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Newark to New Orleans: The Myth of the Black Sniper

Forty years have passed since the Newark riots, but not much has changed when it comes to black suffering and white fear.

| Mon Jul. 16, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

Last week was the 40th anniversary of the Newark riots ("rebellion" is the term preferred by some), which began when reports spread that a black cab driver beaten by white police had died. The cab driver lived, but five nights of rioting and looting followed in the city's African American core, which had suffered for decades from poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, "urban renewal," police brutality, and the political exclusion of blacks from city government. Soon, reports began coming in of scores of black snipers roaming the city, and terrorists with dynamite and arms heading towards Newark with supplies for the uprising. After a white fire captain was shot, then Governor Richard Hughes said, "This is a criminal insurrection by people who say they hate the white man but who really hate America." Hughes had already sent in State Troopers and National Guard units, some of them equipped with automatic weapons, who joined local police in opening fire on civilians. In the end, 26 people were killed and some 700 were wounded.

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What makes the Newark riots anything but a remote historical event, to be "commemorated" from the safe vantage point of time, is not only the continuing existence of black urban poverty and despair. It is also the reality that played out, with eerie familiarity, thirty-eight years later, in another American city. Amidst the chaos of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, reports of rampaging black snipers again circulated through law enforcement and the media. In response, the New Orleans police and the Louisiana National Guard grounded rescue helicopters, lest they be shot down; prevented doctors, nurses, and other rescue workers access to the desperate population; and blocked escape routes, trapping fleeing residents in a disastrous chaos, which led to still unknown numbers of dead.

Among the many things that these two events have in common is one simple fact: There were no black snipers.

In the summer of 1967, after the riots in Newark, Detroit, and 125 other cities, President Lyndon Johnson convened an advisory commission to look into what happened and why. The report of the Kerner Commission, which warned of a nation moving toward a "system of apartheid" in its cities, concluded that the so-called snipers in Newark were actually members of the police, Troopers, and Guard, who, lacking any reliable communications and possessed by fear of the specter of armed black men, often ended up shooting at each other. Here is how the reportdescribed one of many incidents:

[Director of Police Dominick] Spina received a report of snipers in a housing project. When he arrived he saw approximately 100 National Guardsmen and police officers crouching behind vehicles, hiding in corners and lying on the ground around the edge of the courtyard.

Since everything appeared quiet and it was broad daylight, Spina walked directly down the middle of the street. Nothing happened. As he came to the last building of the complex, he heard a shot. All around him the troopers jumped, believing themselves to be under sniper fire. A moment later a young Guardsman ran from behind a building. [Spina] went over and asked him if he had fired the shot. The soldier said yes, he had fired to scare a man away from a window; that his orders were to keep everyone away from windows....

A short time later more "gunshots" were heard. Investigating, Spina came upon a Puerto Rican sitting on a wall. In reply to a question as to whether he knew "where the firing is coming from?" the man said: "That's no firing. That's fireworks. If you look up to the fourth floor, you will see the people who are throwing down these cherry bombs."

By this time four truckloads of National Guardsmen had arrived and troopers and policemen were again crouched everywhere looking for a sniper. The Director of Police remained at the scene for three hours, and the only shot fired was the one by the Guardsmen.

Nevertheless, at six o'clock that evening two columns of National Guardsmen and state troopers were directing mass fire at the Hayes Housing Project in response to what they believed were snipers. . . .

Historians, including those interviewed for the recent documentary Revolution '67, have also generally concluded that all of the shooting deaths—including the two white deaths, of the fire chief and a police detective—were likely caused by bullets from the guns of law enforcement officers. In its retrospective on the riots, the Newark Star Ledger described a few of these deaths:

Eddie Moss was a passenger in a car when a stray bullet from a National Guard checkpoint hit him behind the right ear. He was 10.

Eloise Spellman was leaning out her 10th-story window in Hayes Homes when an unknown National Guardsman mistook her for a sniper and fatally shot her in the neck. She left behind 11 children.

In New Orleans in 2005, the media, along with officials on the ground, likewise seemed all too willing to purvey the vision of the mostly poor, mostly African American hurricane victims as increasingly violent and lawless. Reports told of numerous rapes and murders at the Superdome and at the city's convention center, and of gangs roaming the streets, preying citizens and shooting at police and military personnel. In fact, the New Orleans Times-Picayune would later conclude, in an article called "Reports of Deaths Greatly Exaggerated," that there were only four violent deaths during the worst of the flood—consistent with New Orleans' normal homicide rate.

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