The 1967 Plainfield, NJ Riots.
Two days after some African Americans began protesting and rioting in Newark in 1967, the Plainfield riots began. Plainfield is located about 18 miles southwest of Newark, and about a third of Plainfield’s 48,000 citizen were African Americans then. Tensions remained high that summer through the night of Friday, July 14 when a fight broke out at a local diner, The White Star. Afterwards, about 40 young black men left the diner and marched back to their housing project in the West End section of Plainfield. They vented their anger along the way by smashing store windows and throwing rocks at police cars. When the local police showed up in force, the group dispersed.
On Saturday night trouble started again. Many long time residents of Plainfield stated that “outside agitators” who did not live in Plainfield came into the city to provoke violence and to “rile up” the community. Some were white men and some were black men and the hatred they fanned was infectious. Rioting and looting increased and Molotov cocktails were thrown at fire trucks responding to calls. Police from surrounding jurisdictions were called in and the crowds finally dispersed when a heavy rain started to fall early Sunday morning.
On Sunday afternoon several hundred people gathered at a local park to hear the local Director of Human Relations talk about the situation in the city. The Union County, New Jersey Park Police, who had jurisdiction over the park, declared the meeting unlawful and ordered the crowd to disperse. The crowd broke up and reformed in the West End section of Plainfield where widespread rioting started again. The city police were caught off guard and did not respond quickly enough to quell the disorder.
Later that evening a white police officer, John Gleason, was manning a checkpoint. Members of the Pagan motorcycle gang entered the area and a confrontation between a large group of young black men and the white members of the Pagan motorcycle gang was brewing. Police Officer John Gleason placed himself between the two groups and the Pagan motorcycle gang left. The remaining crowd refused to disperse and Officer Gleason became surrounded by the crowd which began to threaten him and close in on him. Officer Gleason was in fear of his life and eventually fired a shot at a young man and wounded him. When the officer tried to leave the area to get help, he was overtaken by a mob and was beaten with a steel grocery store cart, stomped and eventually brutally shot and killed with his own service revolver.
Middlesex arms theft
That same night in nearby Middlesex an arms factory was broken into and 46 automatic weapons were stolen. The Plainfield Machine Company was a small manufacturing company owned by William Haas and William Stork that, among other things, produced M1 carbines for the civilian market. The stolen guns were passed out to the men on the streets of Plainfield that very night. The police were anxious because of the large number of guns now on the streets and the Plainfield Fire Department Station was under constant gunfire for five hours. The bullet holes in the brick facade of the building remain to this day. Finally, New Jersey National Guardsmen, in armored personnel carriers relieved the station.
Police tried to arrange a truce and have residents turn in the stolen carbines. Black residents felt that having the guns in the community kept the police at bay and that they now had power over the police. When none of the stolen firearms were returned, the area was cordoned off and 300 heavily armed New Jersey State Police and National Guardsmen started a house-to-house search for the stolen weapons. After about an hour and a half, with 66 homes searched, the operation was called off. The police felt that since Governor Hughes had declared a State of Emergency, no search warrants were needed.
By July 21, things had calmed down to the point where National Guard troops and state police could be pulled out of the city.
Dozens of black residents later filed suit against the government claiming that their constitutional rights had been violated during the search for the stolen carbines. Even several weeks after the riot, the local police and FBI were still looking for the stolen weapons. No arrests had been made in the theft and only a few of the guns had been recovered.
More than 100 people had been arrested for looting and rioting during the disturbance. Officer Gleason was the only person killed during the riot and in December 1968, a jury convicted two people, a man and a woman, of murder in his death. They were both sentenced to life imprisonment. Seven others were acquitted and one case was declared a mistrial because of a deadlocked jury.
Like many cities, Plainfield suffered a decline from the stigma of the riots, and many of the burned and looted businesses remained vacant for over four decades. Several residents decamped for neighboring towns like Edison, Scotch Plains, Watchung, Warren, Westfield and Bridgewater. Many residents abandoned their houses after leaving, as the massive amount of people selling their property resulted in people being unable to sell them (or at massively reduced prices). After leaving, since the owners didn’t want to live there anymore but couldn’t sell, they sometimes let them fall into foreclosure. After a while many of them ended up derelict. Many of the houses were also turned into multi family homes. It remains one of the poorest urban areas in the state with a 16 percent poverty rate including over 7 percent having an income less than 50 percent of poverty level.
- 1967 Newark riots in New Jersey