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Masses & Mainstream
March, 1949, p 3-7
by Howard Fast
GERMANY AWAKE! That was in back of our minds, deep back, somewhere in the memories overlaid by almost twenty years, with one great war and many small wars in between, with Hitler mouldering in the earth, and Mussolini remembered as something strung up by the heels, like a stuck pig. But when we drove through Peekskill, at half past seven, on the morning of September 4th, we saw the banner slung from housetop to housetop; the dead filth was alive again. "Wake Up America!" it said. "Peekskill Did!" That way the day began which none of us will forget very quickly.
For me, however, and for a few hundred others, it began a week before, on Saturday, the 27th of August. I must tell about that too, for I feel that things can be better understood, and should be better understood. On the 27th of August I discovered that it is not enough for a writer to write of things, no matter how well he observes those things, no matter how clearly he sees those things, no matter how well he tells his tales. A point comes in the anti-fascist struggle where even the most truthful observer must take another step; this I discovered at Peekskill. I had not discovered it before, not during the war, not through any of the many things I had seen and put down on paper.
I was asked to be the chairman of the first scheduled concert, in Peekskill on the 27th. I was spending my vacation in Croton, and I thought it would be nice to be a part of a concert where Paul Robeson sang, in a bowl of green hills and meadows, which is a better amphitheatre for such singers than a concert hall.
I also considered taking my five-year-old daughter with me, since she loves Paul so much, and since an occasion like this would be well worth remembering. Neighbors up there advised against it. "There have been threats by the Legion," they said. I left the little girl at home, not because I believed in the threats, but because I thought the concert would last too long.
The point is, I didn't believe in the threats. Fascism was an abstraction, an abstraction I understood, but an abstraction nevertheless. For a week before this, I had read in the Peekskill Evening Star, a dirty little sheet, typical of our corrupt and rotten press, exhortations to prevent the concert. "The time for tolerance," said this miserable rag, "is over." But hadn't the Journal-American issued this same frantic call for violence again and again, and to no effect?
I spent most of that day swimming with my children; we had dinner together; and then I went to the Lakeland Picnic Grounds where the concert was to be held. I arrived there at seven o'clock, an hour before the scheduled time of the concert. One more car was admitted after mine. Then the road was closed - by storm troopers, and no other term fits. Storm troopers they were, some in uniform, some in plain clothes, all of them fitted out with the historic equipment, the brass knucks, the billies, the rocks, the wooden clubs, the lead pipes, and the filthy slogans. Between five and seven hundred of them closed the road, locked us in, and proceeded to attempt the mass murder of fifty men and a hundred and fifty women and children. Only the first two hundred of us, girls and boys who had volunteered as ushers, some concert goers and their children, and a handful of trade unionists, ever entered the grounds; and for the next two and a half hours after the road was closed we fought the storm troopers. And for two and a half hours, the police stood by; hands off, for the police.
We lived - because we organized and fought and maintained our discipline; and we learned about fascism. Half of us had been in some part of the war, the Bulge, the Pacific, Africa, the C.B.I., but we learned about fascism here, and this was a little worse. The lessons were on our skulls, our faces, our bodies; and at the last, when we stood in a tight circle, with the women and children inside, we saw the literal, the great fire into which our books, our music, our pamphlets were tossed, while the storm troopers danced around in a drunken, screaming frenzy.
"Wake up, America! Peekskill did."
So we came back a week later, to Peekskill, and we had our concert. We had learned about fascism, so a week later, when we returned, four thousand trade unionists, Negro and white, Jew and Gentile, stood shoulder to shoulder, a living ring of steel. Paul Robeson sang, and Peekskill heard him. We learned about Negro-white unity when thirty-six Negro and white men, alone in the darkness and cut off, fought shoulder to shoulder for two hours, arms linked, and we saw the evidence of that unity, not only in Harlem where fifteen thousand Negroes and whites demonstrated their fury, but in Peekskill on the 4th of September, when we came back together, Negro and white, twenty-five thousand strong.
But we hadn't learned enough. There were twenty-five thousand of us the second time, men and women of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, and only nine hundred of the storm troopers; we were disciplined and we had defending us the best of all fighters, the workers; but we hadn't learned enough of the nature of that peculiar filth that capitalism excretes, that thing called fascism. It was the nature of the beast that we were unwilling to admit; and again I almost took my children and other people did take theirs.
WHEN THAT DAY was over, we knew more, we understood more. Twenty-five thousand of us are different, and our blessed, beautiful, wonderful land is different too; and that must be known and understood. For in the course of that day, the 4th of September, 1949, we saw a thousand police, state troopers, sheriffs, deputies, county police, town police - we saw them join forces with the storm troopers and turn the aftermath of the concert into an orgy of blood and pain. We saw ourselves and our friends and our children covered with blood, beaten, blinded, maimed - we saw a battlefield stretched out over ten miles of road - we saw the sub-human frenzy of the union of police and storm troopers, Ku Klux Klan and Legion - we saw the hospital wards fill with our cut and bleeding - we saw what we had only read about, and when a storm trooper's knife cuts the eyeball of a Negro lad in two, so that it opens up like an egg, and a policeman watches, smiling, there are no words sufficient. This we saw - and, as I said, we are different.