48 YEARS AGO THIS MORNING

 

48 years ago this morning, at just this hour, 6:30 am in Baltimore, I walked outside the Eastern District Police Station to get a breath of fresh air, and even the pungent smell of smoke and the sound of multiple sirens—with the distinctive sounds of fire engines, ambulances and police cruisers clear—was even an improvement over the stifling heat and constant noise inside.

 

Four days previous, on Thursday April 4, Dr. King had been assassinated in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel.  We had gone through a nervous day on Friday and I had attended three different meetings with my boss Charles Moylan the State’s Attorney of Baltimore, his Chief Deputy George Helinski, and my good friend Chief of Trials Howard Cardin concerning precautions against uprisings.  We went to mayor Tommy D’Alesandro’s office, the Police Commissioner’s office (colonel Donald Pomeleau), and to the Attorney General’s office (Frances Burch) and heard plans for mobilizing forces if it became necessary.  Governor Spiro Agnew had put the National Guard under Adjutant General Gelston and 500 state policeman on alert and standby.  My boss had gone to other meetings with the Chief Judge of the Municipal Court, Sewell Lamdin and the City Solicitor George Russell regarding a prosecutor’s response to mass arrests.  In Maryland, one arrested had to appear before a Municipal Court judge within a few hours for his initial appearance, and the specter of mass arrests had to be considered.

 

But, Friday went well, but uneasy.  A memorial service was held at noon and about 3 or 400 people attended as I remember.  My friends Bobby Fertitta and Howard Cardin and I went down there at Charley’s request and we saw nothing that would tell us that hell on the streets would break out on the week-end.

 

By Saturday morning full scale rioting was occurring in Washington DC just less than 50 miles down the highway, but no signs of that kind of violence in Baltimore.  I was to paint the new nursery for son Andrew who was just less than one year old, so around noon on Saturday Lodice and Andrew and I went to Sears on North Avenue at Harford Road to  get paint.  We had lunch at a favorite crab cake place near there and I saw no evidence of trouble, even though it was well in the center of a Black community in East Baltimore.

 

Later into the evening, I was still painting and listening to the radio broadcasts from around the nation as riots broke out in city after city.  Then, Eddie Fenton of the CBS radio station in Baltimore came on with a bulletin that arrests had been made in the Eastern and Western Police Districts in Baltimore for rock throwing attacks and broken windows.  At about 7 pm Charley called and asked me to get ready to be at the Eastern District Police station the next morning to take over handling early arrests; he said the Eastern had the most action right then and he would get me two or three assistants to help move the cases.  We talked about how to handle the arrests, realizing that paper work might be scarce if a riot actually began.  H said he would get back to me.  Just before midnight he called again, he had just been in a meeting at the Command center that had been established by the Police and State Police.  He said the Eastern jail holding cells were already full so I needed to be there at 7am the next morning to get things lined up—a judge would be there by 8:30 am to start initial appearances, so arrestees could be moved on to the city jail.  I asked if my car would be safe over at Eastern and he said a police car would pick me up.

 

So, at 6:30 am on Palm Sunday, a police cruiser from Eastern picked me up, and the officers told me en route that it was like a “war zone” near the station house.  Both had served in Viet Nam, so knew what the term meant.  As we drove across the high ground on the North end of the city, I could see plumes of smoke rising in at least twenty places in the District.  The police scanner crackled with calls for assistance, fires breaking out, people down and hurt.  Three people were already dead, and all the plate glass windows had been broken out of the Sears store we had been in at noon the day before.  The store had been looted and firebombs had exploded within it and throughout the block around it.  The crab cake place had been ransacked and nearly destroyed.

 

When we pulled into the station yard, it looked like a military compound from the movies—–officers in riot gear, defendants being shuffled around in shackles, and an overpowering rumble of noise, the old familiar “ummmmmmm  ummmmmmmmmm” that was present whenever a large group was unhappy, and that was pierced with screams and yells.

 

I met with Judge Broccolino to set our path for the morning.  At that point all the defendants were “papered” and the officers in charge had the paper work even if the arresting officers were out on the street.  So, we decided that we would proceed on the paper work, if the offense was just a curfew violation ( the sundown curfew had been imposed the night before) and there was no officer present, the defendant would have a date set for appearance and released.  If the charge was violence or any action misdemeanor based the defendant would be bound over for preliminary hearing, a bail would be set and in lieu of bail he would be sent to the city jail.  We expected we could have the holding cells emptied in a couple of hours.  And we did.  But we could never get them emptied because there more arrestees coming in than we could handle in court.

 

At about 9:30 am I called Lodice and asked her to please not go to Mass at our regular church, it was too close to the Eastern, to please just go to the church right up our street at York and Belvedere roads in North Baltimore. She asked about dinner and I said I should be able to be home by 3 when she had planned.  I also asked her to have our friends the Winchesters to take a cab that I would pay for rather than she pick them up as planned.  They lived too near the action going on over in the Western District.

 

By 1:00 pm it was clear I was going nowhere for dinner.  Charley had sent reinforcements, but it was now taking four of us to keep up with the masses being brought in.  And, now often the papers showing the charge and place of violation were not getting to  the station with the arrestees.  So, we were handling cases blindly—gathering what hearsay we could from other officers in the station, and bluffing the arrestees in order to try to get from them what they had done.  Our goal by that time was to keep them moving out of the station house and to the city jail to keep the holding cells available for new arrests.

 

By 5:00 pm we were on our third judge, our fifth chili dog courtesy of the wives of police officers and our seventh gallon of coffee and cokes.  And, the arrestees were more than ever before during the day.  Things got worse and worse until about midnight when we caught up, and had only three defendants in the cells.  I thought maybe I was just a little while from going home for awhile at least.  I had kept up with the news about our neighborhood through the officers and knew that so far there was nothing amiss in north Baltimore.  But, neighbors had taken in Lodice and Andrew and Peg and Foxie Winchester, and the neighborhood had kind of bunkered in.  Mr. Deller had gotten out his old handgun, said the bullets were green but they would be useful maybe in giving someone gangrene if he had to shoot. I laughed maybe for the first time, although as the next few days unfolded, it became survival mode to make humor out of not funny things.

 

Just about the time I was talking to the newly arrived judge about leaving the job to the younger assistants who had arrived, Charley called and said he needed to send me to the Western District where massive arrests had just taken place after a killing and five firebombs had exploded. He said the National Guard was now fully deployed and in charge and federal military had been brought or was about to be brought in from North Carolina, special troops trained in riot control.  So, off I went in a police car to take over at Western where I was joined by a good, solid hand in Steve Harris one of my favorite comrades.  When we got within a block of the station house, a rock or something hard hit the windshield and cracked it and another hit the window next to me and broke it through, scratching my cheek as the rock came through.  And, as we pulled into the lot, I saw two military tanks standing at the gate to the lot where a large crowd of very angry people stood yelling and waving their arms.

At 2:00 am I walked into that station house where the cells had long been jammed and now handcuffed, shackled people sat on the floors, some bandaged and bleeding.  A judge had just arrived, I told him how we had handled things at Eastern and away we went.  By 5:00 am we had the halls emptied and the cells were full but not jammed.  By 8:00 we were moving defendants out nearly as fast as they were being brought in, but the arrests were not declining, and virtually every minute officers were arriving with loads of arrestees.  Officers were now confining those arrested as best they could in trucks or paddy wagons on the street until the drivers had a load that they then took to the station house.  That way most of the officers did not have to leave the streets.  But it also meant that our “blind” efforts increased where we really did not know what the people were charged with.  Fortunately, for the most part if there was any violence involved, the arresting officers would have told the transporting drivers who told us and we, and the court acted on that hearsay.

 

Over 5800 people were arrested in Baltimore during the five day period between Saturday and Good Friday.  It became so overbearing by afternoon on Monday, Charley came from a meeting with the Chief Judge and said that I was retiring to the Court House where the supreme Bench Circuit level judges were going to sit as Municipal courts and prisoners would be bused to the court house where we had multiple court rooms and judges to handle the crowds.

 

From that time through Thursday, we were on twenty four hour duty in the court house.  Officers and guardsmen would bring a school bus load of prisoners into a court room, they would be processed and put back on the bus to go to the jail, or released.  By Tuesday morning, the block around the Courthouse was ringed with school buses in line; as one would come out of the courthouse and board an empty bus, a full bus would pull forward and its load would go in.  At some point during the week Charley said that he had images that one day, months into the future, like the Flying Dutchman, we would discover a school bus of defendants wandering through the streets waiting for a place in line, not knowing the riots were over.  What he referred to was the fact that when the curbs of the entire block had been filled with waiting buses, the new buses arriving had to drive around the streets until there was a place for them.

 

The courts worked around the clock.  One night, about midnight, the largest of the courtrooms was filled with about three bus loads of defendants.  There was only one guard in the room, an older court house guard with a shot gun sitting at one of the two back doors.  I looked into the courtroom to see if I needed to replace one of the assistants and Judge Sodaro caught my eye and waved me up to the bench.  He said “Fred, I’m a little nervous with this many defendants, they’re becoming a bit loud and unruly and we only have old Sam back there half awake on guard, do you think you could get some guardsmen or troops in here.”  I told him I would try.  I knew it would be hard because  of the street work being done.  But he was right.  There was an increasingly loud “ummmmmmmm ummmmmmm ummmmmm” going on in the room of probably two hundred defendants.  So, I stopped at Sam on the way out and said “judge is worried, I don’t know whether I can find someone to help you or not, so be alert, stand up and let the judge see you.”  He said okay and winked at me and stood up.  I went through the swinging doors and down the hall.  About half way to the State’s Attorney’s office I heard a shotgun blast and I raced back to the courtroom.  There was absolute silence; judge Sodaro was not on the bench, the prosecutors were not at the table and the court clerks were standing agape.  Old Sam had a smile on his face and said “Sorry Fred, I must have dozed off and my shotgun went off.”  There was not a single sound from the crowd that had been abuzz with discontent just three minutes before.  Not a single sound.

 

I talked to one of the clerks and he told me that when the shotgun went off the Judge hightailed it from the bench with the prosecutors right behind him.  He said he was too shocked to move but soon saw that the blast had brought the crowd to attention, so he just stayed where he was.  So, order was restored without having to bring troops in from the streets and Sam’s “dozing” became the story of the week in the  courthouse.

 

While our work did not diminish, the streets began to come under control when the military from Fort Benning Georgia arrived.  I will never forget the meeting Charley called me out to attend with him at the Armory where command center was located.  General York of the Army was there with the Adjutant General Gelston, Attorney General Burch, Mayor D’Alesandro who had been mayor only three months or so when the riots broke out, Police Commissioner Pomerleau and his minions and representatives of the Governor and the President.  General York made a suggestion and General Geltston said it wouldn’t be necessary for the federal troops to become that much involved, and General York in a precise, totally understandable fashion advised that the Guard had been federalized and General York was in command.  From that time on, things began to improve.  From that time on, arrests began to decline because the presence of those well trained, no nonsense troops began to prevent the offenses.

 

Finally, on Good Friday at about 2:00 p.m. Bobby Fertitta and I left to go home for the first time since Palm Sunday morning.

 

Fortunately, I never had to experience such ruinous times again.  Parts of Baltimore looked like a bombed out, burned out city in the Middle East or out of one of the devastated nations from World War II.  Most of the damage was to the Black neighborhoods themselves, and a fact escaping most people was that Blacks were the most victimized of all the citizens of Baltimore.  When I left the city to return to Idaho when it became time for that little Andrew to start school, there were still parts of the city where buildings were boarded up, never having been repaired.

 

All of it brought on by the senseless murder of a preacher who carried the message of  peace and non violence.  Dr. King’s cowardly assassin set in motion the frustration and anger that underlay a century of fourth class treatment and throughout the nation  violence was the result.  Did something, anything good come of it.  I think so.  At least it got the attention of governing powers, and even though the entire problem of discrimination has never ended, it has improved at least officially; but frankly as long as poverty and poor levels of education remain, there never will be an end to the problems.  People who have no jobs, no means to seek a job, no education of sufficient level to hold good jobs, and no money to improve themselves will always be uneasy, and will always be looking for a way to gain that money, even through criminal means.

 

Memories—how did I get on this kick?  I read last night an accounting of Memphis in the 48th year since Dr. King was killed.  And, when I woke up I found that I had been dreaming about looking for coffee in the briefing room of the Eastern.  The mind—–

Comments are closed.