Three state lawmakers from Newark who lived through the city’s infamous July 1967 riots are warning that severe economic pressures combined with a surging underground gun culture may cause New Jersey’s cities to erupt in similar violence as early as this summer.
Speaking at a news conference at the Statehouse yesterday morning, Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) and two of his Assembly colleagues pointed to record-breaking homicide figures in several of the state’s biggest cities and announced legislation that would create a commission to study solutions to urban violence. Without the type of swift action sure to be recommended by such a commission, they warned, riots won’t be far off.
“People can’t take it anymore,” intoned Rice, a former police detective who holds two criminal justice degrees and serves as vice chair of the Senate’s community and urban affairs committee. “I’m praying it doesn’t happen but believe me we’re back where we were in the ‘60s. We feel it and we’re very fearful.”
Citing statistics compiled in a Star-Ledger crime analysis published on the first of this year, Rice noted that in 2013, Trenton recorded its highest-ever number of homicides. Newark reported the most murders in almost 25 years; Camden reached the second-highest number in its history; and Jersey City recorded 20 murders -- up from 13 the year before.
Although FBI statistics show U.S. violent crime dropping less than 1 percent between 2011 and 2012, the most recent year for which numbers are available, Rutgers-Camden criminology professor Louis Tuthill says some cities are spiking because of budget cuts.
“They’ve all seen increases in crime,” he said.
This applies to Camden and Trenton, where police rolls were cut by one-half and one-third, respectively, in 2011. In Newark, the reason is considerably more gruesome.
“We’re seeing more and more incidents with multiple shooters -- people firing in excess of 20 rounds,” said Newark police director Samuel DeMaio. “In my 28 years here I’ve never seen a generation of young people who’ll turn and kill people over such a ridiculously small reason.”
With the support of DeMaio, Rice and Essex County Assembly Democrats Ralph Caputo and Cleopatra Tucker insist that a commission needs to be formed to closely examine the roots of youth violence and identify what programs must be funded to curb it. Their commission would comprise 40 volunteer leaders from state and local government, law enforcement, academia, clergy, and community agencies. It would meet for 18 months and submit two interim reports and a final report on its findings.
According to DeMaio, crime prevention should target young people before they get too deep into the criminal justice system for rehabilitation.
“We’re seeing (crime) start younger and younger. Criminal activity now starts at 12 or 13, and you watch it progress to increasingly serious offenses. What the system is doing is turning them back out on the street (until they murder someone),” he said.
All three legislative cosponsors lay heavy blame on the state’s political, religious, and community leaders for ignoring low-income and minority neighborhoods in desperate need of social services, education, and job training, not to mention more policing. The frequently outspoken Rice, who chairs the state’s black legislative caucus, believes that since the ‘60s, politics has replaced policy in dialogue about crime prevention, and he accuses black politicians and clergy of selling out to people long on promises but short on true interest or answers.
“Back in the old days black elected officials came to the table with black attorneys, black accountants, black clergy. Those were policy meetings,” he said. “We don’t come to the table with labor leaders anymore. Over the years we got away from policy and into politics.”
So cosponsors of the bill, introduced yesterday, call on lawmakers who represent minority, immigrant, and urban districts to support their pleas to put after-school, job-training, and similar programs into the budget, something the Christie Administration, which did not respond to an emailed request for comment, has not done historically.
“If we don’t get out there and tell these young people that yes, there is a better way, we have programs and training, we’re just putting them back in the same situation,” said Tucker.
Yesterday afternoon, Senate Law and Public Safety Committee chair Donald Norcross (D-Camden), signed on as a co-sponsor, saying that “Crime is in epidemic proportions, especially among our youth.” But he cautions that Trenton hasn’t always shown itself eager to studying issues, especially “those that are unpleasant.”
The lawmakers likened their commission to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly called the “Kerner Commission” that President Lyndon Johnson empaneled to study race relations and urban life in the late 1960s.
Despite holding it up as an example to follow, Caputo feels that the Kerner Commission failed to bring about long-term improvements to American cities and demands that fellow lawmakers do more to live up to their moral and legal obligations to the citizens they serve.
“We didn’t pay attention when (the problems were) identified,” he lamented. “We have kids in the City of Newark riding around on bicycles with guns on their hips and the leadership is not there. We cut cops in Newark and no one says a damn word. Where’s the leadership?”
In 1967, the Newark riots lasted four days, left 26 people dead and started when 200 residents protested the arrest of an African-American cab driver. At that time, Newark suffered from the nation’s highest rate of substandard housing and the second-highest rates of crime and infant mortality.
Tuthill, who worked in the U.S. Department of Justice until two years ago, thinks that Rice’s prediction of renewed urban riots is a bit extreme. But Rice counters that back in those days, angry urbanites would listen to pleas from African-American political leaders and activists like himself. Now, he says, “This new generation on the streets tells us all the time, ‘We can’t do anything, we can’t get jobs and we don’t expect to live past 21.’ These young Crips and Bloods are gunning people down without an excuse. All we have to do is give them the excuse, and watch what’s going to happen.”