Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Herndon Riot

Years ago I remember watching the local news and seeing the Fairfax County Police triumphantly unveiling their brand new riot tank, which was a state of the art armored car equipped to handle any kind of crowd disturbance. It was a classic example of a police department with too much money and too much time on its hands. My buddies and I laughed at the prospect of frenzied looting masses on the boring streets of Fairfax County. It turns out we were wrong and there was a riot in Fairfax County and it was a critical moment in the county’s relationship with its black residents.

The incident on started on a Friday afternoon in August 1974 when Felix “Catman” Rorls entered the 7-11 on Elden Street in Herndon about 4:30 PM to get some chocolate milk. Rorls had turned 26 ten days prior and was out with a group of friends. FCPD Officer John Mueller entered the 7-11 behind Rorls and demanded to see his license. The two men had been involved in a previous confrontation when Mueller busted Rorls for driving on a suspended license. When Mueller demanded to see his license Rorls replied “Why do I need a license in 7-11?” The events that followed are a little sketchy, but it seems that Mueller shoved Rorls through the glass cooler and hit him with his nightstick. Rorls proceeded to the register, bleeding profusely, and tried to pay for his milk. Mueller put his nightstick down on the counter and tried to handcuff Rorls. Rorls grabbed the nightstick and began beating Mueller, who fell down and drew his gun firing four to five shots at Rorls. Mueller wept as he and Rorls went to the hospital for treatment, but Rorls died of his wounds.

Mueller was a 31 year old white 8 year veteran of the FCPD. The department had been racked by years of rising citizen complaints of brutality and inept policing. The police force had a rate of solving crimes well below the national average and had only reluctantly brought on a small number of minority and women officers. Female officers had filed multiple sexual harassment complaints and the five black officers complained of discrimination.

Rorls was a black man from Clifton originally and had struggled after losing his mother when he was 11 years old. He had learning disabilities and had moved between various relatives as he grew up. By 1974 he was working Smith’s Trash Service and lived in Apartment 102 in Herndon Gardens.

Shortly after the shooting, a crowd of 70-100 gathered at the 7-11 and began simmering about the Fairfax police. This crowd was quickly dispersed, but the fuse had been lit. A couple of hours later about 300 people gathered at the Dulles Park Shopping Center and began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. Someone threw four firebombs into the Virginia ABC liquor store causing extensive damage. Police tried to disperse the crowd, but were met with a hail of rocks and bottles. For three hours police worked frantically to put out the many small fires caused by the rioters. Somehow the officer in charge, Cpl. Leonard Smith arranged a meeting with leaders of the mob and they demanded a meeting with Fairfax Prosecutor Robert Horan. Horan recently retired and had gained a reputation for being an exceptional prosecutor, but he was also known for not pursuing police brutality cases. The crowd demanded from Horan that he prosecute Mueller and Horan promised to examine the case and make a “prosecutorial judgment.” Amazingly, the mob agreed to these terms in withdrew.

The next night a small crowd gathered at the Dulles Park Apartments, but they dispersed when the riot police withdrew. The case was probed by a grand jury, which ultimately found no basis to indict Mueller. The county settled with Rorls’ family for a scant $25,000.

The riot was a culmination of years of building frustration in the Fairfax County black community. It laid bare the neglect and racism of a county transitioning from a sleepy southern backwater to a bustling suburb. The growth of the county placed enormous economic pressures on both white and black families that had originally lived in the county. The development boom brought rising land values, increasing property taxes, and a county hell-bent on growing. Many families had the option, and many exercised it, of selling out and moving on. However, blacks had the significant barrier of being excluded from much of the new housing stock whether through formal covenants or more informal methods. During this boom, the black population grew a tiny amount, but rapidly shrank as a percentage of the overall population. In 1960, blacks in the DC suburbs occupied 24% of deteriorating housing, 54% of dilapidated housing, and only 3% of sound housing. During the early seventies Fairfax built its first public housing, which had the effect of institutionally segregating them and enticing poor blacks off of valuable land. The two public housing developments, Herndon Gardens and Dulles Park which were both located in Herndon.

Herndon at one time was a sleepy railroad town, but it had boomed along with the rest of the county and had doubled in size in a few years. Mayor Lopp and Town Manager Noe handled the tense situation very badly. Noe admitted he had paid no attention to the concerns of black residents while Lopp declared they made up an insignificant portion of the town’s population. Lopp went on the blame the county for concentrating low-income residents in his town. Following the riot, a meeting was called with black residents to air concerns and seek solutions. Problems rattled off were a 10 pm street curfew, which was usually invoked only with black residents, lack of adequate shopping, recreation, and transportation. One leader summed it up as “if you don’t have a car, you’re lost.” Another resident said he had been stopped 35 times for “routine checks” by police since he had bought his ’53 panel truck two months earlier. However, the meeting did not go well as Mayor Lopp walked out after demanding that people stop shouting. Finally county leaders met with the residents and formed an ad hoc committee to find resolutions to the problems. The Citizens Committee of Fairfax County began meeting with police representatives and a federal mediator to come to an agreement. The Committee demanded increased minority hiring, training for police, and establishment of more citizen oversight. The county agreed to fill 18 vacancies with minority members and raise the minority representation on the force to 28.2%, which was the metro DC ratio.

The county continues to grapple with these problems today as housing it of reach to many, the police force continues to battle charges of excessive force, and Herndon is still a flash point for racial tensions, but now it is aimed at Latino immigrants. As for John Mueller, he served as a police officer until retiring in 1994 as a bomb technician. He was in the coast guard reserves and helped rescue people from the Air Florida crash. He died in Vienna in 2001.

3 comments:

  1. Great blog. If you need pictures, I can help. Also, check out my local blog www.TheHumorroid.com. It has an ongoing feature about FCPD and the Citizens Police Academy. Email me at thehumorroid@gmail.com

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  2. I remember this well,,, we had just moved to Herndon from New York,,, we had bought a TownHouse in Seasons 4 right across the field from the Dulles Park apartments,, I don't think we were even there 2 weeks when this happened.
    I remember hearing the shots,,, I was at the gas station next door getting gas in my bike and the next thing you know it's cop central,,, well I was 15 at the time with no licence so I high tailed it home,,, and I still remember how scary that night was,,, firebombs, gun shots, and all the screaming and one house on Eldon St got burned to the ground and I'll bet that house was only bout 6 or 700 feet across the field from us,,, and my dad was still in NY finishing up some biz,,, So my mom, 2 sisters 3 and 4 and me,,, I have to say that was probably the scariest night of my life.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I remember this well,,, we had just moved to Herndon from New York,,, we had bought a TownHouse in Seasons 4 right across the field from the Dulles Park apartments,, I don't think we were even there 2 weeks when this happened.
    I remember hearing the shots,,, I was at the gas station next door getting gas in my bike and the next thing you know it's cop central,,, well I was 15 at the time with no licence so I high tailed it home,,, and I still remember how scary that night was,,, firebombs, gun shots, and all the screaming and one house on Eldon St got burned to the ground and I'll bet that house was only bout 6 or 700 feet across the field from us,,, and my dad was still in NY finishing up some biz,,, So my mom, 2 sisters 3 and 4 and me,,, I have to say that was probably the scariest night of my life.

    ReplyDelete