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Context of 'Mid-September 1949: Veterans Organizations Denounce Peekskill Riots'

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Novelist and political activist Howard Fast, an avowed Communist who writes regularly for the pro-Stalinist Daily Worker, agrees to speak at a concert featuring baritone Paul Robeson and folk singer Pete Seeger. The concert is organized by a group called People’s Artists, and slated to take place at a picnic ground just north of Peekskill, New York. The concert is to benefit a group called the Civil Rights Congress, fighting for a stay of execution for six African-American youths sentenced to death in New Jersey.
Volatile Mix of Ideologies, Ethnicities - The Peekskill area is a well-known vacation place for African-Americans. The area itself is populated by large and antagonistic groups of conservatives of ethnic minority backgrounds, and leftists, most of them Jewish and many from New York City, who live in the area either all year or as summer residents. Parts of Peekskill, Fast later writes, have been “bypassed by the rush of American industrial development” and are home to large numbers of unemployed and underemployed rural Americans. Before the concert begins that evening, Fast learns that the Peekskill Evening Star has been running inflammatory editorials calling for the local populace to come out in protest at the “anti-American” and “subversive” concert—“every ticket purchased for the Peekskill concert will drop nickels and dimes into the basket of an un-American political organization… the time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out,” one editorial reads—and the American Legion is planning a march to “vehemently oppose” Robeson’s appearance. “Let us leave no doubt in their minds that they are unwelcome around here either now or in the future,” the local Legion chapter commander, Edward Boyle, writes in a letter published by the Evening Star. Fast reads through a week’s worth of editorials in the Evening Star, finding instances of what he calls “anti-Semitism and anti-Negroism… anti-Communism [and] anti-humanism.” [Fast, 1951; American Heritage, 3/1976; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982]
Paul Robeson - Robeson is a vibrant figure among American leftists and radicals: the son of a runaway slave; an all-American football player at Rutgers; the first African-American to play the title role of “Othello” in a mainstream theatrical production; a world-renowned singer; and an avowed Marxist who has spent extensive amounts of time in the Soviet Union. Previously lionized by many Americans, his popularity soured when, after World War II, he began speaking out ever more forcefully in favor of the Soviet way of life, and against American capitalism and democracy. As a result, Robeson is now an extremely controversial and polarizing figure. Many perceive Robeson as author Roger Williams later describes him: “the personification of near-treasonous anti-Americanism.” [American Heritage, 3/1976] The concert never takes place; instead, the grounds and audience are attacked by an angry, violent mob (see August 27, 1949).

Entity Tags: Howard Fast, People’s Artists, Paul Robeson, Edward Boyle, Civil Rights Congress, American Legion, Pete Seeger, Roger Williams, Peekskill Evening Star

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Paul Robeson.Paul Robeson. [Source: Paul Robeson Community Center]A concert organized by various left-wing organizations and slated to take place at a picnic ground near Peekskill, New York (see Mid-August - August 27, 1949) never happens. Instead, the organizers and audience members are attacked by an angry, violent mob.
Mob Attacks - Novelist Howard Fast, who is slated to emcee the concert, arrives at the grounds, and, hearing reports of a mob gathering under the rubric of a “parade,” organizes some 40 “men and boys,” both white and African-American, to defend the women and children coming together in the hollow for the concert. Fast’s fears are quickly realized: a large mob of American Legion members and local citizens, and largely fueled by alcohol, as evidenced by the hundreds of liquor bottles later found strewn throughout the grounds, moves to attack Fast’s group with billy clubs, broken bottles, fence posts, and knives. More by chance than by strategy, Fast’s group finds itself in a defensible position, where it cannot be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Its members manage to beat back three separate assaults; Fast hears screams from the mob: “We’re Hitler’s boys—Hitler’s boys!” “We’ll finish his job!” “God bless Hitler and f___ you n_____ b_stards and Jew b_stards!” “Lynch Robeson! Give us Robeson! We’ll string that big n_____ up! Give him to us, you b_stards!” “We’ll kill every commie b_stard in America!” “You’re never going out!” “Every n_____ b_stard dies here tonight! Every Jew b_stard dies here tonight!” (Singer and activist Paul Robeson, the concert headliner, is unable to approach the concert venue, and is never in any real danger.) During the assaults, state and local police stand by and do nothing to intervene; local and national reporters jot down notes and take photographs. Late in the evening, someone sets a cross ablaze, prompting Fast’s group to link arms and sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Later inquiries by the concert organizers will show that at least three different times during the violence, individuals were able to escape the riots and phone the local and state police, the state attorney general’s office, and the office of the New York governor, “all without result.” No arrests are made and no one is held for questioning, even though, the organizers will find, “14 cars were overturned and at least 13 people were hurt seriously enough to require medical attention.” [Fast, 1951; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982]
Book Burnings - The fourth and final assault of the night comes in the form of a barrage of rocks and other missiles. Fast’s group runs for the concert venue, where its members mount the platform and once again link arms. Fast and others see some members of the mob find the books and pamphlets brought by the concert organizers; the mob members make a huge pile and set it ablaze. Fast later writes: “[T]o crown our evening, there was re-enacted the monstrous performance of the Nuremberg book burning which had become a world symbol of fascism. Perhaps the nature of fascism is so precise, perhaps its results on human beings are so consistently diseased, that the same symbols must of necessity arise; for standing there, arms linked, we watched the Nuremberg memory come alive again. The fire roared up and the defenders of the ‘American’ way of life seized piles of our books and danced around the blaze, flinging the books into the fire as they danced.” (Upon revisiting the site two days later, Fast will note “at least 40” flashbulbs in and around the ashes, indicating that many photographs were taken of the book burning, but in 1951, he will write that he has yet to see any of those photographs.) [Fast, 1951]
Law Enforcement Intervenes - Three of the most severely wounded of Fast’s group are escorted to safety by federal law enforcement officials, who had watched the proceedings without intervening. The rest are forced to sit while local law enforcement officials investigate the stabbing of one of the mob members, William Secor. (Evidence will show that Secor had been accidentally cut by one of his fellows.) Later, state police escort members of Fast’s group to their vehicles and allow them to drive away. No arrests are made and no one is held for questioning, even though, the organizers will find, “14 cars were overturned and at least 13 people were hurt seriously enough to require medical attention.” The head of the Peekskill American Legion, Milton Flynt, says after the riot, “Our objective was to prevent the Paul Robeson concert, and I think our objective was reached.” [Fast, 1951; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982] Author Roger Williams will later write of Fast’s descriptions, “Fast’s account, although marred by exaggeration and Marxist rhetoric, is substantially supported by other participants and eyewitnesses.” [American Heritage, 3/1976]
Initial Media Responses Relatively Favorable to Mob - The first media reports and commentary about the concert are far more supportive of the mob (see August 28, 1949, and After) than later examples (see Mid-September 1949).
Second Attempt - Within hours, Fast and the concert organizers decide to reschedule a second concert, this time to be protected by large numbers of burly union workers (see September 4, 1949, and After).

Entity Tags: William Secor, Paul Robeson, American Legion, Milton Flynt, Howard Fast, Roger Williams

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, US Domestic Terrorism

After a concert organized by leftist groups in downstate New York is attacked by an angry, violent mob (see August 27, 1949), initial media reports tend to support the mob and blame the concert organizers for the violence. The New York Times writes that it “regretted” the actions by both the concert organizers and the mob in what it calls “the Peekskill affair.” The New York Herald Tribune says the mob violence was deplorable but “understandable.” Other papers celebrate the violence. Significantly, the New York News reports two days later: “Frank Niedhart, manager of the Niedhart Fife and Drum Corps, today said that his organization did not participate in Saturday night’s anti-Robeson [American Legion] parade because many of the members are minors. He said he did not want to bear the responsibility of possible injury to the youngsters if trouble should develop.” Subsequent media reactions are far more critical of the riots (see Mid-September 1949). [Fast, 1951; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982] The local district attorney will join the area media in blaming the concert organizers, not the mob, for the violence (see September 1949).

Entity Tags: American Legion, New York News, New York Herald Tribune, Frank Niedhart, New York Times

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

The Westchester County District Attorney, George Fanelli, reports on the so-called “Peekskill Affair,” in which a concert organized by leftist groups was attacked and halted by an angry, violent mob (see August 27, 1949). According to the New York Compass, the district attorney says “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.” Fanelli later tells the Peekskill Evening Star, “The facts that I now have would indicate that the demonstration by the veterans’ associations was peaceful and orderly, and that after they disbanded the pro-Robesonites provoked the violence when Secor was stabbed by one of their number.” Fanelli uses the term “pro-Robesonites” in reference to Paul Robeson, the African-American singer and pro-Communist activist who was to headline the concert; Secor is William Secor, a mob member who suffered a flesh wound when one of his colleagues accidentally cut him with a knife. [Fast, 1951; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982]

Entity Tags: Paul Robeson, Peekskill Evening Star, William Secor, George Fanelli

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Hundreds of volunteers, mostly union members, form a “human wall” to defend the concert and its audience from the mob.Hundreds of volunteers, mostly union members, form a “human wall” to defend the concert and its audience from the mob. [Source: Howard Fast]Left-wing activists make a second attempt at holding a concert outside of Peekskill, New York, featuring African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson. After the first one was disrupted by angry mobs (see August 27, 1949), organizers plan for a much more strongly defended second event (see August 28-30, 1949). The venue for the first concert is heavily damaged by the mob’s depredations, so a German-American landowner named Stephen Szego, who escaped Hitler’s Germany years before, agrees to let the concert take place at the now-abandoned Hollow Brook Country Club ground. (Activist and novelist Howard Fast, who helps organize the event and documents it, will later note that Szego will suffer an attempt to burn down his house and has bullets fired through his walls as a result of his generosity.) The defense, organized by dozens of trade union workers, is designed to be unique, Fast will write: “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.” As the opening of the concert approaches, some 25,000 people—far more than the organizers had anticipated—begin streaming into the country club’s grounds; outside the grounds, a large mob begins to grow. In addition, a large and well-armed police contingent is on hand. According to Fast, the opening salvo of rock-throwing from the mob is ordered by the police: “Backed by hundreds of laughing cops, the American Legion heroes lined the road and heaved rocks at our defense line.” The violence escalates when several carloads of latecomers, all African-Americans, are attacked by the mob, pulled out of their cars, and beaten. An apparent assassination attempt against Robeson is thwarted when union workers flush two mob members from what is apparently a sniper’s nest; both are found with high-powered rifles. When Robeson takes the stage to sing, 15 union workers surround him, providing a “human wall,” in Fast’s words, to defend him from any possible sniper’s bullet. Robeson, folk singer Pete Seeger, and other musicians are able to play successfully, even though a police helicopter hovers over the sound truck, apparently trying to drown out the music with the sound of its rotors. Seeger later recalls: “We heard about 150 people standing around the gate shout things like ‘Go back to Russia! K_kes! N_gger-lovers!’ It was a typical KKK crowd, without bedsheets.” [Fast, 1951; American Heritage, 3/1976; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982; National Public Radio, 9/5/1999] Concertgoers are attacked, beaten, and pelted with rocks by the mob as they attempt to leave the grounds (see September 4, 1949, and After).

Entity Tags: Pete Seeger, American Legion, Stephen Szego, Howard Fast, Paul Robeson

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Eugene Bullard being beaten by police officers and rioters.Eugene Bullard being beaten by police officers and rioters. [Source: Howard Fast]The second Peekskill concert, organized by left-wing activists and featuring African-American singer Paul Robeson (see September 4, 1949), takes place successfully after the first was disrupted by a large, angry mob (see August 27, 1949). But another mob has gathered, and though they are unsuccessful in stopping the concert from taking place, they are ready for the audience and participants at the concert’s end.
Rock Attacks, Roadblocks - The audience members, with many women and children in their ranks, attempt to leave, mostly by car, and are told by security guards to roll up their windows as they are driving out, as the mob is apparently throwing rocks and other missiles. (A New York Times reporter later writes of the large piles of stones piled up about every 20 feet down one road, apparently placed their ahead of time for use as missiles.) However, the long, slow procession of cars attempting to leave the venue is halted when a small group of police officers attack the cars, including the vehicle bearing Robeson. None of the cars’ occupants are injured, though many windshields are smashed and fenders beaten in. Novelist and concert organizer Howard Fast, driving his own car, turns onto a secondary road to attempt to leave the venue, but his car is assaulted by a knot of six or seven rock throwers, accompanied by two police officers who do not throw rocks. Fast believes the police officers are there to protect the assailants if any of the cars stops to launch a counterattack. Fast will later learn that all of the secondary roads have similar knots of rock-throwing people in place to inflict damage on cars; some are blocked by piles of logs and boulders. He drives through several such ambushes, but he and the people with him escape injury.
145 Reported Injuries - Others are not so lucky; many people, including women and children, are seriously injured by rocks and broken glass. One concert goer, Eugene Bullard, is spat upon by a veteran and spits back; he is thrown to the ground and badly beaten by a group of police officers. Afterwards, Fast will report, the area hospitals quickly fill up with victims of the barrages, “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.” A union trademan, Sidney Marcus, is wounded so badly by a rock to the face that he requires weeks of reconstructive surgery. Fast later learns that approximately a thousand union workers had chosen to stay behind as something of a “rear guard” to protect the last of the audience members; they were assaulted by a combination of mob members and police officers, badly beaten, and threatened with incarceration. (Twenty-five were indeed arrested and taken away.) For Fast, the night ends when he returns to the area to look for a group of stranded audience members, and is shot at. He does not find the stranded people. The final tally is 145 concert-goers injured. [Fast, 1951; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982; National Public Radio, 9/5/1999]
Arrests and Lawsuits - Twelve protesters are arrested; five later plead guilty to minor offenses. No one among the concert-goers and “Robesonites” is arrested. Author Roger Williams will later write: “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.’” Numerous civil lawsuits will be filed on behalf of groups of victims; none will be successful.
History Professor: Peekskill Becomes an 'Endorsement of ... Persecution' - Much later, history professor James Shenton will say, “Peekskill opened up what was to become extensive public endorsement of the prosecution and persecution of so-called Communists.”
Trying to Forget - Years later, the memory of the riots still haunts the area and intimidates many residents, according to Williams’s 1976 report. Residents refuse to discuss the riots, some for fear of reprisals even decades later. Williams will recount the story of one high school teacher, Anne Plunkett, who was amazed that her children knew nothing of the riots, even though some of them were the children of participants. But when she assigns her students the riots as an optional class project, as Plunkett will recall: “The first time, librarians wouldn’t give the kids access to the back newspapers. The next time, I was called to the principal’s office and told that parents had been telephoning to complain about my ‘upsetting and exciting the children unnecessarily.’” [American Heritage, 3/1976]

Entity Tags: Roger Williams, Sidney Marcus, John N. Schneider, James Shenton, Howard Fast, Eugene Bullard, Anne Plunkett, Paul Robeson

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, US Domestic Terrorism

In the days and weeks after the Peekskill riots (see August 27, 1949 and September 4, 1949, and After), several veterans organizations denounce the mob violence at the two events, and condemn the participation of their local chapters and members who were part of the mobs. The national commander of the American Legion, George Craig, issues a statement repudiating his organization’s involvement in the riots. “The American Legion believes in the preservation of law and order and does not countenance violence in any situation short of war,” Craig writes. “The Legion will not give its official sanction to counter-demonstrations such as those at Peekskill. It prefers to leave pro-Communist demonstrations strictly alone.” The Jewish War Veterans issues a directive prohibiting its chapters from “initiating or participating in any public demonstration which poses potential consequence of riot or public disorder.” The American Veterans Committee (AVC) calls upon the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and other veterans organizations “to prevent further outrages such as have occurred in Peekskill.” The AVC blames Peekskill veterans’ organizations for the “two disgraceful episodes.” [Fast, 1951]

Entity Tags: Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, American Veterans Committee, George Craig, Jewish War Veterans

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) releases the findings of its investigation into the Peekskill riots (see August 27, 1949 and September 4, 1949, and After). The report concludes, in part:
bullet “There is no evidence whatever of Communist provocation… on either occasion.”
bullet “While the demonstrations were organized to protest against and express hatred of Communism, the unprovoked rioting which resulted was fostered largely by anti-Semitism, growing out of local resentment against the increasing influx of Jewish summer residents from New York.” Some of the violence was triggered, the ACLU finds, by resentment left over from earlier attacks on a local Ku Klux Klan chapter. One of the buses used by the rioters carried a bumper sticker that read: “COMMUNISM IS TREASON. BEHIND COMMUNISM STANDS—THE JEW! THEREFORE, FOR MY COUNTRY—AGAINST THE JEWS.”
bullet “The local press bears the main responsibility for inflaming, possibly through sheer irresponsibility, Peekskill residents to a mood of violence.”
bullet “[Leftist activist and singer Paul] Robeson’s concerts were not an intrusion into Peekskill but were private gatherings held five miles outside of Peekskill, which were disrupted deliberately by invading gangs from nearby localities.”
bullet “Terrorism was general against all who advocated freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and preservation of constitutional rights.”
bullet “The evidence proves beyond question that the veterans intended to prevent the concerts from being held.”
bullet “Effective police protection at the first concert was deliberately withheld.”
bullet “Preparations to police the second concert appeared adequate; therefore, there was reason to believe that the concert-goers would be protected.… These preparations were largely a sham insofar as the Westchester County police were concerned and left the concert-goers undefended.”
bullet “The wounding of William Secor, rioting veteran, occurred while he was assisting in the commission of a crime.” Secor, one of the rioters who attacked the concert-goers, was apparently the victim of an accidental knifing by one of his own colleagues.
bullet “The evidence indicates that at least some of the state troopers honestly tried to preserve law and order while county police fraternized with the rioters.”
bullet “There is strong indication that the initial violence was planned and was carried out according to plan.” The report details eyewitness accounts of veterans and locals filling the trunks of their cars with rocks. “The wide extent of the stoning indicates careful planning on the part of some person or persons. It can hardly be coincidence that, as cars with broken windows streamed down the county towards New York, they were met with volleys of stones in community after community through which they passed.”
bullet “Terrorism spread over the whole area and included threats against private individuals, against their safety, lives, property, and business.”
bullet “National condemnation has been the chief factor causing residents of the Peekskill area to question this action. The local clergy have joined in this denunciation.… Sentiment in the area is now sharply divided and there is evidence that the legal authorities are moving toward restriction of freedom of speech and assembly, presumably in violation of the Constitution.” [Atkinson et al., 1949 pdf file; Fast, 1951]

Entity Tags: American Civil Liberties Union, William Secor, Paul Robeson

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, US Domestic Terrorism

Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham tells her listeners that President Obama’s decision to present his “long form” birth certificate as proof of his US citizenship (see April 27, 2011) proves his 2012 re-election campaign will hinge on race. After playing a montage of audio clips from commentators accusing Obama of racism, or saying that his campaign will focus on race, she tells her audience: “It’s official. The Obama campaign is going to run on race. No? They might not say that, but let there be no misunderstanding of where this is going. This is going right to the heart of liberalism. Liberals see people, not as individuals who are capable of anything if given the opportunity, and freed up and loosened from the bonds of government regulation and bureaucratic restraints. No. They see people as a certain color, or a certain gender, or a certain sexual orientation. They have to be put in these boxes. The favorites boxes of the bean counters. Liberals have always looked at people that way. The truth about race, and this president, is not a pretty truth.… The truth about this administration and race goes right to the core of what liberalism has done to the black family, to minorities in general. The great diversion of liberalists has always been to drop the charges of racism, the spurious and the negative and the perjorative charges of racism [against conservatives], every time they are proven to be incorrect and the way they approach a problem” (see September 4, 1949, and After, March 12, 1956 and After, 1969-1971, 1978-1996, 1980, 1981, March 15, 1982, 1983, June-September 1988, 1990, September 1995, August 16, 1998, March 1-2, 2001, August 29, 2001, March 15, 2002, July 15, 2002, August 2002, September 26, 2002 and After, August 5, 2003, September 28 - October 2, 2003, May 17, 2004, May 18, 2004, October 9-13, 2004, November 15, 2004, November 26, 2004, December 5-8, 2004, December 8, 2004, May 10, 2005, September 28-October 1, 2005, September 30 - October 1, 2005, September 30, 2005, 2006, March 29, 2006, December 2006, January 19, 2007 and After, January 24, 2007, April 2007, April 2, 2007, July 22, 2007, August 21, 2007, September 22, 2008, October 8-10, 2008, October 24, 2008, January 6-11, 2008, November 10, 2008, January 25, 2008, January 31, 2008, February 1, 2008, February 28, 2008, May 19, 2008, June 2, 2008, June 6, 2008, June 26, 2008, August 1, 2008 and After, August 4, 2008, August 4, 2008, August 19, 2008, August 25, 2008, October 7, 2008, October 20, 2008, October 22, 2008, October 28, 2008, November 18, 2008, January 18, 2009, February 24-26, 2009, March 3, 2009, April 7-8, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 26, 2009, May 27, 2009, May 27-29, 2009, May 28, 2009, May 29, 2009, May 31, 2009, June 2, 2009, June 5, 2009, June 7, 2009, June 12, 2009, June 20, 2009, June 25, 2009, July 8, 2009, July 16, 2009, July 21, 2009, July 23, 2009, July 23, 2009, July 27, 2009, July 28, 2009, July 28-29, 2009, August 8, 2009, August 12, 2009, August 19, 2009, September 2009, September 14, 2009, October 13, 2009, February 25, 2010, March 20, 2010, July 14, 2010, July 15, 2010, September 11, 2010, September 12, 2010, September 12, 2010 and After, September 15, 2010, September 18, 2010, September 21, 2010, September 24, 2010, October 22-23, 2010, November 9, 2010, November 12, 2010, December 22, 2010, January 14, 2011, February 20, 2011, March 2011, March 19-24, 2011, April 1, 2011, April 5, 2011, April 14-15, 2011, April 15, 2011, April 22, 2011, April 26, 2011, April 26, 2011, April 26, 2011, April 26, 2011, April 26, 2011, April 27, 2011, April 27, 2011, April 27, 2011, April 27, 2011, April 27, 2011, April 27, 2011, and April 28, 2011). Liberals, Ingraham says, rely on racial politics, divisiveness, and “class warfare” to succeed in the political arena. “[I]n the end,” she says, “it’s kind of all they have, that and abortion.” She derides people “on the left” for attacking billionaire television host and enthusiastic “birther” Donald Trump for being racist (see April 14-15, 2011, April 26, 2011, April 27, 2011, April 27, 2011, and April 28, 2011). Any such charges, she says, are ridiculous. But those charges will be used by anyone who criticizes Trump for his challenge to Obama’s citizenship, she predicts, and cites Trump’s recent exhortation for Obama to “get off the basketball court” and focus on national issues as an example of an unfair charge of racism (see April 27, 2011). “And the very thing the left always starts to accuse the right of is what they are most guilty of,” she says. [Media Matters, 4/28/2011] Ingraham has had her own issues with racism and gender (see 1984, April 1997, and July 17, 2009).

Entity Tags: Barack Obama, Laura Ingraham, Donald Trump

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, 2012 Elections

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