Friday, September 04, 2020

"fascist storm troopers"

When Americans think of the beginning of the civil rights movement, they tend to think of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr, of young Southern Black people being beaten and hosed in the streets of Southern towns. But part of the reason we identify these indisputably brave, brilliant figures as the movement's founders is the suppression of radical and communist-affiliated voices like Robeson's, who used the word fascism to centre state-sponsored racist violence, evident across the nation, in the fight for racial justice.

71 years ago in Peekskill, New York show that the word fascist has played a particular, vital role in Black activists' struggle against racist police violence; remembering this usage can reconnect us with a radical history of activism often buried in conventional accounts of the civil rights movement. Peekskill, New York, about 40 miles north of Manhattan, was, in the words of one of Robeson's biographers, "a typically mainstream blue-collar place" - a phrase which in American parlance means, essentially, white and working class. Surrounding the town of about 17,000 were little summer vacation communities made up of "left-wing sympathisers … mostly Jewish". That made Lakeland Acres picnic ground an appealing spot for Robeson's management to arrange a concert for August 27.

Peekskill's local newspaper ran a series of red-baiting articles condemning "Robeson and his followers". The concert organisers attempted to mount the show on the 27th, but people from the town blocked access to the location, as local police officers looked on without intervening. In a preview of what was to come, rocks and epithets were hurled at arriving concertgoers.  Robeson expressed his anger, targeting the police in particular, whose support of the attackers he labelled "a preview of American storm troopers in action". The concert would go on, he said, on the following Sunday of September 4. 

On the  Sunday afternoon of September 4, 1949, concertgoers arrived to shouts of "We'll kill you!" from hostile protesters, a solid 8,000 strong. Anti-Black and anti-Semitic invective reverberated all over. The brutality began afterwards and this time it was well-choreographed. Police directed exiting cars to a single road that led away from the grounds, a deliberate diversion that sent the audience members' vehicles between townspeople waiting on each side of the thoroughfare, armed with rocks, bottles, and in some cases, knives. Truncheon-wielding police officers and stone-throwing rioters descended on cars belonging to the racially integrated audience of an outdoor performance by the world-renown singer and campaigner Paul Robeson. As people listened to Let My People Go and other songs from Robeson's rioters screamed at them: "Dirty Jews!" "Lynch Robeson!" and "Go back to Russia!"

The violence left at least 150 audience members with broken bones, lacerations, bruises, black eyes and other injuries. That no one died was a marvel. Concert attendee Woody Guthrie commented, "This is the worst I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot."  Robeson indicted the violence, singling out the police in particular as "fascist storm troopers". Of course, it was only four years since the end of World War II.

Robeson's friend and associate William Patterson, head of the radical, Black-led Civil Rights Congress, affirmed this focus, insisting that "the men who rule us are bent on fascism. They brought about the anti-Negro and Jew demonstrations at Peekskill just to see how the people would react to their big step to fascism."

Robeson noted similarities between European fascist ideology and American capitalism. State-sponsored racism was one of the main points of alignment. The Black left, in particular, saw parallels not only in the enforcement of Southern Jim Crow policies but also in police brutality in Northern cities.

Robeson insisted that it was "unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country which, in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind".

 The right was outraged.

In response he said, "We do not want to die in vain any more on foreign battlefields for Wall Street and the greedy supporters of domestic fascism." 

Asked flat-out whether he would fight for the US, he responded: "I am an anti-fascist, and I would fight fascism whether it be the German, French or American species."

After the riot, New York Governor Thomas Dewey expressed his support ... for the police. Although the violence was unfortunate, he said, "communist groups obviously did provoke this incident". According to a grand jury convened in October, "Communism ... and communism alone" lay behind the events; racism and anti-Semitism were not mentioned.

Robeson, in contrast, slammed the state police as "fascist storm troopers who will knock down and club anyone who disagrees with them".

Two years after the Peekskill riots, Robeson presented a petition to the United Nations under the title "We Charge Genocide". 

 "Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman's bullet. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy."

Black leftists portrayed American racism not as a problem of southern monsters and as-yet-unawakened, innocent whites around the country. Instead, they presented it as a deliberate application of force - North, South and worldwide - to maintain the existing power structure. 

For them, Peekskill was a perfect example.

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