By Warren Murphy

It was an even fifty years ago when the modern-day urban riot began in Watts, California, and started to work its way eastward, accompanied by a lot of bleeding heart politicians wringing their hands about the “poor downtrodden city dwellers who really can’t be blamed.”

Eventually it got to our New Jersey neighborhood — Newark burned. Plainfield burned. There were threats in other N.J. cities but Jersey City didn’t burn. Why? Well, let’s give credit where it’s due: Jersey City had a mayor named Tom Whelan who was as tough as boiled owl and I had the great good fortune to be his personal secretary and right-hand man during that period.

Surrounded by cities rioting, fires, deaths, there were rumblings out in the streets that Jersey City would be next.

The city went on high alert. I asked the mayor “What do you want me to do?”

His answer was simple: “Feed the lions.”

So I wrote on his behalf: “Anybody who touches a Jersey City cop better be prepared to come off second-best.”

That was food for the gladiators; the police knew Whelan always had their back; he was special to them and from all over now, during that warm-weather season, off-duty and vacationing cops came back to the city to go to work because “Tom needs us here.”

Other cities burned and we didn’t. Our streets were flooded with Jersey City cops; gangs were broken up and sent home; kids had unofficial curfews instituted. Looting? There was no looting. No kid wanted to go up against a Jersey City cop. People would come out on their porches in the middle of the night to applaud passing squad cars.

Later I wrote for Mayor Whelan: “There are a lot of reasons for dissatisfaction, but there are no excuses for rioting,” and on a yet later day he was called to testify before Congress and cited “as a very great mayor who showed us how to keep the peace.”

Within the next year I volunteered to work unofficially for the N.J. Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and wrote their report on urban rioting in New Jersey. I also wrote a companion book — my first — titled “The Road to Anarchy” for the same PBA. (You’ll find it now only in certain college libraries. I had no byline and someone else took credit for writing the book but I didn’t really care. I wrote it to promote my boss, Tom Whelan, because I was counting on him to eventually send me to Congress from the 13th Congressional District..)

But life, grand juries and federal prosecutions intervened and eventually Mayor Whelan went away and I left government to go become a novelist. That’s how it was back in the day, and watching Baltimore go up in flames is just déjà vu all over again, and as stupid now as it was 50 years ago.

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Warren Murphy was Personal Secretary to Tom Whelan, Mayor of Jersey City

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