Barry Saunders

Saunders: Seeking wisdom for Ferguson from Newark in 1967

Y’all want to get this stuff in Ferguson – the protests, confrontations and ruminations – over with once and for all? Or at least until the next one?

Let’s all head over to Oliver’s place, then.

Hey, it worked when Newark, N.J., was about to be consumed by flames and anger in 1967. And nobody seems to have a better idea in Missouri now.

Newark, to people of a certain age, is synonymous with violent urban upheaval. Attorney Oliver Lofton, at the time director of the Newark Legal Services Project, told me this week that several people gathered at his apartment in July 1967 to try to find a way to end the violence after four or five days.

The governor wasn’t interested in Lofton’s suggestion. “I told him he needed to move those tanks away,” Lofton said. “He kept talking about drawing a line in the sand.”

Had Gov. Richard Hughes’ hard-line stance prevailed, the National Guard and Newark residents might still be squaring off. During the unproductive haggling, a fortuitously timed telephone call came in to Lofton’s apartment that saved the city, that may have saved America.

How it began ...

The unforgettable conflagration erupted in Newark on July 12, 1967, when a taxicab driver from Salisbury, N.C., with a forgettable name –John Smith – was arrested by Newark cops.

The police said Smith, who had attended Livingstone College in North Carolina, had a revoked license and resisted arrest. The only thing people in the public housing development next to the precinct station knew was that they saw him being dragged in – reportedly feet-first.

Word quickly spread that he was dead.

Lofton said that by the time he was called and arrived at the station, hundreds of angry residents had gathered outside.

“I went in and saw him,” Lofton said. Yes, Smith had been whomped, Lofton said, and was bloodied and bowed, but his condition was not as bad as he’d been led to believe.

“It’s not like he was beaten to within an inch of his life,” Lofton said.

Because of his work representing poor criminal defendants as head of a federally funded program, Lofton had some credibility with the people massing outside. He got a bullhorn, climbed atop a car, and told people to march down to City Hall.

“My objective was to move people away from this situation that was causing such a hullabaloo. I’d struck a deal – a supposed deal, anyway – with the captain that the police would show some restraint and not attack the crowd,” he said.

Even though some in the crowd were shouting epithets at the police, Lofton said, the crowd was indeed beginning to leave the station when police waded into it and, “everything just exploded.”

That led to six days of chaos in which 26 people were killed and millions of dollars of property were destroyed.

Echoes in Missouri

Does Lofton, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, see any similarities between what happened in Newark 47 years ago and what is happening in Missouri now?

“Yes I do,” he said, “from what I know secondarily, from watching the news reports and so forth.”

He called the shooting death of Michael Brown – like the arrest of John Smith – “a precipitating event,” a spark that lit a tinderbox that was already primed to ignite.

“There were all kinds of tensions raging in the city” when he got the call about Smith being beaten, Lofton recalled. He cited poverty, “being left out of the political process, having no voice, no power.”

Those same conditions are present in Ferguson, he said.

Lofton said he thinks Officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Brown, should’ve been arrested by now – “You’ve got three eyewitnesses who don’t know each other, saying the same thing” – though he suspects Wilson would have been released on bond.

Lofton would like to see the Missouri governor appoint a special prosecutor instead of the local one who has already criticized the governor’s handling of the situation.

“One thing black people do have is faith in the federal government, to some extent,” Lofton said. “How is the community supposed to have faith in the process” now playing out in Ferguson?

“If Brown had shot the officer, he’d be in jail,” Lofton said. “Police are not entitled to any special treatment.”

Lofton also said he thinks that now, as in Newark, there are people on both sides of the issue who want to see the violence continue to serve their own agendas. Also, now as then, he said, he’d urge the governor to remove the provocative tanks from the city’s streets.

Oh yeah: about that telephone call that helped end the Newark riots. Lofton said that while he was meeting with the governor and state police officials at his Clifton Avenue apartment, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called and asked if he could help.

When Lofton told King of the governor’s intransigence, he recalled, “Dr. King asked me, ‘Do you want me to give the governor some religion?’ He asked me to put the governor on the phone.”

Lofton called Hughes into the room and left. “About 45 minutes later, the governor came out and he’d agreed to all of our demands,’” Lofton said, still sounding incredulous.

“I asked King what did he say to him, but he never would tell me. He just said, ‘You wanted me to give him some religion, and I did,’ ” Lofton said.

Boy, if only there were someone around with the moral heft to give the central figures in Ferguson some religion.

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