Forgotten Counterrevolution: The Boston Police Strike of 1919
Try that in a large town
The year of 1919 was supposed to be a happy one. The First World War, which saw tens of millions dead, was finally over. America was one of the only superpowers not to be directly touched by this global catastrophe, and its already massive power in industry and natural resources was poised to grow even further.
And yet, for many 1919 was a year of destruction. The normally placid American labor scene exploded. The communist-backed International Workers of the World (IWW) and more moderate American Federation of Labor (AFL) gained hundreds of thousands of members. There were hundreds of strikes per month, including massive General Strikes that shut down whole cities, along with dozens of race- and labor-related riots. The body count went into the hundreds. The height of the violence became known as the “Red Summer” of 1919 both due to the threat of communism and the massive amounts of blood spilled.
At the time, many respectable people thought (and loudly proclaimed) that the country was heading towards a communist revolution. It seems tough to understand their perspective with the benefit of hindsight, but they were more right than most today are willing to admit.
Many contemporary scholars refer to this period as one of unfounded paranoia and reaction, driven by ignorance and cynical business interests. This view really does discount the reality of Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks were always a minority, even among the revolutionaries. Rather, the Revolution was mainly a seemingly permanent state of crisis was created by huge organized mobs. The government was not able or willing to contain this and gradually violence and disorder creeped into every part of Russian life. By the end, the collapse of Russian society and creation of a new order was inevitable.
Most of the early violence was committed by criminals, or people whose political ideas were so poorly-formed that their behavior was indistinguishable from that of criminals. Even at Bolshevik-led riots, most of the participants had only a faint idea of what Marx or Lenin or any of the figures who supposedly drove the Revolution even stood for. The Bolsheviks were merely the most ruthless and organized group to emerge from this horrible stew, and they took the whole country down with them.
Anyway, enough about 1919, let’s talk about Boston. Boston was relatively prosperous during WWI, but after the war ended it had a serious problem reintegrating the flood of returning veterans into the labor force. Furthermore, it hadn’t been spared from the labor organizing that had spread across much of the country. There was also a major flood of immigrants and the persistent threat of mature organized crime networks.
Boston was one of the first cities in the country to maintain a professional police force. Although for most of its history the Boston PD enjoyed a very good reputation, in 1919 it was beset by real problems. They were overworked and did dangerous duties with limited support. Most importantly, the officers simply were not paid enough. Although before WWI their salary could have afforded them a respectable middle class lifestyle, as other wages increased dramatically police salaries remained stagnant.
The police, officially forbidden from joining a union, tried to form a social club to better advocate for themselves. However, the combination of a new inexperienced mayor and a new anti-union police commissioner who were out of touch with the needs of the department left the problem unresolved. Good-faiths attempts at compromise, backed by the local Chamber of Commerce and several prominent figures, were rejected in favor of a hard line against all collective bargaining.
As a last resort, the police applied for a union charter with the AFL. Although the record of the AFL was somewhat checkered around that period, they were certainly preferable to the communist-controlled IWW. Knowing that department policy had been violated, the ringleaders were called before police leadership and placed on suspension. The new police union prepared to strike.
Ironically, here the actual strikers were one of the least culpable parties for the chaos that ensued, although they would bear the brunt of the blame for it. As the police prepared to strike, some limited steps were taken to find volunteer replacements. A general call went out for volunteer special officers that hundreds responded to: ex-soldiers, students, former athletes, curious people who just wanted a few days of adventure.
The volunteers represented a broad range of the respectable elements of Boston society, but they had no training in police work. One of the senior police officers had the foresight to ask all the striking officers to turn in their billy-clubs for “accounting” before the strike, fearing that they would not be able to equip all the volunteers once the strike began.
Governor (and future President) Calvin Coolidge ordered the Massachusetts State Guard on alert and offered Mayor Andrew Peters the use of 100 out of the 183 Metropolitan Park state police units that were already in the city. Although there was a provision in the state code that allowed the Mayor of Boston to deploy State Guard units, Mayor Peters thought that it would be too politically embarrassing to call out the State Guard before any actual disorder had occurred. As the strike approached, Mayor Peters frantically called the police chiefs of neighboring towns to ask for extra support, but was politely rejected each time.
The strike began on the morning of September 9, 1919. Large crowds formed outside many stations and the striking officers were jeered and physically attacked by mobs of vengeful criminals, some of them spurred on by “Lettish” (Latvian) agitators. The strikers fled in a rush.
The situation worsened. More than half of the Metropolitan Park state police units offer to Mayor Peters refused to do Boston street duty, either out solidarity with the striking officers or because street duty was much more dangerous than their normal responsibilities, and were suspended immediately. The volunteer officers, greatly outnumbered and without experience in police work, could not control the growing crowds. Huge open air dice games, behavior that had been banned, formed in many public spaces. An eerie silence settled over the city as people wondered what to do next.
The mob soon found its answer. The dice games became dangerous affairs. Winners would sometimes be beaten and robbed by men who would slip back into the crowd. Children climbed fire alarm poles and rang false alarms all over the city. A spree of tire thefts began.
Large aimless mobs of street youths, criminals, and other lower elements began to roam the city. Attempts by the few remaining police officers to control them were a total failure. They were outnumbered by 500-to-1. The mobs then began an organized robbery campaign. Any store they came across was completely looted. Open air markets sprung up for the stolen goods in public spaces. No one was afraid of the consequences. A few fights broke out but the violence that occurred was mostly between the looters themselves over control of the loot.
Some of the rioters were uniformed soldiers and sailors. Gunshots began to ring out across the city, celebratory at first. As the mobs grew more confrontational with police, the only solution available to the greatly outnumbered officers became their revolvers. The mob confronted a small group of officers interrupting a robbery, chanting “Kill the cops!” The police fired over the heads of the crowd, causing most to run off. Those that remained had to be beaten back with billy clubs.