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Same as it ever was: Newark in the 1960s

By Karl Whitney.

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Ronald Porambo, No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark, Melville House, 2007.

This book, which is a passionate and startling work of long-form journalism, was reissued by Melville House in 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the riots in Newark, New Jersey. (It was originally published in 1971.) These riots, the police response to them, and the subsequent court cases, revealed deep inequalities between the ways in which black and white inhabitants of the city were treated.

Porambo, who had been a reporter at a number of local papers in the New Jersey area, traces the events in Newark in detail, closely examining each police shooting, often using testimony he had gathered through interviews he had carried out at the scene. His careful journalistic method is in sharp contrast to the sloppy efforts of the police to cover up the impulsive killing of mostly unarmed black suspects.

Nevertheless, in spite of Porambo’s obsessive journalistic precision, this is an extremely angry book. As the narrative progresses, and as bodies of innocent black civilians pile up, Porambo becomes increasingly irate, and as he does so, the reporter begins to play a greater part in proceedings. He makes statements to the police in an attempt to force them to admit a misidentification of suspects, an effort that fails when officers close ranks and withdraw their own statements. He is arrested while attempting to buy photos of the victims of police shootings from a police officer, and, an afterword reveals, served time in prison as a result.

Porambo’s incursion into the narrative is consistent with certain features of the New Journalism, where the reporter no longer adhered to an ideal of impartiality, but instead became a character in his or her own story. For Porambo, though, the need to take action was a product of his own frustration at being forced into a role as a passive witness to systematic injustice. He is caustic when addressing the complicity of the local newspapers, which he had worked for as a reporter. The media’s failure to report in detail about murders carried out by police officers, instead reproducing the false police reports of the fatal incidents, is in a large part the motivating factor for Porambo’s intense reporting methods. In a city where officialdom depended on the habitual propagation of mistruth, the search for facts – how and why events actually happened, the sequence in which they occurred, and where exactly they took place – became a highly political act.

Perhaps Porambo thought that his journalistic efforts would effect change in the city; but, then again, perhaps not. In the book’s final pages, he traces the election of a black mayor, Kenneth A. Gibson, who came to power promising a clean-up of the city’s administrative structures. With grim inevitability, however, these efforts fail.

His anger couldn’t be contained. Porambo’s subsequent decline is astounding: he became a petty criminal, carrying out robberies in Canada and New Jersey (and doing time for both), before carving out a lucrative but risky niche stealing from drug dealers. When Porambo and two accomplices attempted to rob Sidney Davis, a reputed drug dealer, the Davis’s girlfriend was raped, and in the struggle that followed, Davis was killed by a bullet fired by Porambo. A month later, Porambo was found slumped in his car, having been shot through the head three times. He survived, but he was physically and mentally impaired. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and died in prison in 2006.

His book had been an effort to overturn the injustices happening on a daily basis in Newark, and certainly it was polemical. But it was also an affectionate portrait of the characters that walked the city’s streets. Porambo was open to recording the unexpected quirks of people’s behaviour, the music of their speech. His view of Newark wasn’t only fired by despair.

Porambo is gifted with the presence of a number of characters such as community organizer, later Democratic Senator, Tom Hayden, who lived in Newark for a number of years in the mid-1960s (and who wrote a book about the riots), and poet LeRoi Jones, later called Amiri Baraka, whose return to live in Newark signalled a greater engagement with local politics. The actions of both are recorded in detail by Porambo, and play a role in linking the events in Newark to wider struggles of radical politics and black power.

Porambo also provides lovingly rendered pen portraits of Newark citizens, and one is particularly memorable: John Smith, the taxi driver whose arrest in July 1967 triggered the Newark riots. Smith is revealed as a bad driver who drove too close to the police car in front, triggering his arrest. Beaten by police at the Fourth Precinct, Smith was accused of resisting arrest. Porambo writes: ‘The image of a shouting cab driver, a toothpick stuck in his mouth, ripping down Springfield Avenue, might be a handy explanation for what happened here, but Smith had been miscast. Always a lonely, rootless man, the riot had not changed his quiet and elusive character and its aftermath left an articulate man given to long lapses of thoughtful silence.’

Smith wants to be a jazz trumpeter full-time, but needs to get his teeth fixed first; he reads Oscar Wilde and Ayn Rand, and discusses them with Porambo. When Porambo meets him, he’s awaiting trial for allegedly assaulting the police officers who arrested him. Porambo again: ‘Smith was an enigma because he wasn’t embittered and because his name was John Smith – a man whose face had been on the cover of Time magazine and yet remained as anonymous as ever. [...] In a world of his own, Smith could remain untouched by brutalizing ghetto life.’

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Smith and Porambo leave a bar: ‘We walked to my car and no one, not the bartender, nor any of the men who had come into the bar while we were there, nor any of those passing on the street, knew who he was.’ At the centre of the storm, Porambo finds a strange calm in Smith. Later, he traces Smith’s efforts at escape: he has his teeth fixed by a dentist in Irvington, taking tentative steps towards his dream of being a jazz musician.

The perceived threat from black residents of Newark’s ghetto occasioned a reaction from right-wing white groups, most notably Tony Imperiale, whose North Ward First Aid Squad drew (justified) charges of vigilantism. Imperiale and Amiri Baraka represented, at least in the popular imagination, the polarities of Newark: the opposition of black and white militancy, with no possibility of compromise. Porambo traces Imperiale’s fantasies of ghetto danger unpityingly, and his account of Imperiale’s ascent to elected office gives one pause for thought.

No Cause for Indictment gives an unflinching portrait of an infernal city apparently doomed to repeat its mistakes, of an administration for whom redemption was impossible, and of a population for whom escape was but a dream. That Porambo was eventually consumed by that same city, by the forces he condemned and wished to escape, makes the book even more poignant. This unpitying, intensely truthful reportage from a lawless place, ultimately denies the reader any consolation. When Porambo ended his book, Newark was the same as it ever was, and, frustrated, he went on to meet his awful destiny.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He writes for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 19th, 2010.