Looting And Rioting? First Responders Remember 1968

Apr 30, 2015
Originally published on April 30, 2015 1:24 pm

Scenes from Baltimore earlier this week have evoked the riots that broke out in many cities after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. I spoke to two first responders who were on duty at the time, Ed Mattson, a retired sergeant from the Baltimore City Police who was in the tactical squad and riot squad in 1968, and Steve Souder, Director of Communications at Fairfax County Department of Public Safety. He was working in communications for the Washington D.C. Fire Department the day Dr. King died. It also made me think of my own father.

I don't remember my father's call home. All I know is that he did call home, and when he did, he had instructions: fill every spare container and the bathtub with water, make sure there was food. He knew he wouldn't be home for a while.

My father was a New York City firefighter during the weeks and years when New York, among dozens of other cities, was going up in flames. That is of course an exaggeration: entire cities were never burning; only certain neighborhoods were. But we were –we are--African-Americans, and those were our neighborhoods. My father and our family were among those who lived the dichotomy: we lived in the very neighborhoods where supermarkets and other stores burned, and yet he was among those charged with putting the fires out, often dodging bricks and other homemade missiles that could have been thrown by the kids he passed on his way to work.

My sister and brother and I were old enough to know that something important and difficult was happening but not old enough to know exactly what or why. There were hints: my mother and the other mothers came charging into our Girl Scouts' meeting on one particularly fateful night in April 1968, gathering all of us kids to take us home early but not really explaining why; lingering on the sidewalk to speak in worried, urgent not-quite whispers, a few tearful, others angry. They talked about the death of a certain man, an important man, a much loved man, a death they somehow all expected but also feared and grieved. There were tears and prayers for the widow and children, then extra trips to the grocery store, extra bottles of milk placed in the shopping cart, along with tuna and spam and bread.

When my father finally did come home from work, I do not recall a conversation about what he had been doing and why, only that he was very, very tired, and very, very interested in the whereabouts and well-being of every member of the family: "Where is your brother? Where is your sister? Did you eat? What did you eat?" Explanations would be left to our mother, who was by turns weary and frightened and angry. Why was this happening? "They killed King." Why is the supermarket on fire? "They're mad." Why are they mad? "Because they killed King." Why can't we go out to play? "There's too much going on. Maybe when things calm down."

I still have both of my father's helmets, the "new" one from his later career as a fire marshal, and his old helmet from those years. The dents in the crown of cracked leather bear witness to those times.

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Scenes from the unrest in Baltimore earlier this week were shocking to many people, including, it seems, to some of the people who were actually involved, like this young man who gave his name only as D. He told NPR he'd been among the young people out in the street who were, as he put it, smashing and grabbing.

D: Yesterday really woke us up in Baltimore. They said they had not seen nothing like this since 1968. And out of my whole 20 years of living, I never thought that I would ever see something like this in Baltimore.

INSKEEP: But as NPR's Michel Martin has been finding out, for some people this is not new.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: As D pointed out, back in 1968, dozens of cities saw similar scenes in the days and weeks following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when first responders across the country faced demonstrators who expressed their anger by throwing rocks and setting fires.

As the daughter of a firefighter who served through the 1968 riots, I wondered about whether today's news brought back memories for some of the people who served back then. So joining me now are Ed Mattson; he's a retired sergeant for the Baltimore City Police Department. He served in the tactical squad and the riot squad in 1968. Steve Souder is also with us. He is the director of communications for the Fairfax County Department of Public Safety. And the day Dr. King died was his very first day working in communications for the Washington, D.C., fire department. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with me about this.

ED MATTSON: Yes ma'am.

STEVE SOUDER: And thank you.

MARTIN: Steve Souder, you want to start? What do you remember most about that whole period?

SOUDER: As we watched the fires burn from the communication center and through the windows that we were able to look through, we saw the entire city in flames. This was not just a few blocks. This was hundreds and hundreds of buildings. And I think the immediate thing that came to mind was what will the people that lived in these neighborhoods do when the fires are out and the buildings are gone and all the businesses that they frequented - the barbershop, the beauty parlor, the drugstore - you just knew that this was an event that was going to be historical. And indeed, it was. And if I could just fast forward, if you will - it wasn't until very recently - seven, eight years ago - that the city of Washington began to rebound from the devastation that occurred in 1968.

MARTIN: Sgt. Mattson, just tell me a little bit about what you remember most about those days.

MATTSON: We responded to the areas where the fire was and the looting. And we were physically engaged, and we had helmets and we had limited amount of equipment in them days. It wasn't like today where these guys got all this fancy gear. We didn't have that. And we sort of held it down as much as we could. We controlled it, but we couldn't stop the burning.

MARTIN: What did you feel like your job was then? I mean...

MATTSON: Serve and protect 'cause it wasn't all the people. It was only a certain percentage. But - like, an elderly black gentleman said to me - he says I don't understand why they're burning their own things. What are we going to do? And how could you answer a question like that? You know, I said look, we're doing as much as we can. He said aren't there more of you? Well, there weren't more of us. And this was citywide. Like the riots this past week, they look like a walk in the park to me because they were minor compared to what we had.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you, though, does what you're seeing in Baltimore the past couple of days, does it remind you of '68?

MATTSON: It does. To a certain degree it does. I mean, you see the buildings burned down and all, but ours was more massive destruction. As a matter fact, you go down in certain districts in Baltimore, there's still blocks that haven't recovered. There are stores that haven't recovered, and it's been 47 years.

MARTIN: Do you see any connection, though, Steve Souder, between what people were angry about then and how they were reacting then to what people are angry about now?

SOUDER: I do. And listening to the various people that articulated why they did what they did, I can almost flashback 47 years and hear that same rationale given then as is given now, if you will.

MARTIN: Sergeant, what about you? Do you see any connection?

MATTSON: Look, I come out of the old Baltimore system. I walked the beat. I walked in black neighborhoods primarily, and we got along with everybody. We had a good relationship...

MARTIN: You're not like black yourself.

MATTSON: No, I'm of Italian descent. And I knew the people on the beat, and we all got along. If there was a problem, we handled it.

MARTIN: One of the things that's different now in both of those departments, there are significant African-American leadership and significant African-American...

MATTSON: That's true.

MARTIN: ...Personnel. So I just wonder what it says to you both or what thoughts you have about the fact that people are still reacting in this way and the leadership has changed. The leadership is in a lot of ways more reflective of the city that lives there. What do you think, Sarge (ph)?

MATTSON: Yeah, well, I was in the police department 56 years ago. It was 98 percent white officers and a few percent black. There were no women on the street in the 1950s and '60s, not the early 1970s. And we actually walked beats without radios. We had call boxes. I'm going back a long time ago. And in '67, things started to change. We started to get cars and radios and all these kind of things. And we lost touch with the people. The police lost touch. And leadership started changing, and we started bringing in new people. We used to laugh about it and say, you know, lower them standards and you get what you going to get.

MARTIN: And do you mean race by that?

MATTSON: No, not race. Just the standards got lowered. I'm an old-timer. You know, I come from an old police department, and I still think the old way. I'm an old Baltimore kid. But everything, the political spectrum has changed. And, you know, it used to be the Irish were in charge and the Italians were in charge, and the now the blacks have maintained the city. They're in charge. So does the responsibility fall on them? I think so.

MARTIN: Sergeant, can I just ask you, what was your worst day through all of that? You were out there four days straight before you got to go home. What was the worst day?

MATTSON: The third night, we had snipers. And we couldn't see them, but they were shooting nonetheless. It was just pretty bad. Everything was burning around us. And then another time, we got trapped in an alley up where they were throwing Molotov cocktails at us. And Molotov is pretty nasty because, you know, it's gasoline spread across the ground after the bottle breaks.

MARTIN: Did you ever think you were going to die?

MATTSON: No. When you're young, you think you're Superman.

MARTIN: Steve Souder, what about you? What was the worst thing about that whole experience for you?

SOUDER: Not being on the line. Even though I enjoyed immensely the communications aspect of it, I knew that my fellow firefighters were out there, and I wasn't with them. And after the riots were over, I remember driving down 14th Street and just seeing the devastation and remembering seeing the papers as a kid of the devastation of Berlin after the bombing in London, after the bombing, and that's exactly what it looked like. I mean, what occurred recently in Baltimore was nothing - nothing - compared to what occurred in Washington and Baltimore back in 1968. It was a profound, life-changing event.

MARTIN: Steve Souder is the director of public safety communications for the Fairfax County Department of Public Safety. He started working in the Washington, D.C., fire department in 1961 and he had his first day working in communications on April 4, 1968. Ed Mattson is a retired sergeant from the Baltimore City Police Department. He served both in the tactical squad and the riot squad. Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

MATTSON: Thank you.

SOUDER: And thank you for the opportunity to share these experiences.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.