Poetry News

Amiri Baraka Recalls Newark Riots of 1967

By Harriet Staff

See this feature in The New York Times, in which Amiri Baraka talks about the Newark riots of 1967.

Here's an excerpt:

Four and a half decades have passed, enough time for historians and urban policy experts to write millions of words about Newark’s industrial decline after World War II and the riots that became a symbol of urban unrest and that continue to cast a shadow over the city.

Mr. Baraka, who became a celebrity in the decades after the riots, is one of the featured names at a four-day poetry festival in Newark starting on Thursday that organizers claim is the largest such festival in North America. The discussion in his house the other day offered a preview, and an almost moment-by-moment look back at the bloody upheaval. In the end, 889 stores had been damaged or looted, officials said.

By the time the violence broke out in Newark, there had been race riots in Jersey City, Harlem and the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. And Mr. Baraka, a writer once known as LeRoi Jones who had been a playwright in Greenwich Village and a black nationalist in Harlem, had returned to his native Newark. “The idea that the city would blow up was obvious,” he said.

It began after the police stopped a black cabdriver for a traffic violation and took him to a police station, where the arresting officers beat him. Mr. Baraka said he had joined a crowd outside the police station during the day but had walked home as night fell. Rumors were rampant that the taxi driver had died in police custody; in fact, he had been taken to a hospital.

Before long, Mr. Baraka said, word spread that bricks and bottles were being thrown at the police station and that crowds were breaking windows in the neighborhood. “I had this brand-new Volkswagen bus,” he said, and he and several friends piled in. “We drove up Springfield Avenue. By the time we got to Belmont, it was raging.”

“Pretty soon, pop, pop, pop, pop,” he said. “Shots.”

He said that the police stopped the van. One of the officers was “a cop I had gone to high school with — Italian.”

“He hit me on the top of my head with his gun,” he said, “and then they started beating.” He said people watching from an apartment building took aim at the officers and threw things — including, he said, a refrigerator.

“The police took me to Dominick Spina’s office,” he said, referring to the Newark police director at the time. “I fell on the floor. Spina says, ‘We got you,’ like some grade-B movie. I say, ‘Yes, but I’m not dead yet.’ That’s the level things were at.”

He was arrested on charges of carrying an illegal weapon and resisting arrest, and even before the trial began, he castigated the judge who was presiding and the all-white panel of potential jurors as “my oppressors.” He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, but in 1969 a judge reversed the conviction for lack of evidence.

Mr. Baraka has been a regular at the poetry festival, which has been held every other year since 1986 and is formally called the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Mr. Baraka is scheduled to read poems at the festival; he is also scheduled to appear on Saturday with Clement A. Price, a history professor at Rutgers University, in a discussion of the effect of the riots and other 1960s turbulence on Mr. Baraka’s work.

Full article here.

Originally Published: October 12th, 2012