Past and Power: 1967, Edie Grauer, Aferro Publication No. 33

It’s National Brotherhood Week (1) , 1967 in Newark, New Jersey.  Just five months before the Newark Rebellion, which was sparked by the brutal police beating of Black cab driver John Smith. Although National Brotherhood Week was a mid-February celebration to combat hatred and intolerance, it takes on special significance here.

My mother, Gladys Barker Grauer, is home preparing dinner for the family. Her husband – my father, Solomon Grauer, a union organizer, won’t be home until sometime later; he’s leading a strike of primarily Black and Latinx female low-paid hospital workers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark. Sol was no novice at protest and social action; him and Gladys first became acquainted through protest activities in NYC and involvement with the Socialist Worker’s Party fighting for civil rights. The phone rings and one of his co-organizers informs Gladys that her husband is being taken to the emergency room. The police beat him in the head with a billy club. No, they don’t know how badly he’s hurt, but he’s conscious and still cursing, so he’s alive. Gladys goes to the living room and turns the TV to the 6 o’clock news, where me, her, and my three siblings see news footage of my father, head bleeding, being thrown down the stairs of Newark City Hall by Newark police.  He’s tumbling down the steep flight of stairs from the force of the officers shoving him, and blood is covering his head and dripping down his face. It’s 1967 so there’s no such thing as a cell phone to try to speak with him and find out the extent of his injuries. Gladys tries to stay calm for her children, but we too have already witnessed the police attack on our father. She tells us what she thinks we need to hear — that he’s going to be okay and will be home before the night is out. She pushes back her own emotions — her fear, anger, sadness, and tries to act as if she’s okay and everything else will be as well. She finishes preparing dinner and we sit at the dinner table asking about our father; the three-year-old asks why the police beat daddy; Gladys is either unable or unwilling to verbalize a response. His older siblings tell him it’s because they’re pigs.

Hours later Sol finally returns home, head wrapped in bloody bandages covering dozens of stitches endured to close the huge gashes in his head. We children are running to see how he is; he removes the bandages and his head looks like Herman Munster, but patches of hair missing where the ER nurse shaved it off so his wounds could be cleaned and stitched closed.  He smokes, paces and rants about the police and what they did and we listen intently.  Local 1199 Union organizers led striking workers on a march to Newark City Hall, intent on meeting with then mayor Hugh Addonizio to discuss him meeting the demands of the workers. St. Michael’s Hospital at that time was owned by the City of Newark. Mayor Addonizio refused to meet with union leaders and they were prevented from entering City Hall by a line of blue outside and inside of the revolving door entrance to the building. Finally, union leaders are told the mayor will meet with them.  They go into the revolving door, and as it gets to the inside of the building, instead of being allowed to step out, police officers shove them one by one back through the doors and awaiting officers, who raise their billy clubs, beat them over the head and throw them down City Hall stairs splitting heads open.

Gladys Barker Grauer, wife, mother of four children, and artist is angry and helpless to do anything about it. The children are ages three, eight, ten and thirteen and she doesn’t know what to say; she is trying to process it all for herself. Perhaps too painful and too much anger. She doesn’t speak much about it, her husband goes right back to work, her children want to check his head every day and although the cuts eventually heal, the stitches removed, and the hair grows back, the trauma remains.  It’s the trauma beset on people of African descent and supportive whites for centuries by white supremacist violence, torture, and public punishment and humiliation intended to set an example for those who dare to speak out, seek freedom, and challenge injustices. Often targeting enslaved Blacks who dared to escape for freedom and unfortunately be caught; being a Black person in a white neighborhood after dark; being a person of any race working to register Black people in the South to vote; or in this case, her white husband fighting to secure a living wage and benefits for hospital workers who were mostly people of color, mothers, fathers, deserving workers.

Gladys spoke out in the way she knew best and most powerfully, with paint brush and canvas as voice, speaking loudly, strong and unapologetically. Her outlet to memorialize and publicize the violence and abuses of police and the accompanying and supportive racist injustice system. First was the pencil sketch of an octopus wearing a police hat with badge affixed; each of its eight arms holding a billy club.  Her husband and other union representatives, some bloodied and scattered down City Hall steps, others being beaten in the head as they were being shoved out of the door, the front view of Newark City Hall and its revolving door entrance. Juxtapositioned against this scene of police violence and human indifference was a banner across the front of the entrance that read “National Brotherhood Week”! 

Over days, weeks, months, little by little colors took hold, more details took shape; the octopus was now Caucasian-colored. It were as if Gladys was laying on the proverbial psychiatrists’ couch each week, enduring regular flashbacks of the assault, pouring her raw emotions out through the tip of her paintbrush, thoughtfully and carefully mulling over every detail and nuance, as if to be sure the judge and jury got the full scope of the assaults and the impact so that upon a judgement of guilt, the punishment meted out could be befitting of the crime. That painting hung in our family room and spoke my mother’s outrage for years.

This is my recollection of Gladys Barker Grauer’s first piece of artwork on the subject of police violence, and it was hardly her last. The year nineteen hundred sixty-seven; 1967; fifty-three years ago. It was personal, cathartic, empowering, and the beginning of her critical analysis, public shaming, and awareness-raising of police abuses, brutality and violence, and subsequent injustice and racism rampant in American courts.  Gladys ‘spoke’ to events that affected her and those she cared about — her family; her local and broader community; Black folks; and other people of color who are marginalized and targeted in myriad ways. 

That was her first of many, and sadly there were – and continue to be – a plethora of brutal and senseless attacks, killings and injustices perpetrated by police. One of her subjects was the 1983 murder of Michael Stewart by NYC police.  Mr. Stewart was accused of writing grafitti on a subway station wall; his real crime was being a young Black male – a death sentence at the hands of police. Gladys deeply felt the 1984 murder of Eleanor Bumpurs, a Black disabled woman in her late sixties who refused to leave her apartment when police came to remove her per a court eviction order.  When Ms. Bumpurs refused to open her door for police broke in, grabbed her, and one of the officers shot her to death with a twelve-gauge shotgun. Gladys’ painting shows Ms. Bumpurs laying on the floor of her home, bloodied with holes straight through her body. 

She created woven paintings of Mumia Abu Jamal, a Black man falsely accused and convicted in 1982 of killing a Philadelphia police officer, and then sentenced to death; and of Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist wrongfully convicted in 1977 of killing two FBI agents.  Each of their portraits are framed with prison bars and painted on woven plastic bags, simply stating “Free Mumia Abu Jamal” and “Free Leonard Peltier”. These two pieces of my mother’s artwork were the center of a federal lawsuit she filed and won in 2008 against The County of Morris for violating her First Amendment rights by removing these from a public art exhibit because the county prosecutor was ‘offended’ by them. (2)

Gladys’ weaving in 2014 titled “Killed by Law Enforcement” is a sea of headstones with the names, ages at death and towns of people – mostly young Black males – killed by police in New Jersey. She was inspired to create this piece by a book titled “Stolen Lives: Killed by Law Enforcement”(3), that includes over two thousand people, mostly killed in the mid to late 1990’s, who were victims of police brutality and murder throughout the United States. Gladys ‘said their names’. She was moved by the stories – all verified – of senseless killings by police and the disregard for these precious human lives who mattered to their families, friends and communities.

Her 2015 piece titled “Justice” depicts the inequities of the justice system, particularly for Black males.  She tackled this issue in an earlier painting she did that includes many important cases involving African-Americans, injustice, and the scales of justice being imbalanced against us. Her painting, “NAACP Legal Defense Funds, circa 1980’s depicts some of the most notable landmark cases handled by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund concerning lynchings, racial segregation in education, the right to self-defense for Blacks, and racial hate motivated prosecutions. “Wanted Dead or Alive” is a painting that includes Assata Shakur, Joanne Little and Angela Davis, Among Gladys’ other subjects are the murder of Trayvon Martin; Harriet Tubman; and racist vigilante Bernard Goetz. 

My mom’s death a year ago leaves me wondering what she would now be speaking and creating if she were here to witness the worldwide outrage, protests, response and discourse to the most recent police brutality and murders. She chronicled and exposed a lot of these incidents for over half a century. She left footsteps to be filled.

Edie Grauer is a social worker and anti-racist trainer-organizer living in Central Jersey. Past and Power: 1967 is Aferro Publication No. 33

[1] See Whatever became of National Brotherhood Week, 2/21/2018

[2]  Ragonese, L. (2008), February 2). Art hangs in Morristown, as censorship issue fades. The Star Ledger; and

[3] The Stolen Lives Project, Stolen Lives: killed by law enforcement, Second Edition, 1999.