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Profile: James Shenton
James Shenton was a participant or observer in the following events:
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]
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