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Profile: Ben Davis
Ben Davis was a participant or observer in the following events:
After the mob riots and attacks at Peekskill, New York, that disrupted a concert featuring left-wing activists Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger (see August 27, 1949), novelist Howard Fast, another activist who had successfully organized the concertgoers into resisting the mob attacks, takes part in an August 28 meeting to assess the situation and discuss whether the concert should again be attempted. The meeting attracts over 1,600 people. (One apparently impromptu attack on the group, mounted by what Fast calls “a dozen young hoodlums from Peekskill,” is easily driven back.) The organization behind the concert, People’s Artists, joins with Labor Party and trade union members in deciding to try a second time. Fast agrees to organize the defense. The group gives itself the name “Westchester Committee for Law and Order.” On August 30, Fast joins a large gathering of at least 3,000 people at a Harlem ballroom, where Robeson speaks movingly of the struggle for recognition and against repression.
Organizing for Battle - By week’s end, organizing on both sides is taking place. The local unions are bringing hundreds of brawny workers to the area concert grounds, while the local American Legion, Fast learns, has put out a call for 30,000 veterans to come to the concert and disrupt the proceedings, though as Fast later writes, only about a thousand protesters appear, and he has no way of knowing how many of them, if any, are veterans. A friend, whom Fast does not name, explains why the area’s people may be so willing to answer the mob’s call: “This is a funny neighborhood.… You know, there’s no real industry here except the railroad, and the kids grow up in these river towns with no jobs and no future—just a rotten, perverted petty-bourgeois outlook. They get a job at a gas station or a grocery store or a lunch wagon or with the fire department or some other political handout—or they don’t work and just scrounge around and live off the few dollars they pick up. They get twisted with bitterness, and they don’t know what causes it or where to direct it. Then they hate, and it’s easy for the Legion and the local Chamber of Commerce to use that hate. They’re using it now.” [Fast, 1951; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982; National Public Radio, 9/5/1999] Announcing the second concert, Communist Party leader Ben Davis says, “Let them touch a hair of Paul Robeson’s head, and they’ll pay a price they never calculated.” [American Heritage, 3/1976] The second concert will be successful (see September 4, 1949) but the audience is attacked, and over 100 injured, upon trying to leave the venue (see September 4, 1949, and After).
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