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

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.