Pop! Pop! Pop!
From our hedged-in backyard, we could hear gunshots from Cedarbrook Park, which was a quarter of a mile away. The Plainfield riots had started only five days before. We were down the shore and heard the news on a grainy black and white T.V. set in the motel room beside the sand swept road.
The riots started when a crowd of young black men were asked by the police to disperse from a diner downtown. The men refused, arrests and scuffles took place, and in solidarity with them, many blacks in Plainfield took to the streets in protest. The police went in to break this up, and a crowd of protesters beat an officer to death with a shopping cart. The police, in turn, began massive arrests, more protesters emerged, and what we saw on T.V. was a line of tanks on Front Street. The National Guard had been sent in.
The riots, which took place forty-seven years ago, in 1967, were the logical result of two ill-paired communities. Blacks had come to Plainfield, New Jersey from the south, chiefly the Carolinas, to find work at a large textile company, a 7-Up bottling plant, and Mack trucks. When the company and Mack left, jobs were not available for blacks.
Stores did not hire blacks. The city government did not either. Black women found work as domestics cleaning the homes and taking care of the children of white families. Black men did janitorial work. There were exceptions: Teachers, doctors, lawyers, funeral home directors, but many people were marginalized, and there was not a single black owned business outside of that community.
After the riots took place, whites left Plainfield in droves. My parents were among the few white families to stay. For one thing, my mother and father were relatively color blind; oddly, they identified strongly with blacks, and saw their struggle for civil rights as their own. For another thing, they had bought our fancy home only two years before, would never recover what they had paid for it, and could not afford a comparable property in a white community.
Being brought up in Plainfield, which gradually became a black city, meant that as a white boy, and then a teenager and young adult, I had the great, good fortune to grow up sensing what it might be to like to be black. I had close black friends, experienced times in their homes and rooms, heard the music and cadences and ideas of their parents and families. At Plainfield High School, I joined the Black Student Union. My first day there I wore a, “Free Angela,” button. It was that long ago.
It wasn’t as if I adopted an identity not my own, nor did I try to be someone I wasn’t. Living in a black city meant simply that, like a black kid living in a white city, I assimilated the culture around me. I was educated. What this means is that empathic responses are an imprecise way of describing what’s felt when reading about assaults and murder such as what took place in Ferguson, Missouri. Rather, it seems to me that it’s my family under siege.
Interestingly, the failure on the part of those policing Ferguson, responsible for maintaining social order, is an inability to recognize in the faces of blacks their own eyes, noses, lips, and hair. It’s as if the people whose lives and deaths are in their hands are understood from some great distance. Not knowing anything about the person who stands before him, an officer draws a conclusion.
My hometown of Plainfield was deeply segregated before and after the riots. It was only in our schools where as very young people we got to know one another: Learning in classrooms, attending the same parties, dating, staying up late and talking about everything under the sun.
Recently, a friend from Japan asked me about Ferguson.
“It seems to be escalating,” he said shyly and sadly. “I think that the police though should close their eyes when talking to the blacks there. And then they would only listen to the sound of the other person talking and not see what they look like.”