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A weekend protest in Newark ended at the same intersection where one of the most wrenching and deadly of the race riots that convulsed the nation during the 1960s began.
It was there, just outside the First Precinct at the corner of 17th Avenue and Livingston Street, that hundreds of protesters outraged by the death of George Floyd faced off late Saturday against officers in riot gear.
A plaque commemorating the 1967 upheaval hung within eyeshot, summoning the old ghosts: 26 dead; five days of looting, gunshots and arson fires that left a legacy of vacant lots that still haunts New Jersey’s largest city; the exodus of businesses and middle-class residents that would come to define Newark for the next five decades.
But on Monday, the city emerged at least partially redefined.
As many cities across the United States were filled with fiery scenes of rock-throwing demonstrators, burning squad cars and aggressive policing, peace has so far prevailed in Newark.
The 12,000-person protest on Saturday afternoon brimmed with rage at the death of Mr. Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man who died in Minneapolis after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground at the neck by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer.
But there were no protest-related arrests during the weekend. Tires were slashed on squad cars, but none were set ablaze and no storefronts were smashed. The most prominent graffiti, a message scrawled on a courthouse in spray paint — “WE LOVE U GEORGE” — had been power-washed clean by Sunday afternoon.
“A lot of tension. A lot of anxiety,” Newark’s mayor, Ras Baraka, said Sunday in an interview. “But the community held the line.”
About 15 miles east, in New York City, days of violent clashes have resulted in hundreds of arrests, dozens of injured officers and at least 47 damaged or destroyed police vehicles. Similarly large protests have roiled dozens of major cities, including Washington, Chicago, Minneapolis and Atlanta, leading to at least five deaths.
In Newark, some protesters danced as they marched for hours through the commercial and municipal hub of the city, with Mr. Baraka leading the way.
“It really almost brought tears to my eyes,” said John Schreiber, president of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, who watched as the march processed past his apartment. “I was so proud of my city.”
Newark is not the only community that, so far, has remained relatively calm. Protesters in other cities, including Camden, N.J., and Flint, Mich., held similarly peaceful rallies, and Newark’s march was not without moments of confrontation.
“People have a right to be outraged,” said Lawrence Hamm, a Democratic candidate for United States Senate and the chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, which organized the protest. “I would even say that it is unhealthy for people to repress their strong emotions.”
But the simmering tension never reached a flash point — a victory that city officials and residents attributed to a combination of tactical decisions, community and political leadership and the still-raw memory of 1967.
Mr. Baraka, an African-American former high school principal whose father, the poet Amiri Baraka, was brutalized by the police in July 1967, invoked those dark days during a speech before the march as he urged only peaceful protest.
The director of the Newark Police Department, Anthony F. Ambrose, who is white, made a tactical decision not to position police officers in military-style gear along the route.
And members of the Newark Community Street Team, an entity formed six years ago to de-escalate violence in the city, and other community groups were deployed throughout the crowd to try to isolate those intent on destruction.
But in more than a dozen interviews, protesters and city leaders said it was the potent determination of predominantly young African-American members of the Newark community — many of whom have had past run-ins with the police — who stood in the way of widespread destruction.
“It was a combination of anarchists and opportunists waiting for a window to be broken so they could go in and grab something,” said Aqeela Sherrills, the director of the 50-person street team.
“But I tell you: The community wasn’t having it.”
At one point during the march, protesters lit an American flag on fire in the middle of Broad Street as a young white man used a bat to strike a window of a Dunkin’ Donuts store, witnesses said.
“He hit the window one time and there was like 20 people standing in front of him,” Mr. Sherrills said. As protesters whom he called “provocateurs” moved toward buildings owned by Prudential Financial, the city’s most prominent business anchor, which has maintained a presence in Newark for 145 years, a similar standoff was defused, he said.
James Wright Jr., a Newark resident and a student at Boston University, said he initially was not planning to march. But Mr. Wright, who is black, decided it was important to be heard.
“We were using social media, writing, ‘Don’t burn down our city,’” Mr. Wright, 19, said.
“There were no officers in riot gear or SWAT gear. There were regular motorcycle cops. There were undercover cops, but they weren’t lined up to show a physical divide between them and the protesters. We had free rein.”
It was not until nightfall that the true test came.
After the structured march had ended, a crowd that the police estimated to be between 700 to 1,000 protesters moved toward the precinct on 17th Avenue.
The 320 members on duty from the Newark Police Department — which has lost four officers to Covid-19 and continues to struggle with coronavirus-related staffing issues — were “stretched,” Mr. Ambrose said.
At about 6:30 p.m., he placed a mutual-aid call asking for backup officers from the State Police, Jersey City, the Essex County Sheriff’s Office and nearly a dozen neighboring towns. Within hours, 280 officers from the region had arrived to help.
As a line of police officers stood at the front of the First Precinct wearing face shields and riot gear, members of the crowd threw bottles, shouted insults and attempted to move toward the door. One protester jumped on top of a squad car, and several police vehicle tires were slashed, but there were no arrests.
“It was a waiting game,” Mr. Ambrose said. “The police held them from going in, and the Newark community stood there and helped the police. And I am forever grateful to them for that.”
Newark, a city of 282,000, is about half African-American, 36 percent Hispanic and 10 percent white. Its police department, which remains bound to a federal consent decree linked to past abuses, is about 84 percent black or Hispanic, officials said.
A message eventually went out, spread by younger residents, that it was time for anyone who did not live in Newark to leave, according to clergy members, community leaders and police officials present during the standoff.
“If you ain’t from here, you’d better get out,” Mr. Sherrills said. “You can look at someone’s face and you know who plays for keeps.”
By 10:30 p.m., the crowd began to disperse, slowly shuffling past the commemorative plaque that was bolted to the outside of the precinct on the 40th anniversary of the civil unrest. “May this plaque serve as a symbol of our shared humanity and our commitment to seek justice and equality,” it reads.
“Newark holds its own,” said the Rev. Louise Scott-Rountree, who oversees the Newark Interfaith Alliance. “You better not mess with my family — that’s Newark.”
Police officials said they are now poring over video from body cameras worn by officers, cellphones and street surveillance footage and will pursue arrests as warranted. They said they remain hypervigilant, well aware of the volatility and frustration sweeping the nation.
“We’re on high alert,” Mr. Ambrose said. “We’re treating this like terrorism.”
Junius Williams, Newark’s official historian and the retired founder of Rutgers’ Abbott Leadership Institute, was a law student at Yale University working in Newark during the 1967 conflict. He credited Mr. Baraka’s leadership for the weekend calm.
“The mayor has kept touch with the people so they don’t see him as an obstacle to their righteous anger,” Mr. Williams, 76, said. “They know he’s angry, too.”
The chief executive of Prudential, Charles F. Lowrey, agreed.
“I truly don’t think you can underestimate his influence in this,” Mr. Lowrey said. “It’s a facet of an overall image if you will, a feeling, that we can do more together than we can do apart.”
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