Planning for a Riot
Memorial Day weekend 1964 marked the start of summer and the world was at relative peace with itself, at least for the time being. Then in July a riot broke out in Harlem in New York City marking the beginning of a decade of 750 riots that killed 228 and injured another 12,741.
In the small ocean resort community of Hampton Beach, NH, the town was preparing for its own riot after mobs had rampaged through the shops and cottages on the previous two Labor Day weekends.
But this year there were omens that the disturbance would be far more disorderly, violent and dangerous. Phone calls and letters (this was before the age of the internet) arrived at the police department from around the country warning that motorcycle gangs were traveling from California and Canada and photos showed bed sheets that had been hung from bridges across highways with the message: “SEE YOU AT THE HAMPTON BEACH RIOT.” Sources among the beach goers reported that people were making plans to attack the police station at 5 PM on Labor Day.
We started planning early. Representatives from the New Hampshire State Police and state police from bordering states, the county sheriff’s department, the Hampton Police Department and departments from surrounding cities and towns began meeting in June. Officers from the U.S. Coast Guard and the New Hampshire National Guard got involved in the discussions as well as Hampton town officials, local clergy, professors from the nearby University of New Hampshire and the NH attorney general, an assistant U.S. attorney and the county attorney. Property owners and merchants were also included.
We considered tactics for various scenarios, legal issues, emergency procedures, EMTs, medical personnel and hospital availability, fire equipment and personnel, equipment and weapons and arrest and booking procedures. This last agenda item had been a problem during the past riots. The long haired hippie who got arrested for chucking a Molotov cocktail at the police would show up in court clean shaven with an Ivy League haircut and a Brooks Brothers sport coat and walk out of court because the cop who arrested him couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. We decided to place cops with cameras with paddy wagons and the riot control units to photograph rioters and arrestees with their arresting officer while they were out on the street. It worked great.
We were also visited by a few esoteric celebrities who came to offer their services: Colonel Rex Applegate, WW II military hero and close quarter combat instructor and author of several books on hand-to-hand combat. Colonel Applegate remained with us through the riot and shortly thereafter he wrote Riot Control: Materials and Techniques. Pastor David Wilkerson was a colorful character and the author of The Cross and the Switchblade. He had spent time working with criminal gangs in New York City.
Military surplus weapons and equipment had not yet been handed down to law
enforcement agencies and riot protective gear was still on the drawing boards. Several reps from sports equipment companies showed up over the summer to offer helmets to the riot control units for testing. The gear was helpful and we were grateful but it would by no means pass inspection by the American National Standards Institute.
A nearby military base became our meeting location for firearms training and squad formation drills: lines, columns, skirmishers left and right and the most useful – the wedge. At the apex of the wedge were officers with German Shepherds and inside the wedge were five officers who would move outside the formation to arrest rioters who were identified as leaders and agitators. Along both sides of the apex were officers armed with shotguns and shoulder weapons that fired long range tear gas projectiles. Police moving in tight formations definitely acted as a deterrent to unruly mobs.
It had been decided, after considerable deliberation by department heads, military brass, squad leaders and the legal team, that shotguns loaded with #9 birdshot would be used under certain circumstances. Individuals with firebombs and Molotov cocktails were first on the list. It was also determined that rocks the size of a baseball or larger would be considered lethal weapons and qualify the pitcher for a butt full of birdshot.
A few weeks before Labor Day weekend we noticed the general appearance and temperament of the beach crowd was changing. Motorcycles with riders wearing leather jackets with gang insignia on the back were cruising along the boulevard. Autos and mini-buses with license plates from states far away filled with long haired young people were parked everywhere. And, petty crime was increasing: shop lifting, skipping out of restaurants without paying for meals, fights and disturbances, sleeping on the beach and in cars at night and trespassing.
We increased our patrols and strictly enforced the laws. Police walked the beach at night and moved people off who were sleeping on the sand or in their autos, parking and traffic violations were way up as were arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct. As we got closer to Labor Day the evidence room at the station was filled with firearms, fireworks, clubs and blackjacks, brass knuckles, knives, chains and belts with sharpened buckles. We were getting to know our new clients and, just as important, they were getting to know us and learning that we would play rough when we had to.
The “regulars” at the beach, the merchants, summer home owners, town residents and regular renters were great sources of information and we learned who the potential troublemakers were and what their activities were when they were out of the sight of the police. We learned that rocks and bottles were being moved on to the beach at night and buried in the sand in preparation for Labor Day.
Labor Day, September 7, 1964 at 5 PM a crowd of thousands on the beach erupted and with a roar charged across the boulevard throwing rocks and bottles indiscriminately, smashing windows of shops and autos and moving down the block toward the police station. The enormous siren mounted atop the fire station, located next to the police station, let out an apocalyptic howl that was a signal to all the waiting military and law enforcement units that the game was on.
The crowd stopped well short of the stations and spread out among the shops and cottages when they saw the Hampton Riot Control Squad spread out in front of the stations brandishing shotguns and clubs and officers appeared on the roof also holding shotguns. We formed a wedge formation and, with the riot squads from other state and local departments, went after the rioters in an attempt to move them south along the boulevards and force them across the bridge over the Hampton River.
It was a veritable gang war. We were being clobbered with rocks and bottles and we were answering with tear gas canisters and long range tear gas projectiles and shotgun blasts when the situation warranted. The officer on my right was hit in the face with a large rock and collapsed to the ground. An EMT with our squad was with him in an instant. Another officer and I went after the rock thrower, tackled him and got the cuffs on him just as the paddy wagon pulled up. The mob concentrated their projectiles on the wagon which had the windows covered with heavy screen and the rocks did little serious damage.
As we were loading the prisoner into the side door of the van an officer called my name and shouted, “Look out.” A young man was lunging toward me with his arm extended and a hunting knife in his hand. I managed to grab his wrist and swung my club at his head as hard as I could and connected on his forehead right between his eyes. We picked him up and threw him in the wagon and the wagon headed back to the station to drop off the prisoners. I still have the knife in my collection of souvenirs.
This went on for seven hours when the Governor of New Hampshire arrived at 2 AM and all the troops, hundreds of police and National Guardsmen, assembled in front of the outdoor bandstand on Ocean Boulevard. The air was pungent with the smell of tear gas and smoke from the burning motels and cottages. The Coast Guardsmen were absent as they were occupied on the river ramming the fishing boats that were ferrying the rioters back across the river for a buck a head after we had pushed them over the bridge.
The Governor gave a brief speech, deputized all of the officers from out of town and state and authorized the National Guard to do whatever they were needed to do. We dispersed and resumed ducking bottles and rocks as we moved all of the police riot control units to the north end of the beach. A number of the Guardsmen accompanied the fire trucks to the sites where buildings were burning to protect the firefighters and equipment. The rest of the Guards moved north with us.
During the short break the firefighters at the station sawed the pool sticks from the recreation room into club sized sticks to use to beat off the rioters who tried to prevent the firefighters from extinguishing the fires.
At the north end of the beach we spread out in a line from the ocean on the east to the salt marsh on the west and slowly fought our way south, block by block, leaving an armed National Guard trooper on the corner of every block that had been secured. We had borrowed an armored, amphibious troop carrier that belonged to the Coast Guard and had been kept on the sand by the life guard station. We moved out ahead of the line breaking up pockets of rioters who were breaking into buildings and lighting fires. We were heading toward the ocean on a side street when someone ran into the road from behind a building and tossed a Molotov cocktail at our vehicle. The bottle with a flaming rag struck a brace just above our heads and shattered, soaking several of us with gasoline. The wick fell into the street, sparing several of us from serious burns or even death.
The thrower ran back in the direction from which he had come and just as he turned to see what damage he had done, one of us fired a shotgun in his direction and he went down in the parking lot. We learned later that he lost sight in one eye.
When the sun came up the beach had been secured. Three hundred had been arrested and hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage had been done. Almost every police officer required treatment at the emergency medical facility that had been set up in the station and many others had been taken to the nearby hospital for lacerations and broken bones. The young officer who was next to me when he was struck in the head with a rock required over one hundred stitches in his face. For several days we received calls at the station from in and out-of-state hospitals reporting that they had removed shotgun pellets from walk-ins who reported that they had been injured in a “hunting accident.”
The following year we prepared for a repeat of the worse but the season ended without an incident and Hampton Beach was “Happy Hampton” once again.