African masses in Newark, New Jersey confront the National Guard during the rebellion in July of 1967. These events are chronicled in a controversial documentary aired over PBS.
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40 years later, Newark's "Resistance" Still Simmers
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Forty years have passed since New Jersey's largest city was convulsed by six days of rioting, but the intervening decades apparently haven't quelled debate on the subject.
That was made abundantly evident during a screening of a new documentary that examines the events of July 12 to 17, 1967, which began with a routine traffic stop and ended with 26 people dead.
The audience at the Newark Museum -- some of whom lived through the riots -- had critical words for husband-and-wife filmmakers Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno and Jerome Bongiorno, led by poet Amiri Baraka's charge that the documentary represented a "subjective, white petit-bourgeois version of reality."
The release of "Revolution '67," which aired Tuesday on PBS, has reignited discussions about what Rutgers-Newark historian Clement Price termed "the defining moment in our 20th-century history."
The film features searing images of National Guard tanks rolling through downtown Newark and police marksmen firing seemingly at random into housing projects.
"Revolution '67" effectively documents the social forces that formed the city's landscape in the mid-1960s: a stagnating economy; deteriorating relations between a largely white police force and the city's black residents; a lack of adequate housing exacerbated by urban renewal and discriminatory lending practices, known as redlining, that kept blacks in the city and hastened white flight to the suburbs.
However, it also touched a nerve in the overflow crowd at the Newark Museum with what many considered its heavy reliance on interviews with white activists including Tom Hayden, the former president of Students for a Democratic Society who organized protests in Newark in the mid-1960s with a group called the Newark Community Union Project.
"Unfortunately, it really provides a flashpoint for people who were there and are rightfully sensitive to this, putting a white face out front as though Newark was just waiting for Tom Hayden and his missionaries to save it," said lifelong Newark resident Richard Cammarieri, head of special projects for a community development corporation. "But at the core of the film is something that is extremely important to understanding why July '67 happened."
Junius Williams, who was on break from Yale Law School during the summer of 1967, recalled being pulled over by police in Newark on the second day of rioting and staring down the barrel of a shotgun, fearing for his life.
"They told me to open the trunk of the car and they saw law books," recalled Williams, who now is director of Rutgers-Newark's Abbott Leadership Institute. "These cops wanted to kill us. The sergeant said to the other three, "These are law students, leave them alone.' He had to say it more than once, because they clearly wanted to do something else."
Williams attended the screening and, while adding that he and Hayden are friends, took issue with the film's implication that there was little or no activism before Hayden's group was formed.
"It gives the impression that the white man had to come in and save the black people from themselves," he said.
Forty years later, as Newark continues to grapple with poverty and an epidemic of gun violence, Williams lamented the lack of an organized effort to address many of the underlying problems.
"'Resistance' has become nightly shootouts in our community based on the drug-economic subculture, where all the energy is directed toward the controlling of the drug domain," he said. "If their energy could be redirected toward things like better schools or more jobs, things would be different."