninth out of 302 American cities in severity of air pollution.

A half-century since the Lilley Report was issued the COVID pandemic has driven home the enduring nature of those very same race based economic and health care disparities that continue to define Newark, our state and the entire nation.

To this day, McLemore believes that in the street chaos of the unrest of July 67 there was at least one summary execution where a Newark resident was shot multiple times by law enforcement without legal justification.

To this day, the official cover story is it was the New Jersey State Police and the National Guard that restored law and order.

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