The Man Who Lost His Way
January 26, 2007
I was only a kid when the Newark race riots exploded during the summer of 1967, but even so, I still remember the pall of fear they spread across the state as other cities smoldered and sometimes ignited as well. Toward the end of the summer, the death of a relative required my father to head into Newark to straighten out some real estate business. The work required him to spend a lot of time going through old accounts in a pretty rundown office building somewhere in the city, and there were several times that I had to accompany him for one reason or another. Even though I was going insane from boredom, I was under strict orders never to leave the building. After a relatively quiet period, I was allowed to venture out to a nearby candy store, but twelve times never could I walk around the corner, out of sight.
As a white kid growing up in a dumpy bone-white suburban town, I didn’t have the faintest notion of what caused the Newark riots, but I learned plenty years later when I read No Cause for Indictment, a blood-boiling work of reportage by Ron Porambo that excoriated the city power structure and the police for their manifold abuses of Newark’s black citizens. The title grew from Porambo’s decision to interview witnesses and reconstruct events surrounding 22 civilian deaths linked to police or Naitonal Guardsmen, cases in which the grand jury each time had found “no cause for indictment.” Needless to say, Porambo found plenty of cause. The book remains the definitive account of the events that turned the Brick City into the Sick City, which would remain an economic basket case for decades.
This summer will be the 40th anniversary of the Newark riots, and a publisher called Melville House decided to reissue Porambo’s book and set about trying to find him. The story of what became of Ron Porambo is told in this extraordinary Star-Ledger article, all the more remarkable for the fact that the Star-Ledger was one of the newspapers Porambo included in his own indictment.
Journalists are a strange breed. The guts and savvy that can make for a great reporter can also make for a miserable human being, and a reporter who can untangle Gordian knots of circumstance and facts can be helpless to manage the basic principles of a well-organized life. In Porambo’s case, nerve and righteous anger went hand in hand with irascibility and reckless defiance of any kind of authority, and what should have been a life of achievement and distinction took the grimmest kind of turn. It’s not a happy story, but it’s one you should read, just as Porambo’s book is one you should buy when Melville House reissues it this July.