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Roxbury, Quiet in Past, Finally Breaks into Riot; Why Did Violence Occur?

By Jonathan Fuerbringer and Marvin E. Milbauer

Last year a riot was unthinkable to many of Roxbury's residents. This year one happened.

Until June 2, Boston's predominantly Negro section of Roxbury was a peaceful community. In the areas of education, job training and placement, recreation, welfare, sanitation, and housing, its residents were working quietly and steadily through various programs for the improvement of their neighborhood and their lives.

But on June 2 something new happened. Three days of rioting and violence followed a sit-in demonstration by the Mothers for Adequate Welfare (MAW) at the Grove Hall Office in Roxbury.

Most Bostonians were surprised. Boston had been almost unique among Northern cities with large Negro populations in that it had experienced no riots or other serious racial outbreaks. Even last summer when relatively minor incidents triggered violence across the country, Boston and Roxbury weathered problems that elsewhere would have easily provoked violence. Late in the suumer, firemen turned their hoses during two consecutive nights on demonstrators who had built a bonfire to protest inadequate street-cleaning. Not many days later, police shot down an unarmed teenager on Blue Hill Ave. Both times there was talk of riot, but quiet action by the heads of local organizations with the cooperation of the city government headed off violence. One result was a list of promises which the city had slowly been making good.

The events of June 2 began like many other demonstrations. A group of mothers on welfare and their supporters were sitting-in at the local welfare office on Blue Hill Ave. for the third time in eight days. They had demonstrated the previous Friday only to leave in frustration. They had arrived again the day before and stayed overnight without incident. But on June 2, a Friday, the welfare workers wanted to close the office for the weekend, and the mothers' grievances had not yet been considered. Welfare Director Daniel J. Cronin had not come to the office to talk with the mothers. This time MAW decided they would not be put off again.

The demonstrators used bicycle chains to shut the double set of exit doors to the building. Four or five policemen who were stationed inside tried unsuccessfully to cut the chains and called for reinforcements. In the next hour and a half over 30 policemen entered the building through a window, while a large crowd gathered outside. When Welfare Director Cronin arrived after hearing that welfare workers were trapped inside the building, the protestors insisted on speaking to him over loudspeakers through a window. He refused.

Inside the building, the reinforced police rushed the door. James C. Pinney '67, who was with the mothers, said the police were "wielding billy clubs and shouting 'kill'em'" as they tried to break up the group of demonstrators who had gathered in front of the doors. Other policemen clashed with another group, including Pinney, who attempted to join those in front of the door. A third group of policemen broke through the crowd outside to reach the entrance. In the shuffle, police crashed through the glass doors.

In 20 minutes the police had cleared the building. Many of the demonstrators were beaten and thrown into paddy wagons. They were held for several hours and released on bail. They will stand trial on an assortment of charges June 27.

While the police were clearing the building one of the mothers shouted out of a window, "They're beating our people in here." At that point the crowd outside rushed the police, who used billy clubs to push them to the other side of Blue Hill Ave., where they broke windows and threw bricks and bottles. For the rest of the night the crowd faced police along a fifteen-block strip of Blue Hill Ave. Intermittently groups of Negroes charged across the street under a screen of debris thrown at the police. By early morning there were 1000 police, armed with guns, billy clubs, and baseball bats, and about as many demonstrators in the streets of Roxbury. The violence of the evening left Blue Hill Ave. in a shambles. Store fronts were smashed. Apartment windows were broken. Business looted. Two buildings were burned. The next day officials estimated the damage at $500,000.

More Threats

In the midst of the rioting, leaders of Roxbury organizations began meeting with each other and with Police Commissioner Edmund L. McNamara to seek ways of calming the situation, while youths in the street threatened more violence for the coming night.

The meetings with the police and with Mayor John F. Collins continued on Saturday. Community agencies set up a common headquarters at the Operation Exodus office on Blue Hill Ave. At 7 p.m. Kenneth Guscott, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, met with the Mayor at City Hall. It was reported that Collins agreed to limit the number of police in Roxbury, to end the yelling and name-calling by police, and to restrict the use of guns. One proposed meeting between organization leaders and Collins failed to materialize, although the leaders stressed the importance of keeping communication open between the community and the Police Department while the tension continued.

All day Saturday, store owners along Blue Hill Ave. cleaned the debris of the previous night's rioting and boarded up windows in anticipation of further trouble. Local Negro businessmen put signs reading "Soul Brother" on their stores in the hope that rioters would pass them over. The afternoon and evening were relatively quiet as the usual Saturday night crowds gathered in the streets. After sundown, however, small bands of youths began to rove through the area. Unlike Friday night, the action was not centered on Blue Hill Ave., but was scattered throughout Roxbury. Police raced from one incident to another, but their presence only seemed to increase the tension.

At 10:30 p.m. a fire company answered a false alarm--one of the many reported during the night--but this one was special. As the firemen arrived they were pelted with bricks and bottles. Then shots rang out from a rooftop, and one fire lieutenant was shot through the wrist. The sniper was not caught.

As police and bands of youths roamed the streets, other incidents occurred. Several small fires were reported. One 16-year-old boy was struck on the head with a baseball bat. Another man was treated for a knife wound in the chest. Police with bullhorns convinced a group of about 100 to disperse in the only major confrontation.

On Sunday night the violence followed a similar pattern on a smaller scale. By Monday, only a few incidents were reported.

Why did the MAW demonstration of June 2 become the beginning of a weekend of violence, when last year's incidents caused none? There are two possible explanations.

Why the Violence?

The immediate reaction of the Roxbury community was to blame the rioting on the brutality of the police in the face of the large crowd at Grove Hall. Hundreds of people, attracted by the arriving squad cars, had gathered in front of the welfare office before the police began to move. According to men who were outside, the crowd was agitated but peaceful until a mother shouted out the window about the beatings inside. Pinney and John M. Mendeloff '68, who was also inside, reported vicious beatings as the police attempted to clear the building. "The cops suddenly came out wanting to fight, swinging and cursing at the Negroes," they said. One teenager was thrown through a window.

"We just couldn't stand there while our women and children were being brutally beaten," a man who was standing outside declared. Witnesses at the scene insisted that it was the presence of police and their riot equipment that sparked the Negroes to continue the violence. On Saturday night groups of youths waited for police to pass before breaking store windows--without looting the businesses--in defiance.

The Major Issue

The role of the police quickly became the major issue, overshadowing the demands of the welfare mothers and other Negro grievances.

If the alleged brutality of the police, the heat of the night, and the presence of a large crowd ready to be inflamed were sufficient to spark the riot, observers suggested that there was also another less spontaneous element in the rioting. News of the confrontation at the welfare office spread rapidly. Some local activists rushed to Grove Hall to try to calm the situation and curb the police. "If there's one thing you can count on, it is the brutality of Boston cops," one man said afterwards. By Saturday night, however, there was evidence in the scattered pattern of incidents that at least some groups had been thinking about how to exploit the situation.

"Payback"

Small groups of militants seeking nothing more concrete than "payback," or revenge, have been observed in other cities; recently they have begun to appear in Roxbury. Drawn from young men in the street and centered around men with natural leadership abilities, these groups in Roxbury are too small to initiate a riot or extend violence beyond the Negro community, as was reportedly done in Cleveland last summer, but they are well suited to take advantage of a situation once it begins. They were incapable of effective action on the weekend of June 2 because there were too few of them, but they were encouraged to think about future opportunities.

Although few activists in Roxbury are willing to discuss the situation, it seems certain that the violence was almost exclusively precipitated by the actions of the police. Yet the restraint Roxbury residents have shown on previous occasions suggests that the police activity this time was taken very, very seriously. As community agencies, the anti-poverty program, and civil rights news from other parts of the country increase the awareness of Boston Negroes, they become more willing to redress their grievances and less willing to stand by passively in the face of what they consider injustice. The new spirit manifested itself June 2 in MAW's decision not to leave the welfare office before talking to the Welfare Commissioner, and in the resentment and possible scattered planning that moved the crowds to violence.

New Awareness

The events of the weekend may prove to have been a turning point in Roxbury's history. The people have developed a new awareness, and as their problems seem more immediate, they have discovered a new tool with which to gain their goals--violence. Just as the threat of rioting wrong promises from the city government last year, this year's violence has already sparked concessions by the police and an announcement by Mayor Collins that he will review the practices of the Welfare Office.

Right now, the crying issues of welware, housing, sanitation, education, recreation, and jobs have been overshadowed by the immediate question of Roxbury's rapport with the Police Department. For a community that has until now focused on quiet improvement programs and unsustained pressure on the government, the crisis poses a serious problem for the so called leadership.

Moral Leadership

In fact, Roxbury has no real leadership. It has a group of individuals active in various local agencies. Until now, these activists have been roughly divided, at least informally, on whether improvement should be sought through programs--mostly directed at the education and job problems--involving the government and the white community, or through a concerted effort of development by and within the black community in the most constructive spirit of the Black Power concept.

Both of these approaches are fundamentally evolutionary, and their advocates are drawn from Roxbury's very considerable middle class who are often out of contact with the young men on the street. During the weekend of violence, the weakness of all of these activists was demonstrated. All of them, from the moderate NAACP to the Black Muslims, made appeals for calm, via the mass media and out in the crowds. Sometimes they were successful, but the momentum of the situation led towards more violence. The only groups willing or able to move with the momentum were the young militants, who have no constructive program at all.

Because the situation in Roxbury is fundamentally agitated and anarchic, the outlook for the rest of the summer is a troubled one. Certainly, the agencies will continue to meet with each other and the city to find solutions and decrease unrest. The city in turn will have to increase its efforts to satisfy the needs of the Negro community, probably beginning with a review of police practices. There will be an attempt on both sides to redirect interest towards the substantive issues, and a growing interest among Negroes in developing the community as white store owners are residents move out, as many have already indicated they will. Finally, new leaders will win recognition, men like the Rev. James Breeden executive director of the Commission on Church and Race of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, who, with widespread respect and support from both Negroes and whites was able to play a major role in calming the violence.

Roxbury today presents a sad paradox. Boston's Negro community, because of its active middle class, manageable size, community consciousness, and potential economic viabiilty, has long been recognized as having the almost unique prospect of seeing its problems resolved. Roxbury could become a model for the rest of the country in a relatively short period of time.

Unfortunately, this hopeful community has been faced with a chronically unsympathetic, even hostile, government in City Hall, in the School Committee, and in the Boston Housing Authority. Now there is a real possibility that Mrs. Louise Day Hicks, a notorious opponent of the2

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