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Arts & Culture

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka On The 1967 Riots

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Fifty years ago today, in 1967, a black man was arrested in Newark, N.J. It was a majority black city with a white-dominated government. And when false rumors spread that the black man had been killed, the news escalated into violence. As fires spread, one local man spoke with a reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You see the condition we're living in? You see these houses here? And the people who own these houses don't live in Newark. They live in Maplewood in fancy neighborhoods and stuff. And they don't have no rats, no roaches. The garbage man comes every other day in their neighborhoods. Down here, the garbage man comes once or twice. You understand?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you think it does any good to turn the neighborhood into the way this one looks tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah. Yeah.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Because you know who owns (unintelligible)...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What do you think will happen because of this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The white man is going to listen downtown.

INSKEEP: The Newark riot left 26 people dead. Those present included the late playwright Amiri Baraka, who called it not a riot but a rebellion. Fifty years later, Newark has changed. And Amiri Baraka's son Ras Baraka is mayor.

Was that event talked about in your household when you were a kid?

RAS BARAKA: Yes, absolutely. I think it was talked about in many households in Newark, period, and particularly in my household. My father and mother were community activists. My father was driving up Springfield Avenue on one of those days in the beginning of the rebellion, and he was pulled over by police officers and arrested. He was hit over the head. There's a picture of him with a bandage on his head in a hospital chained - handcuffed to a wheelchair, bleeding. So I heard that story.

INSKEEP: You know, on the 25th anniversary of the riot, there was a documentary about it. And we have tape from your father, Amiri Baraka, talking about the riot or rebellion and how he saw it. And he argued that on some level, the violence was perhaps justified. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

AMIRI BARAKA: And Dr. King was talking essentially about peace and love and turn the other cheek and, you know, Christianity, human brotherhood. We sat and watched him get beat up every day on television - people spit in your face and spit on you. And then we began to think, well, why should we have to put up with that?

INSKEEP: Now, of course, you weren't there. But you grew up with your father. Do you think he was right?

R. BARAKA: I think the statements he made were absolutely correct. The kind of organizing that was happening in the South was not working in the North in these cities where people were moving to to find hope and employment and work and justice. They came, then was corralled and concentrated in poverty and segregation and racism still.

And they watched their national leaders killed on national TV. They watched King get assaulted, get attacked. They watched Malcolm X murdered. So all of these things create an atmosphere where people are frustrated, where they feel like they need to respond and that enough is enough.

INSKEEP: How much has the physical landscape of Newark changed from the city that you knew as a kid in the years immediately after the uprising?

R. BARAKA: Well, it's changed tremendously, and I think it's still changing. I think Ken Gibson took office when the city was completely decimated. The budget was destroyed. The previous mayor was convicted with organized crime. He had a lot of work to do. Sharpe James began to take that mantle. They brought down a lot of the high-rise buildings, began to create housing across the city that exist...

INSKEEP: Oh, tearing down awful public housing projects and trying to build something a little bit better on a little more human scale.

R. BARAKA: Right. They did that. And a development on Springfield Avenue began to change, some development in the downtown area. And that includes around the area where the rebellion actually took place where the - that property was completely burnt out. It is not exactly where we need it to be or where it used to be, but it's absolutely different than what it looked like post-1967.

INSKEEP: Now that you're the mayor and you get to look over the budget and try to improve it as you do so, do you have occasions of looking at a particular budget line and thinking, oh, that's an effect of 1967 - I can still see that effect from 1967?

R. BARAKA: Yeah. The amount of money that we spend toward public safety is still high because we still have not dealt with or recovered completely from the issues of poverty, unemployment and segregation in this state and in this city. And so those issues begat crime, which forces us to spend more money around policing and police issues. And we're trying to send some of that money to other parts of the city that need it desperately, you know, around roads and bridges and training and jobs. All of that is important. And so we have to balance that in a way that makes sense.

INSKEEP: Are you learning things about these events 50 years ago that even you didn't know growing up around them?

R. BARAKA: I think every time we talk about it, I learn something new. Even the tone of the language that people use when describing what took place and see how far off people are in their interpretation of the events that happened that day, which is - lets me know that we need a real extensive dialogue on these events and not just Newark, you know. Jersey City had a rebellion - Harlem, Watts, Detroit. You know, we need to have a discussion about why these things happen and why they keep happening.

INSKEEP: Mayor Ras Baraka, thanks very much.

R. BARAKA: No problem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.