In the fall of 1989, Ron Bell was a few weeks into his new job working as director of a community center in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood.
One afternoon, however, as he approached his office at the Tobin Community Center, he saw police searching a dozen or so black men. Some were nothing more than passersby. Others had come to the community center for classes or to pick up children. Others still were bringing elderly relatives who regularly socialized at the center. The men stood, their hands on the bars of the fence, their pants around their ankles.
“[The police] tore through the neighborhood. It was bad,’’ Bell, now a pastor in the same neighborhood, told Boston.com. “Before [Charles Stuart] happened we couldn’t get police to come over there to save our lives, literally. When the Stuart case happened, they were everywhere.’’
What had happened was this: On October 23, 1989, Charles Stuart, a furrier from Reading, had made a 911 call alleging that a “black man’’ in a black sweatsuit had shot both him and his pregnant wife in a parked car in Mission Hill. His wife Carol had died, their child hospitalized after being delivered by C-section. And Mayor Ray Flynn had ordered every available police officer to swarm the area in search of a “6-foot-tall black man about 30 years.’’
The police presence in the neighborhood—known to its residents not as Mission Hill but simply as Mission—was as invasive as it was swift, according to Bell.
And the significance of the massive law enforcement effort wasn’t lost on Mission Hill’s most impressionable minds. With police “tearing through people’s houses’’ and “pulling men out of their own houses at all hours of the day,’’ the community center had “more kids than ever,’’ Bell remembered. “Kids who never came to the center would come every day, and they’d tell us they didn’t want to go home, because they were scared the police would come back.’’
“It was like a different place,’’ said Angel, who grew up in Mission Hill and now volunteers at the Tobin Community Center. “White people didn’t talk to you. If they did, they cussed at you and spit on you and called you names. Police messed with you for no reason. They used to harass my cousin all the time, and when he finally got angry, they beat him up. Nobody talked. It was like nobody knew each other.’’
Police quickly began zeroing in on suspects. They focused on a man named Willie Bennett, 39 years old with a criminal history. According to the Globe, Charles Stuart had had a “physical reaction’’ when he spotted Bennett in a lineup.
“I knew he had been in trouble, but he really didn’t seem like that type of guy,’’ Angel said of his acquaintance.
As the days turned into weeks, Angel recalled wondering if it had been Bennett after all.
On January 3, 1990, Charles Stuart committed suicide by jumping off of Boston’s Tobin Bridge. The “black man’’ alleged to have murdered Carol Stuart – who police had turned the neighborhood upside down in an effort to find – did not exist.
“Everybody in the city acted like they were so sure,’’ Angel said, “After a while, we were thinking, ‘Hey, maybe it was him.’ Then [Charles Stuart] kills himself and we knew we were right.’’
Twenty-five years later, Stuart still represents a wound from which Mission Hill has yet to fully recover, though Bell notes the neighborhood has improved.
“When I was 9, here in Mission,’’ Bell said, “I’d walk to Cub Scouts and these big white guys would spit on me and call me nigger, right before I went to sing the National Anthem.’’
To Bell, while things have “gotten better’’ and racism is less blatant, the neighborhood remains plagued by the same problems: crime, drugs, lack of opportunities and above all, the reputation for just that.
“We can’t expect anyone to clean up streets, or stop selling drugs, or receive salvation when they have no food, have no jobs around, and see the hypocrisy with the police and the government,’’ Bell said.
Angel was less optimistic. “We changed, but not a good change,’’ he said. “The city learned how to make it look better,’’ Angel said. Police in Boston “still look at black and Spanish people the same.’’
June, who asked that we not use her real name, was in her twenties when police stormed the neighborhood. She pointed to gentrification as the driving force of change in the area.
“They kicked out a ton of the people who used to live here,’’ she said.
Today, June said, kids growing up in Mission Hill don’t even know what happened in 1989. “That should tell you everything you need to know’’ about how it’s changed, she said, choking up.
“The parents—even the ones who’ve lived here for their entire lives—have never told their kids,’’ she added. “Everyone wants to make it go away, especially people who are new to Mission. They wish it never happened. But it did, and it hurt so many people, and some people will never get over it. [The police] made us look like animals in a cage.’’
With those few left who do remember what happened on the streets of Mission Hill back in 1989, June said, “in a lot of ways, it’s like it never happened.’’
But those who do remember what those weeks and months were like won’t soon forget. And reminders are frequent.
“When folks who lived through that here see Mike Brown or Trayvon [Martin], it snaps them back to Charles Stuart,’’ she said.
For Angel, the events of 1989 aren’t something with which Mission Hill alone needs to come to terms.
“It’s not a Mission problem,’’ he said. “It’s Boston’s problem.’’