After Charlottesville, We Should Be in the Streets Protesting Every Day

This article originally appeared in InsiderNJ.


This month's violence in Charlottesville is an historic turning point. It is one of those events in which a national trauma must be responded to locally, in order to preserve the nation’s social equanimity—and that has been under stress for a while now. It doesn’t endure by itself. Like the law, it has no magical power to survive. Only when we put our respect and faith into action can either of them endure. 

The uneven response over the following weekend from our elected officials was troubling. Perhaps they are hoping this will blow over—or be overtaken by some other catastrophe—and they can avoid taking a stand. Senator Cory Booker was one of the early voices showing moral leadership, with messages on Facebook and iTwitter: "The evil of hatred isn’t just the overt torch-bearing bigots in Virginia. The evil of hate is also the ignorance that breeds it, the apathy that sustains it and the Trump-like rhetoric that gives it license to flourish.” Also, credit to New Jersey governor Chris Christie for tweeting, “We reject the racism and violence of white nationalists like the ones acting out in Charlottesville. Everyone in leadership must speak out.” 

This can’t be ignored. Those torch-bearing neo-Nazis and alt-right white-tribalists, who desecrated the grounds of the University of Virginia Friday night and then showed up armed and in military garb the next day, are not going away. They constitute a clear and present danger to the nation, every bit as perilous and intemperate as if they were carrying the black flag of ISIS.   

There has always been an undercurrent of racial animus and white superiority in our country and New Jersey is no exception. It is a shadow-self; and like our original sin of slavery, can’t be lost in our collective memory—just as we can never forget the Holocaust. 

President Trump’s articulation of a moral equivalency between the ultra-rightwing white-supremacists and the counter-protesters is just another indicator that his moral compass is broken or nonexistent. As the Bible says, “when there is no vision, the people perish.” In a democracy, when the leadership is bereft of any vision, subsumed by their own self-interest, from where does the vision emanate?  From the people. 

We forget at our peril that both New Jersey and New York were the epicenter of the German-American Bund movement that fronted the American Nazi Party. On Feb. 20, 1939, they drew 22,000 supporters to Madison Square Garden, where they met under the banner, “Stop Jewish Domination of Christians,” with a massive rendering of George Washington, whom they claimed as the “original America Nazi.” 

Thanks to Weird NJ, we have this first-hand account of the convergence of the KKK and the American Nazi movement in a huge rally in Andover, NJ. Wrote local North Jersey author and historian, Frank Dale:

“Flames from the wooden cross, 40 feet high, crackled into the night, throwing lurid shadows on the participants below, some of whom were dressed in hooded white robes, others in the gray uniforms of the German-American Bund. The scene took place at Bund Camp Nordland in New Jersey on August 18, 1940, when the Klan staged a monster anti-war, pro-American mass meeting jointly with the Bund.”  

The attitudes associated with this axis endured subtly in the mainstream. My 85-year-old mother recalls that in Ridgewood (Bergen County), in those years, “if you were Jewish, you could only live in town if you owned a store there.” She remembers as a child going with her uncle to ride ponies in Oakland, where they saw Hitler Youth marching in full regalia. “My uncle was horrified,” she said. She remembers as late as the mid-'60s, having to go to a town meeting in Glen Rock, where we lived, when a contingent of townspeople wanted to ban African Americans from using the municipal pool. “The truth was, these people had moved from places like the Bronx to ‘escape’ black people; and they wanted to ban people who had lived in town long before they got there,” she said.  

Unfortunately, we clean up our history every few decades, so we can distance ourselves from the worst of it. Take the way we chose to remember New Jersey and slavery. While New Jersey fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War, according to Jim Gigantino, professor of history at the University of Arkansas, New Jersey was the most enthusiastic Northern state when it came to holding onto slavery years after other northern states had ended it.

Just before the end of the Civil War, New Jersey even voted down the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, only voting to ratify it in 1866, after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination months earlier. 

James Gigantino, author of The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey 1775-1865, says after the Civil War, New Jersey obscured its well-established support of slavery by choosing to “memorialize things about the end of slavery.” 

“So, when we talk about slavery in modern times we talk about emancipation or abolition of slavery,” Gigantino says. “This is a purposeful reinvention of New Jersey as part of the free North narrative of participation in the underground railroad, participating in this freedom process.” 

Gigantino's new research indicates that as many as 400 African Americans remained in some form of slavery in New Jersey at the end of the Civil War, not the reported 18 long accepted in the historical record.  

Scroll forward 100 years, and the dominant narrative of the events of the civil unrest in Newark in 1967 usually excludes the deadly brutality displayed by the police and National Guard. The tragic details are laid out in an official account compiled by the Governor’s Select Commission on Civil Disorder. This February 1968 document, known as the Lilley Report after its chairman, then AT&T President Robert D. Lilley, has slipped into undeserved obscurity. 

In August 1967, a month after Newark had burned, Governor Richard Hughes convened a blue-ribbon panel of religious, political, and legal leaders and charged them with generating “a realistic analysis of the disorders….and practical proposals” to help prevent a recurrence of the unrest. What the panel found was the "State Police and National Guard actually had made a bad situation worse.” 

Over months of investigation, the panel took sworn testimony from more than 100 witnesses. 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.   

Perhaps the most volatile issue raised by the breakdown of order in Newark was that of sniper fire. During the days of unrest, law enforcement and the National Guard claimed they were fired on by snipers, leading 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.” 

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.” 

We like to think that this kind of history happens someplace else.  

In April 1968, at the age of 12 years old, I joined my father and a delegation from the Knights of Columbus, who went to the AME Zion African-American Church on Broad Street. It was the Sunday after Dr. King was murdered, and we marched in solidarity with the African-American community. It was a solemn occasion I will never forget, an ecumenical recommitment to what America might still yet become, despite the bloody violence we were drowning in.   

There was fear in that long, mournful march from Broad Street to the center of Ridgewood. Would someone throw something at us or jeer? In the days before his death on April 4, Dr. King had saturated New Jersey with appearances as he kicked off the Poor People’s March and made the provocative connection between the violence in Vietnam and the ongoing racist brutality here at home.   

On March 27, 1968, he had come to Paterson, the next town over from where I lived in Glen Rock. “The mood was tense because our intelligence had told us that he would be killed, someone was going to kill him, and they were tense about his coming,” recalls former Paterson police officer Benjamin Leak. Leak, who is African American, was detailed to be part of King’s protection unit that day and recalls that King talked about the struggle of the sanitation workers in Memphis, where he was going next. 

That same day King made it to Newark. How does our history remember his visit? As the Star Ledger reported in 2008, “the King who visited Newark back in 1968 was moving further away from the mainstream. He was talking about slavery restitution, guaranteed housing and withdrawal from the Vietnam war.”  

“At the end of his life, he’s really at the outer edges of his radical take on society and seeing the structural limitations for opportunities for people of color and people of limited means,” David Levering Lewis, an NYU professor and King biographer told the Star Ledger.  “What he’s really saying is, ‘This America doesn’t work for everyone, only for the rich.’”  

If King were with us today, what he would find in New Jersey is a massive African-American foreclosure crisis and the fifth most segregated state for African Americans, with 50.8 percent of black students in extremely segregated schools, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.  

He would have lots of candidates for the Poor People’s Campaign. Here in New Jersey, the actual economic conditions people are living in include 1.2 million households that continue to fall behind, according to the United Way. In Newark, 64 percent of the families live in poverty or struggle paycheck to paycheck. In Atlantic City that number is 72 percent.  

We should be in the streets protesting every day.

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