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The only accurate article on the Internet describing the 1967 uprising in Plainfield

I’ve had the opportunity to read information about the 1967 uprising in Plainfield that is not available on the Internet. I am convinced that the police actually incited the violence by forcing a meeting to end, frustrating those who wanted to see change in Plainfield.

Regarding the killing of Officer Gleason: unfortunately, police reports of what happened to Gleason are just that. Police reports. And they are contradictory and far from the truth. There were no police who witnessed what happened.

A witness described the circumstances that led to the killing of Police Officer Gleason:

“And I see Bobby, I laugh ’cause it’s funny now, backin’ down the street, look like a Zulu warrior head band on his head, and I see this big, white police. They in the middle of the street. Bobby’s walking backwards like this—I can’t understand what they saying, but see how you’re sitting? They comin’ straight at us. I’m lookin’ at him. I said, ‘You know Reb, what the fuck is he doing?’ ‘What the hell you askin’ me, Chic? Let’s wait and see.’ All right?

“Here come the police and here come Bobby. There about this much distance in between both of them. Bobby’s callin’ his mama, callin’ the police mama and all kinds of names and the police is callin’ him—you ever seen a white person and the black people callin’ each other names, askin’ for—it was funny to me …

“But this time, Bobby had backed up on the curb. Louie’s leanin’ up on the fence. He’s lookin’ at it. All of a sudden, all hell broke loose! He did like this and pulled out his gun, ̵b;sBlack, that’s no shit.’s He just, he just fired it. He hit Bobby five times. Scared me. I never in my life see anybody get shot. Now I’m really scared….

“Somebody across the street threw something, and hit his helmet, right? He had on one of them helmets? Hit his helmet. He panics and turns around. Now you got to remember, there’s black people all up and down, everybody sees this, you see what I’m sayin’? It’s not just me and you—this street is covered with people. He panics a little bit, he starts backin’ up and he starts backin’ up, backin’ up, backin’ up.

“Then he turns and he goes ahead—and he started to run. The crowd is on him, includin’ me! Chasin’ him, chasin’ him, he was runnin’. He do this—I don’t know where that bugger went—turns back, and he shoots, right? He’s in the middle Plainfield section by the playground. He’s en route. He gotta go all the way to First Street to get to his home ground. He’s runnin’, boy, excuse me ma’am—this white boy was in it—and he had some deer on his ass. See what I’m sayin’? He was flyin’! But he had some deers, and they was—swosh—he got to Second street, the other side of the tracks, where this brother comin’ down, and I don’t know how this brother knew what happened, he hid behind the bridge like this. Soon as Gleason ran under the bridge he said ‘Whoo!’—up in the air Gleason sit—and when he came down in the gutter, they were waitin’ on him. And he went up in the air and made that flip over, and he hit the gutter and looked up. The wave was on him and they beat him to death!”

If not for three men, Cathcart, Ylvisaker and Hughes, there would have been a bloodbath. Ylvisaker said, “I am taking over in the name of the governor and you are relieved of this responsibility right now.” The Plainfield police were so angry that they were not permitted to flex their muscles and re-establish their form of “law and order” that they all quit their jobs. Of course, this was simply bravado. They returned to their jobs.

Elizabeth Faraone

Plainfield, NJ

Oct 9 2013 - 4:56pm

Web Letter

I was a teenager in 1967 and remember the Plainfield riots as if they were yesterday.

There is absolutely no excuse for the actions of Gail Madden, George Merritt and ten others who were never charged. No one should die the way that John Gleason died! Gleason never murdered a black child. Gleason was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I'm shocked to see how twisted this event has become in the "history" books. Some even refer to John Gleason as a racist who deserved to die. Tell me: if you label Gleason a racist, what would do you call the people who stomped and hacked John Gleason to death?

The people who committed this grievous act were not "down-trodden"--they were teenagers and young 20-somethings on the rampage. The Gleason murder was not an act of revenge for long festering racism, it was a senseless act of violence against a man who happened to be a cop and who happened to catch them looting and destorying their own neighborhoods!

It's interesting how the real "truth" of events sometimes gets lost in the bias of the story teller.

Cynthia Guy

South Plainfield, NJ

Sep 3 2008 - 7:25pm

Web Letter

Thank you to, Dan Yurman, for clarifying some facts. The author left out a lot of information.

Those accused of murdering my father had the best of defenses and my family had to rely on the expertise of the prosecution, and subsequent handling of the case. I am aware of the injustices against the black community but it doesn't give anyone the right to take someone's life. People need to also remember the viciousness of his murder as well as the cause/effect of the town. Unfortunately, we only got partial justice. Most of the mob that attacked him were not punished.

Thank you for pointing out the very lengthy trials, which lasted for years. I am disapointed in the outcome of the cases and some things should have been handled better. There is a study out there called "Plainfield Burning: Black Rebellion in the Suburban North" in the Journal of Urban History that had printed that officer John Gleason was 1. trigger happy, 2. a racist, 3. killed a black child in 1966. All untrue. I don't know how the authors are alllowed to print anything they want without verifying these accusations. In all these years I have never heard anyone accuse him of being a racist. I checked his record and there was no such incident in 1966. This is slandering the reputation of a hero.

I am demanding a retraction in regards to this. I only hope people that read these articles don't believe everything they read. Of all the people to attack, it should be those animals that killed him, not the victim. I hope those animals that brutally killed him are forever haunted by this and never get a moment's peace.

Elizabeth (Gleason) LaTorre

Kenilworth, NJ

Aug 20 2007 - 8:39am

Web Letter

Peter Dreier and I were classmates and friends in Plainfield High School from 1963-1966. Our twelfth grade history class together was particularly notable for its political content. We discussed the origins of the New Deal and the causes of WWII.

I take exception to Peter's article. We were teenagers in the 1960s hardly mature adults capable of understanding the society around us or its defects. I don't object to clarifying what took place forty years later. I thought the article had a lot of useful history. Sadly, there is finger of blame in the article that I think is inappropriate. As a high school student in PHS in the sixties, I can't accept responsibility for the education system's racist tracking system any more than I was responsible for Mack Truck leaving town and gutting the city's economy.

I've had some experience with people who like to recast the past into the present. It is not a pretty sight. If you want to make judgements about the past in the present go ahead, just don't expect people to like them.

Peter, you also might have added some details about the trial that occured after the death of Plainfield policeman John Gleason. You might also be interested to know that some of the details of the defense, which was handled by William Kunstler. Wouldn't he have been a hero of yours? Why are you silent about the Plainfield trial?

Not all of the defense effort had such a high profile. Vivian Cordiano, a local Democratic party activist, helped open an office for the defense team located in the second floor of an office building on Watchung Ave. in downtown Plainfield right across from the post office. As a journalist working in New Jersey at the time, I had the opportunity to photograph Kunstler giving a talk at that location on a hot summer evening.

An example of mainstream press coverage, not mine, about the trial is included below, from Time, Friday, January 3, 1969:

In Elizabeth, N.J., after one of the longest and costliest trials in the state's history (16 weeks, $750,000) a jury convicted two Negroes and freed eight others in the murder of Patrolman John V. Gleason Jr. In the midst of the five-day race riot in Plainfield in 1967, Gleason, 39, the father of three, shot and wounded a youth who had attacked him with a hammer. He was surrounded by an angry mob of Negroes and was stomped, hacked and shot to death. Sentenced to life in prison were Gail Madden, 22, a 250-pounder, whom witnesses identified as the woman in a bright orange dress who stomped Gleason, and George Merritt, 24 who attacked the officer with a meat cleaver. Five of those who were freed had been identified by a witness whose poor eyesight made his testimony worthless. During the trial, some witnesses recounted their testimony, allegedly because of threats.

According to the Union County Prosecutor's office, charges against Merritt were dropped in 1980 because of witness credibility problems and the way the discovery process was handled in the case. His conviction was overturned by NJ courts three times.

If you wanted to write about life's tragedies and racial injustices, the murder of John Gleason and subsequent trials would have been good subjects for The Nation. Tarring your classmates with a racist brush in a national magazine is not a fitting way to remember them forty years after the fact.

Dan Yurman

Plainfield, NJ

Aug 19 2007 - 4:18pm

Web Letter

I read the article about the Plainfield Riot of 1967. Who are you exactly to accuse my father John Gleason of doing anything wrong that night and to say that he might have deserved what those animals did to him? I read every article over the years and if you did you would have read that no one had anything against him as a cop, as said by a black individual. We have never heard anyone call him a racist. These murders had the intention to kill a white cop as a kind of revenge or statement against discrimination. Did you know the man he shot was carrying a weapon (a hammer)? What do you think he was going to do with it? He obviously was threatening someone with it. My father did nothing wrong and did not start anything. The violence had already begun and he was just doing his job and was at the wrong place at the wrong time. If it wasn't him it would have been another cop. He did not kill anyone the year before. Where do you get your information? I looked into his record, and no such event occurred in 1966. This is plain slander against a hero who cannot defend himself.

Check your facts! I cannot believe what I read and am very angry that anyone may actually believe this garbage.

Elizabeth (Gleason) LaTorre

Kenilworth, NJ

Aug 14 2007 - 9:27am

Web Letter

Pete Dreier and I have disagreed and differed in interpretation on events, ideas and people since 1963. There's no reason to think his recent article on the 1967 race riot in Plainfield, NJ, would be otherwise.

This is a prolific period for such examinations by historians, sociologists and other soft scientists. Yet scattered loosely in the figures and reasonable conclusions were questionable assertions. Many of those who attended that fortieth reunion (and Pete was not among us) disagree with his comments in the article as well as in the blog he cites.

Amusingly, the intentionally provocative piece he placed on the blog was the source of conversation about the riots and race relations in general during the reunion. Black, white, Jewish, WASP, everyone typically asked what high school did he go to, where did he get this "caldron of racial tensions" stuff, as he subsequently wrote for you. Equally amusing was his recent "many white students were oblivious to these realities." That kind of circular argument had a much simpler form for the rest of us. It wasn't accurate.

As a disclaimer, I admit that I did not grow up in Plainfield, coming for the three years of high school and into 1968. That also meant that I had not linked to elementary and junior high classmates and subgroups. I moved from the nominally segregated southern Virginia to the quasi- segregated Plainfield. Similar to Pete's social opportunities when the racially weighted junior highs feed into a single high school, my experience as an athlete and newspaper sports editor brought me contact and friendship with numerous black kids and their families. Few of my classes had more than one or two black students.

If Pete himself was not oblivious to the various other tensions, he would have made much more of what his classmates saw. We saw much more tension and many more fights between two or more white guys than one black and one white. Moreover, class distinctions dominated social cliques--adolescent and adult.

There's the overlap with the shock to the country when nice areas in the Northeast could have riots. It was not a Detroit or Newark with big black slums. The discrepancies in income and opportunity in even smallish cities were catalysts for rage and violence when a nearby city blew.

Somehow Pete felt compelled to conclude that having the reunion in a nearby town "was telling." It told that a reunion packager had pointed to ease of airport and highway access as well as adequate hotel space. Likewise, he looked at dinner pictures from the reunion he did not attend to imply that the two major races from our class "still [live in] two separate worlds."

The Plainfield the rest of us lived in and which so shocked us when its citizens rioted was not rife with racial tension among the kids. Yet, the inequalities that characterized America and New Jersey then were highly volatile.

There's a lot of useful information and conclusions in what Pete and others write on this period. Those of us who lived it don't necessarily buy all the ornaments hung on top.

Michael Ball

Boston, MA

Jul 25 2007 - 4:56pm

Web Letter

There are several adjacent cities with the name Plainfield in them: North Plainfield, South Plainfield, and Plainfield itself. In which of these cities did the riot take place? Did all of these cities even exist in 1967, or was there a subsequent split into multiple cities? In any case, the many little cities/towns supports some of Dreier's other writings that the suburbs are fragmented, with better-off towns/cities acknowledging no responsibility for the poorer towns/cities. By the way, North Plainfield seems to be undergoing a revival, at least there are new sidewalks and streetlights, and an attempt at office development near the NJ Transit train station.

Andrew Hisgen

Mountainside, NJ

Jul 25 2007 - 11:50am