45 years ago yesterday, Newark erupted into 6 days of ‘rioting’ that would forever change the course of history. Regularly subjected to police brutality while being systematically denied quality housing, employment opportunities and political representation, Newarkers would make July 12 a day of reckoning that would establish our enduring legacy of taking to the streets to dismantle racist systems. It is this very day and that very legacy that inspired the creation of Brick City Varsity, a Newark-based creative brand specializing in photography and wardrobe styling.
With the lofty goal of re-situating the place of fashion and photography within urban development and social life, BrickCityVarsity.com has figuratively set up shop within the revolutionary spirit manifested in the summer of 1967 (and again in the student take-over of Rutgers Newark’s Conklin Hall in 1969). Newark historians recall the intervention of the National Guard in the riots as the moment in which the demonstrations against poverty and police brutality ended and the killing began. By redeploying military-wear in the BCV line and photo shoots, we aim to refine our understanding of the historic roots/perpetrators of urban violence, re-imagining people of color as heroic agents of change (rather than pathologizing them as criminals) while also interrogating our tacit support of state-sponsored violence.
Brick City Varsity is an ongoing conversation regarding the similarities between the conditions that led to the Newark Riots and those that exist today. As poignantly illustrated in the NJ Historical Society’s exhibit “What’s Going On?: Newark and the Legacy of the 60s,” the number of families below the poverty line and the rates of unemployment in the civilian labor force exceed those that created the unrest that made the rebellion necessary. Further, the sense that the needs of the black and Latino working class are minimized and overlooked in the city’s (re)development plans and policing models also persist today.
The BCV motto “Rebel in style” insists that fashion and photography be deployed as tools in the rebellion that must take place to ensure that the needs of Newark’s working class be vocalized and prioritized. With each photograph shot in front of a dilapidated building, BCV inquires whether the past 40 years have helped our city cultivate a sense of the value of working class labor and the place of working class families within Newark’s economic structure and development plans. With each re-appropriated piece of military garb, I question the ways in which we make decisions about the kinds of urban violence we support and the types that we censure. Is it allowable that not a single police officer or national guardsman was indited for the murder of the 22 people killed during the riots? Is it excusable that hoards of systemically disenfranchised black Newarkers were jailed for their demonstrations even as agents of the state willfully vandalized small businesses known to support or be supported by blacks?
BCV’s re-appropriation of military insignia asks a simple and unnerving question: if the balance of power was inverted and men of color were afforded positions of power in urban spaces (rather than carted off to further the ends of the military industrial complex overseas), how different might Newark be today? If black soldiers returning home from World War II and Vietnam encountered an urban landscape that celebrated their contributions and afforded them and their families the same resources and opportunities extended to their white counterparts, how might our city (and or nation) be different?