Balladeers & Billy Clubs
by Ted White
From Rogue, August 1961
A bitter report on prejudice and persecution in New York City where politicians think “freedom” is a dirty word.
“I TRIED all of March to get a permit for our folksings in the Washington Square Park during April, and I couldn’t get any answer out of the Parks Commissioner’s office,” Israel G. Young told me. Izzy—as his friends prefer to know him—owns Greenwich Village’s Folklore Center. “We couldn’t get the permits by April, so the first Sunday in April I personally went all around the park and told the kids not to sing, not to play anything. I thought it would be a demonstration of our good faith.” He gave a wry smile and shrugged. “So the next day the Commissioner said he was denying us a permit because we brought what he called ‘itinerant singers and unsavory characters’ into Washington Square Park.
“Well, we decided to hold a protest meeting in the Square the next Sunday, which was April 9. We got together in the park, about five hundred of us around the fountain. I stood in the center—it’s dry this time of year—and cautioned our people not to cause any physical disturbance; you know, no violence or anything. Then we sang songs. Besides us, there were maybe four thousand other people in the park: onlookers, people passing by, and who knows, maybe a few people looking for trouble.”
“What about the cops?” I asked.
“There were cops there, but they were local men, and they weren’t causing us any trouble. They were just keeping things orderly, which was fine by us. They let us sing. We sang from 2:00 P.M. on till about 3:30, without any trouble. Then I led the folksingers out, in a procession, from the park. We went out through the arch, at Fifth Avenue, and marched down the street around the park, to the Judson Memorial Church, which is on the other side of the park, and where we had sanctuary.”
That’s when it happened. “Then somebody sent a second group of cops in, the Riot Squad. By the time I could get back, the riot cops were wading into the crowd. They weren’t going after the singers, or the musicians, because I’d already led most of them out of the park. They just moved in on the crowd, and that made the crowd pretty angry. I didn’t have any control over that crowd; I couldn’t stop it. That was it. They arrested ten people.”
“They arrested ten people” hardly describes the cops wading into the crowd, indiscriminately swinging billy-clubs they later denied having. (Denials hardly effective in light of the photo shown here.) “It was a pretty bad mistake,” Izzy says, “and later the police department admitted it.” But the Riot Boys, apparently as well versed in creating riots as in dispelling them, hand-picked for such “emergencies” as a peaceful crowd of singers and their well-wishers, had their sadistic kicks all the same, taking what one observer termed “a quiet satisfaction in the sheer crunch” of clubbing bystanders.
It made headlines, and the front pages of papers as far away as Washington D. C. The New York Mirror reported, typically, a “Beatnik Riot,” a headline the paper retracted an edition later.
This incident is only the latest in a series.
The war in New York’s supposedly broadminded bohemia, Greenwich Village, had blazed out into the open when on April 3rd Park Commissioner Newbold Morris, as one of his first acts since replacing the ubiquitous Robert Moses, made official his ban on folk-singing in the Village’s Washington Square Park.
For seventeen years folksingers had been congregating on warm Sunday afternoons at the fountain in the center of the small park, unslinging their guitars and banjos and quietly singing songs. There would be a varied number of groups—perhaps ten or more—rimming the fountain, each singing a particular variety of folk music, from Negro work songs and blues to Kentucky hillbilly bluegrass, with perhaps an Elizabethan ballad from the West Virginia hills thrown in occasionally. As the years passed, the city government began showing an increasing hostility to the use of public facilities by the public, and for the last fourteen years, permits have been required before “public performances” could be given in any park. What this means is that a group of kids singing to each other on a weekday evening would be forcibly silenced by the ever-patrolling police for failing to possess a “permit,” or a young man playing a harmonica to himself quietly while sitting on a park bench might be suddenly ordered, “Move on, you!” and find himself run out of the park.
While there are undoubtedly other reasons behind New York’s corrupt administration of its duties to the public—and its somewhat off-based assumption that the voters comprise its servants instead of, as popularly held, vice-versa—the fight now raging seems to be the coming to a head of strong and ugly racial bias, aided and abetted by past abuses of the press in sensationalistic “Beatnik” stories.
The Village area surrounding Washington Square Park is peopled by two types of residents: the wealthy who find a Village address fashionable and desirable, and who live in outrageously overpriced apartments often owned by the New York University (which abuts the park and uses it as a campus); and the so-called Italian-Americans, who live in run-down tenements which are rent-controlled and deteriorating yearly into massive slums. The latter group was once part of an immigrant wave, and many of its families have lived in their current buildings and apartments since arriving in this country over a generation ago. Due to rent control, the rents have not risen for them since that time, and are often so low ($30.00 to $50.00 a month, on the average, in comparison to $150.00 to $300.00 a month and higher in nearby decontrolled apartments) that landlords are allowing their buildings to fall into total disrepair or are demolishing them to erect new, multi-storied uncontrolled buildings. The slum-dwelling element, now finding themselves in a squeeze-play from the higher rents, who are the “true Villagers,” were the victims of “racial” persecution a generation ago when they were new to the area. Their minds firmly set in the path of “do unto others as you are done to,” they react with what must charitably be called a locked-minded prejudice to newer minorities, and most particularly Negroes.
The Village being New York’s bohemia, or what must pass for it, naturally attracts the livelier artists—a group which includes jazz musicians and folksingers, among others—as well as other liberally minded people. For “liberally minded people,” please read “those who place no premium upon skin color” in this case. The result is an influx of what the press euphemistically refers to as “interracial couples"—Negroes with white partners, male or female.
And nothing so angers the upright “Italian-American,” Roman Catholic laborer as seeing a white girl with a “nigger.” You can believe it: racial prejudice is as ugly a thing in New York City as anywhere in Mississippi or Arkansas.
Jazzman Charlie Mingus was threatened by local police to stop playing in the Village because he attracted “interracial audiences,” which “cause trouble.” Saxophonist John Handy’s seventeen-year-old Negro drummer was ganged up on by five “Italian-American” youths, who proceeded to thoroughly work him over, kicking him in the mouth, breaking his teeth. “After that, I wore a gun with me,” John said, still angry. Other Negro musicians have reported being spit on, approached by gangs of local youths, and even having pails of garbage emptied upon them from windows. “I was standing outside the Village Gate, taking a break,” one musician said, “when somebody threw a bucket of water down on me.”
If the “natives” resent the Negroes in “their” Village, they resent the “beatniks” only slightly less. A “beatnik” can be any male—white or colored—sporting a beard or dressed casually; any female with shoulder-length hair or in slacks. Indeed, a “beatnik” is just about anyone who speaks English without an Italian accent. These are the “invaders” who are “destroying” the Village, according to the slum-happy long-time residents.
(And the wealthy address-snobs? They’re pleased with the “beatniks” and other “exotic types” who lend the very flavor to the Village which they sought in moving there.)
Roving gangs of local boys get their kicks raping “beatnik” girls (supposedly too loose to care, many of these girls were virgins down from the Bronx to savor the flavor of bohemia for themselves; they were rudely shocked by its reality) and working over any poor slob who chances to have a beard or be too darkly pigmented in the skin—once in a while messing up a Neapolitan by mistake in the dark . . . The police have never made any serious attempt to control these kid gangs, and their only halter has been imposed by that benevolent Neighborhood Improvement Association, the Mafia. This “protective” group, which has a juke box or a cigarette machine in every coffeehouse and restaurant in the Village, prefers to see the area quiet, in lieu of a police crackdown, and occasionally the Mafia has actually put the quietus upon the juvies and their nocturnal roamings.
But still, let us face it: the area is being filled with “undesirable elements.” The Village Catholic Church groups, satellite PTA’s, Father’s Clubs, Cub Scout Packs, and American Legion Posts have been becoming increasingly distressed at the thought that people might be coming into the area who prefer coffeeshops to bars, poetry to strip shows, or folksinging to gangbangs. The outsiders are “causing trouble” by allowing themselves the chance of getting beaten up by the local Johnnies.
What should our Upstanding Villagers do? Well, how about putting on a little pressure and outlawing everything which attracts such “unsavory elements” to the Village. The Mafia controls the bookies, and thus a sizable police and political payoff.
The police have been holding up the coffeehouses for years with shakedowns of their own, which have been so strong as to drive several shops out of business from the excessive underhand overhead. A couple of disgruntled owners recently began making headlines with their revelations of such police payoffs. Lately the cops have tried getting the coffeehouses and restaurants classified as “cabarets” because this would allow them a tighter control under New York’s infamous and totally unconstitutional police cabaret licensing laws.
And now the new Parks Commissioner has refused a permit to the folksingers for their Sunday afternoon gatherings. Why? The same old story: “The folksingers have been bringing too many undesirable elements into the park.”
“Undesirable elements?” Yes, healthy young kids, racially mixed and unprejudiced enough not to care, concerned only with having the chance to assemble in the open sun and air and to be able to enjoy themselves harmlessly and happily. Sam Schwartz, a Brooklyn father, told me “Sure I let my kid—he’s a teenager—come and sing here. Why not? It’s a good, healthy activity. What’s wrong with folksongs?”
Ron Archer, a young jazz critic who lives in the West Village (an apparently less troubled area), said “Why shouldn’t people sing in the Square? If Morris is so concerned about the safety of the parks, why doesn’t he clean out the muggers and rapists in Central Park, where it isn’t safe to walk at night? Why doesn’t he go after the local punks who prowl the edges of this park at night? Why take after a group which is as harmless as the old men who play chess here, and who are just about as ’undesirable’?”
“You know what ’undesirable’ means, don’t you?” a name jazz musician told me. “It means ’Negro’. A few of the folksingers are Negroes.”
“I came up here from Mississippi,” says Bob Stewart, a Realist cartoonist who lives in the Village, “to get away from the prejudice, and now I get complaints from my landlord whenever I have a Negro friend up in my apartment.”
“The racial bias is definitely behind the whole thing,” Izzy summed it up. “It’s part of the big squeeze on the Italians.”
An aftermath: The NAACP, when it wanted to hold a rally in Washington Square Park, was denied a permit despite telegrams to every major city official. Paul Zuber, the attorney who represented the NAACP in the New Rochelle school case, and who was to speak on this, told the rally, “We finally got a permit to have our rally outside the park, on one side of it, and another permit to have our sound equipment on the other side of the park. We figured the sound equipment was most important.” The rally was started on the sidewalk across the street from the west side of the park. “This is a new ruling, you know,” Zuber said, “which says that there can’t be any sound equipment in public parks I guess we’re going to have to start a new educational program. Starting with the first grade, we’re going to have to teach our kids sign language. That way maybe we won’t need sound equipment.
“Seriously,” he continued, “they’ve been having classical music concerts in this park every summer for years. I wonder where they’re going to hold them now, since sound equipment has been banned?” There was an unstated answer: the all-white concert performers would have no difficulty in securing a permit to include sound equipment.
“This is something which concerns us all,” Paul Zuber said. “This is not Mississippi. You don’t need to look that far for infringements on the rights of American citizens. You need only look to New Rochelle, where right here in New York state they won’t let Negroes in their schools, or you can look right here, at Washington Square Park, where they won’t let you talk or sing.”
And then a cop came up and told them that they’d have to move their rally around the corner onto a side street, further away from the park.
(Recently, at the urging of Stanley Lowell, Chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Intergroup Relations, Mayor Wagner instructed Park Commissioner Morris and Police Commissioner Murphy to permit Sunday folksinging in the Square. Both the hours and area in which singing is allowed have been limited slightly, but the guitarists and singers are back at the fountain, apparently without interference from the police.—The Editor)
Copyright © 2007 Ted White