AUGUST 14, 2017
THE FALL OF 1891 found the Newark-born writer Stephen Crane at the beginning of a short but illustrious career. The 20-year-old college dropout was a cub reporter living in the home of his older brother Edmund in what is now the Lakeview section of Paterson, New Jersey, from which he commuted to New York City’s Bowery, investigating stories of its residents that became the basis for his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which he self-published in 1893 to both critical and commercial failure under a nom de plume. Thirty years later, long after his death at 28 of a pulmonary hemorrhage, critic H. L. Mencken, in a review for the Baltimore Evening Sun, wrote of Crane: “It was his distinction that he had an eye for the cold, glittering fact in an age of romantic illusion.”
The same could be said of another Garden State journalist who pounded the pavement of slums in search of truth. Googling the name “Ron Porambo” turns up no Wikipedia entry, despite the publication of the seminal work of New Journalism No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark, a masterful tome on the 1967 Newark Rebellion. This summer we mark the 50th anniversary of the riot, and it seems fitting to reassess this underappreciated work of municipal reporting, which rises to the level of literature.
Like Crane, Porambo also had an eye for “cold, glittering fact” that led him to investigate institutional racism and corruption that spread from the top of city and state governments to police forces and connections to organized crime. It would also lead to his status as a target in the most literal sense.
The book is divided into six sections, each one dedicated to the specific events leading up to the four days of what was labeled a “civil disturbance” and the aftermath and the larger issues surrounding that continued long after. The stories of the 26 people killed are told through firsthand accounts that often contradict official reports that would result in no charges filed against police or National Guardsmen. In the context of its time, Porambo debunked the myth of snipers that was used as an excuse for Guardsmen to fire. The major players are all represented as well: the Italian-American vigilante leader Anthony Imperiale, the poet Amiri Baraka (referred to by his former name LeRoi Jones in the text), and Mayor Hugh Addonizio, the last white mayor of Newark.
Just as important to the author are family members of those deceased, gunned down by high velocity Double-0 shotgun ammunition. The book consequently juggles the responsibility of deconstructing an existing image put forth by the likes of Life magazine with calling attention to the daily life of mostly black residents living in poverty at the risk of taking on the role of White Savior. The prose shares the same plain quality as Porambo’s apparent ability to gain trust from people to give up details. The result is 400-plus pages of utterly absorbing pages of raw witness and sharp analysis.
“The, book was written for the sole purpose of getting a job, not to make money,” reads a self-effacing quote from Porambo in a story about the project in the February 4, 1972, issue of The New York Times, which goes on to tell of his layoff from The Elizabeth Daily Journal, from which a 15-part series on the Rebellion became the basis for the book.
In a bitter twist, Times journalist James Markham wrote, the writer had gone from writing for newspapers to delivering them to make ends meet. Now he was recovering from two gunshot wounds to his thighs, fired at him by an unknown white assailant as Porambo got into his car outside of Tony’s Tavern on South Ninth Street on the night of January 13. It wasn’t the first attempt on his life, nor would it be the last. Newark Police Captain Rocco Paradiso was quick to write off the incident, as well as a previous one on December 7, in which seven shots were fired at Porambo by a person in a dark sedan, as a publicity stunt by his publisher.
Even Markham himself threw him under the bus: “Mr. Porambo has made so many public statements on television and to the press about his shooting an assailant that the Essex County Prosecutor would appear to have enough evidence to indict him on the gun charge — if he wants to.”
Gaining access to information had come at a high cost that damaged his reputation before publication or the separate shootings, with a 1970 arrest on charges of attempting to bribe an officer to view autopsy photos of a victim of a police shooting. He later served three months in prison upon conviction.
Reaction to the book’s publication varied. By the time of the second shooting, publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston was almost sold out of its 7,500-copy first edition and the book had received positive reviews from The Village Voice and The New York Review of Books. The latter published extensive articles about the Rebellion in dispatches from Tom Hayden, who was widely featured in No Cause. Neither the police department nor the Italian-American community of Newark’s North Ward were pleased with the book’s findings or its portrayal of the deeply embedded racism and graft present in both.
Rapper Christopher Wallace famously asked of another crime, “Who shot ya?” The Times and the Newark PD asked “Who cares?” In fact, harassment by police would continue. Two weeks later, several officers entered the Bluebird Bar, where they found him drinking and searched him for weapons on a “tip” only to find nothing. February 1973 found Porambo employed as a journalist again for local network Channel 13 and again in handcuffs outside of another bar, where police accused him of being drunk and disorderly and interfering with police business after questioning them over their interaction with a sick woman. Washington recruited agent provocateurs. Newark nursed the vipers in her own bosom.
Months before Melville House rereleased No Cause, David Fincher’s sixth film, Zodiac, debuted on theaters across the nation. In a pivotal scene the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith visits his former co-worker, Paul Avery, long after media focus on the serial killer has dissipated, with his idea to write a book. “Someone should write a fuckin’ book, that’s for sure,” says the fictionalized Avery, inaccurately portrayed as a burnout by the late ’70s, when in fact he had moved on to Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army as a subject for a book of his own. At the pinnacle of Zodiac hype, Avery and his colleagues wore buttons that read “I Am Not Paul Avery” after threats were made on Avery’s life. He also carried a gun.
Ron Porambo possessed the same obsessiveness — “a nearly psychotic kind of single-mindedness and unyielding resolve,” as the journalist Fred Bruning put it. Yet he was not given such support by peers, nor even a license to legally possess a handgun. By the time Avery’s book The Voices of Guns was published in 1977, Porambo was already bouncing from paper to paper on the opposite coast, from the Suffolk Sun in Long Island to The Star Ledger to the Press of Atlantic City, among a number of other publications, making enemies of editors along the way. A sense of restlessness and bitterness was beginning to grow as he dipped his toes into the deep end of violent crime. “He thought he was getting back at rich people and society, period,” his wife, Carol, told Bruning. By the time the wisp of a job opportunity at Bruning’s employer Newsday petered out, Porambo had already served time for two separate robberies in Canada and back in New Jersey. Cocaine was beginning to rise in popularity thanks to a drop in price. As Freeway Ricky Ross flipped kilos and then tons in 1982 in Los Angeles, Ron Porambo and his accomplices robbed dealers in New Jersey until the night of April 10, 1983, when Sidney Davis was killed in a shootout during a heist gone wrong. Weeks later, Porambo was shot in his car, this time in the head. Brain trauma from the injury left him physically and emotionally unstable, the state of which did not help him when a jury convicted him and a judge handed him a life sentence in New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. The Mercer County Medical Examiner determined his cause of death on October 22, 2006, as asphyxiation caused by a piece of orange lodged in his throat.
While his death may not have been fitting enough for Unsolved Mysteries (having never recalled seeing any of the thousands of “mysterious” deaths of inmates on an episode), his career still proved to be cannon fodder for his previous employer, The Star Ledger, which wrote a blistering article that portrayed him as having scorched nearly everything he touched and revealed the embarrassing details of the symptoms of his brain injury, after which “he struggled to control his bowels, drooled, and could barely wipe his nose.” Much like James Markham did in 1972, the author of the Ledger article, Brad Parks, pulled no punches for the paper that had dropped Newark from its name so long ago.
Post-Rebellion, those who could move out of Newark did so in large numbers and the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, a.k.a. “the Kerner Report,” proved to be an afterthought. As Porambo said toward the end of the book, in a section titled “Part V: The Grass Won’t Grow Again”:
Ask someone about the investigation in Newark and he’ll shrug it off. The whites feel the blacks are Newark’s No. 1 problem. Since the riots, no civil or social organizations hold meetings after dark in Newark. Even groups like the Red Cross and the Mental Health Association have moved to the suburbs.
Fifty years later, as journalists write of the events from July 11 to 18, 1967, and the 26 deaths (most of which, as he correctly referred to them, were “police murders”), one will open a newspaper or click a link to read of revolt or wanton destruction, depending on the editor, only to perhaps click on another link the following day (or perhaps later that afternoon) announcing Newark as “the next big thing” to encourage gentrification and the building of luxury high-rises. Men such as Cory Booker and Mark Zuckerberg (who famously donated $100 million to Newark schools, only for some to be wasted) use the city as a testing ground, a good publicity jump-off point to higher positions of power.
Like Ronald Porambo, New Journalism is dead. But anyone with the “cold, glittering eye for fact” or simply, at least one physically operating eye, can see that when walking the streets surrounding the Garden Spires housing project, or on North Seventh Street, where 27-year-old Edgard Patricio Jiménez Domínguez was shot dead on Father’s Day this year, the message is loud and clear as ever: racism, poverty, and corruption are well and alive in the Brick City.