Forty-Nine Years and More of the Story Emerges on the Springfield Riot

Source: Instagram #scspirituallife #springfieldcollege

Springfield     Before the showing of “The Organizer,” the organizers of the screening and Q&A has put together a small dinner for some of the professors and their star students.  As people put away their plates, Rick Paar, a Springfield College psychology professor, said that since I was there he wanted to tell the story of how I got him arrested almost 49 years ago.  I was all ears.  I knew that about 50 members of the Springfield College Black Students Union had gotten arrested for joining the welfare rights members after they had voted for the students to leave and for the police to arrest them, but I didn’t really appreciate that the rush of the police into the demonstrators might have caught some other white supporters as well.

Paar told the story from the perspective of a 19-year old Springfield College student caught in the drama of the day.  He had been at the Vietnam Moratorium Day rally in downtown Springfield that day in Court Square, and like many others, including the students of all four area high schools that were then built cheek to jowl at the bottom of the hill.  At the time there was a bus strike so everyone was making their way up the hill.  At the top was the Springfield Welfare office housed in a former supermarket in this largely African-American neighborhood across from Springfield College.  Paar mentioned having heard Barbara Rivera, the chair of the North End WRO, our delegate to the rally, speak about ending the war on the poor as well, and call for support for our demonstration and sit-in at the welfare office.  The confluence of all of these events, coupled with the police action, was combustible, and a riot broke out.

Long and short, he was caught in the sweep with some of his buddies from school by the police.  He told about the bottles flying, which I also remember clearly from my trip to jail.  He felt safer in the paddy wagon.  In a side bar he mentioned seeing his father, who was then a college professor, trying to pull a coat over his head while he let air out of the tires.  Eventually, we all ended up in the York Street jail, which is now where the NBA Hall of Fame is located after the jail was demolished.  My friend, Dan Russell, mentioned I can now say I was in the Hall of Fame.

Anyway, Steve Bardidge, the MWRO lawyer, had always told me he was able to negotiate my arrest down from an inciting to riot charge to simple a nolo contendere plea on simple protest with a 2-year probation because he was able to get me packaged into a deal being demanded by an influential Springfield College professor who was trying to spring his son.   Now, almost 49 years later, I discover that was Rick Paar’s father.

He ended the story before the documentary began, saying “You can thank me now, Wade.”  And, I did, and here it is again, “Thanks, Rick!”  Better late than never.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Remembering Springfield Years Later

Springfield   I haven’t been back in Springfield, Massachusetts since 2009.  Driving from the airport in Hartford, nothing looked that different at 1 AM in the morning, but that’s pretty faint praise.  The Basketball Hall of Fame is prominently located along the expressway.  Mass Mutual Insurance company is still large enough to have its old highway sign, as is Springfield College.

I’ll be at Springfield College this evening to answer whatever questions students and others might have, pro or con, after watching “The Organizer.”  Today, I sing for my supper by working three classes on everything from social movements to the value of volunteers to how music is used in protests, and then I have dinner with some of the profs and the student stars.  I lugged 50 pounds worth of my new book, Nuts & Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing,up with me.  It’ll be fun!

Compared to my last visit almost ten years ago, this schedule seems like a walk in the park.  Last time I spoke on campus there was more drama.  This was the heyday of the Tea Party surge in the wake of the Obama election.  They were still galvanized in their anger.  They picketed outside of the auditorium where I was speaking.  Some of the signs protested the election.  Some were racist, which Tea people organized apologized for later.  Local activists organized a counter protest to support ACORN and organizing, which was quite an honor in its own way.  Several Tea Party leaders tried to disrupt in the question and answer period after my remarks.  It was all pretty tame, but titillating for some of the students and professors to be a part of the controversy.

This time will be interesting in a different way.  The documentary has good archival footage of the Springfield riots that broke out October 15, 1969, almost 49 years ago in the wake of welfare rights demonstrations I had organized where the members demanded winter coats for recipients.  The quality of the great leaders of Springfield WRO comes through in the documentary with clips of Barbara Rivera, Carmen Rivera, and Simone St. Jacque.  The welfare officials refused to cave in as hundreds of welfare rights members sat in the office at the top of the Hill, as it was called.   There was a bus strike so students were walking back up the hill and watching the police wagons and cars surround the center.  It was Vietnam Moratorium day and Barbara had spoken at the rally in Court Square.  Fifty students from Springfield College’s Black Student Union joined the sit-in at the welfare office.  All hell broke loose.

I will be very interested in the questions students ask as they watch their alumni on the screen, and what they will note about how things have changed.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail