A city ablaze 40 years before George Floyd

The city was ablaze.

A stabbing incident in a troubled part of Holyoke led to an immediate police response. They descended upon The Flats, trawling block after block in squad cars. One patrol stopped and roughed up a suspect in a public show of aggression. The cops called it reasonable restraint. Neighbors called it a beating. The city erupted.

The incident was viewed by the Hispanic community as an outright assault on their rights, a racist, heavy-handed response to an incident that, while worthy of police intervention, had gained more attention because it involved people of color in a part of the city that white Holyoke avoided, populated by people the mayor liked to refer to as “CooCoo Ricans”. What might have been a “stop and question” item in the police log created a spark that ignited a fire that burned for weeks.

 Rocks were thrown – at buildings, at passing cars, at police cars on patrol. Piles of trash and tires were set on fire. Then, a patrol car was stopped by an angry mob and set afire as the officers fled for safety.

The mayor responded with a lockdown. He sequestered The Flats – a collection of brick tenements that housed a good portion of the city’s poor and Hispanic population, and instituted a curfew to stem violence that tended to be more pronounced after the sun went down. Tension spread to the high school, and police were called to keep the peace. Classes were suspended.

Life was on hold in The Flats, which stretched just below the city’s High Street, Holyoke’s major shopping street and home to City Hall, District Court and dozens of businesses, community organizations and services. Piles of ash and smoldering 50-gallon oil drums spewed noxious fumes into the neighborhood as people hurriedly made their way to and from work, and then hid from the troubles at night.

Scenes of unrest in Minnesota and elsewhere in the wake of George Floyd’s murder – what else could a reasonable person call it – sparked memories of that hot summer in Holyoke. It was 1980 or 1981, and I was a young reporter at the now-defunct Holyoke Transcript-Telegram. We reporters knew Holyoke cops as well as anyone, and most of them were even-tempered, fair, hard working; decent men and women. The actions of a few hotheads on the force, though, led to an unforgettable summer of tension, hostility, and racial discord.

We also knew members of the Hispanic community, some of them well. We played softball with them on sultry summer nights, and traded harmless barbs with them after games over beers at one of Holyoke’s dingy watering holes. One of them, a talented boxer named Jose, whose last name I am embarrassed to admit I cannot recall, was a helluva guy by any standard: family man, hard worker, an advocate for civil rights, and a positive, guiding hand to the fiery young men of the Flats who were always looking for a fight to let off steam and address the list of troubles in their lives.

I lived blocks away from The Flats but felt none of the heat from the fires, or pressure from the effects of the curfew. And from our lofty perch overlooking the city from the sprawling newspaper office on Whiting Farms Road, we could see the smoke from the fires and hear the sirens, but felt none of the tension.

After dark, The Flats were off limits.

My buddy Rick Mosey and I, after a leisurely dinner at The Golden Lemon (owned, ironically, by the publisher of the T-T, Bill Dwight), decided someone needed to get a sense of what people were thinking in the flats. We wanted to know what really happened, to hear their side of the story, and to learn what it felt like to be an oppressed minority whose neighborhood was all but under martial law.

So, after several nerve-strengthening drinks and plates of chicken piccata, we defied the curfew and headed on foot into The Flats. We dodged from doorway to alley, keeping a lookout for patrolling police cars, and eventually found our way into a dodgy bar not far from where the stabbing had taken place.

Over cold long-necked beers we talked to patrons and the bartender, prodding them to share their perspective on the events.  Mostly they shrugged off the knife fight – just another conflict in a tense, poor neighborhood – and focused on the brutality of the city’s response. That’s when they exhibited outrage, fear and anger.

We left after awhile in search of more people to talk to, more stories with more details, blind to the fact that a neighborhood on lockdown wouldn’t be rich with opportunities for a casual chat on a street corner.

We also failed to correctly estimate the efficiency of Holyoke’s finest, who soon shone a bright spotlight on two mildly inebriated white reporters standing on a litter-strewn sidewalk along a deserted street. We were escorted into the patrol car, and then to the police station, where we were briefly questioned and then released.

The next day we took a verbal beating from the newspaper’s management – even affable publisher Dwight, who normally kept out of newsroom affairs – weighed in with a stern rebuke. We’d ventured out without an assignment, off our regular beats, and without approval or even awareness from management.

It seemed like classic rogue reporter behavior to us: better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Besides, our motives had been pure: we simply wanted to get to the core of the conflict, and we felt the newspaper’s efforts thus far had fallen short. To get to the story you must go to the story, we believed.

So we had.

We were not charged in the incident, and were not punished by the newspaper owners. We didn’t even write about what we’d learned – to be fair, there wasn’t enough substance to warrant a credible news article. But we’d heard the complaints, fears and angst of a community under immense pressure. We’d seen the tension, worry and anger in their eyes, and it left an impression.

Racial tensions do not subside. Left unaddressed, as they had been in Holyoke, they lay dormant, waiting for a trigger to cause them to explode.

George Floyd’s murder caused me to remember that time in Holyoke. It led me to think about the thousands of people huddled in hot apartments, waiting for dawn to come to grant them a slice of freedom their lives seldom knew. It made me recall their plight: working-class poor, struggling to give their families a chance with a deck stacked against them because of the color of the skin, the food they cooked, the languages they spoke.

And it made me think of how little has changed, what little progress we have made, and what a sad, pathetic tragedy it is that in 40 long years the most powerful nation on earth remains unable to systemically grant a slice of success to those furthest removed from our nation’s opportunities, security, and peace.

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