Tuesday, September 04, 2007

September 4

The pace of the Cold War accelerated in 1949; within a matter of months, the Soviet Union announced its first successful nuclear weapons test and victorious communist forces announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China. As their ancestors had done in the aftermath of World War I, self-professed American patriots stiffened with vigilance, rooting out internal subversives and arraying themselves in defense of the “American way of life.” Among other things, such defenses apparently required that hundreds of drunken yokels attack musicians and concert-goers at a picnic grounds north of Peekskilll, New York.

The “Peekskill Riots,” as they came to be known, actually began on August 27, 1949, when a benefit concert performance by Paul Robeson was pre-empted by several hundred men who -- expressing their dissent from Robeson’s political views by smashing chairs and pounding bystanders -- prevented the event from taking place. During the weeks prior to the event, local newspaper editorials had combined with the ululations of the local Ku Klux Klan to whip the community into an anti-black, anti-Semitic, and anti-communist frenzy. Hostility toward the concert organizers and performers only intensified when the event was rescheduled for the following week. On September 4 -- with private security drawn from the ranks of nearby unions -- Robeson took the stage with Pete Seeger and other musicians, performing without incident before a crowd of 25,000. After the concert was over, however, the previous week’s violence resumed.

In a ballad written and recorded the following week, Pete Seeger recalled the skirmish:
There were 900 police, deputies and state troopers at Peekskill. They allowed the mob to form along a four mile line of road, and directed all traffic down this only exit, and then stood by watching while the hoodlums threw rocks through the windows of cars and buses. Heads were bashed in, eyes were cut by flying glass. Cars were overturned, and the people in them dragged out and beaten! And the police stood by and laughed! Hoodlum gangs went on a night-long reign of terror all through Westchester County clear down to 210th Street and Broadway. Then the police moved! They moved into the picnic grounds to beat up the trade union guards.
Although no one died, several hundred injuries were sustained during the two battles, whose effects were reported across the globe. An official investigation, ordered by Governor Thomas Dewey, insisted that communists bore the ultimate responsibility for the violence in Peekskill.

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