Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The North End Gang Wars of the Early '80s, Part 1

Two confiscated gang vests on display at the Springfield Police Department Youth Aid Bureau

They called them the “Swiss cheese houses.” Donald Street, which is now non-existent in the North End, once ran parallel to Interstate 91—the turf-dividing line between the Demon-strators and their sworn enemies: a unification of two gangs called the Whops and the Last Survivors. Two pock-marked buildings on Donald Street, in the middle of “Whop City,” where the latter two groups hung out, were regularly shot up by the Demon-strators in the summer of 1981.

“Demon city!” they yelled from a passing car. “Demon city!” And then came the shots, one of which narrowly missed a three-year old girl in her bedroom. A photo in the Morning Union newspaper of the girl pointing to a bullet hole in the wall outraged the community, but did nothing to stop the violence. It took four years of gang-banging and shooting—and a couple of murders—for the police to finally clamp down on the thugs. Residents, intimidated by the gangs at first, starting making phone calls. Consequently, the Detective Bureau’s gang control program was able to arrest several hundred members and associates. After all the incarcerations, the youth of the neighborhood started making better life choices, and these crews died from attrition.

Until then, however, the North End was under siege, and it seemed as if there was no end in sight. The Whops ruled the Plainfield Street area. The east side of I-91 was Demon City. When the two gangs clashed, no one was safe.

* * * * *

At the beginning of the 1980s there were the Demon-strators, the largest and most powerful gang in the North End. They wore red berets, tied red bandannas to their pants legs, and had an extremely in-your-face presence in the community. Their territory was Calhoun Park, along with the surrounding streets, and anyone who didn’t recognize their authority got a beat-down—or worse.

But as is the case in many poor neighborhoods—as well as in prisons—when one gang dominates, supremacy breeds resentment, and other gangs form to challenge it. 

In Springfield, a city in which I still maintain is the capital of bizarre gang names, gang violence rose rapidly in the Hispanic North End in the early 1980s. In 1980 there were street outfits other than the Demon-strators, with monikers of the likes of The Latin Hoods and the Maniacs. The smaller gangs faded away, but newer, larger ones emerged to counter what they perceived as the top gang’s tyranny, and fistfights escalated to shootings. In July of that year, after the Demon-strators shot a 16-year-old youth in the lower abdomen, there was a retaliatory attack in which eight people were shot in Calhoun Park, home of the Demon-strators. The gang wars were on.

The Midnight Glowers, the Whops, and the Last Survivors surfaced as the gangs with enough firepower to take on the Demon-strators, and things got ugly. When the Midnight Glowers sprayed Calhoun Park on August 7, 1980, they injured an eight-year-old boy and 15-year-old Juan “Polacko” Cruz. It was Polacko who would be involved in an incident the following year that would send the gang wars over the top. In the meantime, there was another shooting incident in 1980: 15-year-old Norma Cruz—Polacko’s pregnant sister—was blasted in the back, as was her cousin, on September 5.

In March of 1981, there were three gang shootings, culminating on March 31, when the Whops clipped a 16-year-old Demon-strator in the foot. The Whops, some of whom had moved to Springfield from the Bronx, were known to shave their heads and wear their baseball caps turned awry—New York style. Police at the time were concerned that the newer gangs, started by youths from New York and Hartford, were modeling themselves on the gangs in their old neighborhoods, and that meant using knives and guns when the going got tough.

It certainly got tough for Polacko, a member of the Spanish Lords who was stabbed in the stomach behind a Main Street apartment block on July 16, 1981. A trail of blood ran from Greenwich Street to Huntington Street, where he collapsed and died. He was found still clutching a Midnight Glowers jacket he had just taken from a youth he had been fighting—he was using it in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding. By then, the gang coalitions had been tightly formed: the Demon-strators and the Spanish Lords combined in a bitter rivalry against the Whops/Last Survivors. Polacko’s killer, 27-year-old Anibal Cruz (no relation) was a member of the Midnight Glowers, which had also been feuding with the Demon-strators/Spanish Lords.

The violence was getting so out of hand that the unarmed civilian crime patrol group The Guardian Angels formed a North End chapter. Did these volunteers quell the gang wars in any way? Not really. At that point, police said, Polacko’s slaying led to a rapid outbreak of disturbances, including Demon-strators firing shots into Kenefick Park (the Whops’ hangout) on August 20, a retaliatory shooting by the Whops the following day in Calhoun Park, and tit-for-tat shootings within an hour of each other between the Whops/Last Survivors and the Demon-strators/Spanish Lords on September 12, 1981 that began with the shotgun wounding of a 16-year-old girl:

That week was a living hell for the residents of the “Swiss cheese” houses on Donald Street. A few nights before, a youth fired on one of the buildings with a shotgun, but the recoil sent the shooter on his ass and the shot went high over the roof. However, the Demon-strators/Spanish Lords had better aim on September 12, firing 13 rounds of shotgun pellets and small caliber bullets. One round barely missed Helen Richie’s three-year-old sleeping granddaughter Kirsten—the one pictured in the newspaper.

“I don’t know how it missed her,” Richie told a Morning Union reporter. “Me and my brother went to bed and found little pieces of bullets right where she was laying.”

Regardless of the danger to innocents in the crossfire, the death of Polacko continued to be a fierce rallying point for the Demon-strators/Spanish Lords. He received his nickname because the Spanish Lords thought his sandy-hair and blue eyes made him look more Polish than Latino. “Remember Polacko” was emblazoned on a T-shirt worn by several of his friends and family members. They were determined to get revenge.

The tension in the summer and fall of 1981 was palpable enough for teenagers to think twice about going to area parks, especially at night.

How bad would it get? Try 40 gang shootings (15 people hit) between January and September of 1981. These incidents were no longer limited to the North End, and included a shot fired near a Guardian Angel and three Last Survivors in the parking lot of the United Skates of America roller rink in Chicopee. When Hartford’s Savage Nomads gang got into the act, forming an alliance with the Demon-strators and shooting at Last Survivors Jesus and Rafael LaBoy on August 31, the gang wars were taken to the next level: outside forces joining in on the hostilities.

“We can’t even walk to the store,” complained 15-year-old Donald Street resident Wally Martinez to a Morning Union reporter. “You don’t know whether they’re going to be in front of you or behind you.”