In June, 2020 two large #Black Lives Matter marches met in Hartford –one from the south end and one from the north. I was struck by another civil rights event in the city, fifty three years earlier. How much have we really changed?
This year millions of people are demanding justice for George Floyd and all victims of police violence, as well as for fundamental transformation of policing. They are exposing the government’s blind eye to racism, which fosters inequality and inevitably results in brutality and death for black people. Today’s multi-racial crowds create a new urgency, forcing us to face the deadly and deeply ingrained flaws in our country’s economic and political systems.
But on September 18,1967, two other marches were on a collision course. The newly formed Black Caucus began an “Open Housing” march from Hartford’s north end, determined to reach the segregated south end. Just days earlier, they crowded the police station to protest the shooting of a black youth. This night, about 150 black people, along with a number of Puerto Ricans and whites, intended to highlight housing segregation.
At the other end of the city, 300 angry people— all white— were ready to stop the marchers by force. The white crowd was motivated by fear and prejudice. They condemned the conditions of poor north end neighborhoods, but they refused to sell or rent to inquiring black families.
The Hartford police stopped the Black Caucus at the edge of downtown. Caucus leader John Barber and the other marchers were angry, but they had maintained their own discipline. When a few people threw rocks and bottles, the police went on a rampage.
They arrested and injured many, including the pacifists from Voluntown’s Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA) and the progressive American Independent Movement (AIM). Their presence underlined the nonviolent intent of the march.
The police, wearing their riot helmets, carrying batons, and using tear gas, were clearly prepared to shut the march down. Only three of the thirty marchers were charged with throwing bottles. Many were charged with “loitering.”
One marcher was given 90 days for breach of peace, the catch-all charge frequently used by police when no specific crime can stick. One CNVA participant was hospitalized for eight days from an injury she received during her arrest. An AIM member reported that police applied pain holds: twisting wrists, jamming fingers back, pulling hair. (We know more about the white supporters’ injuries because the press ignored the results of the police attacks on black and Puerto Rican protestors.)
The police response to the white south end crowd was substantially different. While the Black Caucus had no idea what was waiting for them, the police kept the whites informed of the civil rights march every step of the way, When police attacked and dispersed the Black Caucus, the white crowd cheered.
The Black Caucus organized a second march on September 28, this time to Constitution Plaza. The new structure had recently opened; city officials and local business leaders were swooning over their achievement. But the Plaza had destroyed the Front Street neighborhood, eliminating almost one hundred small businesses and leaving 1400 families homeless. Jobs and housing were precisely what Hartford civil rights leaders had been advocating for years.
The Plaza was “Mammon,” according to John Barber, “the white power structure’s God.” The Plaza rose at the expense of “the sweat of our labor and poor whites,” Barber told 100 protestors. He blamed Hartford’s insurance companies, banks, and corporations for the “discrimination and exploitation” their community faced.
On Friday, September 29th, the Black Caucus and supporters tried once more and this time reached its objective. They marched to Barry Square in the south end. Stories persist to this day of white snipers watching from building roofs. There were some hecklers in the south end crowd, but no violence that night.
“It isn’t that we want to move into the south end, it’s just that we want to show that we should not be bottled up in the ghetto,” John Barber told the crowd.
Now, a half-century after those tense nights, cops still brutalize black and brown folks, protecting a system of white privilege. Budget priorities still starve poor communities. But the voices for justice echo from those who came before, and if anything, they are getting louder.