Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock ‘n Roll

A friend, call her “Dee”, recommended I watch the 2019 documentary Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock n Roll. Dee wanted me to see the film to see how the riots and looting affected that city. Race riots largely destroyed Asbury Park in the summer of 1970 and the effects are still vividly seen in the city today. Dee stressed to me that those rioters, and by corollary, the people being held for protesting, rioting and looting during the George Floyd riots in Minneapolis needed to be locked away immediately and for a long time.

Dee wrote:

if your entire life savings was burned, destroyed, looted by rioters, would you want them bailed out and back on the streets??? I would want them to rot. Generous of heart has its place, for sure. But not for these common criminals destroying people’s lives. Watch Asbury Park- riot, redemption, rock and roll. In that documentary you will see after the riots in Asbury Park, it was NEVER built up,again. Ruined forever.

So I watched the documentary. It was powerful, scary, beautiful, ugly, real. Here are a few essential quotes I heard about the riots:

Mabin Womble, described as an Asbury Park Community Activist had been interviewed through the whole movie. At 44:40, when the interview turned to the start of the riot, he got quiet and nervous, wringing his hands and said, “We were angry, we were angry. I’ll try to rationalize it. I can’t rationalize it… once it started… we did what we had to do.”

51:30 [showing footage of destroyed businesses on the main street, narration] “Whatever happens now, Asbury Park will never again be the same. For this small but tragically typical ghetto, the rioting has meant a venting of long simmering anger, a desperate expression of frustration. The people of Asbury Park’s west side don’t feel much like talking now. They too are shocked and worried about the chances for a really better tomorrow. – Jeff Camen, NBC News.”

52:15 “Southside” Johnny Lyon, Vocalist for the Asbury Jukes said, “They were living in terrible conditions so they burnt it down. And it was really mind boggling that it happened in our little corner of the world. We had seen it in Detroit and Newark and like that but in Asbury Park it seemed so strange but it was understandable.”

52:39 Billy Ryan, guitarist said, “It was just a phenomenon. It was sort of a tired of being sick and tired kind of thing. And they exhibited their anger and their frustration in a violent way.”

53:15 Bruce Springsteen said, “It was a sad moment in the city’s history but it probably needed to happen. It needed to happen.”

Here are those snippets. Sorry for the potato quality. There is much much more but I include these snippets to show the sincerity of the words spoken on this topic. I highly recommend you watch the film!

50 years later, the west side of Asbury Park remains in a poor state of affairs. Asbury Park Choice shows stark statistics like on the west side, the median household income is below the poverty line for a family of 4.


With all the groundwork laid in the above, it seems essential to our continued existence as a country that we figure out, as individuals and as a country to keep this from happening again. How do we learn from the 1970 race riots in Asbury Park and keep it from becoming the 2020 race riots of Minneapolis? Well, as the last 3 weeks have already shown, we failed at that. Why?

It seems clear to me as to why the problems repeat. The situation hasn’t changed. The political attitudes remain the same. The poverty remains the same. The culture remains the same. The police enforcement remains the same.

But oh, it is so complicated… and so simple.

Asbury Park started literally as a buffer city in the 1880’s, protecting the city of Ocean Grove to the south from, as the movie narrates “… from the sins and excesses…” of the city just to the north. Over time, the west side became a city where blacks and Italians lived to service the east side’s resorts, then the resorts faded, leading to a low-income neighborhood. That’s just part of the starting point for the riots. The Asbury Park riots happened in 1970. For more context, the city of Newark NJ, not too far away destroyed itself in 1967. I lived near Newark as a child and I knew that the city was still mostly broken in the late 1980’s. Do you see the parallels?  

OMG, call me a terrible writer but I simply don’t have time in my life to rewrite this article with what I just discovered. In researching the 1967 riots in Newark NJ, I came across this Wikipedia article, Long, hot summer of 1967:

Please read this segment and consider the parallels to today. Yes, it’s a Wikipedia article, and one shouldn’t rely on it. Then ask yourself, how is it incorrect? How is history not repeating itself?


A history of institutionalized unemployment, abusive policing, and poor housing was already present in certain areas of the United States. Riots began to flare up across the country but especially during the summer months. While rioting happened across the country the  Summer of Love  was occurring in hippie communities, and Americans witnessed troop movements in the Vietnam War and in American riots on the nightly news. At the end of July, President Lyndon B. Johnson set up the  Kerner Commission  to investigate the riots, in 1968 they would release a report blaming pervasive societal inequalities in American ghettos for the riots. By September 1967, 83 were dead, thousands injured, tens of millions of dollars in property had been destroyed and entire neighborhoods were burned.[7]


It is in the context of having been through “long, hot, summer” that in December, 1967, Miami police chief Walter E. Headley uttered the now-famous phrase “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” after which  Frank Rizzo,  Richard Daley  and  George Wallace  also spoke out in favor of a  hardline approach towards looters  and rioters.[8]

A poll of Minnesotans asked respondents to gauge the perceived relationship between the riots and the Civil Rights Movement. When asked if there were a connection between the movement and riots, 49% said there was, 38% disagreed. A full 65% thought the riots were planned, rather than just uncontrolled skirmishes. In another poll of Minnesotans, respondents were asked if the cause of the riots was racial discrimination or lawless hoodlums, 32% said racial discrimination while 49% said hoodlums. In a March 1968 Harris poll reported in the Washington Post, 37% of Americans agreed with the Kerner Commission’s report that the 1967 race riots were brought on mainly by inequalities; 49% disagreed. A majority of whites (53%) rejected the idea, with just 35% agreeing. In contrast, 58% of blacks supported it, and only 17% disagreed.[9]

Wikipedia: Long, Hot Summer of 1967

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