Saturday, August 19, 2017

Banned in Boston

     I'm not going to lie to you. Boston is one of the most racist cities in the northeast. African American ball players have it written into their contracts that they not be traded to the Red Sox (the last team to integrate, in 1959, one year after the Boston Bruins). Both the North Ends (Italian) and Southie (Irish) are infamously racist and I defy you to take a stroll through downtown Roslindale and report back to me if you find even one African American. If you don't believe me, check out the Rants and Raves section on Boston Craigslist.
     It was in the early 70's, well within my lifetime, when the Boston busing riots roiled our capital city. When my Dad was stationed in San Vito, Italy in 1970-2, Stars and Stripes ran stories about those riots that had been sparked by Judge Garrity's decision to integrate school busing. It wasn't exactly our finest hour. "Banned in Boston" became almost a punchline because the city's intolerance to so many things gave it a national reputation for being intolerant bigots.
     However, while doing research two years ago for my latest novel, Gods of Our Fathers, I saw a different side to Boston, the side that endures and outlives fashionable and stubborn biases and prejudices. It's the side that opposed the British during the Revolutionary War, the side that, in Boston, always seems to side with liberty.
     Because in the course of my research into the history of the Boston Police Department, I couldn't help but learn about Anthony Burns.
     And that's because Burns, a 19 year-old escaped slave from Virginia, was arrested on Court Street on May 24th, 1854. This was a day or two before the Boston City Council unified the day and night watches of the Boston constabulary, creating, for the first time, a unified, professional police force in the city's history. As these two events came within 24-48 hours of each other, one cannot learn of one without learning of the other.
     To the new Mayor, the new police and to President Franklin Pierce, the vitriolic reaction to Burns's incarceration and upcoming trial was shocking and surprising. Barnburner abolitionists (radicals such as John Brown) fought with the Nativist No Nothings and even the conciliatory "hunkers" (moderate abolitionists) openly warred with each other, resulting in acts of arson and other mayhem. 24 years before Posse Comitatus, Pierce sent 2000 federal troops into the streets of Boston to keep the peace. For the most part, it didn't work.
     Part of the reason was because the New England Transcendentalists got in on the act, publishing broadsides by Thoreau and others from the streets of Concord. Local religious leaders, such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, reinforced the church's reputation of being a hotbed of abolitionist activity by delivering fiery antislavery sermons from his pulpit.
     The kangaroo court delivered its inevitable verdict: Anthony Burns was found guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and remanded back into the custody of his slave owner. The federal government, desperate to make an example of Burns, ordered all 2000 troops and even mercenaries known as "black legs" as well as all 253 members of Boston's police department to escort Burns to the ship that would ferry him to the other ship that would take him back to Virginia. (In today's dollars, this had cost the city, state and federal government the equivalent of just over one million dollars.)
     Forming a gauntlet down State Street, where the old Custom House still sits to this day, were thousands more Bostonians of every color, race and religion, condemning the violation of Boston's sovereignty and to Burns' freedom. We'll never know how many civilians were killed but we do know that one US Marshall was killed when a group of protesters used a wooden cross from the Tremont Street AME church and used it to batter the door of the judicial building on Court Sq (around the corner from where Burns was arrested), where Burns was incarceratedm after one of those fiery sermons by its African American pastor. The daughter of the recently resigned Mayor of Boston, Mary Elizabeth Seaver, wrote to her father on June 4, 1854, “In the center of a hollow square formed of volunteers… walked the slave, a good looking fellow. Each of these men had a drawn sword or knife. Several companies of soldiers marched before and behind, and the Artillery had a six pound cannon all loaded…”
     It was the Boston PD's baptism literally by fire. While it hasn't officially been christened as such, it could be said the capture and trial of Anthony Burns was one of the three seminal events that hastened the Civil War, the other two being the Dred Scott decision three years later and, two years after that, John Brown's failed but ultimately catalytic capture of Harper's Ferry.
     So, in our bifurcated city, we stand for universal freedom while standing against diversity. In 1854, we had found ourselves on the side of the angels, soiled as they may have been with blood, smoke and soot. And again, we found ourselves on the same side.
    Because, hoping for another "successful" march in our fair city, the KKK came to town and was essentially banned in Boston. As they were in 1854, the Boston Police found themselves pressed into service for the wrong side of history. But eyewitness accounts such as this one tell the tale:
Well that was a big bore, thank god. Got to the rally on the Common around noon. There was a 2-300 feet security perimeter around the Parkman bandstand, empty but for lawn and police. A few dozen Nazis were milling aimlessly around the bandstand. Couldn't hear a thing and there was no sign of a sound system or anyone making speeches. They were surrounded by maybe 100,000 protesters on all sides, a sea of people as far as I could see. The crowd was chanting "Can't hear you. Can't hear you." and "Black Lives Matter."
About 1:00, the Nazis were goose stepped by riot police to the park headquarters on Boylston Street, milled around some more and piled into four Black Marias. I was standing by the fence along the burying ground taking pictures, shooting through the headstones.
I went around to the driveway gate on Boylston Street and the paddy wagons were obviously pinned in by the crowds, chanting "Let them walk! Let them walk!" If they had they would have been torn apart. In the end, all they got thrown at them was flowers and "No Nazis!"
Good work Boston!
     Plainly lacking the numbers they'd enjoyed in Charlottesville a week ago, the KKK, neo Nazis and "alt-right" white nationalists suffered a crushing and humiliating defeat in the same city that nearly freed Anthony Burns and resisted the British after sparking the Revolutionary War. It was a disappointing reprise of the violent fascist rally that put nearly three dozen people in the hospital and one in her grave.
     And today, the angels showed up for work and made sure the good guys won. That would be the angels of inclusion, those immortal agents of grace that had stiffened the spine of every abolitionist in Boston 163 years ago this summer. The good guys won today and sent the assholes packing for the next city in their sad, psychological traveling side show. Those angels may have technically lost in 1854 but their voices and actions were heard today's resounding victory for love and all-inclusion.

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