On Oct 31, 1979, Darrell Walker, a 17-year old African American youth, was shot by two Orange police officers. Walker had led the officers on a car chase after running a stop sign. The chase ended when Walker lost control of the car and hot a tree. As police officers Richard Conte and Ronald Martin approached the disabled car, Walker supposedly “reached for something shiny,” at which point the officers fired their weapons and shot the youth five times. They then handcuffed his lifeless body to an ambulance gurney for transport to East Orange General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead (Orange Transcript 11-8-79-1).
This shooting touched off a week long protest in the city against police violence. More than 800 people rallied in front of city hall, where Rev. Russell White delivered a powerful speech saying “we are just insignificant people, but we’ll boycott every business along Main Street. And when we just stop spending our insignificant dollars in the City of Orange, the City of Orange will become insignificant overnight” (Orange Transcript 11-8-79-1). Protest leaders then stormed and occupied the Mayor’s office for 3 days.
After County and State grand juries failed to indict the officers for the shooting the African American community nearly rioted. It was only the work of leaders like Rev White and Rev Buster Soaries that calmed tensions. Nevertheless, residents made their sentiments clear in letters to the Orange Transcript. Farid Saunders wrote “Suppose Walker had been a white youth in [suburban] Milburn or Short Hills and ‘fleeing the police’ . . . not even the tires of his car would have been shot at!” Rev. Soaries declared that “laws facilitate, but they cannot reconciliate. You can change laws, but you cannot change what exists in a man’s heart.” And powerfully, an anonymous letter reported “We as black people are in a life and death struggle for survival. We are locked in a mortal combat with our oppressors.” This writer concluded “my frustration was summed up by an old man [after the Walker shooting protests]. He said ‘I’ll see you at the next one.’ Ominous words” (Orange Transcript 11-21-79-4).