Off the Town Another Riot?

FIVE HUNDRED people stood around in the Square for two hours last Friday night before police finally swept in and dispersed them. Windows were broken small fires were set, people were injured. No arrests were made. By midnight everything was back to normal on Mass Ave as a slightly heavier than usual stream of cars and pedestrians recaptured the streets. The Record American called it a riot-but the Globe refused to characterize it. For those who missed it, the "disturbance" may sound like a replay of April 15, but for those who were there, it was a confusing truly weird event.

Certainly few parallels exist between the nights of April 15 and May 8. There was only sporadic trashing, performed more out of a sense of obligation than real purpose, and even that destruction was curtailed by the strong opposition of at least half of the crowd in the Square. There were no leaders, no slogans, no targets. Radicals joined with the medics, legal ends, and marshals who were urging the crowd to disperse: those who refused to leave did so passively in anticipation of the excitement.

The evident lack of political focus can be partially explained by the crowd's confused itinerary for that evening. The motley collection of high school kids, street people, and students who persisted in holding the Square Friday night had begun the evening with the vague intention of burning down Shannon Hall, headquarters for Harvard ROTC. There is no evidence that they felt strongly about Shannon Half in particular indeed, most of them had little idea where it was SDS, which had originally planned a march to Shannon Hall after the rally, had canceled the march in a meeting Thursday night. Only a handful of SDS-ers were in the crowd, hardly playing a leadership role. Instead, the disorganized crowd seemend to be a truly spontaneous assembly of unaffiliated kids with one or two hazy affinity groups identified by their helmets and long, pointed stakes.

When the crowd finally reached Shannon Hall, it found a dozen Harvard policemen lined up in front of the building and busloads of state troopers encamped a block away. So the crowd stood in the parking lot for 20 minutes in an uneasy quiet punctuated occasionally by a rock or skirmish. With hundreds of cops just seconds away, the strategy of attacking the building seemed dubious at best and the suspense was finally broken when a cry went up for the CFIA.

Few knew what or where the CFIA was. The crowd obediently turned to retrace its steps down Divinity Ave., but bypassed the CFIA with only minor trashing. The momentum was carrying people back to the Square where the geography was more familiar and the scenario more established.

Nearly everyone-potential rioters and marshals alike-was surprised when the expected trashing did not begin. Instead, a new pattern developed in which medics, legal aids, and student marshals filtered through the streets, urging people to leave, while groups of kids roamed the Square waiting for the explosion. The police had agreed to give the marshals time to disperse the crowd themselves, and the students worked incessantly to thin out the crowd.

AFTER ALMOST two hours this pseudo riot ended. The police, who had been ready since early evening, marched into the Square, occupied Mass Ave, and in a series of familiar maneuvers, effectively dispersed the crowd. The kids had held the Square for two hours, trashed some stores (including Krackerjacks, prudently closed down for the strike), and finally forced the police to clear them out.

Whatever happened Friday night does not seem to fit into a coherent political analysis, and the temptation is to brand it with all the epithets reserved for aimless violence. But the composition of the crowd-high school kids and street people-does re-inforce a notion that gained strength with the April 15 riot: These people are willing and ready to defy cops-and on vaguely political grounds. They may be stupid about it: but they want action, not talk. Not a startling conclusion, perhaps, but we would do well to remember that in Berkeley and Santa Barbara it has been these people, not students, who have fought cops most violently. If the traditional migration of trends holds true as it has in the past, this will not be the last we will see of these battles.