Lawrence, Mass. — Like a tornado touching down, the riots that tore at a neighborhood in this industrial city last week at first appeared to have no rhyme or reason. There was an argument between two families, one Hispanic and the other white, which led to accusations, escalation, and rock throwing. There were some gunshots, then fire bombs were thrown from among the crowd of about 150 whites and Hispanics that divided along racial lines. Several buildings burned, 12 people were injured, and six people were arrested in Wednesday's disturbance.
Was it an isolated incident or an indication of deep-seated racial problems? Members of the Lawrence City Council, who believed the former, decided not to send large numbers of police to control the Hispanic/French-Canadian neighborhood the next day.
''I pleaded with the City Council (last Thursday) to bring in state police. They insisted it was an isolated incident,'' says state Rep. Kevin Blanchette (D) of Lawrence, who lives a few blocks from the riot area.
When rock throwing and fighting began anew, the television networks lit the scene with floodlights that brought a predominantly youthful mob out of the shadows - along with a number of neighborhood problems.
Following a weekend curfew, residents who didn't move away from Oxford Street continued to clean up - picking litter off their porches and driveways, and sweeping away broken glass. The area remains in a state of emergency to allow the mayor to reinstitute a curfew immediately should the need arise. But as the atmosphere here becomes calmer, the reasons why racially motivated rioting occurred at all in this ''immigrant city'' are becoming clearer.
''It's not a racial problem at its base,'' says Nunzio DiMarca, director of a local education and job-service program that serves Hispanics. ''It's just disadvantaged groups expressing their frustration. They're mad at authority for not providing for them - for ignoring them. Why do you think both groups stoned police?''
Now authorities are responding. Last Friday, city officials hurriedly brought together a group of Hispanic community leaders, many of whom walked the streets to help calm fears and squelch rumors during the curfew. On Tuesday, Mayor John Buckley announced the formation of a human relations committee to begin a dialogue with the Hispanic community. He has yet to name appointees to the committee.
This new recognition would be a stark contrast to the political isolation the Hispanic community here has experienced for the last decade. The Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, and others have for years had no active voice in city government, and the city has all but ignored them, DiMarca and Representative Blanchette say.
Indeed, the city had been charged by the US Justice Department with ignoring early warnings that there were racial problems developing in the city. A Justice Department spokesman says the department had not dropped the ball by merely identifying the problem, but had ''followed up'' by prodding Lawrence officials to seek remedies before racial strife developed.
''We acted on a number of complaints of police harassment and other problems coming from the Hispanic community in 1981,'' says Lawrence Turner, acting regional director for the Justice Department.
''We held a two-day seminar with the police chief and the public safety commissioner and brought in consultants, a police chief from New York City, and a professor from Chicago experienced with the Puerto Rican community there.''
As a result of the seminar, city officials met several times with Hispanic leaders in 1981 before the talks dissolved, Mr. Turner says. Since then, his office has also contacted Lawrence school officials concerning the need for more bilingual education programs.
Part of the problem is that no officials now in city government can recall any Justice Department efforts to alert them to the problem.
''I've been here the longest, three years, and I have never seen any report or heard anything from the Justice Department,'' says City Alderman Anthony Silva Jr. ''I'm not denying there may be a list somewhere with the city's name on it.''
Mr. Silva says if the federal government wishes to help the city build ties with the Hispanic community, then it needs to back up its recommendations with funding.
''Lawrence is a little city that's got big problems because of the diverse population that lives here,'' Silva says. ''Now the media is playing, and the Justice Department is grandstanding. We've got problems, I'm not denying that ... but the city is strapped right now financially.
''Eventually, the federal government is going to have to help urban centers. It's going to be incumbent upon the federal government to either give money to the city for job training, or business incentives, or tax credits for hiring immigrants.''
Many other problems have contributed to the political isolation of Hispanics in Lawrence: poverty, poor housing, and low voter turnout among Hispanics, to name a few.
The lower Tower Hill area - an eight-block neighborhood where a number of ethnic groups live - is considered to be the poorest neighborhood in the city. The riots occurred along two blocks of Oxford Street, from the Merrimack Courts housing project to Haverhill Street. The housing project, where most of the residents are Hispanic, houses some of the poorest of the poor.
According to the 1980 census, 40 percent of the families in the lower Tower Hill area are living below the poverty level - then set at $7,412 of annual income for a family of four.
Juan Rodriguez, for instance, has lived with his sister in the project for four years. A native of Puerto Rico, he came to Lawrence looking for work as a laborer but now makes a living from odd jobs and a $214-a-month welfare check.
''I have no idea what happened,'' he said the day after the riots. ''Kids were throwing rocks. ... I think maybe they didn't have anything else to do.''
Between 600 and 800 people live in the Merrimack Courts project, with three to five families in each of 14 buildings, DiMarca estimates. Graffiti colors the first floor of those buildings that surround a dirt courtyard, where a week earlier police in riot gear marched.
Representative Blanchette says the federal government is already in the process of renovating the housing project. New windows have been installed on some buildings, he says. And for its part, the city of Lawrence recently built a
There are almost 4,000 units of low-income housing per square mile in Lawrence, according to an article published Sunday in the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune by Eugene Declercq, an associate professor of political science at Merrimack College in North Andover. He also said communities surrounding Lawrence have successfully limited the construction of low-income housing within their borders. This has had the effect of concentrating too much low-income housing in Lawrence, he wrote. Because middle- and upper-income families have been leaving Lawrence, an increasing proportion of the city's populace is poor, Professor Declercq said.
Unemployment in the Merrimack Courts project is about 20 percent, says DiMarca. That contrasts with citywide unemployment that is between 9 and 10 percent.
Between 1970 and 1980, the Hispanic population in Lawrence jumped from 3 percent to more than 16 percent, according to the US Census Bureau. Hispanic and city officials say the census figures are low; probably more than 20,000 Hispanics live in Lawrence, which has a population of just over 63,000.
Many immigrants, including the Hispanic groups, came to Lawrence to get jobs in the city's fabric mills and shoe factories that historically have employed new immigrants.
But the city has been losing those basic jobs. Since January, three shoe companies and a textile company have closed, reportedly eliminating more than 400 jobs.
High-technology industries are beginning to settle in the Lawrence area, but Hispanics will be able to tap into the high-tech job market only if they have a high school education and can speak English, says Lawrence Smith, executive director of the Greater Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
Although Hispanics make up almost a third of the city's residents, they are not represented by the city work force. Of 650 city employees (not counting school district workers), 29 are Hispanic, according to Virgil Perez, director of equal employment and community relations for the city. There is one Hispanic on the Lawrence police force.
Why the lack of representation? First, only about 1,200 Hispanics are registered voters. Second, the Hispanic community tends to be transient, while the Anglo population here is entrenched, said Alderman Silva and Professor Declercq. Finally, city aldermen are elected at-large instead of by district, further diminishing the already minimal impact of the Hispanic vote.
More than anything else, the transiency of the Hispanic residents leads to frustration because the large minority community has no effective political voice, Silva says.
But charges that the city has not hired a fair proportion of Hispanics are unfounded, he says. ''Communication is one thing, but this (Hispanic) group is not communicating by choice,'' Silva says of sporadic efforts in the past to begin talking out the frustrations felt by the Hispanic community.
''Who would you hire?'' he asks. ''You hire people you know. I'm going to hire people that represent me well.''