First published in The Record, Jan. 12, 2019
25 years later, talk of another Paterson Riot
Keith Baker knows how it feels to riot. He remembers it, running with his friends down Market Street in Paterson that cold Wednesday night in February 1995, dodging cops and TV cameras and dirty banks of snow.
The boys threw rocks as they ran. They broke windows in two city buses, and looted a shoe store.
"We tore this place up," said Baker, now 41.
The riot in 1995 erupted after a white rookie public housing police officer shot and killed Baker's friend, Lawrence Myers, an African-American 16-year-old who was unarmed. Twenty-four years later, another unarmed black man was dead. Another protest was about to start.
In the neighborhoods east of City Hall, people spoke of another riot.
"Everybody's talking about it," said Baker, a husky man in a heavy blue coat whose days of sprinting from cops ended long ago. "I hope they don't do it. The last thing we need in this city now is a riot."
The angry talk began hours after the death of Jameek Lowery, who had several chaotic interactions Saturday night with police officers and medical staff before arriving unresponsive at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center, said Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes. He died on Monday at age 27.
Many activist leaders, clergy members and elected officials from North Jersey's African-American community took a measured response to the news, praising the Paterson Police Department for its renewed efforts at transparency and deferring judgment until the investigation into Lowery's death is complete.
"We have to be careful how we respond publicly until we have some definitive facts," said the Rev. Kenneth Darryl Ray Clayton, president of the Paterson chapter of the NAACP.
Others are tired of careful patience. At police headquarters, a protest march Tuesday night escalated into a brief melee, captured in videos posted to Twitter. People threw bottles at police, who responded with pepper spray. Other Tweets included the slogan "NO JUSTICE NO PEACE."
"They're talking about tearing up Paterson. They're talking about a riot," said Willie Davis, 68, who runs a community garden on Paterson's East Side. "You know the riots like in the '60s? People are saying they want another one of those."
In a poor city like Paterson, tragedies like Lowery's death are tragically common. So why did Lowery's death in particular cause this spasm of outrage, especially after he admitted on his own Facebook Live video that he walked into police headquarters high on drugs and paranoid? Like the protests that followed Lawrence Myers' death a quarter-century ago, the anger concerning Lowery is the result of new facts laid atop decades' worth of old grievances.
Unlike Myers, who died unphotographed and unseen, the events leading up to Lowery's death were broadcast on Facebook and Twitter, allowing his family members to watch his demise in nearly real time. Those social media posts fueled rumors that Lowery's death was caused by cops, and that it was part of a larger alleged conspiracy regarding a federal investigation into corrupt Paterson police officers.
"People are saying he was a snitch," said Constance Martin, 65, a school crossing guard. Currently there's no evidence that was the case.
Tuesday night's scuffle between cops and angry residents fizzled out nearly as quickly as it started. Wednesday night's protest at City Hall was small and quiet.
Some people wonder whether this peace can hold.
"This was really like the last straw," Zellie Thomas, leader of Paterson's Black Lives Matter chapter, said of Lowery's death. "This is what happens when you ignore people for so long."
Social media cauldron
Among all the rumors and conspiracy theories, some facts are known. At 2:45 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 5, Lowery called 911 saying he had swallowed too many ecstasy pills, and requesting an ambulance to drive him from Godwin Avenue to St. Joseph's. At the hospital he became erratic and left, according to Valdes. By 4 a.m. Lowery was standing in the lobby of Paterson police headquarters. There he recorded a Facebook Live video in which he described himself as paranoid and said people were trying to kill him. In the video Lowery appears to be high on drugs and sweating profusely -- but otherwise uninjured.
"If I'm dead in an hour or two, they did it," Lowery said of the police officers standing near him.
When firefighters showed up, police "used physical force and compliance holds" to get Lowery secured in an ambulance, Valdez has said. Sometime later, Lowery arrived back at the hospital, this time unresponsive. At around 10 a.m. Saturday, Lowery's half-brother Jamir King visited Lowery in the hospital, King said. Then, King said, his friend took a cellphone picture of Lowery and posted it to social media.
The photo shows Lowery bleeding from his nose, with purple bruises under his left eye. Lowery died Monday. City officials said he had bacterial meningitis, a highly contagious and potentially deadly infection.
Unlike the Facebook Live video, it was impossible to confirm whether the photo of Lowery in his hospital bed was taken Monday or on some prior trip to a hospital. But many in Paterson viewed the juxtaposition between the video and photo as an indication that police officers, firefighters or hospital security guards had beaten Lowery to death.
"Somebody beat him up," said King, 20. "Because he was perfectly fine in the first video."
Paterson Police Director Jerry Speziale could not be reached by phone for this story. He did not respond to an email.
One reason so many people happened upon the video so quickly is that Lowery was a member of a large family in this small city. Most people interviewed for this story said they either knew Lowery directly or knew him by sight because of their relationships with his siblings, parents, grandparents and aunts.
"I grew up with his mother," said James Gordon, 57. "That's how I heard about it."
The video also prompted rumors that Lowery had worked as an informant, and that this played a role in his death. So far five Paterson police officers have been charged after an FBI investigation of the department. Three officers have pleaded guilty to crimes including stealing cash and drugs from motorists during illegal traffic stops, selling drugs taken from crime scenes and beating a suicide patient inside a hospital emergency room.
In his Facebook video, Lowery begged Paterson police officers for water and claimed he had not helped the FBI. The U.S. Attorney's Office for New Jersey declined to comment.
"People are saying that he was an informant for the FBI and he got some policemen in trouble," Davis said.
Some leaders in Paterson's African-American community view the FBI's involvement as an encouraging sign, since it was leaders of the Paterson Police Department who first requested the investigation. Police leaders said they informed the FBI of Lowery's condition on Saturday.
"We are all aware that the new police chief and the police director have made it an issue to deal with corruption in our police force," said Clayton, of the NAACP chapter. "We have to trust them with what they have been doing in the last year or so, and if there is something there that they are not going to hide it."
Others hoped to avoid the fray.
"We are not able to have any comments, because it's an active investigation," said Lilisa Mimms, a member of Paterson's City Council.
On some streets, suspicion and anger remain.
"This guy ratted out the cops to the FBI, and they killed him for it," said Gordon, who lives on the city's East Side. "That's why people are so upset."
Old animosities remain
Beneath the particulars of Lowery's death lie decades of mutual mistrust between the Police Department and the city's African-American community. On the streets of the East Side and at a protest in front of City Hall, many people said they had been victims of violence at the hands of Paterson police officers, whom they described as white interlopers with homes in North Jersey's suburbs and little familiarity with people in the city.
"They could roll up here anytime and throw me against the wall. It happens all the time," said Gordon, who stood a few feet from the corner of Godwin Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard, a longtime hub for illegal drug sales. "These officers come here from Wayne; don't none of them live in the city. I'm tired of it."
Others have made similar complaints for decades.
"If you're going to hire police officers, hire police officers who live in the city of Paterson," Daniel Harris, then 23, said at a community meeting after Lawrence Myers' death in 1995.
"It's nothing unusual for Paterson. They're always disrespecting us and then taking us in," Robert Gayden, who was 27, said to a reporter for The Record in 1995, during a protest at City Hall. "I'm tired of being treated like trash."
This week Keith Baker stood where Gayden had stood, in the cramped stone courtyard in front of Paterson City Hall. He looked at a phalanx of 20 Harley-Davidson police motorcycles, parked on the other side of Market Street, their riders outfitted in yellow police vests. Baker knows that a riot brings only pain.
But in the last 25 years, he hasn't found a better plan.
"We've been asking for the same things forever, it seems like," he said. "What else can we do about it? I don't know."