I haven’t thought about these things for years, and I seldom talk about them, but my friend Sean Murphy brought them to mind when he shared an article on inner city violence that attributed that violence to racism.
In 1972 or 73 my parents moved from very poor, nearly all White, Chicopee Massachusetts to lower middle class Springfield, Massachusetts. People in Chicopee were poor, not particularly complicated, but very kind. They were decent, but I only saw one Black kid through all of grammar school, and he was detested by the teachers simply because “he didn’t belong”. I think he lasted a month and was gone.
Springfield was very different. 1972 or 73 was the time when “The Godfather” had just come out, and the Italian kids all talked tough like their parents were in the mafia. These kids were punks. I thought nothing more of it than that, until I realized their parents actually were in the mafia and they wanted to be in the family business. Now, to be fair, there were three gangs, and each had a racial piece and a part of town. But the Puerto Ricans lived in slums in the North End, the Blacks lived in the ghetto in Winchester Square, and Whites lived everywhere else. This means that local gangs for me were White and that’s who mostly acted our. In fact, I knew a white guy once — not in the mafia, but just a punk — who bragged that he had taken his brother’s new golf club and –during a rumble– had “wrapped it around Puerto Rican head” (I.e. killing someone ).
It was punks like that that “ran” my Jr. High School. Black punks were just that — lone criminals who wanted to eat, not people who wanted a career because crime was good, but people with no belief that there was anything else for them. I didn’t know a lot of Puerto Ricans and didn’t speak Spanish, so I didn’t know them. What friends I had were Black in school and White in church. My White friends also went to my school, so there was some overlap.
Anyway, in June of 1973 or 1974, I came home from school and my mother breathed an audible sigh of relief. When I asked why, she explained that the news was reporting race riots at my school. I was surprised to hear the news, since I had been at school all day.. I was hanging out all day with my friend David Byrd who was Black and — like me — a decent, kind, unaffiliated-with-a-gang kid, when the Italian punks had lit a trash barrel on fire and bragged about it, but that the was the extent of violence I knew about and again had been there all day.
Apparently, between when I left school and when I got home, the news was saying “those Blacks were trying to burn down the school” and had caused “race riots”. It was at that very moment that I decided I liked the good people who got in trouble far more than the criminals who didn’t. The “good people” in that case were Black. You wouldn’t know it from the press or the police or any “official” source. You just knew it if you were there, in the situation, in reality. I chose reality and never looked back.