The incident that set off the Labor Day Riot in Ocean City, Md. back in 1960 seems a trifling affair. Late in the evening of Sat., Sept. 4, the owner of a boardwalk arcade and a young man from Baltimore got into a spat. The arcade owner, George J. Galkas, thought the young man was crossing the line out of teenage fun and into delinquency.
I’ve seen two versions of what this spat was about. In one, the young man tried over and over again to turn up the volume on the arcade jukebox. In the other, the young man kept riding atop a hobby horse meant for children. Neither is a big crime, of course, but both might add up to a big aggravation for a small business owner dealing with holiday-weekend crowds.
Galkas asked the young man to leave. The young man refused. Galkas called police. The patrolmen who showed up was a part-timer helping out holiday crowds. Joseph Laramore lived in Denton, Md. and worked full time as a constable in Caroline County.
Things went south quickly between Laramore and the young man. What really set the Labor Day Riot in motion was Laramore’s decision to break out his nightstick and crack it on the head of that young man, whose name was Laren Baker and who was on leave from duty as a U.S. marine private first class stationed at Camp LeJeune, NC.
A Summer of Simmering Anger in Ocean City
These events did not happen in a vacuum. Trying to protect Ocean City’s reputation as a family-friendly resort, town officials had ordered police to crack down on teen drinking and delinquency all summer long. In retrospect, it seems obvious that tension had been building over the course of several hot months filled with arrests for disorderly conduct and other delinquency offenses.
The throng of teenagers on the boardwalk and beach who witnessed Baker’s arrest were outraged by that swing of the nightstick. Some tried to intervene on the spot, tussling with Laramore and other officers as they tried to get Baker off the boardwalk and into a patrol car.
Once that car pulled away with the marine inside, the teens decided to head down to the police department and demand his release. They embarked on an 11-block march. As they progressed, a crowd in the hundreds swelled into a mob of 2,500. The rowdier members of that mob flipped over several parked cars along the way to the station at Dorchester Street.
‘Throwing Bottles, Cans, Even Lawn Furniture’
It was midnight when they arrived at the station. Many had armed themselves with whatever they found along the way–bottles, sticks, rocks, even lawn furniture. The Baltimore Evening Sun (Sept. 5, 1960) described a “wild, screaming crowd of young people” that “formed a ring around the station house and demanded the release of the marine.”
Early on, at the first signs of trouble, Mayor Hugh T. Cropper, Jr. had ordered his police department to stand down and avoid engaging the angry teens. The mayor explained later to a newspaper reporter “that he thought the absence of police would calm the crowd.” It soon became apparent that he was wrong.
A bigwig with the state police, William H. Weber, just so happened to be vacationing at the beach that weekend. He made an emergency call for reinforcements. Soon, 30 state cops from all over the lower Eastern Shore were speeding toward Ocean City. Meanwhile, Mayor Cropper sounded the town’s fire sirens, calling in all of his volunteer firefighters as reinforcements for his overwhelmed police officers.
Those firefighters soon hooked up hoses and sent word to the rioting teens that it was time to disperse. The teens were having none of it. Firefighters turned the hoses on them. In return, as the Evening Sun put it, “the more violent persons in the crowd rushed forward in waves to throw bottles, cans, stones and even lawn furniture taken from nearby homes at the firefighters and policemen.”
The pitched battle lasted for four hours. Incredibly, no one was seriously injured. Finally, about 4am, the crowd had dwindled to the point that calm returned to the streets of Ocean City, even if those streets looked like a war zone littered with “broken bottles and smashed furniture, littering the streets, sidewalks, and lawns.”
The Aftermath of the Riot
Thirty-three young people were arrested that night. Almost all ended up getting charged with disorderly conduct. One newspaper said the city jail was so overcrowded that sixteen teens spent the night in a cell equipped with three cots. The arrestees hailed from all over–Baltimore and its suburbs; Washington, DC; and the Norfolk area, as well as several towns on the Eastern Shore.
Those convicted in the following days and weeks were ordered to pay fines of between $50 and $100.
As for Private First Class Baker, he was taken to Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury and treated for a concussion. He, too, was convicted. His fine was set at $550, but the judge suspended $250 of that amount. After the fine was paid by his family, Baker was escorted back to Camp LeJeune by a Marine sergeant. I tried to find on the internet news of what happened to him in life after this incident, but I couldn’t find anything.
There was one last flareup on that infamous Labor Day weekend, though this ended on a humorous note. On the Sunday of that Labor Day weekend, police had an encounter with a teen who was on the boardwalk but not wearing a shirt. Back in 1960, that was a violation of city ordinances.
The police escorted that young man off of the boardwalk and onto the beach, where, obviously, going shirtless was legal. As they did this they were surrounded by a crowd of 500 teens who did some angry screaming at the police and tossed some bags of sand at them. They also broke into song–first, “Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here,” and then “The Beer Barrel Polka.” This followup “riot” lasted all of 15 minutes.
In the aftermath of the Labor Day riots, town officials tried to walk the line between criticizing the teenagers and trying not to alienate the younger population.
City Council President Harry Kelly: “I suppose this was bound to happen sooner or later. We’ve kept the lid on teenagers pretty tight al summer. I guess the pressure had to give.”
Worcester County Commissioner (and former Ocean City mayor) Daniel Trimper said police handled the situation in an “OK” manner before quickly adding, Daniel Trimper county commissioner and former mayor: “handled ok.” Praise state police. “We want the young people here. They are the future of Ocean City.”
Early on, Mayor Cropper had harsh things to say about the rioters, but he, too, calmed down and came around soon enough: Mayor Cropper: “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.”
In any case, the tourism season was over, and there was no more trouble on the horizon in Ocean City.
–Written and posted by Jim Duffy on Sept. 6, 2020 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.