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Newark Public Officials Reflect On 1967 Riots Amidst New Protests: 'The City Has Now Begun To Rise From The Ashes'

NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — It's been more than 50 years since New Jersey's largest city saw one of the nation's most destructive race riots.

There were vivid images from thousands protesting in Newark this past weekend with an American flag being burned, a statue vandalized and several instances of aggression toward the police. With hundreds of officers on hand, local and state officials remained calm and it reverberated. Newark's public safety director Anthony Ambrose gave police officers specific orders in dealing with protests over George Floyd's death.

"For something minor don't engage," said Ambrose in an interview with CBS2's Liza Rozner. "We have cameras, so it's artificial intelligence. Use that at a later date to then further investigate. While we were involved over a statue, they [the protesters] would've invaded our precinct. 700 tried to invade our first precinct."

Ambrose says the city has come a long way since the 1967 Newark riots. He was nine years old at the time. 26 people died and hundreds were injured over four days of rioting, looting and property destruction. It was prompted by police beating a black cab driver named John Smith.

"I remember the Army and National Guard riding through the streets, riding on fire trucks," said Ambrose. "I remember stores my mother took me to that we couldn't go to no more because they were burnt out."

Mayor Ras Baraka says his father, the famed poet and activist Amiri Baraka, was involved in the riots.

"My father was pulled out of a car, hit over the head with a nightstick and handcuffed to a wheelchair in a hospital," said Baraka.

Community leaders say more than 50 years after those deadly riots, the economic and emotional impact lingers.

"The city has now begun to rise from the ashes," said Reverend Pablo Pizarro.

Mayor Baraka asked clergy members like Pizarro to attend the protests.

"We get in right in between the police and the protesters," said Rev. Pizzaro. "The crowd was kind of shocked they couldn't believe that we were defending them this is our city and we work with them."

While the outrage has drawn outsiders to the community, leaders say a much more diverse police force today and clergy have helped deescalate tensions.

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