Flashback and Flashpoint: Fury over Injustice
By Ronnie Lovler
Today I am experiencing the same feelings of discord, dissonance, and social disarray that I did at least twice before in my lifetime. Once was in 1967 when my hometown of Newark, New Jersey, erupted in riots, provoked then as now by episodes of racial injustice. The other was in 1970, as I was finishing up my senior year at Ohio State University during the national anti-Vietnam War campus protests.
Back then I felt totally disconcerted and distressed by what was happening. today I feel exactly the same as I do about what is happening now.
In Newark, the inciting incident was White police officers’ arrest of an African-American man. The Newark riots were a culmination point in what subsequently became known as the “long hot summer of 1967,” a reference to the 159 riots that erupted in cities across the United States that summer, from Atlanta to Chicago to Minneapolis and everywhere in between.
When I was 19 years old, home for the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, unrest was simmering all over the city. My neighborhood in the Weequahic section of Newark was once predominantly, almost exclusively Jewish. By the summer, that was no longer the case. Newark was in transition and it was transitioning quickly. Neighborhoods were changing; white families were fleeing to the nearby suburbs of West Orange, Livingston, and Millburn.
My neighborhood and my street had a new look. Jackie who lived across the street and was always sitting on his front porch with his German shepherd, Caesar, was gone. A Black family was living there now. Joey next door was gone, so was Irene across the street. The synagogue right up the street was still open, but people no longer walked over for Friday night or Saturday morning services. My neighborhood now had a racially diverse face.
I can’t lay any familial claim to standing up for social justice. My father would have moved us in a heartbeat. But he couldn’t find a buyer for our home and we didn’t have the money for the double jeopardy of paying two mortgages or one mortgage and a rent.
My family was definitely working class in terms of our income. We didn’t even own a car! My parents weren’t racists; truthfully we never really discussed politics and those years were times when I frequently clashed with my folks. But we didn’t stay in our changing neighborhood to take a stand. We stayed because we simply couldn’t afford to move.
What this meant was that unlike many of my high school friends, I got to live in an integrated and racially diverse neighborhood. I didn’t get to know many of my new neighbors because I was only home during the summers, but it helped me become a more accepting person as I became accustomed to seeing faces of many colors in my neighborhood, and hence in my life.
So when the riots broke out in Newark I was eager to witness exactly what was happening with my own eyes. No one in my neighborhood was involved in the protests. My streets were quiet. The action was all downtown. The riots in downtown Newark were being carried live on local TV. I got a sense of things, but the fledging journalist that I was wanted to be there and see more.
Needless to say, I did not even get close. I ranted and raved, but my father understandably stood firm and said that his daughter was not going anywhere near downtown Newark and the riots. My sister, who was 14 years old at the time, remembers how I argued with my father. She cringed at our exchange of words.
I was glued to the TV. I consumed our local newspaper, the morning Newark Star Ledger and the afternoon Newark Evening News. I talked on the phone to high school friends who were also home for the summer. And then it was over, and it was over for me too. I went back to the summer economics class I was taking at a local university. I went back to going down the shore on the weekends. I went back to my boyfriend.
The disturbances did not spur me on to activism. I returned to life as I knew it as a good “liberal” always supporting the right causes, but without being that involved when it came to making change happen. I thought if I was a journalist, my telling of the stories was my way to contribute.
So I continued my studies of journalism at Ohio State and took my turn doing different assignments on the school newspaper, The Lantern. It wasn’t until my last year of school that I became marginally involved with the anti-Vietnam War protest movement on my campus.
I shared a home for a while with Chris, another journalism student and her boyfriend who was a Vietnam War vet. He was one of the leaders of the Columbus chapter of Viet Vets Against the War. Some of my male friends were worried about the draft; they were against the war. I had another friend, Bill who was a conscientious objector. He was able to prove his case and eventually did his military service in that capacity.
On April 30, 1970 President Nixon announced the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. On May 1, massive protests began around the country on college campuses and different cities. Ohio State was no exception. We marched and we chanted slogans like “Peace Now! Peace Now!”or “Stop the Bombing! Stop the War!”or “One, two, three, four, We don’t want your f…..g war.” I was a part of that.
Nominally, I was also part of the Ohio State anti-war “leadership” team, with my little Honda 50 cc motor scooter. My role was to “scoot” around campus and see how the different marches were faring. Ohio State had a big campus and there were different gatherings at different spots. Then I reported back.
Quickly the tenor of things changed, nationwide as well as on my campus. On May 2, students at Kent State University burned down the ROTC building. Two days later, during another protest at Kent State, four National Guardsmen, called to the campus, shot and killed four students and injured ten others. The shots were heard around the country.
In Columbus, that day, my scooter was at home and I was marching. I was with my friend, Bill. We were at the Oval, a huge grassy lawn, then and now a classic meet-up place at Ohio State, when we heard about what had happened at Kent State. We ran into an open classroom building and took shelter there. We weren’t sure from what, but we were upset and we were frightened.
We ventured out after a few hours and met up with other demonstrators. We learned that a nationwide student strike was underway. It would last for days and involve millions of students, including me. Effectively the student strike ended my college career. I was due to graduate that month and I did. But I didn’t march at commencement and looking back deprived my parents of what would have been a momentous occasion for them, seeing their daughter receive her diploma.
In any case, the protests and demonstrations of today triggered by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis as caught on camera gave me pause to reflect on my own experiences and to wonder today what comes next. In 1967 Newark, five days of looting and arson, left 26 people dead, tens of millions of dollars in damages, and hundreds of businesses shuttered, many never to reopen. It also made Newark a buzzword for blight and urban decay for decades.
History and current events provide the dual endings for my story. As far as Vietnam, we all know the outcome. The United States pulled out, airlifting the last remaining Americans out of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Vietnam unified and today is thriving.
Newark has progressed and has learned to protest peacefully and effectively, certainly at the time of this writing. The New York Times reported that while thousands of people marched to show their outrage over the killing of George Floyd, there was no violence, there was no looting, and there were no protest-related arrests. In an interview with The Times, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka noted, “A lot of tension. A lot of anxiety “But the community held the line.”
Now what happened in Newark is spreading across the country. The latest wave of protests has been massive and for the most part, the demonstrations have been peaceful. Silence is not golden and protest can prompt change. But we also need good leadership.
I have no answers, but I do have one hope. We have national elections in November and we all must vote. A different president might have put forth a message of hope and healing instead of words that divide us even more. Vote.