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How Newark’s protest preparations have helped maintain calm

It has been more than 50 years since deadly riots in Newark, New Jersey broke out. But protests taking place there this past week over George Floyd's death have been mostly peaceful. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss what the city has done to prepare for interactions between police and demonstrators, and how that's helped maintain relative calm.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In 1967, the city of Newark, New Jersey was one of dozens embroiled in race riots across the country. The unrest, driven by segregation, poverty and economic inequality came to a head after a black cab driver was arrested for a minor traffic infraction and beaten by two white Newark police officers. More than two dozen people died in the resulting five days of riots and protests.

    The community's relationship with law enforcement remained fraught for decades — so much so that a federal consent decree was issued in 2016, requiring reform throughout the police department.

    Reform that was tested when more than 10,000 turned out last weekend, in the midst of a pandemic, to peacefully protest of the killing of George Floyd.

    I spoke with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka about the protests in his city.

    Mayor Baraka, thanks so much for joining us. First, I want to ask, how is Newark doing today?

  • Ras Baraka:

    Well, I mean, we are dealing with COVID-19. Obviously, we have an infection rate now of about close to nine percent. We were at sixty-eight percent when we first started testing sometime in April. So we are doing a lot better, below the ten percent the CDC suggest that we should be at in order to begin opening up. And so we're doing that.

    We are still being extremely cautious, even after all the protesting. I made a note to tell everybody and I did myself to go get tested the next day. If you were down there, police officers, everybody to go get tested.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Considering that you're a city that has a large black population, considering that we know that there's a disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on African-Americans, when you saw what happened to George Floyd, when you saw the reactions that were happening in other cities, what were you thinking of for your own city?

  • Ras Baraka:

    Well, I knew that people were going to protest. I knew something was going to happen. It was so horrific. And was it was, there's always a kind of always a kind of titular moment, a defining moment in history. And just like when Emmett Till was was lynched, that was the first time African-Americans were lynched. But the sheer nature of that, the visual of that created such a swell and the civil rights movement just exploded as a result of that.

    Same thing with this.

    As soon as that happened and you watching for eight minutes, this guy stand on this guy's neck with no, kneeled on his neck, with no sense of remorse, not even any facial expression, almost stoic. It created the kind of anger that people were feeling for a long time. I think it boiled over and exploded.

    So I anticipated that, you know, something would happen, you know, particularly after Minneapolis went up like that. You know, I actually told my folks on the phone, we have regular calls because of COVID. I said we need to do a tabletop on police response to what's going on. And in case something like this happens in Newark, how would we respond. But we didn't get a chance to do that tabletop. Our tabletop actually became real because we had a protest immediately, the next, I believe the day before we were scheduled, two days before we scheduled to do the tabletop.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what were your suggestions, instructions to police on how to deal with the marchers when they began?

  • Ras Baraka:

    Well, our police department has been going through a lot. Right. You know, we had a consent decree, there is a lot of training that we do that other people don't, de-escalation, sensitivity, a traumatic form training that we do regularly.

    So we do a protest a little different. I mean, we allow people to protest. It was not really, you know, so basically our competition is basically we gonna do the same thing we normally do. And the police, a public safety director, was in full agreement with that and instructed police officers, our job is to escort the monitor to make sure everybody is safe.

    We don't, we're not trying to get a confrontation. In fact, we don't want a lot of police presence. We don't want police cars unnecessarily around the area if they don't have to be. We will all stand by obviously, if something happened. But that was the instructions that police showed incredible, incredible restraint. I mean, all the way even in the evening when things got a little bit more tense in front of the police station, they showed incredible restraint at that time.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But one of the things that I noticed, at least in the video that I saw during the march, was that most of your police officers were not in full riot gear. They were in their usual uniforms.

  • Ras Baraka:

    Because that's usually how we handle protest. No one anticipated all those people, by the way. So I just want to say that and we didn't know that all the people will come, you know, so we put it we did the protest the same way we would do any other protest. And that's how we do it.

    We come out with motorcycle units, couple of other folks to direct traffic, make sure nobody gets hurt. All these other kind of things. And so they weren't in riot gear because we don't usually get in riot gear for protests. So that's what happened.

    And by the grace of God that, you know, if something would have happened, I mean, obviously, we were somewhere else getting ready to get prepared if something would happen, we would have been caught completely and totally, you know, off guard. We had to have faith, that faith in our officers, faith in our community, that they would police themselves and do the right thing and faith that our prayers would work.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How much of a difference does it make when the mayor of the city is standing right behind the front banner of the protest? How does that change the dynamic of what the police will do?

  • Ras Baraka:

    Well, I think it does help. I mean, people used to be participating and know that I've done things in the past.

    So it's not like an anomaly to them. It also timber's police officers because they know you're present. So they have like they have to make sure that the place is really secure, that there's no real outbreak going on. And so they're very cautious.

    And I think it makes them a little bit cautious and lets them see what your position is on this, that you agree with what's going on and they should, you know, act accordingly. And it now helps.

    It also helps in terms of the residents and the people protesting because they feel like, you know, the city is behind it. And I think, you know, Newarkers have an incredible sense of loyalty and respect for this city. Right. You know, they are very proud of Newark itself. Whether I'm the mayor or not, you know, they love their town. And I think that played a tremendous part in how they behaved.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now, this is not something any other city can pick up and do right away. But you had a community team in place throughout the protest. Tell us, how long has that been working and how important was that in making sure everything stayed peaceful?

  • Ras Baraka:

    We have several teams, so we have the citizen clergy, clergy was out there. So we train clergy and community folks like monthly. We might have over 100 people that are trained clergy, citizen clergy that are out there who regularly interact with police, some of whom come to the police trainings to get themselves straight, but also in terms of helping police with sensitivity training, they do that. So a lot of them know the police and the police officers know them. So having them present and helping quell anything is important because people recognize the clergy, they have a different level of respect for him than they do for police officers.

    We have, like the Your Community Street Team, which which all groups, groups that work with the police around violence intervention and violence prevention in a city that do trauma informed circles, they talk to police regularly, they identify police can identify them, the folks in the community know who they are. So having them out there as well, talking to people as we go participating, showing the same level of outrage and everybody else is showing, very honest and clear disappointment with what's happening. But at the same time, trying to help maintain order.

    And I think it says … all being that the organizer, Larry Hamm is seasoned and he's a seasoned kind of organized. He's not just somebody who at the spur of the moment only got angry and said I want to do something about George Floyd. He is somebody who has been consistent in this process. So he knows how to put together pretty organized demonstrations. And I think he did a awesome job.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Were you concerned in the evening? Because a lot of these marches that start out peaceful in the morning, at sometime in the evening and the night they turn into something completely different?

  • Ras Baraka:

    I was concerned in the day time so that when I was out there and so I just wanted to say there were tense moments. It wasn't it like just the entire way, Kumbaya, right? So there were tense moments. Different people out there. Lot of anger and outrage. And it should be. Right.

    And, you know, just to be able to channel that in the right way was was incredible and great thing. And night time yeah I was a little bit more concerned obviously.

    What happened in Minneapolis, people running into police stations. Our police officers were getting intelligence from higher ups about being on the lookout for that. So they were tense and they were on edge.

    We got support from officers from around the state. So I don't know. They don't go through our training, so they don't know our folks. So obviously that's a concern for me. They're on the scene that could turn into anything at any moment. Right.

    At that point, it was two things that I think that saved the street, the police, the Newark police that were immediately, directly in front of the precinct showed tremendous restraint when people were yelling at them, even some people started to throw bottles and all kinds of stuff– did not engage. They stood there, held the line. The community folks who were out there who engaged the protesters very vigorously and told them, listen, don't throw any bottles, don't do that around here. Take them somewhere else. You're not from our city. We're not having that. And and basically chastising people out there. This is not happening here. Do not do this.

    And they deserve all of the credit, honestly, for making sure that thing that night did not turn ugly. And obviously, you know, I always have to give credit to God for being involved in this because you know, some of this stuff you can't control.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mayor, your city has a special history with this. 50 plus years ago, your dad was on the front lines. Your dad was on the front lines and your city suffered immeasurable losses, not just in people, but what happened to the infrastructure and then what happened to the city for decades afterwards. How much of that plays in to how people think of Newark today?

  • Ras Baraka:

    Absolutely, man.

    My father was actually hit over the head in the Newark rebellion by one of his classmate in fact, someone from high school, he was a police officer and he struck my family. My father was a picture of my father, a famous picture of my father. Now that he's chained to a wheelchair in a hospital, bleeding from the head.

    He was actually tried in court. They arrested him for inciting a riot and read one of his poems as proof that he was inciting the riot. So it it people know that history and they know what happened in Newark, that the city went up in flames for three or four days and we have more than a dozen people lost their life in that process. And it took us 50 years to really rebuild, begin rebuilding the city you know the way we need to.

    And we are still not finished. We still have a lot more to do on Springfield Ave, in the downtown parts that were hurt and tax base that we lost. And a lot of businesses that just disappeared. We are still recovering from that. And the residents know that. So when people say we've tried peaceful, those are people who don't know history. Right? We've tried all kinds of things right?

    It's just a protracted struggle. It just means that it has to, it takes a period of time and it goes on and on until we get to the place that we need to be. We didn't get in this position in two years. And we're not going to get out of it in two.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    If you had advice for other mayors, how do you allow people's frustrations, which are rightly placed? How do you allow people to express themselves and their rage? But at the same time, make sure that you can, as you said, channel that toward something positive?

    That's difficult, man. I don't. I think is a recipe of things that you'd have to do it and it's over a period is over a period of time. You know. Obviously, you need police training, right? You need the police to understand that protest is a part of the First Amendment. And people have the right to be angry. Right. And they're going to say all kinds of things that you have to show incredible restraint. You have to understand that you can't have a bad day, that those people out there are your neighbors, your relatives, your friends. And when you begin looking at those people that way, then you're respond to them differently. And that's a whole question of overhauling police, police reform that needs to take place, it has to take place prior to protesting. They have to have a relationship with the community. And you have to have an ongoing relationship with the community. It's not just based on events, but based on healing. So we're still at atoning, Newark knows that. We are still atoning for things that happened 50 years ago. We are still atoning it and recovering. And that's what I said. I am now saying we, because I'm in charge now. So I'm a part of it. Right. So we still atoning for that. And we have to be clear on that. And our relationship with the community. So we have more touches with the community now and less arrest. So our relations, our touches with the community are not just about arresting people, they're about forums, they're about training residents, helping them out, doing things around Thanksgiving, around Christmas, around other things that we have to do. And that's incredibly important for folks to do. And you have to be present. In a community, you have to be present.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what's the opportunity for you as a mayor now in this sort of post-COVID, post-George-Floyd world? Are there things that you're thinking about that are structural changes that you hope will help your city going forward?

  • Ras Baraka:

    Absolutely. In fact, we are getting ready to introduce some legislation. Going forward. But I think I will fight for us to be on the plain review board. We're right now at the state Supreme Court level. We argued the case virtually because of COVID right. We want to get that out of the way. We wanted to get it passed. Want to get it, you know, affirm and make sure that any city in the state of New Jersey can do exactly what we did.

    And we got to go forward to continue doing that in our city, we're putting legislation forward that really makes white supremacy, racism period, illegal and unlawful in the city of Newark, to make sure that people who witness it and allow people's civil rights to be violated, whether they're in sanitation or a police department, know that they will be disciplined as well. They have to intervene.

    Those are things that we're going to enact. We are going to create Office of Violence Prevention to deal with violence on all levels with money directly used from police department to do that. And finally, to precinct, the 17th Avenue precinct where they were in front of protesting. That's the precinct where the memories of our Newark rebellion began because of an officer there. And John Smith.

    We're closing that precinct and we're going to turn it into a museum, a trauma inform center for police and community violence. And we're got to move that officer somewhere else. But just as a symbol, it's time for us to put what happened in 1967 to bed and begin to rebuild our city in a way that we need to rebuild it and not pretend that it didn't exist to build it, knowing that it did exist and dealing with it today.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, there are different community organizations, civil rights organizations that are asking for kind of a laundry list of things that if they could make law, they would. One of them is to end qualified immunity for officers and others to try to rethink how much funding police departments get in light of all the social services that get underfunded. What what are some of those things that I mean, does that cross your mind in thinking about the city's budget and where your resources go?

  • Ras Baraka:

    Absolutely. That's part of the Violence Prevention office. We've already started trying to divert money. We hire social workers out of … We put social workers in precincts, social workers in what we call a … with domestic violence victims of domestic violence. So we use the police budget for things like that, for trauma informed circles. And so we want to, we want to codify it and make it permanent.

    But we just have to see, in order to reduce the police budget, we're going to have to begin to provide services in our community that create the environment for crime and all the other things that take place. Because while we see that … people say we are used to our people's mothers and grandmothers in communities that are also under police with where are crime and violence are rampant in their neighborhoods and they feel like there is no adequate response to it.

    So we have to do a balancing act with that and then convince people in our neighborhoods that there are other ways to make your community safe than just an overabundance of police officers. And the work we're doing, I think, is what we need to be doing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I recently spoke with a council member of the supervisor, the board of San Francisco, and one of the things that he was proposing was making sure that police officers who might have had disciplinary actions taken against them and other departments were not able to find work in the city of San Francisco. Does Newark have anything like that on the books or plan to do anything like that?

  • Ras Baraka:

    We don't have anything like that. But we do have, what we are generating vote on is that any act of racism or white supremacy means that you will be terminated from all city employment, period. Right. So I don't know how we can make that in terms of the private sector, but in terms of a public sector, you won't be welcome here.

    And I think these is an opportunity to have early warning systems and those things should be set up. If if somebody exhibits racist or white supremacist tendencies, they shouldn't be on the police department. Right? They shouldn't be on the police department at all. If you had and we need to move, not only that, they shouldn't be employed by us, period.

    And that's basically what we're trying to do, to make that an issue, as well as people who witness things that they think are so blatant civil rights violations that they have an obligation to intervene and report.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Ras Baraka:

    Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

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