Racial tensions explode at a Boston high school At least 5, including mayor, are hurt

May 07, 1993|By Boston Globe

BOSTON -- Racial tensions that had smoldered for a week at South Boston High School erupted into a rock-throwing, window-smashing melee that involved more than 200 teen-agers and sent two students, two police officers and Mayor Raymond Flynn to the hospital.

Yesterday's early afternoon brawl, which pitted whites against blacks and all the youths against the police, raged for about 10 minutes around the school, spilling into adjacent Thomas Park.

As police reinforcements poured in, students and neighborhood youths threw fists, bottles, rocks and chunks of asphalt. As officers pushed the black students toward a bus, students who already were aboard kicked out windows.

At one point, as the groups surged toward each other, a white teen-ager climbed atop a car and dived into the crowd. Others stomped on teachers' cars parked against a wrought-iron fence.

Caught in the middle were Flynn and Police Commissioner Francis M. Roache, in the school since morning to defuse the very tensions exploding around them. Mr. Flynn and Mr. Roache were struck by rocks or bottles as they and police in riot gear tried to quiet the crowd.

The racial animosity spilled over into a subsequent meeting of Boston's political leaders in the high school, with two city councilors nearly coming to blows . James Kelly of South Boston, who is white, and Charles Yancey of Dorchester, who is black, argued over who was responsible for the melee, and were pulled apart by Police Superintendent-in-Chief William Bratton .

Like the adults, white and black students blamed each other for the unrest, which had been rumored for a day. Because of the violence, the school was closed today.

The scene at the school was reminiscent of the turbulent early days of school desegregation in September 1974. Although it involved a different generation with different issues, the anger and chanting were as virulent as they were two decades ago.

"What we have is two have-not communities being forced into situations they don't want, losing neighborhood control," said Boyce Slayman, a black community activist and candidate for city councilor. Tensions had been building at the school and in South Boston since an after-school fight recently in Andrew Square and an April 15 attack on a white woman, allegedly by a black man. A recent showing of a documentary on busing by a substitute teacher reportedly riled students even more.

"Let's not go about turning back the clock to days of old," School Superintendent Lois Harrison-Jones implored after the violence ended. "What occurred here was a racial standoff. People were divided by race. And they were divided by race, they said, by what they had heard, not what they had experienced."

Before busing, South Boston High was virtually all white. Now, of 928 students, 37 percent are black, 27 percent are white, 24 percent are Hispanic and 12 percent are Asian.

And until now, there has been little trouble. "We've had a wonderful year," Headmistress Lorraine Hamilton said before the violence.

Three people were arrested in the disturbance, all of them white and only one a student at South Boston High.

William Wallace Jr., 20, and Kevin Watts, 21, both of South Boston, were charged with assault and battery on a police officer, among other charges. A 15-year-old student, also from South Boston, was charged with malicious destruction of property, allegedly for throwing a bottle at a squad car.

"I told them we can't fight over this, it's stupid," Mr. Wallace said after he was released from police custody. The 1991 South Boston High graduate said he went to his alma mater to mediate between the groups.

As he tried to stop a group of whites from rushing black students, Sgt. Det. Edward Doherty was knocked to the ground, allegedly by Mr. Wallace, and knocked unconscious. Sergeant Doherty was treated at Boston City Hospital and released. Detective James Browning caught a rock in the chest and fell to the ground.

Like Detective Browning, a teen-age girl who fainted on the school steps and another girl who was struck in the chest also were treated at the hospital and released.

Mr. Flynn stayed at the school for a series of meetings, then went to a hospital emergency room for treatment of a neck injury. He also was struck on the hand.

Assessing the violence, Mr. Flynn said he would deploy Boston police officers and install metal detectors, if necessary, to keep students safe.

"These kids may be poor and they may not have a lot of options in life, but one thing they're entitled to is an education in a safe learning environment," Mr. Flynn said. "If that includes metal detectors, if that includes police officers in the schools, then that's the way it's going to be."

Students of all races said they sometimes feel unsafe at the school; former School Committee member Peggy Davis-Mullen, who lives nearby, said officials can no longer deny that some students carry weapons. Because of the underlying tone of race, she said "people tend to back up, deny it and turn away."

"I don't blame the black kids as much as I blame the media and the uppity-ups from the suburbs," said one young man who, like various other residents, declined to give his name. "They tell us what to do and what to think, but they wouldn't send their kids to this school."

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