LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Junius Williams: Little Has Changed Since Civil Rights Movement

While most Americans are satisfied with their local police, a Monmouth University poll has found African-Americans and Latinos more likely to report a family member had been harassed and blacks in particular were wary of the tactics police use to quell demonstrations. That poll was conducted before Baltimore where — after an overnight curfew — a relative calm has settled in the wake of widespread violence following the death of 25-year-old Freddy Gray while in police custody. Life there won’t likely get back to normal any time soon and the destruction caused by a few could take years to undo. Attorney, author of Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power and Rutgers Abbott Leadership Institute Director Junius Williams experienced the Newark riots almost 50 years ago and spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams about the similarities and differences in the Baltimore riots now and the Newark riots in 1967.

Williams said the first thing that goes through his mind about the Baltimore riots is that it’s a distraction from the real problem.

“It’s an example of people who have gone to a point where rage has overtaken them and it’s unfortunate that it happened. But Martin Luther King Jr. said that ‘riots are the language of the forgotten’ so that’s who you have there. You have an unemployment rate of 30 percent in Baltimore, you’ve got 18,000 homes in foreclosure as a result of the rapacious greed of the mortgage industry, you’ve got several hundred police shootings over the last 10 years that were not recorded, so that’s what happens when people get cornered,” he said.

When asked if he sees similarities between the rioting in Baltimore this week and the 1967 Newark rebellion, which Williams was present for, he said yes.

“[Newark] lasted longer. We’re not sure how long Baltimore will last, but the Newark rebellion was much longer and there were quite a few lives lost — I believe 27, 28 lives lost — all at the hands of police, by the way,” Williams said.

There’s been a lot of discussion about peaceful protesters verses the handful of violent rioters. When asked if there’s an important distinction to make, Williams said yes and no.

“There are some people who went over the edge. I understand that one of the contributing factors, this is according to Jessie Jackson who was there at the funeral, there was a rumor that the gangs were going to shoot a policeman so they cut down the city services including the buses that were supposed to take young people back to their homes after school so that added to the anger. The city I believe has to take the responsibility for what happened in the shooting, but in the aftermath as well. Of course no one wants to see that kind of violence, so yes there is the distinction between those who did not participate and those who could, those who did, but we have to look at the overall context,” he said.

Williams said very little has changed since the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

“If you look at the current report for the nation, if you look at the governors’ report on the riots in Newark, they said that there is a problem in the inner cities. Problems with education, problems with employment, problems with police/community relationships. Racism and poverty have persisted. It’s time for us to have a fuller, richer, deeper conversation about both of those things,” he said.

When asked if a legacy movement such as the Civil Rights Movement is still in existence, Williams said yes, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t go anywhere.

“The Civil Rights Movement never died, it more or less morphed into other kinds of actions. I’ve written about the kinds of organizations that we need to look forward to in The Huffington Post most recently. One of the things I’ve pointed out is there must be a multi-generational movement of people like me who’ve been there and have seen how power can be used and abused, as well as the young energy from the young people coming on board,” he said.

Could Baltimore — on the heels of Ferguson — be a turning point, a catalyst for change?

“It can be. In Newark we turned the whole violent spectrum around and we sat down with the city leaders at that time and said, ‘This is what we need. This is what we need,'” Williams said. “Not a threat that there’s going to be more, but this is what we need to do. From the actions of the riots we got housing, we got jobs, we got opportunities and as a matter of fact it led to the election of the first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson.”

All of those stepping stones to the election of the first black president in 2008 with Barack Obama, he said.

When asked what his reaction to Gov. Chris Christie sending state police to Baltimore, Williams said, “I really don’t understand that but he’s the governor and I’m not.”