Friday, March 5, 2021

Days of '49: Remembering Peekskill

A new radio play by Tayo Aluko based on events surrounding Paul Robeson's concert in Peekskill, New York in 1949, and the racist, anti-communist riots that came before and after it, drops on Paul Robeson's birthday -- April 9th -- and it seems more timely than ever.
One of the artistic projects I've been involved with as a minor participant since early autumn is a radio play.  It's a fictional depiction of real historical events, and as I read the play, participated in the online rehearsals and recording sessions with the playwright, the director, and the other actors involved, the history we were bringing to life seemed to be getting more and more relevant by the day.

If I weren't paying close attention, it would be easy to dissociate and forget what time zone I was in.  Racist, anti-Semitic mobs laying siege to an event, attacking participants indiscriminately as police were completely absent, or stood by and did nothing.  

Their explicit aim was to lynch someone -- musician, activist, athlete, linguist, and African-American, Paul Robeson.  Though they failed in this effort, they injured many people, and destroyed a lot of property in the form of cars and buses as people were trying to leave town -- succeeding in the latter efforts particularly because of the active cooperation of the local authorities in directing traffic their way, down narrow roads.  They succeeded in creating an atmosphere of terror that resulted in events being canceled across the country soon afterwards, among many other consequences.

The mob was not only protected by the police, but they were very actively encouraged by the local press, which had a familiar, one-sided orientation -- if you didn't believe in capitalism, you were a communist, the enemy within, out to take away our freedom and prosperity.  

And it wasn't just the local press.  Although it may not have been necessary to lie in order to make people look bad, the most incendiary claims that motivated the mob to act as they did were fabricated from whole cloth, with parts of a speech that soon became globally infamous being sent across the wires before the speech was delivered -- and inaccurately.

But it wasn't just the rightwing, racist, anti-Semitic mobs motivated by ideologues, assisted by fake news put out by some combination of press outlets and politicians, with the active collusion of the local police, laying siege to established, annual, local events that seemed so familiar.  There were so many other things.

While it was a prosperous period for many, for many others it wasn't.  Especially for those struggling to find a job after so many industries were in transition in the years following the Second World War -- in Peekskill, New York, and across the country.  

Before Westchester County became the extremely wealthy New York City suburb that it is today, it was the nearest rural area north of New York City where people from the big city could have weekend and summer getaways.  Before it was that, it was a river valley dotted with factory towns and farms.

That combination of radical ideologues with control over huge propaganda machines, spouting lies, egging on mobs to create an atmosphere of terror, in the context of rapid societal transformation, with so many people sacrificing so much to live such precarious lives, is not a new one.  And it is a combination that has caused so much damage in the past.

I don't pretend to have all the answers for salvaging this society, but I'm sure wherever those answers lie, they must probably involve first understanding what led to the events of August and September, 1949, in Peekskill, New York.

Tayo Aluko's radio play about the Peekskill Riots, Paul Robeson's Love Song, drops on Paul Robeson's birthday, on April 9th, 2021.  More info about the launch will be up on Tayo's website soon.

1 comment:

  1. [This is my 2nd try as this morning I wrote the whole piece, hit "Preview" and it vanished into blog-o-sphere.] We rode into Putnam Valley and the northern outskirts of Peekskill in the early '70s and eventually made friends with some "red diaper babies" still living in the area where they and their Jewish readical parents were terrorized during the riots. They knew others who had their basements stocked with food (and possible weapons) in the event the locals came after them in what was, of course, the McCarthy Era. Eventually we all started a coffeehouse in Lake Peekskill called "The Night Kitchen" (yes, from the book, we all had kids). At some point we realized we needed to raise funds to finish the work of bringing the old building up to code so we decided to hold a big fundraiser. Paul Robeson was still alive then and of course their parents knew him as did many hold overs in the area, a place still rife with former rioters. Paul showed up, as did his old fans, but the rioters did not. One of them was even a selectman for the Town of Putnam Valley. It seemed the '60s & '70s were taking a toll on the reactionary, anti-Semitic racists from the area. Our coffeehouse was never trashed or burned to the ground and over in Ossining, where the Rosenbergs were executed at Sing Sing Prison a radical community center had opened its doors and soon thereafter Pete Seeger and friends from Clearwater Sloop Restoration held the first Hudson River Revival with a "Walk for Water". Times had changed.
    Dave, if you want I can connect you with some of our red diaper friends.


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