Protesters Rally for Urban Peace in Newark

By Michelle Chen Sep 04, 2009

Something strange is happening on the streets of Newark, New Jersey. Communities that have been battered by violent crime, economic hardship, and racial segregation are standing up in defiance—and in peace. Frustrated by a rash of violence in their neighborhoods, protesters have sought to reclaim their streets through nonviolent protest. Over the past few weeks, demonstrators have blocked traffic and disrupted a concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Through marches and rallies, they’re calling on lawmakers to develop more comprehensive strategies to reduce violence, with full collaboration with community members. Led by the local chapter of the New Black Panther Party and other community groups, the actions were catalyzed by the fatal shooting of a local mother, Nakisha Allen, in July. The organizers, reports Final Call, have demanded that Mayor Cory A. Booker “convene a major town hall meeting, declare street violence a public health emergency, and provide support and resources to address the problem.” Protesters also want to oust Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy. Tonight on New York’s WBAI, Larry Hamm of the local advocacy group People’s Organization for Progress, said the activists are challenging the government’s systemic failure to tackle violence and poverty in the city, which is mostly comprised of people of color:

What’s rarely touched upon are the roots of crime. We have this epidemic of street violence in our communities. … On the one hand, you have this street violence with youth being killed and killing each other, and, if not dying, ending up in jail. On the other hand, you have the problem of police brutality, you know, where the police are killing our young men, too. So it’s a real vice that our community is caught in, a vice of violence. A violent syndrome…. A lot of people call for more law enforcement, more police. You know, the police become more and more aggressive because they think they got public support behind them. But nobody wants to deal with the problem of unemployment…. Poverty and unemployment: these are the root causes of crime.

Hamm stressed that community-based volunteer initiatives, like neighborhood watches, could help, but ultimately, violence will continue to escalate as long as economic and racial inequality persists. McCarthy’s public statement on the protests sounded surprisingly supportive, for now:

I hope that their passion and spirit to improve the quality of life in their respective neighborhoods permeates throughout the entire City and translates into positives measures towards that end,"

The actions seem to be getting the attention of the local press and politicians in a way that the epidemic of violence has not. Joan Whitlow, blogging at the Star-Ledger, reflected on the sentiment expressed through the demonstrations:

I’ve talked to people involved in the marching who, whatever others may be doing, don’t seem to be pushing any agenda other than anti-violence. They say it will take education, parenting, jobs and a change in the city’s culture, as well as good police work, to turn Newark around.

Even if the protests don’t lead to a political sea change, they’ve already made an important statement. While demonstrations in other areas spiral into violent clashes, the direct actions of Newark’s activists have proven that marginalized communities can make themselves heard with controlled defiance. Their neighborhoods might not be safe yet, but at least people don’t have to be afraid to take to the streets together. Image: Dawn Haynes holds her 3-year-old daughter during an anti-violence protest in Newark Wednesday [August 19] that blocked an entrance ramp from Interstate 280. (Aristide Economopoulos / The Star-Ledger)