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Peekskill USA

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Part Three

Reaction on Sunday

The phone rang at about eight o'clock the following morning, and I listened sleepily while one of the Mohegan Colony survivors of the night before told me that there would be a meeting on the lawn of his home at ten o'clock, and would I be there?

"I'll be there," I said.

Rachel and Johnny were having their breakfast; the sun was shining; all was all right with the world, and what had happened the evening before was a bad dream. Bad dreams fade and become vague and unrecognizable; it was utterly and completely impossible that in this sunny, placid world of pretty houses and pleasant people and gentle summertime such a thing as I had witnessed could have been. It could have been elsewhere; it could have been in Hitler's Germany; it could not have been here. This was the America I had known and loved and written of with reverence and affection, and even the cuts and a swollen wrist were impossible contradictions in a sunny world of normalcy.

Mrs. M– said little; this was an old trouble for her people, and deep inside of her, and even though she knew so little of the night before – only confused, fragmentary bits – it was perhaps more real to her than it was to me.

When I said that I was taking Rachel with me, she asked, "Will there be more trouble?"

"Not today. Would I take her with me if there was going to be more trouble?"

"You wanted to take her last night."

"Nobody could have anticipated last night," I protested. "Last night was something that doesn't happen and can't happen."

"But it happened."

What had happened, and when and how? Rachel and I drove up to Mohegan Colony. She was wearing a pink sunsuit as a little girl should in the pleasant summertime, and I kept thinking, what had happened? And why? We drove over the same roads I had taken the night before, through the same little valleys, and Rachel chattered in her most charming and disconnected manner of a dozen different things. Had Paul sung well? And what had Paul sung? Did he pick little girls up in his arms when he sang? Her talk was full of Peekskill, her own Peekskill. Peekskill meant that Paul Robeson, who was so tall and grand, was singing his songs somewhere.

We came to Mohegan and already there were twenty-five or thirty people present, sitting on the lawn and talking of what had happened a few hours ago – but seemingly a thousand years ago. Here was a representative group of summer and year-round residents of Mohegan, Shrub Oak, Peekskill, Croton, Yorktown and many other villages in the vicinity, professionals and small business men. Here were also some of the workers who had been with me the night before, some of the young people whose lives were being threaded with fascism from the very beginning, and here were some of the women and some of the children too of last night. They sat on this lovely lawn with banks of flowers behind them, and I joined them and listened to them talk. Rachel had taken off her shoes and was racing over the lawn, trying to catch a kitten.

Their talk was uneasy and troubled. They were trying to understand what had happened, what had changed, what was the meaning of the evening before. A pervading difference had come to the place; they had to know what that difference was. Also, they were frightened; and that was most understandable, for fear came in direct proportion to recollection of the details at the picnic grounds. I guess I listened for almost an hour, trying to comprehend how it must have felt to them. Here were their homes, not mine. They were people in very modest circumstances, yet all I had to do was look around me to see what love and care and patience had been put into these places where they lived. Yet I think they sensed, all of them, that something had started which would never stop if they retreated. Mingled with all the other horror of the evening before was a stink of burning flesh, a smell of gas chambers and abattoirs, a memory of horror thrust aside, another world not ours. Small memories intruded. There had been in the ACA galleries in New York City some months before, an exhibition of undistinguished, greenish cakes of soap. They happened to have been made in Germany of human fat and ashes, otherwise they were soap. The pervadingly normal was off balance. The newspapers would write considered editorials warning that such excesses as those at Peekskill, while commendable in purpose and understandable in the light of communist actions, etcetera and ad nauseum, were nevertheless not the "American way" to handle such matters, better left to J. Edgar Hoover and Company; but not sufficiently would such editorials erase. It is hard to convince decent and good and moral people that they are indecent and bad and immoral; the world of normalcy and reason was wobbling off balance, ready to tip. But when you are underneath you have to be brave. The men and women knew that, but heroic action simply does not arise as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would have you believe.

They asked me what I thought. I was very close to a number of them, in that peculiar closeness which is the result of a struggle in common against death. "I think we have to hold a meeting today," I said. "We can't give in to this thing. Even if on a small scale, we have to do it again today and maybe tomorrow and maybe the next day, otherwise we'll have to creep away somewhere and find a deep and dark hole for ourselves."

Many of them had been thinking that too, but it was hard to say and harder to perform. The workers there agreed with me, but like me, they had less to lose than the folk who were rooted here with home and children. Person after person took the floor. Every objection was raised and eventually disposed of. We had no means of organizing a meeting of consequence in a few hours. Where would it be? Who would give us space? Who would take a chance on a repeat performance?

I went into the house and phoned a friend of mine, a resident of Mt. Kisco, a very brave and principled woman who has a beautiful summer place there, a small house, but with a great stretch of green lawn all around it, room enough for ten thousand people if necessary. She was home, and she knew about the night before.

"How much do you know about it?"

"I know that it was unspeakable," she said.

"It was. It was pretty terrible. I want you to know exactly how awful it was, because a group of us are having a meeting up at Mohegan right now. We've decided to hold a protest meeting today and we need a place, and – well, I'm asking for your place."

There was a long silence. Then she said, "How many people do you think?"

"I have no idea. Maybe a hundred – maybe five hundred. We haven't time to do anything except make phone calls and let it get around that way."

"At what time?"

"At three o'clock," I said.

"It's eleven now. Can you do it in four hours?"

"I don't know. But if you let us have your place we can try."

"Let me talk to my husband," she said. I held the phone for a minute or two, and then she was back and told me, "All right." She wasn't happy about it. "Don't think we're not scared," she said. "It's just the inconvenience of having to live with ourselves."

I went back and told them that we had a place. A local trade union organizer was already laying plans for spreading word of the meeting. Westchester was broken down, village by village, area by area, with one volunteer after another taking the responsibility for a town or an area. Two of the performers from People's Artists were there, and they said they would sing. We would get some of the local Labor Party leadership to speak. We would have some kind of meeting in any case.

The trade union man turned to me and said, "Fast – would it be all right if we asked you to organize the defense?"

Would it be all right? After a decade of writing speeches, delivering them; after more than a bellyful of the literary life, it was not only all right but a singular honor. "It will be a pleasure," I said.

"What do you need?"

"I need thirty of the toughest, hardest workers you can find in Westchester, and I want them at my house in Croton at two o'clock."

"They'll be there." he said.

A few minutes later we broke up and drove away. I took Rachel home and we had lunch, and an hour later the first two carloads of workers drove up. When the bulk of them had arrived, we drove to Mt. Kisco and I set up the security system, first on the main road, then on the side road to the place, and then on the entrance to the place itself. Now a dozen state troopers were on hand; but we had no assurance of which side they were on, and we made adequate preparations of our own. As it happened, the meeting went off smoothly, and the single attempt at attack by a dozen young hoodlums from Peekskill was easily driven off.

(Apparently I was not the only one who realized about then that fascist attacks upon the progressive movement, unless backed by the armed force of the state apparatus, could be easily repulsed or contained. The fact that this was realized and accepted, not only by progressives but by the Westchester County and New York State Government, accounts for the subsequent blood-bath which is better known to the world as the Peekskill Affair than our first isolated defense of the hollow at the picnic grounds. I will deal with that later; and I mention it now only to explain the ease with which our small but organized defense drove off the single attack at Mt. Kisco.)

The Mt. Kisco place was on a hilltop, with a fine command of the countryside for miles in every direction. At a place where the lawn sloped down and away from the house, we set up a table as a speaker's stand. As we had no chairs, we decided that the people who came – still wondering if any would come – would sit on the lawn, and since the lawn was on a hillside, the speakers would be visible to everyone. We hopefully set aside two acres as a parking lot, with two youngsters in charge of parking arrangements; and then we waited.

You must remember that those of us directly concerned were still unaware of the impact of Peekskill on the outside world. We had not seen the newspapers, nor had we any opportunity of listening to the radio. Fighting, sleeping, and arranging this meeting had occupied every minute of our time. Therefore we could not estimate what the results of our call to the decent people of Westchester to rally here would be. In every case, in this and in later instances, we underestimated.

The cars began to arrive shortly after three o'clock – a single car, a few more, a few more, and then steadily – and then a sudden jam of cars as far down the road as we could see, hundreds and hundreds of cars.

More than sixteen hundred people came to that meeting, which had been called on a few hours' notice, which was in a fairly isolated part of Westchester, hard to find, hard to get to – yet better than sixteen hundred people came. I think that there and then I began to understand that Peekskill was something more than a personal nightmare, that it was the first tangible sign of a ferment, of the making of hell on earth for the people of the United States and for the people of other lands too – but more than that, for out of Peekskill, now and later, there was to be action and reaction, a testing of fascism (made in USA) and a testing of the forces of anti-fascism.

Cold and sober and angry were the people who came to Mt. Kisco. We had no sound apparatus, so they packed around the table, a sea of faces on the sloping lawn, listening to the story of what had happened before, listening to an itemization of how every official force in the vicinity, the district attorney, the local police, the state troopers, had so conducted themselves as to make mass murder a practical possibility. They heard the tale of the fight on the road and in the hollow, and of the attempted frameup on the murder count. And to all they listened soberly and coldly.

At this meeting, the Westchester Committee for Law and Order came into existence and proposed that Paul Robeson be invited to sing at Peekskill again.

Then we sang We Shall Not Be Moved, passed several resolutions on the incident, and the second day of Peekskill was over.

Of Mt. Kisco, there is only this to add. The people who gave us their home and lawns for that meeting cannot be too highly praised. They had much to lose, and since then they have suffered a good deal for it. The brave voices of anonymity call them constantly on the phone, mixing filth and threats, as do the writers of anonymity with their dirty little postcards. Terror paid them a lasting call. But their act was a confirmation of faith in the presence of many thousands of good, honest people like them in these United States.

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