- Historic Sites
A Rough Sunday At Peekskill
Paul Robeson was giving a concert. It ended in a riot that foreshadowed the McCarthy era of the 1950’s
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Some of the injured straggled into hospitals in Peekskill, Ossining, and a scattering of other villages. Many more, afraid to entrust themselves to local mercies, nursed their wounds all the way back to New York City. Most of the injuries were caused by shattered glass—”from windshields,” one victim notes, “that we all thought were shatterproof.”
Police arrested twelve of the protesters, a modest number considering that dozens were active in the violence. Five of those arrested pleaded guilty to minor offenses and were sentenced by municipal courts. Four others, including Joseph Lillis, Jr., twenty-fiveyear-old son of the Peekskill police chief, were charged with malicious mischief for throwing stones and overturning an automobile. None of the Robesonites was arrested. As the victims of the violence they were hardly subject to arrest, except that the prevailing local attitude held them guilty of provoking the attacks made upon them. As the Peekskill mayor, John N. Schneider, put it, the responsibility “rests solely on the Robesonites, as they insisted on coming to a community where they weren’t wanted.”
Where were Straus’s vaunted security guards while the violence was under way? They were on the concert grounds, most of them still at their places in the defense perimeter. Defense chief Straus, who is now an executive with the Pathmark Drug Company, says that for at least a half hour after the concertgoers began leaving, the security guards were unaware that any violence was being done. He says also that the guard “only existed to prevent attacks on the concert.” Paul Robeson, Jr., who was one of the guards, says he was aware only of “confusion up on the [main] road” —although word was quickly passed down the line of departing cars to roll up windows and be ready for a barrage of missiles. Robeson senior, at a press conference the following day, said that the police were “waiting” for his supporters to fight back: “They would have shot us down then. They were ready to massacre us.” What is more likely is that the police were determined to keep the security guards from entering the fray.
The liveliest postriot controversy centered on the behavior of the police. Numerous leftist leaders, including Robeson and Fast, charged them flatly with permitting and in many instances joining the protesters’ attacks; Leon Straus says that police officers “uttered the same threats to me as the local hoods, threatening to invade the concert and destroy it.” The American Civil Liberties Union, in a lengthy report on the two riots, distinguished between the special deputies recruited locally and the detachment of state troopers, claiming that the county officers “permitted the assault,” while the troopers “performed their duty well by contrast. …” The county’s elaborate preparations to prevent violence “were a sham,” the ACLU said. The weight of the evidence from newspaper reports and interviews with concertgoers generally supports the ACLU conclusion. When a policeman was identified as having permitted or joined in an attack, he was almost always a special deputy. The troopers’ attentiveness to their task increased markedly after one of their number was felled by a stone, presumably an errant one, early in the action. The most supportable charge against them seems to be that as directors of the postconcert traffic they held the cars to a speed that made them easy targets for the attackers.
S. W. “Si” Gerson, a security guard, later an editor of the Daily World , charges the Dewey administration with “giving covert encouragement to a mob.” In not intervening more strongly after the first riot the governor could indeed be said to have failed in his responsibility. The failure was in not sufficiently discouraging county and local officials from permitting public emotions to get out of hand. The ACLU report noted that although the concert ended at 3:30 P.M. , the demonstrators were permitted to remain at the entrance to the grounds and to congregate along the highways leading from it.
A murkier question is the extent to which Communists controlled the Peekskill events and used them to their own purposes. The veterans’ organizations were not alone in envisioning a Communist master plot. Warren Moscow, who covered the riots for the New York Times , said recently: “The Communists were looking for an incident. They hunted around the Eastern seaboard to find a place ripe for controversy and—after the first try at a Peekskill concert failed—decided on that.” While the Communist Party has always been skilled at creating incidents for its own purposes, it did not need to create this one. The first riot had taken care of that.
Reactions to the riots varied generally according to the distance from Peekskill. The closer one got, the more defensive the reaction became. Lieutenant Governor Joe R. Hanley of New York told a VKW meeting in Troy that “we ought to put a stop to free speech in these places.” Although a Peekskill clergymen’s group called for a “show of shame and contrition for these violent and unlawful acts and attitudes,” the veterans and their followers acted defiantly proud of their actions. The “Wake Up America” stickers remained on display, and several organizations announced plans for still another “patriotic demonstration.” Meanwhile local residents who had attended the September 4 concert drove downtown as seldom as possible—lest they be recognized by their damaged cars.