The Carson Beach Battle

By HOWARD HUSOCK  |  August 7, 2007

At the right moment and from the right angle, they could have seemed to be enjoying an ordinary August day at the beach. The middle-aged mothers sat back in aluminum chairs, the children built sand castles with plastic shovels, the teenagers danced to a radio.

But this was no beach party last Monday on South Boston's Carson Street beach; it was, rather, a drama being played before an exceptionally hostile audience. Those seeming to relax in the afternoon sun were black residents of the nearby Columbia Point housing project, seeking to demonstrate that they had achieved what they set out to do ten days before: make casual use of a beach just a five-minute walk from their homes. But the group of 50 could not have been doing much more than putting up a brave front. They were, after all, still surrounded by Metropolitan District Commission policemen wearing riot helmets and carrying tear-gas canisters. The police, standing some 50 yards from the blacks and protecting them on all sides, had created what amounted to a demilitarized zone in Boston's Latest racial conflict. Outside the cordon was the crowd of whites, almost all under 20, many clad in high-school gym trunks inscribed "Southie." Occasionally a kid tried to break through the police line, then kicked hard as the cops carried him off. But mostly the crowd muttered, about "niggers" as often as not. The area where the blacks were pretending to relax was dubbed "nigger beach." A reporter seen talking to blacks was called a nigger-lover. MDC Commissioner John Snedeker, who had ordered his police to keep the beach open to everyone, was being called "Sniggers."

"It fuckin' smells around here," said a kid not more than six. "The water's polluted now," said another. "And they contaminated the bathhouse." Two women in their 50s, part of a small group of adults on the beach, nodded as a third said, "First the schools and now the beach. We have  them all winter and now the summer. What else are they gonna take over?"

This is integration, 1977-style, in South Boston.

 * * *

That this drama should be staged on Carson Beach comes as no surprise. No place in the city is more charged, primarily by virtue of simple geography. It is a stretch of sand flanked by antagonists. Looking south from the water's edge, one sees the fortress-like orange brick buildings of the Columbia Point public housing project, an enclave of the city's poorest blacks surrounded by white neighborhoods. It is home to some 800 people who live in the third of the buildings not boarded up and vandalized.

Looking north from the beach, one sees the hill at whose summit sits South Boston High, symbol of resistance to court-ordered school desegregation and center of the neighborhood of 40,000 which seems, in large part, convinced that a handful of blacks threaten that which is theirs. Even if what is theirs includes housing projects whose names -- like D-Street and Old Colony -- have come to connote decay as surely as does Columbia Point. Even if what is theirs is a public beach. Even if one of theirs, South Boston state Senator William Bulger, has  pushed legislation that would guarantee public access to all beaches in the state.

Black and white have clashed before at Carson. In the summer of 1975, after the first year of school desegregation, a group of six black Bible salesmen from out of town took the recommendation of the desk clerk at a nearby motel and wandered over to the beach, where they were reportedly beaten. To demonstrate the right to use the beach, thousands marched to Carson in August of that year for what was billed by the NAACP as a
picnic, but became a battle, as 40,000 people had to be kept apart by police. The demonstration did not, for practical purposes, prove its point. Blacks, who South Boston and Columbia Point Residents agree were tolerated before school desegregation brought hatreds to the surface, stayed away from Carson.

Until Friday, July 22. It was then that this latest battle of Carson Beach began. Three women from Columbia Point – Dorothy Haskins, Bette Washington and Charlotte Williams – decided, in Haskins’s words, that "We wanted to use the beach instead of looking at it out the window." The catalyst for the decision, they say, was the injury the previous day to six-year-old Kia Rhodes, a black girl who was hit by a car at the project as she played in the spray of a fire hydrant opened during the 100-degree heat.

If they expected to set off the furor that has ensued, the women do not say so now. "We weren't trying to be heroes," says Haskins, who has lived in the project for 15 years and, like the other women, has young children she is raising herself. (Among the three families there are 24 children.) Says Haskins, "We just wanted to take our children to the
beach instead of leaving them to play in the street. There are people around here who don't even have the money to take their kids to Nantasket."

And so, around noon on July 22, the three women, along with some other 80 other Columbia Point residents, walked around the abandoned Bayside shopping mall next to the project and across a rock ledge called Mother's Rest to Carson Beach. They had called police before they left. A few carried signs reading, "The Kennedys have Hyannis. We want to use Carson Beach." At first they were able to do so without incident, in
large part because there were very few whites nearby. Carson is part of a two-and-a-half-mile "strandway" comprising four beaches, none of which gets overcrowded in the ordinary run of things. Within an hour, however, some 100 whites had gathered near the bathhouse where the blacks sat. There, for the first time this summer, police had to separate white from black. Two weeks and more than 50 arrests later, they have not stopped having to do so. Out of this series of confrontations, even more clearly than from those over school desegregation, race has emerged as the issue.

There has not been, however, an air of impending all-out battle at Carson Beach. It has become clear, in the second week, that what will likely occur each day is a kind of morality play, a formalized drama which the participants seem to know has definite limits. There is a readily discernible pattern to these events, and they transpire far more slowly on the beach than they seem to in the evening's videotapes, which play back constant action and "epithets." The blacks appear at "their" end of the beach daily between one and two. As they do, MDC police vans, which have been parked near the abandoned shopping mall, drive down Day Boulevard and into position in the parking lot next to the bathhouse. Another group of policemen walks with the blacks down the grassy hill and onto the sand. Although the Columbia Point residents deny that their actions have overtones of civil rights demonstrations, it is clear that some strategy is regularly plotted: each day last week they crossed a bit more of the beach before putting down chairs and blankets.

Before they appear, there is no special character to Carson Beach, not even a concentration of people. But it takes just minutes for groups of whites to congregate after the blacks sit down. Even then, however, one does not sense any great potential for violence. There are so many police – several hundred from the MDC, augmented from Boston plainclothesmen and even the FBI – that it seems impossible that things should escalate too far.

When the blacks do sit down, they are surrounded by knots of whites, most of whom remain standing. What follows is more play-acting, with every movement symbolic. Blacks make a good show of enjoying a day at the beach, trying hard to prove, in Dorothy Haskin's words, that "We're not demonstrating, we're partying." People are thrown into the water with their clothes on, tug-o'-wars are held in the sand. Sometimes there is dancing, which elicits sarcastic imitations from some white teenagers looking on. The tension builds slowly, as if the whole crowd is under a magnifying glass in the sun, waiting for the moment of combustion.

Some of those involved seem to know when the flash points are coming. "Watch that girl," says a black teenager as whites begin moving in closer. "She was always in the middle of things whenever there was trouble at the high school" (South Boston High).

Suddenly the whites begin chanting. Some chants are nothing but high-school football cheers: "Southie's on the warpath, ooh, aah." Other lack even the semblance of innocence. At one point last Tuesday, a group of white girls, none of whom looked to be more than 14, was singing, to the tune of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore," "Martin Luther King is dead/Hallelujah/White man shot him in the head/Hallelujah." Blacks respond with lyrics put to another old camp tune: "If you're black and you're proud say Amen."

As the days progress, the actions of the police, too, become ritualized. A line marches in from the parking lot to separate the groups. Quickly the blacks are put in what amounts to protective custody, though those white who have been lying on blankets are allowed to stay in the area, a concession to protests that police sweeps were denying whites the right to the beach. At times, the scene can be almost poignant, as when a young white girl, looking somewhat lost, nearly trips over one of the MDC police; with a hesitant nod, he motions her to the white side of the line.

It has been whites' refusal to disperse after police ordered them to that has resulted in most of the Carson Beach arrests, which peaked last Sunday when 14 whites were arrested while police were dispersing some 1000. After eight days of battle of the beach, 52 whites had been arrested (not only for failure to disperse but also on assault and battery charges), compared to only three blacks. The blacks had held to their posture of non-violence, a policy agreed upon when some 200 Columbia Point residents met three days after the July 22 demonstration.


 * * *

In tacit acknowledgement of 20 years of civil rights legislation, the white adults who speak to the press on Carson Beach try to explain what is occurring on some basis other than race. "This is not a whites-only beach," says James Kelly, the one-time sheet-metal worker and member of the anti-busing South Boston Information Center who has become the spokesman of hard-core resistance to school desegregation. Kelly insists that blacks "provoked the people of South Boston and tried to humiliate us. They didn't just come over to the beach, they came with placards and weapons."

The claim that blacks carried golf clubs as potential weapons that first day – an action news accounts did not mention – is common, as is the view expressed by a 26-year-old Southie steam engineer that "It's become a communist thing. The whole thing started because some Progressive Labor types went through the project two-and-a-half weeks ago with bullhorns, stirring people up." Rumor abounds, in fact, in the white crowd on the beach. One woman, although saying that "you can't deny them the use of the beach, " was upset over a rumor that "the city council was getting ready to fence off the beach all the up to L Street and give it to the blacks."

Such talk exemplifies what seems to be a wish among white spokesmen: that the beach issue be tied somehow to the suddenly fashionable notion of reverse discrimination. "We're not free to go where we want either," said James Kelly last Monday. "We can't go to Columbia point."

Two days later, in fact, a crowd of some 200 whites tried, under the direction of Information Center leaders, to prove Kelly's point by marching toward the housing project. When, at first, they were halted by police, the Information Center's John Ciccone told reporters, "This proves our point. We don't have equal access to the beach either." Moments later police acceded to the demand of march leaders that the group be allowed to proceed to the Mother's Rest gazebo at the edge of the Columbia Point peninsula. There the whites cheered briefly, then left.

The other explanation that seeks to sidestep the race issue is that involving "turf." Mayor Kevin White, in a shirt-sleeved tour of the trouble spot Monday, made reference to the idea. "When I was a boy," he said on the beach, "I lived in the Irish section. It didn't pay for an Italian to walk in alone." Although the mayor opined that Irish South Boston would "get over" the idea, the Southie steam engineer on the beach the next day had not. "Why would I want to go where I'm not wanted?" he asked. "Would I go down to the North End with a bunch of guys? I’d be looking for trouble. It's just like when you're a kid on the corner. Some kids from another corner come over. It's just the same for a whole community."

An historical parallel can be added: Carson Beach, according to MDC spokesman Michael Goldman, was named for a street gang from South Boston's Carson Street; in the 19th century, the gang successfully fought a rival group for control of the area.

But race and turf tended to become confused quickly on the beach last week. Among those arrested for defending Southie's turf were men and women from Charlestown and Mattapan. And the same steam engineer who discussed street-corner society also had this to say: "I don't like blacks, in fact I hate blacks. They have no morals. They breed crime. Now it's mostly just women and children down here. But pretty soon you'll have blacks all up and down the beach and then some black guy will stab some white guy and all hell will break loose. Southie's like a time-bomb."

 * * *

There is no doubt, though, that there are many on the beach who have come because the battle is a community happening, a mid-summer excitement. Said an 18-year-old girl, "You get swept up in things. You can't tell them not to use the beach but then you see your friends getting busted and you get involved." One wonders how much the excitement of resistance motivates even anti-busing leaders like James Kelly. "It's us against the rest of the world in Southie," he says. "And we'll spit right in your eye and in the end we'll win." It is a siege mentality, undeterred by opposition. Statements by the governor and attorney general deploring the events at Carson Beach only assure those officials' continued presence on the enemies list, along with newsmen, liberals and, of course, blacks.

It is impossible to know how representative of South Boston views like Kelly's are. Police contend that there are but a handful of adults inspiring the actions of the largely adolescent crowd on the beach, and hint that strong action – perhaps prosecution under state civil rights statutes – could be taken against "ringleaders." Leaders of the South Boston Information Center, in fact, made little secret at week's end that they were, to some extent, orchestrating action on the beach. At a meeting Thursday night at South Boston's Tynan School, Kelly, along with representatives of the South Boston Residents Group, told 500 in attendance they would soon inaugurate a new strategy – one of ignoring the blacks on the beach.

Melba Hamilton of the residents group was quoted in the Globe as saying, "We are going to turn our backs on the blacks. We're going to separate ourselves from them and they are not going to like it one bit."

Just how this new tactic would force the blacks to do anything was not made clear. But its announcement implicitly recognized that thus far the blacks – by virtue of  the simplicity of their demand and their non-violent posture – have been winning the battle of Carson Beach. Seldom since the civil rights demonstrations in the South – to which events on the beach bear eerie resemblance -- have blacks so clearly gained the moral initiative in a racial confrontation. It is one thing to contend that one's children have a right to attend their neighborhood school. It is quite another to contend that another's children do not have the right to swim at their neighborhood beach.

For her part, Bette Washington says she and her children will continue to make their daily walk to Carson Beach. "We will be here as long as the sun is shining. This may last until the winter."

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