Head gets the best of heart in wake of violence
One man's determination to stay in the city was shattered by a rifle bullet
By SCOTT MILLERDispatch/Sunday News
For 29 years I have lived, and continue to live, a lifestyle that was a direct result of York's riots in 1969. I was -- no, I am -- a person who vowed that lawless elements, black, white or purple polka dot, would not force me to move from my home in the city.
But now I drive 12 miles each way, every day, from Winterstown to my job in the city.
It was one year after the riots, almost to the week, that I packed my wife, five children and a mixed collie/German shepherd and moved from a house I could afford to one I had to struggle to pay for, even with government help.
We were the first family in York County to be accepted in the new HUD Plan 235 -- an emergency grant based on the riots -- which subsidized a new homeowner's mortgage payment.
The night the major riots broke out near the area of College Avenue and Penn Street, a block east and a block south of my home, I was awakened by the sound of three shots.
I assumed the owner of the tavern down the street surprised would-be burglars and scared them off. I called the police and reported the shots fired.
Expecting a police cruiser, I got some clothes on, went to the front door and opened it.
"Get back in your house and shut the door and you won't get hurt," I heard a voice yell.
At first, I thought it was a cop yelling to the tavern owner up the street. Then I saw an officer crouched behind a mail box across the street, his riot helmet glistening from a nearby street light. I peered up the street and saw more police, all in riot helmets, hiding behind parked cars.
Surely this is an over-reaction to my call, I thought. But when I called the police station, I was told, "There has been rioting on College Avenue behind you and it may have spread your way. Just stay inside your house."
"Sorry. I didn't know. I was sleeping."
I paced the rest of the night, feeling like a trapped animal. I should be somewhere, somewhere else, I should be photographing this stuff for the newspaper (for which I freelanced photography), I kept thinking.
The night passed and it was clear that we were in for a long siege. I had cameras ready, but wasn't about to work my way too far down the street for fear I'd get shot.
I was saddened when Officer Henry Schaad was shot. I was angered by citizens being beaten and shot, most of whom had nothing to do with the conditions under which we all lived. You couldn't even call them "the establishment."
But as a matter of principle, I was determined the series of events unfolding would not force me to move away. They were the ones breaking the law, not me.
At night, the police barricades would go up, and the police lines would form wherever the disturbance would break out. Some nights it was farther down the street toward town, other nights a few doors away.
Each night rioters would set fire to at least one building and the fires -- left burning until it was safe to let firefighters in -- would burn through the street's electric lines, knocking power out until daylight when repair crews would come.
One night, the rioters set fire to a large garage a half block down the street, and I walked down alone and photographed it burning. It was so hot a telephone pole nearby was smoking and starting to flame. I could hear the echoes of the alarm bells ringing from each fire station in the city, like they did every night, but the fire trucks were slow to come.
I finished taking photos and was walking back to my house when the fire trucks came to the barricade a few doors away. Just then, gunshots started ringing out. I could hear the bullets zinging through the air above me. The shooters were aiming for the firefighters.
I ran into the house and up to the second floor and peered out. What a view.
Right in front of my house was the fire truck, sitting still in the middle of the street, its engine idling. Firefighters were standing up against the sides of the truck as tightly as they could to protect themselves from the gunfire.
A bullet went singing past the window I was standing at. I could tell by the sound that one of the shooters was trying to shoot out the only street light left burning. He missed.
A contingent of police in riot gear came running up and formed a straight line to my left, behind the fire truck, with rifles raised, waiting for the telltale muzzle flash so they could return fire.
A little while later, a group of black teens emerged from their homes down the street near the fire and walked up to the firefighters. They offered themselves as human shields if the firefighters would please go down and put out the fire before it spread further.
The firefighters agreed, and they walked the fire truck down to the scene, and not another shot was fired that night in that area.
More nights of action passed, and finally, the National Guard was called in. Things started to cool down. We were past the worst.
But one of my daughters was showing signs of stomach problems, most likely triggered by her nervous reaction to these events. I was winning on my principle, but was worrying about the price I was paying.
My children should not have to suffer from the acts of these lawless thugs.
We were enjoying a quiet night of sleep, of which there had been very few for quite some time, when a group of troublemakers ran down Princess Street shooting at some of the houses on our side of the street.
I checked my second floor windows. The screen in one of the windows was torn in a shotgun pellet pattern.
Neighbors living two doors away checked and they had a bullet hole through their front wall and through the middle wall of the second floor, made by a high-powered rifle. We lined up the sight through the bullet holes and could tell exactly where the shooter was standing when he fired -- from behind a telephone pole across the street.
The track the bullet made, had it been made at my house, would have killed my daughter while she was sleeping in her bunk bed.
That was it. It may have been the end of the rioting, but I wasn't standing to take another chances with my children in the way. We were going to move.
During our search for a new home, I saw the exodus of some. Others stayed, and sat down together to create a plan of healing in what was called the York Charrette.
But deep down I had a strong feeling that downtown York's once-busy business section was going to die a quick death, because not only were city people moving out, but people in the suburbs and out in the rural areas have had their fears about coming to the city solidified.
And I bet it would last for generations, because Yorkers don't change opinions and feelings overnight.