Chapter 27: The Bronx and Kent State, 1970
I decided to finally get a 9-to-5 clerical job to secure the bread needed to get a cheap apartment in this post-draft period of my life. I went to the New York State Employment Agency and it referred me to Cardinal Export Company, which sold RCA vinyl records around the globe. I was hired by a guy named Mr. Lerner to be a biller-typist. It turned out that Mr. Lerner was an ex-Communist Party member from the 1930s, now in his late 50s, who now lived in Great Neck.
Once I was getting my $100 per week in wages, I traveled up to the Bronx because that was where the cheapest apartments were being advertised, after I had decided that I didn’t want to move into a vacant apartment off Avenue D on the Lower East Side which I had been offered. In the Bronx, I found myself a 2 ½ room apartment a few blocks from Fordham University, south of Fordham Road, in a working-class Italian-American enclave. The rent-controlled apartment’s rent was $57 per month.
Before I moved from the Lower East Side to the Bronx, I spent an evening smoking pot with Melvin, in his Lower East Side apartment. Melvin had dropped out of Columbia a year before the 1968 student revolt, become one of the weirdest-looking Movement freaks in the City long before other white New Leftists became freaks and been one of Newsreel’s founders in late 1967. But in early 1970 Melvin had been pushed out of Newsreel for being “too anarchistic.” Yet Melvin had always been a very emotional, very enthusiastic and very “up” person.
I asked Melvin what he thought was happening in Newsreel, in particular, and to the New York City Movement, in general, these days. Melvin laughed and replied: “Uptight, bureaucratic people have taken over Newsreel and the Movement nowadays. Freaks don’t feel comfortable with Movement people anymore. People like us have to develop alternatives to what remains of the Movement.”
April 1970 was spent by me being bored with my 9-to-5 clerical job, painting my apartment in the Bronx and trying to recover from my heartbreak at not being loved in return by Florrie. At first, I felt an identity crisis, because for so many years I had always done New Left activist work on a daily basis, but now most evenings and weekends were free of day-to-day political activism. Once I began to get back into folk songwriting, folk singing and guitar-playing again, however, I felt my identity crisis was being resolved. I also went to an early April “Free The Panther 21” rally in Central Park and march across the Queensboro Bridge to the Long Island City Jail (in which some Black Panther Party activists were locked up) which Lew had organized, and which was attended by thousands of people.
Then Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia on April 30, 1970—2 years after the cops had invaded Columbia University’s campus. The following day, I left early Friday afternoon from work and took the New Haven Railroad up to New Haven to attend a “Free The Panthers” May Day rally on the New Haven Green. Yale University President Brewster had diluted the potential militancy of the protest by making Yale University campus facilities available to pro-Panther demonstrators and expressing doubt that Bobby Seale could get a fair trial in the United States in 1970. National Guardsmen, though, were still walking around the city streets, just in case mass militancy developed. That night, demonstrators ended up being tear-gassed, as we attempted to march around the downtown area, in front of the New Haven Courthouse. Early Saturday morning, I got bored walking around stoned and inhaling all the tear gas that was still in the air, so I took a train back down to New York City.
The following Monday, when I left work and was heading downtown to visit my sister, I saw the headlines about the Kent State Massacre. Four white students had been killed by Ohio National Guardsmen. Like everybody else, I was both angered and somewhat surprised. I had still thought the Establishment was reluctant to shoot down white anti-war demonstrators. It now appeared it wasn’t. I looked forward to the emergency demonstration in Washington, D.C. that was immediately scheduled for the weekend and I expected that the Saturday demo would be militant.
News of the Kent State Massacre ignited campuses all across the U.S. and the U.S. mass media publicized Movement resistance in a big way. Local high school students in the Bronx spontaneously walked out of school for the first time and chanted: “One, two, three, four! We don’t want your fuckin’ war!” As the big national Saturday demo in D.C. approached, it appeared that we might be on the verge of Revolution in the U.S., analogous to what had happened in France in May 1968, less than two years before.
My sister and I hitched down to D.C. on Saturday and we were given a ride by an older anti-war guy, who was a public high school teacher. But when I got to the demo of 200,000, it seemed more like a picnic than a militant anti-war and anti-repression protest. Bureaucratic Movement people and left-liberal Movement marshals were against encouraging any kind of spontaneous mass non-violent civil disobedience to protest the Kent State killings. No Weatherpeople appeared to be around to organize any effective non-violent militancy, outside of the legalistic protest that we had all been channeled into.
In a car on the way back to New York City, I felt that the Movement, as a result of its unwillingness to collectively organize mass non-violent civil disobedience outside the White House to protest both the Kent State killings and the invasion of Cambodia, had made a major tactical blunder. A few days later two African-American students were killed by police on the campus of Jackson State in Mississippi, but the corporate media gave it much less publicity than it had given the killing of white students at Kent State in Ohio.
James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles
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