The Second Night of Terror
It was rewarding to read in the New York Compass that Governor Dewey had requested District Attorney Fanelli of Westchester County to submit a full report on what had happened at Peekskill. The district attorney stated "that he didn't know anything about the disorders but was sure that the concert-goers and not the veterans or the hoodlums who attacked them were responsible." The governor had discharged his duty. All was well and would be well in the state of New York. And one must not be harsh on the little governor, for a new common law was coming into being already upheld by the courts to the effect that the murder of a Communist or a reasonable facsimile of a Communist not only was not a capital crime but was in a sense no crime at all.
"We're going to have the concert after all," I told Mrs. M, "and Paul will sing." This was on Thursday.
"On Sunday afternoon."
"I think he should sing if he wants to," Mrs. M said quietly. "I think anyone who wants to should."
"I should have mentioned that I'll be the chairman again."
"That can be a troublesome habit. You were once. Isn't that enough?"
"That's why. We set out to hold a concert, and now we're going to hold it. You can't run away from this kind of thing."
"Maybe you can't. But Rachel and Johnny and I can, and we're not going to stay here through another Peekskill."
"It won't be another Peekskill."
"You got a lot to learn, Mr. Fast," she said. "You know a lot about a lot of things, but I know more than you do about white folks and how they behave."
"What do you mean white folks?"
"You know what I mean," she said, and the next day she began to pack. I didn't argue with her, and I was relieved that the children would be back in the city. We drove back Saturday morning, opened the house, and refurbished the refrigerator. Then I called B R, a good friend and a Lincoln Brigade veteran. I asked him whether he wouldn't like to ride back to Croton and come along with me to the concert.
"I'll be down in half an hour," he said.
We drove back to Croton together that evening, and before we got there, I listened to a long lecture by R on common sense caution. "No one is dead yet," I pointed out.
"That's just the point," R said. "In your own way, you're just as blind as your middle class friends who insist that there is no fascism in America and will be none."
"I'm ready to admit it's in the making. God knows I should. But no one's out to kill me."
"Because it's B picture cloak and dagger nonsense. It would serve no useful purpose, and when the FBI decides to be rid of me, it will do it nicely and legally."
"Because you keep thinking in terms of the FBI. But when the trumpets sound this kind of song, all the lice crawl out and they crawl out to kill because fascism is the way of death and there's no holding it back once it's loose. I know. I was in Spain, and I saw those bastards operate in Spain."
"You're exaggerating," I argued, "and you will see tomorrow that we'll have no trouble at all. These lice, as you call them, don't like firmness, and this is a question of firmness."
"We'll see tomorrow," he agreed.
Before we went to the house, we stopped off at the N's and had tea with J and his lovely wife. I put the question R had raised to J N and asked him what his opinion was.
"I think we'll have trouble, but I also think we'll be in shape to handle it. There has been a call for trade unionists to protect the meeting, and I imagine we'll get a good response. On the other hand, the Peekskill gang has sent out a call for thirty thousand veterans, and every radio station in New York State has picked that up and broadcast it all day just to help out and it's no secret that this kind of a call means violence. My own guess is that three thousand is closer to what they'll get, but even three thousand can mean lots of trouble." (As a matter of fact, only a thousand or so hoodlums and thugs turned up the next day. It is anyone's guess how many of them were veterans.)
"What about the neighborhood?"
"This is a funny neighborhood," J said. "You know, there's no real industry here except the railroad, and the kids grow up in these river towns with no jobs and no future just a rotten, perverted petty-bourgeois outlook. They get a job at a gas station or a grocery store or a lunch wagon or with the fire department or some other political handout or they don't work and just scrounge around and live off the few dollars they pick up. They get twisted with bitterness, and they don't know what causes it or where to direct it. Then they hate, and it's easy for the Legion and the local Chamber of Commerce to use that hate. They're using it now. The Legion announced they would parade in front of our concert tomorrow, and we tried to get an injunction to stop the parade, but it seems that a lot of big operators want this thing to proceed according to plan. Also, there have been threats against people living here on the hill, so keep an eye cocked tonight."
"What time are you going to leave tomorrow?"
"Eight in the morning. How about breakfast here?"
"Isn't that early,?" (The concert was scheduled to begin at two
o'clock in the afternoon.)
"This time I want to get in," J smiled.
We agreed to meet at his house at seven-thirty, and then we left. It was a short ride to my house, and it was an uneasy feeling to be in the place, so dark and empty. Before we turned in, R switched off all the lights. Then we stood quietly in the living-room, listening.
"I feel extraordinarily foolish," I whispered.
"Nobody ever died of feeling foolish."
"What do you expect?"
"I wouldn't be standing here like this if I knew what to expect. I'm standing here like this because I don't know what to expect. But if you hit anyone, hit him hard. It's very dangerous to hit anyone lightly."
"I don't intend to hit anyone," I answered, feeling more foolish than ever.
"You didn't last week either, did you?"
"That was something else."
We stood there for about twenty minutes and then, under R's expert direction, we made several quiet circuits of the house. I hadn't played Indian since I was very young, and I felt astonishingly silly and reflected upon the idiotic things men do when they begin to shed civilization. It turned out, however, that R's precautions were based on reality. That night a series of separate attacks upon people in the area began. At my house, however, nothing happened. We slept quietly, and in the morning we were at N's house bright and early for breakfast.
When we left, N took his son with him, and suggested that we follow along in my car. We drove into Peekskill, along one of the main streets of the town, and saw the first of those
banners which have since become the sloganized expression of that Sunday. Strung across the avenue, it read: "WAKE UP AMERICA! PEEKSKILL DID!"
That was the first, but the slogan was everywhere, hanging from houses, pasted on telegraph poles, and stuck on the windshields of numerous cars passing us early though it was. (It was now shortly after eight o'clock in the morning.)
Reflectively, R said, "Deutschland, erwache!" the German equivalent, which had been shouted so often in the streets of Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Hamburg and Berlin, which had been chanted by the brownshirts as they fulfilled their divine purpose of beating Jews and Communists and flinging the works of Mann, Heine and Wasserman into the flames, and which had become the battle cry and the rallying cry for the taking of power by the Nazis. I wondered then and have wondered since whether this transliteration was one of the curious accidents of history, the symptomatic fever of a similar disease, regardless of geographical roots, or whether the "storm troopers" of Peekskill consciously translated the Hitlerian slogan to their own purposes. The latter would not surprise me; since, as I pointed out before, the fascists of the first attack had taken Hitler as their hero and shouted his name at us again and again. It is a mistake to imagine that fascists are just good-natured brutes, motivated by their spontaneous hatreds, without any conscious understanding of their aims and purposes; but it is also fascinating, if bitter, to contemplate a world wherein Adolf Hitler becomes the paragon of what is American, as opposed to such "un-American" elements as Robeson and Fast.
A short while later we reached the place chosen for the second Peekskill concert, and a word of explanation about this is in order. At the meeting at Mt. Kisco a week before or more properly at Katonah, since it was nearer to that village the Westchester Committee for Law and Order had come into being. This group of local citizens had established themselves as an ad-hoc committee to fight for civil rights in Westchester County, and one of their first steps was to invite People's Artists to hold another concert as soon as possible, with Paul Robeson as guest singer. As with the first concert, the Civil Rights Congress of Harlem was chosen as chief recipient of whatever funds might be collected. The trade unions in and, around New York were called upon to protect the meeting, and I will tell later how they responded.
To decide to hold the meeting was one thing; to find a place to hold it was something else entirely. The owner of Lakeland Acres, the place of last Saturday's events, was friendly and well-disposed toward us; but he quite justly pointed to the havoc the fascists had made of his picnic grounds. He could not see himself going through that again, not to mention the threats and reprisals which would result from cooperation on his part. And dozens of other owners of picnic grounds and property said much the same.
Finally a place was offered to us, and it was gratefully accepted. This place was owned by a former refugee from German fascism, a man who knew on the basis of personal experience what Peekskill meant, and who was watching a hideous retake of scenes from his own early life. He knew the risks he took by offering his place to us; he also knew the consequences he faced an attempt to burn down his house, as it turned out, bullets through the walls, etc. but in spite of this, he determined that as a principled measure, as his own blow for the right of public assembly and freedom of speech, he would make his place available for the concert.
Strangely enough, this place, the Hollow Brook Country Club, was almost an exact physical replica of Lakeland Acres. It lay in exactly the same position off the same road, and its entrance was only half a mile further from Peekskill than the entrance to the former place. Even its topography was similar, except that the private road leading in was somewhat shorter and that the open space at the bottom of the hollow was larger and flatter, making an arena at least four times the size of the one at Lakeland. It had once been a country club, and its broad meadows were grown long with seed grass. It was being held simply as real-estate property, and this was the first public use to which it had been put in some time.
We had expected to be among the very first to reach there early that morning; but it turned out that a good many others had the same idea, and were taking no chances on being prevented from reaching the place. At that hour there was no sign of any sort of fascist demonstration on the state road, but already more than a hundred cars of concert-goers and trade unionists were parked inside the grounds. The sight of that gave me an idea of what sort of crowd would turn up.
Driving well into the grounds, I chose a safe, out of the way place to park my car. While a concert in Westchester County is less dangerous than a war, it pays to learn; my ancient hired Plymouth had done yeoman service and would continue to give satisfaction. Then we strolled around the place, watching preparations being made to secure the grounds.
If ever my admiration for the discipline, strength and courage of the working class was confirmed, it was that day at Peekskill. Only in the weather was there any similarity to the week before and the awful, outnumbered fight our little group had made; the sky was blue and clear; the morning was crisp and cool and utterly delightful; and the lovely hills that hemmed in the valley were green, peaceful and deceptive. On a little hill which commanded the whole place, and which was to one's left as one entered the grounds, a command post had been set up by Leon Straus of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union. His staff consisted of representatives of half a dozen other unions as well as a group of his own men.
There on the hilltop was abundant evidence of order, discipline and organization. A tent had been raised as a first-aid shelter. Stacked and sheltered, were piles of first-aid supplies and gallon size canteens of water. Six volunteer runners were already at hand, sitting and waiting for orders which would take them to any part of the dozen or so acres which had to be protected, and the group of trade unionists who had taken on the job of seeing to it that this concert would not be a repetition of the last were crouched over a scale map and plan for the defense of the grounds. It had to be a unique type of defense, a defense without weapons, a defense, if possible, without a blow being struck, a defense which would achieve its purpose through the highest type of discipline and restraint.
The story of the setting up and execution of that defense has never fully been told. It deserves to be told because that defense was wholly and uniquely an expression of the American working class; and for other reasons too, for this was the first time to my knowledge that our working class had engaged in precisely this kind of an effort, an effort so vast and so coordinated, in defense of a singer and a people's hero whom they loved and honored.
The best way to describe the defense is from my own vantage point there on the hillside where I sat for hours, watching it being set up, watching Leon Straus marshal it out, pull it together, set the pieces to matching. Also, I know of no better tribute to Straus than to tell what he accomplished there and of the leadership he gave afterwards. He has many qualities, great qualities.
After our arrival there was a steady stream of concert-goers, as well as trade union volunteers for the defense. The concertgoers came in individual cars or in hired buses, more of them in cars, I would guess, while the trade unionists from Local 65, from fur and electrical, from furniture and the shoe workers' union, as well as from maritime and the needle trades arrived for the most part by bus, each local sending its organized contingent. The concert-goers drove into the grounds, where their cars were parked in orderly rows, and they continued to arrive even after the concert had finally started. The trade unionists came earlier; for the most part they left their buses near the entrance and marched down the road toward the natural arena.
The arena lay just below and beyond the command post, sheltered to some degree from the road by the bluff of the hill. We were unable to provide chairs, and in any case we could only guess how many people would come, so it was decided that they would sit on the grass and make themselves comfortable in whatever way they could.
The first contingents of trade unionists were already arriving when we got there, and during the next two hours several thousand of them marched in. As each group appeared, they were met by one of Straus's runners, who identified them and stayed with them until they were given an area of the perimeter of defense. I have no way of determining now just how long this perimeter of defense was, and the pictures we have available show only sections of it; but it enclosed the whole space of the concert, twenty-five thousand in the audience and more than a thousand automobiles, and always there was a space of more than a quarter of a mile between any part of the perimeter and the edge of the audience, and the guards stood shoulder to shoulder, literally touching each other. Official estimates put the number of trade unionists on the perimeter at two thousand, five hundred. Thus it becomes apparent what a vast organizational problem it was to lay out these men in a solid line over the distance I describe. The credit for this must go to Straus and the men who worked with him.
To watch it happen, all within two and a half hours, was a thrilling sight. The groups of trade unionists cut over the fields, through the woods, out of sight frequently, and then all of a sudden the line began to take shape. First a piece of it here, then another piece there, then sections to fill in, then the gaps grew smaller and smaller, and then suddenly there was this endless wall of human bodies solidly around the whole great area.
Below, in the center of the natural arena where a single, tall oak tree stood, a second line of guards was established within the audience, covering perhaps half an acre.
While this went on, both the audience and the fascists began to gather. The audience swelled beyond belief. We had anticipated five, perhaps ten thousand men and women to hear the concert but we had ten thousand and fifteen thousand and twenty thousand, and still they came. From Harlem, busload after busload; from Brooklyn and the Bronx and Manhattan, from Jersey City and Newark more and more busloads. And private cars, hundreds and hundreds, each car loaded to capacity something for which we paid an awful price, as you will see.
As our own crowd swelled, the fascist counter-demonstration, held on the state road, fell short of its goal. Not only had they themselves predicted that thirty thousand veterans would turn up to prevent the concert a holy duty but every radio station and newspaper in the state echoed their cal! for volunteers for violence. As it turned out, however, there were never more than a thousand men in their parade; and there is no doubt that for every war veteran in their demonstration, we had ten in ours. As far as these thousand were concerned, our guards could have taken ample care of them at any part of the perimeter, but this time the police entered the picture very early in the day, and this time there were a thousand state and county police, a thousand well-armed, coordinated police with a very definite purpose in mind.
And as our defense preparations were completed, as the audience grew and Straus's human wall formed itself and held absolute position, resisting provocation under a hot sun for hours the purpose of the police was put into action.
The role of the police on this day must be noted carefully and noted again and again as the various incidents of the day are unfolded; for a cop's club is an agile weapon, and the man who swings it has the law and the courts and the judges on his side, and to prove anything against him is just about as hard as handling eels after you've coated the palms of your hands with vaseline.
When Straus and the people with him planned the defense, they knew they were acting wholly within the law. The defense was orderly and unarmed, and since we had rented the whole of the vast grounds, what we did on them was our affair and our right, just so long as we broke no law in doing it. But when the police saw the completeness and solidarity of the defense, they began immediately to attempt ways of breaking it down.
At eleven o'clock they marched about three hundred state troopers into the grounds and dispersed them over the area. At one o'clock, Superintendent Gaffney of the police came to Leon Straus and demanded that he pull in the whole perimeter a quarter of a mile. This would have placed the guards and audience in one solid block, giving the fascists an opportunity to swarm into the place and prevent the concert.
Straus refused. Gaffney ranted and threatened, but Straus pointed out to him that we had hired this ground and that we could put our guards wherever we pleased and that we damn well intended to do so. He also pointed out to Gaffney that at no point were our guards less than twenty yards from the state road, and he didn't see how any trouble could arise unless we were attacked. Thereupon, Gaffney gave his ultimatum: either we pulled our line of guards back, or he would pull out every one of his cops.
"We don't need them," Straus smiled. "There won't be any violence in this place."
A while later, three hundred troopers marched out of the grounds and took up places on the road. Until now, the fascist demonstration on the road had made a pretense of being an orderly parade orderly in form, but typically filthy in content of the curses and abuse and vile oaths flung at the people who entered the grounds. (It is worth remarking how consistently these apostles of "Christianity" and "Americanism" indulge in language not only unprintable but also unthinkable to decent human beings.) But now the police gave the signal to drop the pretense.
A barrage of rock-throwing began. Backed by hundreds of laughing cops, the American Legion heroes lined the road and heaved rocks at our defense line. The range was long, but every now and then a rock would strike one of our guards. Several of them were badly injured there, but not once in all the long hours of that day did the line break or retreat. It was a magnificent demonstration of quiet courage and determination.
The cops, on the other hand, went into their own routine the time-worn routine of the American policeman when he is given a chance to show what he is made of. The entrance to the concert grounds was now blocked, and several late carloads of Negroes arrived.
These late cars note that the concert had already begun, which I will return to in a moment were halted by the fascists, and several of the Negroes were dragged out into the road. When they resisted and fought for their right to go through, the police took a hand. (Even as Louis Budenz has become synonymous with honor in today's America, so might gallantry be defined as the opportunity for a dozen cops to attack a single Negro with their nightsticks.) They took a hand in their typical manner, beating, clubbing the Negroes beating and clubbing without reason or provocation, but with unbelievably ferocious hatred. This went on up on the road, and these particular incidents were photographed as well as attested to by subsequent statements of the Negroes involved; so my own testimony is neither involved nor in doubt. The incidents were cruel, senseless, barbaric and unnecessary, and at the time we did not know about them. The topography of the place was such that these beatings were not visible even to the line of guards, much less to the audience below.
Meanwhile, close to twenty-five thousand people were gathering in the hollow below to hear the concert. They had seated themselves, on the ground for the most part, in a half circle around the inner ring of guards; and I might mention that these guards were a precaution against the possibility of the infiltration of a small fascist gang with intent to assassinate Paul Robeson. Though this sounds somewhat dramatic in the telling, subsequent events proved that Leon Straus dealt with cold reality, and dealt with it very well indeed.
I think it was about noontime that Robeson arrived. The singers and musicians from People's Artists had arrived a little earlier, and since I had to make up the program, we sat down below, next to
the sound truck, and talked it over. Under advice of the security people, Robeson remained in his car.
There were Pete Seeger, Sylvia Kahn, and a number of others, one of them a young concert pianist of talent and importance. They were thrilled by the occasion, the crowd, the sea of human beings. When had there been a chance to sing to a mass of people as great as this ?
"And it's all yours," I told them. "Whatever has to be said here today aside from my own remarks, you'll have to say with your music and songs.
"That's the moment we always dreamed of," Pete Seeger grinned. "To do it with songs and with nothing else."
"Well, that's the way you'll have to do it. Suppose we start some group singing in about a half hour. Then you'll lead off. Then the piano pieces; then Paul; then we'll take a collection; then you people again, and then Paul to close the program."
"It sounds good."
"Then write down the titles of your numbers, so I can announce them."
I walked to Paul's car and said hello to him. It was the first chance to speak to him since the Saturday before, and I was full of the contrast between the two occasions and understandably proud of that wall of trade unionists which surrounded the whole area.
"A little different," I remember saying.
He nodded, but he was sober and troubled. He felt what was in the making, but I was full of our own strength and our own discipline and full of contempt for the creatures on the road. Nothing was going to happen; this was our day!
I walked over to the sound truck and was standing there talking to the engineer, when the man responsible for security at the center came over and motioned me aside.
"Howard," he said, "I want you to set the sound truck under that big oak, right under it."
(You will recall that there was one great oak in the center of the arena area.)
"How can we? If we put the sound truck under the tree, our people will be singing through the branches. That doesn't make sense."
"It makes sense."
"Because we've had our scouts out in the woods and up there on the hills since early this morning, and we just learned that they flushed up two local patriots who had made a little nest for themselves up there overlooking the valley. And they had high-powered rifles with telescopic sights. In other words, they want to kill Paul, and they will stop at very little to do it. So put the sound truck under the tree."
You do not equate fascism with sanity; I had learned that. You do not equate it with reason, with intelligence, with civilization or decency or morality. The impossible becomes possible, the incredible credible; what is evil is matter of fact and part and parcel of the whole.
I had the sound truck placed under the tree. Then I took the program notes, went up to the microphone, and announced that we would begin our concert. Believe me, I did not feel good or comfortable or brave; the branches made a poor shelter indeed, and I had no assurance that those high-powered rifles with the telescopic sights might not be indecisive as to their target. When I got down and when Pete Seeger had begun to sing, I went to our security head and told him.
"I don't think Paul ought to sing," I said. "The hell with it! It's not that important, and if you want to be naked, just stand up there."
"He's going to sing. He's decided that. He'll be all right. We've taken certain measures."
They took measures, which meant that fifteen workers did a very brave and a very selfless thing. When Paul Robeson stood up to sing, those fifteen workers stood behind and alongside of him, forming a human wall between him and the hillside, and in this they were neither uncertain nor troubled. It was something they did quite casually and matter of factly, but it was also something I will never forget. They were white workers and Negro workers, and this giant of a man was one of the very, very few intellectuals in the whole land who had not fled from their side, who had not betrayed them, who had not crawled for cover, but stood like a rock unperturbed and unshaken. This was a better answer than words.
So our concert went smoothly enough, and with all the difficulties there was good music there that day. The great voice of Paul Robeson echoed back from the hills; the music of Handel and Bach was played there; and Pete Seeger and his friends sang those fine old songs of a time when treason and hatred and tyranny were not the most admired virtues of Americans. And the police did what they could. When they saw that they were not able to prevent the concert, they brought in a helicopter and it hovered over our sound truck constantly, swooping down to buzz us again and again, trying to drown out the sound of our music with the noise of its motor. To some extent they succeeded, but we were fortunate that the motor of a helicopter is less noisy than that of a regular airplane. It did not spoil the concert.
In any case, the important factor was that the concert had been held and that the right of assembly had been upheld; and through it all no person on our side had committed any act of provocation, nor had any person on our side broken the disciplined order of our defenses.
That was accomplished, but at the same time it was a new America, a different America, in which thousands of workers and their allies had to conduct a mass struggle of such size and consequence for a Negro singer to give his music to people who wanted to hear it. A change had come about, not in the eight days of Peekskill more gradually than that, certainly for a long time before that in process but brought to a head and climaxed by the eight days; and in this changed America, we had won a victory in the name of the American people, most certainly in the name of the American people and in the very best traditions of the American people.
Yet the day was not by any means over, not by any means; and it was only late afternoon now, and the night of terror and horror, so much greater terror and so much worse horror than a week before, still lay ahead. The concert was done, and once again I found R and the two of us walked aimlessly among the crowd. Now was the time for getting out, but though cars had driven into the entranceway and filled the inside road, nothing moved. We who were in the hollow below did not know what held things up. We took it for granted that it required time and patience to clear such a place of so many hundreds of cars through one narrow road. We didn't know that the fascists had blocked the road, that our security people were arguing with the police to clear it or let us clear it ourselves. We also didn't know that the police were set for their spell of riot, their own incredible plan of what should happen. We didn't know any of that yet. The evening was still early in the Hudson River Valley, with shadows becoming longer and the sun dropping lower, but with the enormous crowd in a holiday spirit, a picnic spirit, nobody too impatient, everybody pleased that this simple act of assembly had been carried through.
It was a family crowd, as it was bound to be on a summer afternoon. There were many women, more women than men, I suppose, for so many of the men were in the defense line of the perimeter; there were a great many children, a great many very small children, and at least a few hundred infants. You might wonder that so many people would bring children and little infants after what had happened the week before, but I must explain that by and large people were not ready to accept what had happened the week before, even intelligent progressive people who had known about fascism for so long. For one thing, until you read it in this account, there was no complete narrative of the first Saturday of Peekskill. I had not told the story fully, nor had anyone else; so that while it was known that there had been trouble, no one really saw the complexion of that trouble. People said to themselves,
"The first time, the trouble was an accident. The police didn't arrive until very late and things got out of hand. But this time the whole world has its eyes on Peekskill, and there can't possibly be any trouble. The governor would not allow it. The state troopers would not allow it. The county police would not allow it. District Attorney Fanelli is in enough hot water already, and certainly he would not allow it. So it will just be a sunny, peaceful concert, and we'll bring the kids and have a good time."
Yes, as inconceivable as it sounds, that is what people said to themselves and to each other, and that is why they brought little children and nursing infants with them; for the reality of what did happen was even more inconceivable.
Now, while we were waiting for the cars to begin to move, two of our security guards appeared, escorting a young hoodlum who had crept through their lines. He sat on the grass, looking around him, a lad of eighteen or so with his face full of hate and his eyes full of terror. But no one had hurt him or made any move to hurt him, and while R and I watched, two women tried to explain to him some meaning in connection with his role. He couldn't listen; there was too much hatred all through him, and when the guards told him to go, he bolted like a deer.
Cars were moving now and the afternoon was wearing on. R, who has spent the best years of his life being a soldier in two wars and an industrial organizer, has a better nose for danger than I have, and now he was shaking his head.
"I don't like it, I don't like it," he kept saying.
We got in the car. Two men begged us for a lift, and we put them in back. I started the motor and pulled into the outgoing line. Then the line stood still, and I cut my motor. It seemed like a long wait was on the agenda.
Two of the security guards passed down the line of cars, telling each driver, "Close all windows as you approach the exit. They seem to be throwing things."
The situation was new to us, and Fords and Plymouths and Pontiacs were not built as military weapons. If people were throwing things, it seemed eminently correct that the windows should be closed protectively, and motorists as a whole have a rather childlike faith in the much-touted and widely advertised shatter-proof glass. No one questioned the advice, but even if they had, the damage would have simply taken other forms.
The line would move a few feet, then stop; a wait of about five minutes and then a few feet more. Driving an old car and depending on it, I was afraid of overheating, so I cut my motor constantly. But then suddenly we were in motion and the entrance was in sight and we rolled up and through it and out. A small cluster of hell was at work at the entrance; cops, in a craze of hate, were beating cars, not people, with their long clubs, smashing fenders, lashing out against windshields, doing a dance of frenzy as the autos rolled out of the place. Even through our closed windows we could hear the flood of insanely vile language from the police, the unprintable oaths, the race words, the slime and filth of America's underworld of race hatred compressed into these "guardians" of the law, and released now. There were about thirty of them grouped there at the entrance, and they flogged the cars as if the automobiles were living objects of their resentment.
(That was the experience, incidentally, of the car which carried Paul Robeson. The police beat in the windshield and smashed at the car itself in their desire to get at the occupants.)
But that was only the beginning. When a car left the concert grounds, it had a choice of three roads. Directly ahead, through the state road, was a narrow byroad which led to the parkway. The state road itself ran north and south, so it might be thought of as approaching a T from the top of the crossbar; that is, the state road made the crossbar and the small road the upright of the T. The
crazy dance of police fury imposed a quick decision on each car, and my own was to turn right since I did not know the other two roads and had a very strong desire to drive on familiar territory.
This is what happened and what I saw. I state it carefully, as something I witnessed, with R beside me to support this statement. I might add, however, that the experience on each of the other two roads was a good deal worse, particularly on the narrow road which led to the parkway. Of what happened on that road, ample photographs give evidence.
It happened more quickly than it takes to tell it, but it must be told slowly. About thirty yards after I turned right on the state road, it began. On the left side of the road there were two policemen. The two policemen were about twenty feet apart, and between them were six or seven legionnaires with a great pile of heavy rocks. As my car came within range, they began to throw. The cops did not throw. They watched, smiling approval, and it became evident that these two policemen had been detached as guards for the group of rock-throwers just in case a car should stop and turn on the rock-throwers.
(I dwell on this because this same thing was true of every organized group of rock-throwers. Each group had one or two cops detailed I say detailed because I can't believe that the cops just wandered along the road as protection. It is true that there were many individual rock-throwers along the road without police protection, but where they were in groups, cops were with them.)
One reacts slowly, and I only comprehended what was happening when the first rocks crashed against the car. The first hit the door frame, between the front and rear windows; the second hit the frame of the windshield; two more heavy rocks crashed into the body of the car. The cops held their bellies and howled with mirth.
Fortunately, I had a block or two of empty road in front of me, and I was able to step on the gas and shoot ahead. Forty or fifty yards, and there was the second group, and this time, full of rage, I turned my car into them and roared over the shoulder at forty miles an hour. The group scattered and the cops tumbled away for shelter. The third group, however, caught us like sitting ducks, and once again the flood of boulders crashed against the car. Once again amazing luck was with us; the rocks smashed against the body and frame of the car, missing the windows. (Ours was one of the very few cars which escaped without broken glass and bleeding passengers.) With the next group, on the left this time, I used the same tactics as before, driving across the road, up on the shoulder and right into them, and as before they scattered. And so it went, from group to group, through that nightmare gauntlet.
Then, suddenly, we had to slow down. The car ahead of us had fared worse than we; every window was smashed, even the rear window. I remember saying to R,
"The road is wet. They must have gotten the gas tank or the radiator."
There was a dark wetness that flowed out of the car ahead of us; and then we realized that it was blood, but an enormous flow of blood that ran from the car that way and onto the road.
The rocks began again, and I jockeyed on. We had gone over a mile now. The car ahead pulled over to the side and the driver sat with his head hanging over the wheel. His head was bloody all over.
After a mile and a half there were no more large, organized groups of rock-throwers, but individuals instead. An occasional crashing blow reminded us of the individuals. (But further on, three, four, five and ten miles from Peekskill, organized groups were stationed on every overpass, to pelt the cars below with rocks. In this way, many cars which had never been near the concert that day were badly smashed and their occupants hurt.)
Two miles or so from the concert grounds, a car had pulled into a gas station. This car, like so many others, left a trail of blood behind it. Five adults and one child emerged, and they were all covered with blood from head to foot. The child was weeping softly and they stood like people dazed, and a few feet away a
group of young hoodlums hurled rocks at the passing cars. I pulled over to the gas station to stop and see if we could help the wounded people, but a cop stationed there ran at us, screaming oaths and beating the car with his club. When he started to draw his revolver, we drove on. Another car stopped and R, turning around, saw the policeman beat the windshield of the car in with his club while he drew his revolver with his other hand. It was behavior which bordered on the paranoid, and though I have many times in the past seen police go into their frenzied dance of hatred against workers or progressives, I never saw anything to equal this display. And I must make the point that these were not single instances, for a while later when we stopped at a crossroad, we saw another policeman smashing in the windshield of a car which had halted for directions.
In Peekskill, in Buchanan and in Croton-on-Hudson, we continued to run the gauntlet of rocks, and the road we traveled was running with blood and littered with broken glass. Never in all my life have I seen so much blood; never have I seen so many people so cruelly cut and bleeding so badly. At another service station we saw three cars parked in a great spreading pool of blood and the people trying to staunch the flow of it.
R and I dropped the two passengers we carried at Harmon, where they were going to take a train north to their summer cottage. We discussed going back to the concert grounds, but it was evening now and we decided that it would be to no purpose to try to return. By now, certainly, all the cars were out; and as for the horror of proceeding along the roads, we still had to face that ourselves, and we could not change it. We drove to my house; it was still and peaceful in the twilight. I called the N's but no one answered the phone, and I wondered where they and their three children were.
"New York?" I asked R. He nodded, and we got in the car and drove down the hill, and ran into another barrage of rocks at Harmon. (My windows were down now. I preferred to take my chances with rocks rather than flying glass.) We turned onto the parkway, and a car in front of us was met by a volley of heavy rocks from the first overpass we came to. I drove wide and around to escape, but the car behind us was shattered glass and bleeding passengers. And all the rest of the way back into New York City we saw those cars around us on the road the bent fenders where the police had smashed them in, the shattered windows, the bleeding passengers. It was as though the survivors of a bombing raid or a battle were driving into the city....
In the city, I dropped R and came back to my own house. It was night time now, and the children were being made ready for bed. Mrs. M had been keeping supper hot for me. It was a quiet, orderly world, the world of so many Americans, the world of sanity and peace and civilization. It was the world which had looked out on the monstrosities of German and Italian and Spanish and Japanese and Greek and Hungarian and Rumanian fascism and had said, with such childlike and insular certainty, "It can't happen here."
I ate what my stomach would hold, and then turned on the radio and listened to the piecemeal descriptions of the assault on human life and human dignity. The hospitals were filling up; all over Westchester the hospitals were filling up with the blinded, the bleeding and the wounded, the cut, lacerated faces, the fractured skulls, the infants with glass in their eyes, the men and women trampled and beaten, the Negroes beaten and mutilated, all the terribly hurt who had come to listen to music....
I paced back and forth, nervous, worried; it was not overasking myself the question: "Would it ever be over?"
Then the phone rang. It was a friend in the city, and he told me something of what had happened at the end of things. About a thousand of the trade unionists had remained to the very end to prevent a mob attack on the grounds. They didn't know at that time, I believe, what was transpiring along the roads. Their buses had driven off, but they remained to hold the place, and finally in
a group they began to march out. The police drove them back into the grounds. With swinging clubs, the police hundreds of police charged into them, beat many of them into insensibility, pulled guns on them, arrested twenty-five of them who were marched away with hands over their heads, like prisoners of war then searched the rest for weapons. No weapons were found. The police surrounded the trade unionists with guns drawn and held on them. Finally, in the darkness, they were told,
"All right get out of here!"
Now my friend told me that word had just come from a group of them stranded near Golden's Bridge. Would I drive back and look for them?
So I went back and as I drove through Peekskill, a bullet whistled past my car, just to complete the enormous insanity. Just to make the whole of it as impossible and as monstrous as it actually was.
I followed instructions, but when I reached the place, all had gone, and the little store where they had been was dark and closed. I drove home then. I had two brandies and went to bed.
The eight days of Peekskill were finished.