Labor Day Riots In Ocean City Recalled 50 Years Later

OCEAN CITY – Fifty years ago this week, Ocean City experienced one of the darkest chapters in its history when thousands rioted on Labor Day weekend in protest of the arrest of a U.S. Marine at a Boardwalk amusement center at the height of a summer-long police crackdown on teen drinking and “rowdyism” in the resort.

On Sept. 4, 1960, an estimated 2,500 rioting teens stormed City Hall and the police station on Dorchester Street and battled with police and firefighters in an ugly scene that lasted for over four hours after an off-duty Marine, 18-year-old Larry Baker, of Baltimore, who was vacationing in Ocean City on the holiday weekend, was arrested at a Boardwalk amusement center.

Baker, on leave from Camp Lejuene, had been asked to leave the amusement center after being told repeatedly to stop turning up the jukebox, and when he protested, the proprietor called the police to have him removed.

When Ocean City police officers arrived, the crowd around the 9th Street business had swelled to several hundred, and when the officers tried to escort Baker from the premises, he reportedly resisted their efforts and they ultimately hit him over the head with a nightstick and spirited him away in a police car to the station on Dorchester Street, according to newspaper accounts of the incident from the time.

Two Ocean City police officers responded to the scene to remove the Marine, and many in the crowd of several hundred claimed the officers unnecessarily hit the teen over the head with a nightstick. The episode was symptomatic of the tension and distrust between the police department and the thousands of youths who visited the resort that summer 50 years ago.

Earlier that summer, Mayor Hugh T. Cropper and town officials had adopted an initiative to crack down on drinking and other illicit public behavior by the thousands of rambunctious teens that flocked to the resort each year in an effort to preserve and protect Ocean City’s squeaky clean family image, a message that still resonates today decades after the 1960 Labor Day riots.

Several minor clashes between teens and the police department had been reported throughout the summer among claims of unnecessary arrests and excessive force, but the tension reached a crescendo that night on Labor Day weekend in 1960.

Anger reportedly swelled among the hundreds of teens hanging around the popular spot on the Boardwalk, and the crowd swelled to as many as 2,500 as it moved toward City Hall and the police station where the Marine was taken. According to newspaper reports at the time, the mob formed a ring around the police station and battled police and firemen with rocks, bottles, sticks and lawn furniture for over four hours until the crowd was finally broken up with fire hoses around 4 a.m.

Lt. Col. William Weber, executive officer of the Maryland State Police, who was vacationing in Ocean City at the time, went to the station and summoned resources from all over the Eastern Shore, resulting in 30 additional troopers flocking to the scene. Cropper asked for the assistance of the Ocean City Fire Department and the fire department from nearby Berlin to assist and the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office also sent dozens of men.

“No serious injuries were reported although some of the policemen were struck with flying objects,” an account of the incident in the Baltimore Sun read. “Several cars were overturned along the 11-block line of march from the amusement center to the police station on Dorchester Street.”

By the time the rioters had reached the police station 11 blocks away, the crowd had swelled to over 2,500. Resort police, along with Ocean City and Berlin firefighters, reportedly set up a perimeter around the police station in an attempt to thwart the crowd’s attempt to rescue the arrested Marine.

“Attempts were made by the crowd to move in on the firefighters,” the account read. “As one group would make a pass at the firefighters, it would be drenched with water. The more violent persons in the crowd rushed forward in waves to throw bottles, cans, stones and even lawn furniture from nearby homes at the firefighters and policemen.”

According to the accounts, whenever one of the protestors got close enough to the police and firefighters defending the station, he was nabbed by police and hauled into the station and placed under arrest. Eventually, 39 individuals were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Ocean City Police Chief Ollie Hudson told a reporter at the time “there were 30-some kids packed into his jail’s four small cells and locked in several rooms at City Hall.”

“I haven’t got the time to count them, but I know there is no standing room left in jail,” Hudson said at the time.

The second riot occurred the next day on Sept. 5, 1960 when a slightly less angry mob estimated at around 1,200 young people protested the arrest of a teen on the Boardwalk without a shirt on, in violation of a city ordinance. The uprising ended more peacefully than the incident the night before although a half dozen more arrests were made.

In the days and weeks following the incident, most of the rioters were brought before a local magistrate and fined, with many of the fines coming in around $50. Baker, whose case was moved to Berlin amid fears of further rioting, was ultimately fined $550 for his role in inciting the riot, although $250 of the fine was suspended. Nonetheless, the remaining fine of $300 was pretty substantial in 1960 and renewed calls for a review of the town’s new hardcore policies.

Despite the riots that marred an otherwise strong summer season in the resort, Mayor Cropper stood by the initiative to crack down on teen drinking and bad behavior in the days following the incidents.

“There is no reason Ocean City cannot be a good vacation site for families and young persons coming alone,” he said in an interview at the time. “We want to attract young people. We want to make the city and the Boardwalk attractive to all age groups, but we simply cannot tolerate rowdyism. We cannot tolerate a situation which means that the family trade will be discouraged from the resort.”

Ironically, Cropper at the time called for planned and organized events to provide alternatives to “drinking and carousing” for teens visiting the resort, which sounds a lot like the modern day “Play it Safe” program. He also said at the time plans were in the works for a convention hall in Ocean City, which could provide some alternative entertainment for teens.

“A committee of the Legislative Council has proposed a convention hall here,” he said during an interview at the time. “If this works out, perhaps we can develop a program of organized activity by which this energy can be worked off.”

The Labor Day 1960 riots in Ocean City touched off a spirited letter writing campaign in publications all over the state, which, when re-read in 2010, could be applied to contemporary issues still facing the resort.

For example, Jeffrey Eichengreen of Baltimore wrote a letter to the Sun citing the mayor’s actions as the reason for the Labor Day riots.

“A few years ago, teenagers from Baltimore would go to Ocean City during the summer to get away from their parents for a short while and be from practically all personal supervision,” he wrote. “Then, the Honorable Mayor Cropper took it upon himself to ‘clean up’ Ocean City. He cracked down on beach parties, drinking and even the coffee houses. What happened on Labor Day was bound to happen and I’m very surprised this result of the cracking down of Mayor Cropper didn’t happen sooner.”

Eichengreen’s letter prompted a flurry of response from both sides of the issue. For example, Barbara Orbock of Towson wrote at the time, “Ocean City is a resort town with a population of 50,000 on peak summer weekends. The majority of these people are not teenagers. It is only reasonable that the mayor and town council act to please and protect most of the paying customers as any business would.”

However, Donald Boylan of Baltimore responded with his own letter.

“I remember when a bottle of beer was no problem if you looked old enough to drink at home. I remember when we went to beach parties and really let go. It never hurt us or anyone else either. So, the police crack down and the kids crack up and riot. Well, the mayor asked for it.”