Riot on Hemenway Street: Boston Police Unleashed

     As political events in the spring of 1970 spiraled out of control, I decided to print the Northeastern News daily.

I knew the staff was skilled enough and dedicated enough to make it work. My biggest worry was whether we would have enough newsworthy events to fill four pages every 24 hours. 

     It was a worry that soon vanished when the Boston police unleashed an unprecedented level of violence against students and residents on May 12, 1970, in what became known as the Mother’s Day Massacre. 

     When the semester started, protests escalated against the Vietnam War and violence being waged toward African Americans.  By this time, Northeastern was no longer a conservative campus, but was fully engaged in opposition to the war. In fact, it was leading the way. Political science professor Steve Worth had written a bill that argued President Richard Nixon could not send Massachusetts servicemen to Vietnam because Congress had never passed a formal declaration of war. By March 27, the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the State Senate had voted for the bill and sent it to Gov. Francis Sargent for signature. The next step was a Supreme Court challenge.

     Northeastern students were also heavily involved in planning, with other area college students, a massive, city-wide demonstration on April 15 against the war, coupled with a one-day strike of classes and they were organizing a Bobby Seale Day. Seale was awaiting trial in New Haven, Conn., for murder. Betty Shabazz, wife of the slain Malcolm X, was scheduled to appear that spring as part of Northeastern’s Distinguished Speaker Series.

     Protests on April 15 lead to violent clashes with the police. I covered the confrontations in Harvard Square. As the Doors’ “Come on Baby Light My Fire” blared from Harvard Yard dorms, I found myself being chased by police down the alley behind the Harvard Coop, narrowly escaping with my camera and film intact.

     Then a national tragedy occurred. On May 4, members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of anti-war demonstrators at Kent State University, killing four students. The newspaper picture of a 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, arms raised in anguish, begging for help as she knelt over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller, ignited a visceral response leading to students demanding all universities and colleges close until the war ended. The Northeastern faculty voted almost unanimously to join the strike. On May 8, the News published a Special Strike Edition.

     A series of block parties took place on Hemenway Street over the first weekend of the strike. Residents complained to the police about the noise and the loud music. That Sunday night, the News office was filled with staffers piecing together the first daily strike issue. I was listening to WNEU, the campus radio station, and heard a live report that a large group of police was gathering at the intersection of Hemenway Street and Westland Avenue. Since everyone was busy at that moment, I decided to head over to see what was happening. 

     As I walked the short distance, I was only dimly aware of the police riot that had occurred at Northeastern in February because of the appearance of San Francisco State President S.I. Hayakawa. I wasn’t in school; I was working on my co-op job at the Massachusetts State House. I remember reading an article or two in the Boston Globe. If I had known more, I would have been better prepared for what was about to transpire.

     When I arrived, Hemenway Street was filled with students and other young people. The police — more specifically, the Tactical Police Force, a special unit to quell riots — was indeed assembling at the head of the street. To my eye, they looked at least 100 strong. Then, as if by command, they removed their badges and pulled down their plastic visors. A second later, they charged.

     I was standing next to two Northeastern students who immediately ran toward their apartment and told me to come with them. A Tactical Police officer was right behind us. We flew through the unlocked glass doors of the building and scrambled up four flights of stairs with the officer echoing each of our steps. Somehow, the student opened the door, we fled inside, and he locked the door, just as the officer’s night stick slammed against it, repeatedly. We feared he would shatter the door, but it held. A few moments of silence and he retreated down the stairs. I waited a prudent amount of time, thanked my benefactors, and headed out to the street.

     There was carnage everywhere. Windows and glass doors were smashed. Students and residents were bloodied. I interviewed Mike Mandel, a blind student at the Berklee School of Music, and his wife Elizabeth, both of whom had been beaten (see eyewitness account following). I entered the apartment of a terrified, elderly Austrian couple; the police had shattered their windows and broken their furniture. The couple said it felt like living through the terror of the Gestapo again. I gathered more stories and headed back to the News office. 

     Our first strike edition blanketed the story. We gathered facts and published them — the Northeastern infirmary was filled with dozens of students with broken arms, and lacerations of the head and face. We called for eyewitness accounts. And we editorialized white students now knew what Black Americans had experienced for centuries: that unchecked, the police could be instruments of terror. 

     In the next issue, we published, along with numerous first-person accounts of the riot, a front-page picture of the police charging, taken by Newser Mike Moi. Also on the front page was a boxed statement from Boston Police Supt. William Bradley who said that no policemen had used clubs and that no objective person could say that the police overreacted. We reported that on the following night, 2,500 students, faculty and residents peacefully held a party on Hemenway Street. 

     Finally, we editorialized that Boston newspapers and television stations did not believe our account of what we repeatedly called “a police riot.” Regardless of the details and evidence we presented to them, there was little coverage of these events and no follow up.

     One reporter did believe us, however. J. Anthony Lukas, The New York Times’ Boston correspondent and future winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Common Ground for his study of the city’s busing crisis. On Friday, May 15 the Times published a front-page story which led with the news that at least three official investigations were underway into what one city official described as “the worst case of police overreaction” in recent Boston history. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, the mayor’s Office of Human Rights and the police department itself were studying a flood of citizen complaints about police behavior.

     Lukas’ article included many of the incidents the News had uncovered, along with his own reportage. An example: 

     “During this time, policemen and students were shouting epithets and obscenities at each other. Students concede that they heard their colleagues shout “Pig,” “Power to the people,” and worse at the police. In turn, they say, some policemen shouted, “Kent State got four — we want more,” “If you think Kent State was bad, just wait,” “Marxist Maggots” and “Commies. If we catch you, kid, we’re going to beat your head into jelly.”

     Lukas ended his piece quoting News staffer Myron Burtman, a student at Northeastern’s College of Criminal Justice who had worked for two months on co-op in the Boston Police Department’s Communications and Records Bureau. He said, “There was provocation for clearing the street, but there was absolutely no provocation for the police to enter the buildings or to do what they did after they entered the buildings. This whole experience has just driven home to me the need for professionalization of police. In New York, police standby while construction workers attack kids. Here, police attack kids with animal joy. They weren’t police officers; they were a mob.”

     The months passed. The investigations ground on. Then, in the Feb. 12, 1971, issue of the Northeastern News, Myron reported on the results. The Civil Rights Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office released its report concluding that the police had used “excessive force.” It indicted that “some police officers destroyed property and assaulted people.” But it concluded that there was little possibility of criminal prosecution against the officers involved because, although 99 complaints had been filed, no one could identify any of the officers. (Remember — they removed their badges before they charged.)

     The two other reports reached similar conclusions. All three recommended action be taken against the officers involved. 

None was taken then.

     None ever was.

     A Google search now reveals only Lukas’ article and his follow-up of the investigations. The Mother’s Day Massacre, along with the S.I. Hayakawa riot, have seemingly passed into oblivion.

     But the recent murders of African Americans George Floyd, Tawana Brawley and others, and calls to defund the police, or at least reform them, make these events relevant again. All evidence, past and present, must be weighed when considering how best to move forward to create security in our communities, as well as how to achieve justice and fair treatment for all.

     Hemenway Street Riot Accounts Published in the Northeastern News

Testimony of a Northeastern student

     “At about 12:30 a.m., I entered one of the apartments at 153 Hemenway St. One student was lying on the floor, bleeding profusely from a gash on his right forearm. I helped him out of the room to administer first aid … I returned to the apartment with four others, and we sat in the middle room.

     A couple of minutes later, I heard a lot of yelling, and two students ran in, one into the middle room, the other into a third room, locking the door behind him. I heard a bang; later I learned the police had severed the lock from the door.

     Three policemen raced into the middle room striking at the students and objects in the room. I was struck five times—twice on the left arm, once on the left shoulder blade and once on the right knee.

     As they left the room, I asked, “What the hell are you doing?” One of the policemen replied, “We are doing our job,” and swept everything off the top of a bureau, smashing a couple of bottles. Then they left.”

Testimony of a Northeastern resident assistant:

     “On the night in question, I was standing in front of 153 Hemenway St. observing the disturbances of the evening … I assumed the tactical police were clearing the streets. Many students, including myself, entered the dormitory. I immediately attempted to clear the lobby by telling the students to go to the upper floors of the building.

     “A few moments later, a few members of the tactical police entered the building by smashing several plate-glass windows. Seeing them entering the building and swinging indiscriminately at students and private property, I attempted to seek refuge in the closest door available, which was the apartment of … the assistant director of student housing at Northeastern. Finding the door locked, I turned around and found the tactical force member standing in front of me. In the process of identifying myself as a member of the staff, I was clubbed twice, resulting in needed medical attention. The officers, having found that I was a member of the staff, broke open the door of … the apartment with a nightstick and ordered me inside. There I saw that they had clubbed the assistant director of student housing. His wife and children were there, also.”

Testimony of the Assault on Blind Musician Michael Mandel and his wife Elizabeth Mandel

     “… Around midnight, we stood around the entrance of our building at 110 Gainsborough St. talking with friends and observing the events on Hemenway St. Mike was playing the flute … I could see that the police were marching in formation in our direction.

     ‘Mike had already started up the stairs and our neighbor Peggy and I started up the stairs after him, keeping an eye on the advancing police. I then saw them break rank and start running at full speed in our direction. We then started running ourselves. We got through the first outer door, which was unlocked. We then got through the second outer door which was locked. The three of us were standing at the outside of our apartment door. Mike attempted to get the key in the lock and open the door. As he was doing this, the police broke the windows in the outer doors and burst into our building breaking through the locked outer door. Without any remarks to any of us, six to eight policemen started beating us with clubs as we stood huddled, facing our apartment door …

     “Our backs were to the police at all times, only turning our heads to explain that we lived there. Mike and I each received five blows … When they were through beating us, they immediately left the building, and we got into our apartment and locked the door.

     “… After the streets were empty of police for a few minutes (just over an hour from the beating) … we went to Mass. General Hospital Emergency. Mike was treated for scalp lacerations: six stitches on the top of his head and three stitches over his right eye. I received two stitches to a cut on the back of my head. Also, Mike and I were beaten on both shoulder blades, the top of my thigh and my left arm.”