It was no surprise when Newark’s citizens turned out to protest the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man who died while in the custody of the Minneapolis police.
But unlike in Minneapolis and such cities as Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Philadelphia—where protests turned violent and destructive—Newark protests remained peaceful.
How did Newark keep the peace?
I asked that question of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka during a remote interview for my TV series Confronting Racism, airing on regional PBS stations and News 12+. Just weeks earlier, Baraka had taken part in a peaceful rally on May 30 with more than 12,000 participants.
Baraka credited “a lot of prayer” for helping to maintain order, but added, “I think that it was a few basic things. First, we have been working hard between police relations and the city, and this has been going on for a long time now.” The mayor referred to partnerships with such organizations as Citizen/Clergy Academy and the Newark Community Street Team, which have helped improve community relations with the police.
Baraka also said the police in Newark showed a level of restraint that “didn’t happen anywhere else. The police didn’t come outside ready to try to stop a protest or lock people up. They weren’t militarized. They came out to make sure people were safe.”
The mayor also credited residents with setting their own tone for the protests. “The community basically stepped up to the plate and said, ‘We are outraged, we are upset…and we are going to protest, we are going to show our anger, and we are going to do what we need to do, but we are not going to let people from other places come to the city of Newark and dictate to us how we want to protest.’”
In a separate interview, Aqeela Sherrills, director of the Newark Community Street Team, said the leadership of the city and the police, as well as the city’s community-based public-safety approach, kept the protests peaceful. In addition to his own community group, he cited the West Ward Victims Outreach Initiative and the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition. These groups and residents “were adamant that, while they wanted to share outrage about the public execution of George Floyd, we wanted to make sure that this protest didn’t destroy the city,” said Sherrills. “We are literally just recovering from the ’67 rebellion.”
Sherrills said the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought the country to “an inflection point in terms of policing.” He continued: “Too often, people say ‘public safety’ and then they say ‘police.’ Police is only one aspect of public safety. You can’t have public safety without the public.”
In our interview, Baraka expressed qualified support for the outcry to defund the police. “I absolutely, positively believe that defunding is important and is a discussion that we need to have.” Yet the mayor noted the difference between defunding and abolishing the police. Defunding means that certain funding can go toward violence prevention, social work, mental health, drug-addiction programs, temporary housing—all initiatives that, said Baraka, will help reduce crime.
Baraka acknowledged that there is confusion about defunding, adding that we obviously need police. “In the case of Camden, the media is confusing folks, saying that Camden got rid of police and reduced crime. But that is disingenuous. Camden now has county police and have more police officers now than they did when they were a city agency.”
In this troubled time, it is essential that we confront racism directly and come together as one. We owe it to ourselves and to the future of our state and the nation.