My First Arrest, Plus 50 Years

Arrests of "walk-inners" seeking racial integration of Gwynn Oak amusement park in Baltimore, including Arthur Waskow (carrying shoes)

[Sunday, July 7, 1963, was the date of my first arrest, among protesters creating a “walk-in” aimed at ending racial segregation at Gwynn Oak amusement park in Baltimore. On July 7, 2013, there will be a 50th-anniversary celebration in Baltimore of the desegregation of the park, which followed soon after the arrests.

 [The wave of public insistence on desegregation was moved partly by this photo that appeared on the front page of the Baltimore Sun, showing one of us – Allison Turaj – bleeding heavily from a rock thrown by a pro-segregation mob in the park. Others in the photo include Carol Cohen McEldowney, whose memory is a blessing; Todd Gitlin; and me. I am carrying my shoes because we had to cross a stream to actually enter the park the back way, rather than be ritually arrested at the front entrance. As you can see in the photo, we are under arrest –- and the police who arrested us probably saved our lives from the mob.

[That summer, I wrote an essay on the arrests that appeared originally as an article in the Saturday Review. (Copyright © 1963, 1970, by Arthur Waskow.) It was later published as the opening chapter of my book Running Riot: A Journey Through the Official Disasters and Creative Disorder of American Society (Herder and Herder, New York, 1970.

 [My comments from the standpoint of today follow the essay.]

Why Jail?

At 11 o’clock on the morning of Sunday, July 7, 1963, I wrote the last paragraph of the last chapter of a scholarly study of a series of race riots that swept across the United States in 1919. At 5:30 that afternoon, I joined several men and women, white and Negro, to enter a Baltimore amusement park, Gwynn Oak, which had forbidden Negroes to attend.

By 5:40,I had for the first time in my life met the kind of hatred and the kind of police partiality that Negroes meet in less concentrated form almost from their birth. One of my companions had been badly hurt by a thrown rock, and all of us had been surrounded by a raging mob that, as I could recognize from my study of the 1919 riots, was whipping itself up to the point of assault and murder.

Then the police arrived  —  to arrest my friends and me as trespassers, but not to arrest any member of the mob. (That pattern, too, I recognized from the 1919 race riots. Almost every one of those riots was precipitated, in a situation already heavily charged with racial conflict, by an act of police favoritism toward whites and against Negroes.) After that ten minutes, a sleepless night on cement floors in jail was an anti — climax. But it gave me time to start thinking about what I had experienced. I am still rethinking the whole business, but I have tried to set down here an “interim report” on my conclusions.

At bottom, I have been trying to clarify for myself why I left my research and writing to get arrested and whether I should have. Afterward, one of my friends wrote me that a scholar’s brain is “too precious a national resource to be splashed on a ferris wheel.” Is he right, or do moments come when only a scholar’s willingness to splash his brains around can make his work and thought “authentic?

Most of the reasons I felt compelled to go were not directly related to my research. What stirred me most was my own sense of belonging to Baltimore and Gwynn Oak Park. I was born and raised in Baltimore, and I had ridden the roller-coaster and played miniature golf and danced around the ballroom at Gwynn Oak. My high school — it was still segregated then —  held a June Week dance there. How could I sit around now, when a moral issue I had abstractly noticed in high school had become a burning question throughout the country?

More especially, how could I sit around while people who had only an intellectual interest in Gwynn Oak were going off to be arrested? For two students I knew in Washington—one from Ann Arbor, one from Harvard — had already marched off to jail on July 4. The friends and buddies that psychologists report soldiers really fight for — not for “the country” or “the cause” — evidently are the reason many nonviolent “soldiers” fight, too.

There were two more intellectual reasons that I went. On July 4 I had — as I’ve made a comfortable habit of doing every year —  reread the Declaration of Independence. Then one of the clergymen who had “trespassed” that day explained he did so to celebrate the Fourth, and I realized how absurd it was to celebrate a revolution for liberty by reading about it, instead of joining it. And finally, one of the conclusions I had reached about 1919 was that riots exploded because no one had invented what might be called nonviolent “equivalents” of rioting. Now one such equivalent had been invented: the walk-in, a loving trespass. Wasn’t it my business to advance what my own research said needed advancing?

So I went. I went without violence, but not “nonviolently,” in the inward Gandhian sense. When the mob surrounded us, we faced them with more stolidity than love, more amazement than anger, and more curiosity than conscious courage. One of us had been badly cut by a thrown rock before the mob closed in, and our fear for her kept us from worrying about ourselves. Somebody in the mob yelled at us, ”Yeah, you better look worried!” and I remember wondering whether I really did. I also remember realizing that this mob was a great deal like some I had read about in my study of race riots, and that they were just at the pre-violence level. But my imagination was distant, remote, disconnected: I had no visual image of what would happen to me if they crossed the line into kicks and blows.

After the police had reached us and arrested us, I experienced the most vivid reinforcement of my sense of “belonging” to Baltimore and Gwynn Oak. Our march to the paddy wagon brought us past some of the same cotton candy stands and thrill rides that I could remember from fifteen years ago. I had a terrible flash of double vision; the same scene felt utterly different in this different emotional context, and yet I fully and physically realized it was the same scene. I felt utterly pierced by the knowledge that this was my Baltimore, the mob my fellow Baltimoreans, showing me hatred that I had never had to face, but that Baltimore Negroes must have faced for all their lives. This moment of double vision validated for me everything I had done. In some ways, it validated not only my act of protest but my decision five years ago to study race riots, and my decision last year to complete that study after several years away from it spent in analyzing problems of defense and disarmament.

But it has taken me several weeks to absorb even partially what this validation meant, and to work out what I had learned from it and from the whole confrontation at Gwynn Oak. For one thing, I gained an unexpected extra dividend in that whatever I think or write about conflict and violence will now have something new behind it: a feeling for what combat (armed or unarmed) is like, with its confusions of command and control (we got lost three times in looking for the back entrance to Gwynn Oak), its commitments to personal friends rather than “the cause,” its suppression of both felt fear and felt courage in a kind of temporary “distancing.” For another thing, I had taken into my guts what I had previously spun out only in my brain: that men were capable of sustained, focused hatred.

Still, these learnings did not answer the basic question: if I feel that scholarship and writing are important tasks for me to keep on with (and I do), what place should something like civil disobedience have in my life? Scientists get exempted from the military draft; should intellectuals be exempted from protest movements? I can’t see why. Temporary deferments, maybe; probably James Baldwin was more effective through The Fire Next Time than he would have been as one more body on the Freedom Ride. But, ultimately, it is dishonest to urge without undertaking, and impossible to understand without acting.

 In fact, the more cool and scholarly the intellectual side of one man’s effort, the more necessary perhaps that the political side be hot and involved. Otherwise his books may well be a lot drier and dustier inside than out, himself dryer than either, and his analyses a vague and useless — guide to antiquarians.

Of course this does not mean the intellectual needs to be in jail all the time. What was most important to me about protesting at Gwynn Oak was that it grew out of what I had been, and done, and written, not just out of the newspaper headlines. I was prepared to go back to Gwynn Oak, but the management, under pressure of the demonstrations, agreed — to integrate the park. With that issue, in which my life had been deeply involved, settled, I scarcely expect to be on the picket —  lines every Sunday. But where an event reaches out to touch my life again as this one did, I do not think I will be able to stay at my desk.

[A note from 50 years later:

[I am surprised at how dry, almost empty of emotion, was this article, about a moment that was one of the most deeply emotional of my life.

[The last line of this article was in fact prescient. Gwynn Oak was for me the first of about 22 arrests in various protests. The most recent, as part of an interfaith group challenging the President to act more vigorously on the climate crisis, was at the White House on March 21, 2013 – —  almost fifty years after Gwynn Oak.

[On July 7, 2013, in Baltimore, there will be a joyful commemoration of the successful effort to desegregate Gwynn Oak. In 1963, the county executive of Baltimore County who ordered our arrest was Spiro Agnew. (He was later Governor of Maryland and Vice-President of the US under Richard Nixon. In 1973 he resigned that office in disgrace, charged with bribery and extortion during his tenure of all three offices.) In July 2013, the present county executive will join in celebrating the activists who ended segregation at the park.

[I want to honor the memory of one of my comrades in the arrest -– Carol Cohen McEldowney. In 1963 she had taken a year off from being a student at the University of Michigan, and then became my research assistant for that year. She was a member of the first generation of SDS -– Students for a Democratic Society -– and her example convinced me to join SDS, as probably its oldest member.  It was she who called me on the evening of July 4 to ask me to post bail -– the call that resulted in my deciding to join the protest on July 7.

[Carol went on to do powerful activist work in a neighborhood of poverty-stricken whites in Cleveland, to take part in an illegal antiwar visit by American activists to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and then to play an important part in the women’s movement in Boston. She was killed in a car crash in 1973. Her “Hanoi Journal—1967”  was published in 2007 by the University of Massachusetts Press.  Carol was extraordinarily bright, passionate, compassionate, and committed. Her death so young was a great loss to American society.   —  AW]

 

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