The New Bedford civil disorders of July 1970—sometimes called the rebellion by participants, sometimes simply called the riots by local residents—occurred during a summer of ghetto rioting in small cities, with upheavals in nearly a dozen communities in nine states, including Asbury Park, New Jersey; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Lima, Ohio; and Mathis, Texas. By the definitions used in the Kerner Commission Report (1968), the New Bedford violence constituted a serious, even major civil disturbance. During the month, this city of just over 100,000 people, sixty miles south of Boston, witnessed extensive arson, intensive looting, dozens of sniper incidents, and sizeable street crowds confronting local, area, and state police. Although the use of National Guard forces was urged repeatedly by the city government, and a unit at the nearby Fall River armory was placed on alert several days into the events, those forces were never used.
The complaints among the aggrieved in New Bedford, heard from the pulpit, dais, and street corner for years, were similar to those that animated rioting in hundreds of communities between 1963 and 1968: high unemployment, inadequate educational facilities, poor housing, and a shortage of recreation space. The trigger was also familiar: the arrest of a young African American man in the early evening hours of July 8 in the predominantly black West End of town, near the main avenue in that section, Kempton Street. An increasing occurrence in the late 1960s that had generated a ritual inundation of the central police station by family and friends, activists, and community leaders, this time the lid seemed to come off a city long perceived as a backwater in an age of civil rights struggles. The city did have a long tradition of dissent. Religiously tolerant, racially diverse, and socially progressive from its earliest days, it was home to Quakers and Baptists, free people of color (including an especially large fugitive slave community), and a significant abolitionist presence. There were warm-weather youthful skirmishes with police in the sixties, but only with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in April 1968, and the violence paled in comparison to what occurred elsewhere in the country. Generally, New Bedford lived in the shadow of big cities like Boston to the north.
July 8 changed that, at least for the moment. Although spontaneous and initially unorganized, by 1:00 a. m. on July 9, the city witnessed clashes between scores of youth and police and firefighters. There were injuries on both sides, the first of many that month. The young people in the West End built homemade barricades from overturned and burning cars, threw rocks and other debris, started numerous fires, and even began sniping at vehicles moving through the neighborhood, including police vehicles, though no one was shot. On more than one occasion, police drew their guns, though they did not discharge them. Most alarming to some was the common chant from the crowds: Off the pig! and Pigs out of the community.
This was not merely a reflection of what had become common radical parlance; it indicated the presence of the group that had popularized such language, the Black Panther Party (BPP), which everywhere sought to organize and direct such rebellions. Begun in Oakland, California, in the fall of 1966 as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, by 1968 it had cropped the title to denote a political party and simultaneously went national. That summer, a chapter was established in Boston. Two years later, there was no organized Panther presence in New Bedford, but there was organizing activity, spearheaded by ex—gang member and radicalized Vietnam veteran Frank "Parky" Grace. For six months, he had been bringing from Boston newspapers, buttons, posters—and sometimes Panthers, who spoke to gatherings of young people at a teen hangout on Kempton Street they called The Club. Some in the audience would come to identify as Panthers and form the core of the future New Bedford National Committee to Combat Fascism (1970—1971), a Panther front organization, and the New Bedford branch of the BPP (1971 —1972).
But, that part of July 1970 was in the future on the night of July 8. By the time things had calmed in the wee hours of July 9, police had arrested three men in their early twenties, just the initial crop of hundreds arrested during the month. First was Warren Houtman, a militant black, perhaps for driving with a defective car light, perhaps for demonstrating the sound and speed of his souped-up car—eyewitness, police, and press reports conflict, as do memories. Next was Charlie Perry, known for his street-fighting abilities and a good friend of Parky Grace; he would soon become a Panther, too. That night, he was taken in for helping a black girl escape the police in the troubled aftermath of Houtman's arrest. And, finally, there was Jimmy Magnett, arrested, apparently, just for being there. Well known as a fiery voice at local meetings and in the letters-to-the-editor column of the local paper, the Standard Times, Magnett was identified in press reports as the Defense Minister of a veterans group called the Black Brothers Political Party, a group to which Grace also belonged.
The next night, July 9, the violence escalated and spread to the South End of the city, which meant significant involvement of Puerto Ricans and the key element in New Bedford's ethnic and racial mix, the Cape Verdeans. The only substantial African migration to America that was not a forced migration of slaves, the Cape Verdeans came from an island archipelago off Senegal that had been colonized in the fifteenth century by the Portuguese as an outpost of the Atlantic slave trade. The islands soon became an entrepot for trade and labor, attracting people from all over the world. Because of extensive intermixing, the islanders ranged in color from dark-skinned to fair-skinned, some with blue eyes and straight hair. The Cape Verdeans, then, were neither white nor black, Portuguese nor African. They came to New Bedford as early as the late eighteenth century—initially, as part of the whaling industry, later to work in the cranberry bogs and textile mills—and found themselves shunned by so-called white Portuguese as "colored," just as they sought to distance themselves from what they derisively called "Americans de couer'' (Americans of color). But, in the context of the mid - 1960s emergence of black consciousness in America's Negro communities, a younger generation of Cape Verdeans would become "black." And, in New Bedford, the Cape Verdean capital of the United States, the Cape Ver - deans outnumbered Negroes by two to one. They would be a significant constituency for those who sought to widen and deepen the rebellion, but especially for those local Cape Verdeans who identified as Panthers.
Parky Grace and Charlie Perry were both Cape Verdean, although they lived in the West End, which was predominantly West Indian, southern black, and Afro-Indian. Another Cape Verdean and Black Panther, Dickie Duarte, would use a megaphone taken in the looting to proselytize young Cape Verdeans at Monte's Park in the South End. Meanwhile, all sought to build ties to the shrewd organizer who emerged among the Latino population farther south, Ramon "Tito" Morales. With a white man arrested carrying a loaded shotgun near the West End, union construction workers threatening to march on it, and three white radicals from Fall River nabbed for attempted arson in support of the rioters—all in the first couple of days—the mayor, city council, police, and press worried about maintaining control.
By Friday, July 10, a crew from Boston's public broadcasting station was in town filming interviews for the July 16 airing of, Say, Brother!, the first TV show in the country produced for and by black people. On tape, black men in the West End, where the anger on the screen seemed to rise like the steam from the city's sweltering streets, called the events "the awakening of a sleeping giant''; the mayor called the events a "revolt"; a young black called it a "revolution!" And all this before the incident of Saturday, July 11, which turned street violence into a true conflagration. Early that evening, as scores of mostly young people milled about in front of The Club where the Panthers had proselytized local youth earlier in the year, a gray - and-white 1957 Chevy containing three young whites from adjacent towns breached the barricades set up on the first night of trouble, and stopped in the middle of the street. The driver emerged from the car, laid a shotgun across the roof, and fired point-blank into the crowd. Dozens of shotgun pellets sprayed across the torso of seventeen-year-old Lester Lima, from his neck to his navel, riddling both arms and piercing his heart, liver, and intestines. A Cape Verdean from the South End, he was identified in the press as a black teenager. Whisked from the scene in a car by Magnett and others, Lima died shortly after arrival at the local hospital. Three others were seriously wounded by the scattered pellets.
By the first of the following week, in the wake of a dramatic escalation of violence after the shooting, two outside forces intervened. One, whose effect was largely ephemeral, came from the Massachusetts congressional delegation, most importantly in the person of Edward Brooke, the first black Republican U. S. senator since Reconstruction. After touring the riot areas, he appointed an ad hoc committee of local activists to negotiate with the mayor, city council, and police department. More significant for the course of events was the simultaneous arrival of several Boston Panthers, who set up shop—as a branch of the NCCF—in the partially burned and looted remains of a local institution called Pieraccini's Variety on Kempton Street. For the mayor, the council, and the police, they were the quintessential outside agitators, the cause of the trouble.
During the month of July, this headquarters, as Parky Grace and others called it, became a kind of cross-generational community center; the Panthers ran it, but people of varying degrees of politicization came to talk, debate, discover. It also functioned as a kind of on-the-spot liberation school with outdoor classes; the text was usually Quotations from Chairman Mao. Pieraccini's was also a distribution center for Panther literature—leaflets, pamphlets, newspapers, posters. Most crucially, though, for the political and business establishment in New Bedford, the storefront was a fortress, complete with sandbags, gun slots, and a cache of weapons— thanks largely to the expertise of local radicalized Vietnam veterans.
When renewed rioting began in the South End during the week of July 27, after weeks of skirmishing, and especially when the violent winds blew back into the West End, rumors were rife that the city had had enough and intended to raid Pieraccini's to search for illegal weapons. At a press conference on July 30, the Panthers offered to open their doors, as long as their lawyers could be present. The officers came too late. At about 6:00 a. m. on the morning of July 31, a local resident named Stephen Botelho drove to police headquarters to report that he had been shot. While driving home from work on Kempton Street just after passing Pieraccini's, he claimed, a sniper had shot at his car, wounding him in the right ankle. Botelho's report would provide the catalyst for a massive raid by local police, with state police standing by and hovering overhead in helicopters.
Twenty-one people were arrested emerging from or standing outside Pier - accini's that morning, giving birth to what would be known, briefly, as the New Bedford 21. From the beginning and throughout, the group was associated with the Panthers, for Pieraccini's was essentially a Panther building, occupied by several people known to be members of the Boston Panther chapter. Still, some were merely community supporters, some unaffiliated activists, and some complete innocents. In any case, the charges against those arrested were serious: they included conspiracy to commit murder and anarchy, and to incite riot. Moreover, the original total bail was set at well over $1 million. The prisoners were questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which immediately opened a file on the NCCF and all associated with it.
Although the civil disorder itself was not the doing of the Panthers, Boston or local, it was clearly affected by them; moreover, the city establishment, especially the mayor, would see the entire affair as a product of outside agitators. And, although there were skirmishes in August and even, on occasion, the following fall, the July 31 raid did deflate the revolt. Organizing on behalf of the New Bedford 21 was the focus of local Panther activity that fall and winter; just before the trial was to begin in late March, all of the serious charges were dropped. As for the three whites charged in the July 11 killing of Lima and the wounding of the others, an all-white jury, after deliberating for forty-five minutes, voted to acquit on all charges. A few fires were set, but New Bedford did not erupt at the verdict. And it never did again. See also Martin Luther King, Jr., Assassination of (1968); Black Self-Defense; Civil Rights Movement; Police Brutality; Returning Soldiers (World War I).
Further Readings: Feagin, Joe R., and Harlan Hahn. Ghetto Revolts. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973; Fogelson, Robert M. Violence as Protest: A Study of Riots and Ghettos. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1971; Gilje, Paul A. Rioting in America. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996; Kerner, Otto, et al., Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil
Disorders. New York: Bantam Books, 1968; Lazerow, Jama. ''The Black Panthers at the Water's Edge: Oakland, Boston, and the New Bedford 'Riots' of 1970.'' In Jama Lazerow and Yohuru Williams, eds. The Black Panther Party in Historical Perspective. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming.
New Jersey. See Asbury Park (New Jersey) Riot of 1970; Jersey City (New Jersey) Riot of 1964; Newark (New Jersey) Riot of 1967
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