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Dissent on the Lower East Side: the Post-Political Condition

This coming Sunday, April 30th, at 5PM, there will be a panel discussion entitled “The Post Political Condition… Trump, Brexit, and The Middle East… What Next? at Theatre 80 located at 80 St. Marks Place on the Lower East Side (LES) of New York City.

Timely, and simple enough in its reach, this discussion will include myself and a number of intellectuals such as history professor Norton Mezvinsky, whistle blower Michael Lesher and author Gilad Atzmon. The panel will focus on the collapse of identity politics, the crises within new left thinking, and the future of liberal and progressive thought.

In particular, I will discuss  “Insular View of the American Left” while Professor Mezvinsky will speak to “The Quagmire of Current Political Terminology in U.S. Society.” Mr. Lesher will explore dichotomy between “Jewish Identity and Jewish Religion” and Mr. Atzmon will address “The Tyranny of Correctness- deconstructing identity politics and understanding its origin.”

Although the panel will necessarily touch upon Zionism, Israel, and events in the Middle East, these topics will play but a small part in a much broader exploration of the political winds of today.

To some, the subject matter of the discussion is apparently of less consequence than the makeup of the panel itself. In particular, the presence of Gilad Atzmon, a onetime Israeli citizen and Jew who has since renounced both, has triggered an organized effort to bully the theatre into canceling the event or, failing that, to disrupt it.

I’ve long been accused of being a “self-hating” Jew largely because of my work as legal counsel for the political wing of Hamas and my fervent opposition to the state of Israel as one built from the marrow of ethnic cleansing.

Described as controversial because of my opposition to Zionism, and a long list of revolutionary clients and movements that have included more than a few accused of domestic or international terrorism, I’ve grown accustomed to being “shunned ” by the political opposition that rarely seeks to engage in public discussion or debate. That’s fine. For some, it’s so much easier to toss barbs from the safety of the shadows then it is to withstand open exposure for the weakness of one’s thought.

Yet, Gilad Atzmon presents another picture. Mr. Atzmon’s stinging criticisms of Zionism, Jewish identity… perhaps even Judaism itself… have so enraged both Zionists and some anti-Zionists alike, that the mob seeks to silence him and thereby deny us all the benefit of his speech.

Censors of thought are not new to time or place. Throughout history, they have deigned to dictate the parameters of acceptable dialogue and, when unable to control the discourse, have sought to shut it down as if ideas are in themselves dangerous.

One need only look to recent events in Washington D.C. to understand that those who fear the market place of free ideas often seek to shutter it whether by economic intimidation or through resort to violence.

Just this past month, JDL (Jewish Defense League) imports from Canada brutally attacked, and seriously injured, a 55-year old Palestinian-American professor from North Carolina who had the temerity to pass an anti-AIPAC demonstration with his family.

The mindless brutality of the Canadian JDL members, that day, cannot be seen in a vacuum but rather must be viewed in the light of 50 plus years of terrorism carried out by its US counterpart, now formally designated as an outlawed terrorist organization.

Over these many years, the membership, indeed,  leadership of the American branch of the JDL… or “associate organizations”… have unleashed an unprecedented reign of terror which has produced dozens of convictions for crimes ranging from a plot to bomb the office of Arab-American Congressman Darrell Issa and the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, Calif. to numerous bombings of foreign embassies and properties to attacks on US buildings to conspiracies of kidnap and murder to assaults on foreign nationals and US police. Countless other crimes, including murder and conspiracy to bomb, have been laid at the feet of the JDL but to date remain un-charged.

Despite this documented, nay, unprecedented history of violent attacks by zio-fascists upon free speech and association, neither the JDL of Canada nor its US counterpart will suppress this panel discussion at Theatre 80 or silence our voice. Ours is a community of free spirits and thinkers. Women and men directed by little more than the pursuit of truth and justice.

Indeed, long ago the community of the LES of New York City opened its arms to refugees who fled tyranny abroad and, in so doing, became a welcome host to the dissident, the politically unpopular, the revolutionary idea or person.

Today, that greeting is under attack by some who have failed to learn the history of this community that I have called home for most of my adult life. A journey down the hardscrabble, but exhilarating, road of this community of resistance can say far more than I can about the necessity of the exchange of ideas that will occur this coming Sunday evening at Theatre 80.

The History of Dissent on the Lower East Side

Long before the free speech battles of the 60’s, or the recent ones at Berkeley, there stood a proud tenement building at 208 East 13th Street in New York City.  More than a hundred years ago, it echoed with the booming resonance of resistance… a declaration of who we were at the time and, more important, who we could become if only we dared to challenge political and social orthodoxy.

Today, on the façade of that old battered 19th century tenement building on the LES of Manhattan sits a cracked and stained plaque that simply says “Emma Goldman lived here.” Enough said.

The same building was home to “Mother Earth,” Goldman’s periodical that promoted anarchist views and provided a platform for “radical” artists and militant ideas of the day… until it was closed as subversive by the government in 1917.

Goldman was a fierce and tireless supporter of “controversial” revolutionary struggles such as free speech, birth control, women’s equality, union organizing, workers rights, sexual freedom and peace.

Known as “Red Emma”, she was labeled by J. Edgar Hoover as one of the “most dangerous women” in the country.” Among her closest friends and comrades were Alexander Berkman, Margaret Sanger, Roger Baldwin, Max Eastman, John Reed, Dorothy Day and Floyd Dell… a veritable who’s who of radicals who, long ago, confronted political convention not all that different from that which seeks to intimidate or to silence us today.

In 1917, Goldman was sentenced to two years in prison after founding the No-Conscription League in protest against the draft.  It was one of several stints she did, beyond bars, for political beliefs that ranged from a year in prison for “inciting to riot”… for a speech she gave at a Union Square hunger demonstration where she told the poor to steal bread if they could not afford to buy it… to another one for illegally distributing information about birth control.  Following her arrest during the notorious Palmer Raids that began on November 7, 1919 (the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution), she was deported to Russia along with some 250 other “subversive aliens.”

While the Palmer Raids occurred throughout the United States with more than 10,000 arrests for subversion, they, in particular, targeted hundreds of high profile “militants” who were rounded up on the LES which was then home to a powerful and vibrant community of revolutionary thinkers and activists.

In the life blood of the LES, Goldman has been anything but the exception to the rule in a community that historically has been home to the dissident… the unconventional… those who see more to life than surrender to the whims of politically correct dogma or the constraints of “patriotic” mobs.

Dorothy Day heard the call of the LES.  Along with Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker Movement which, with anarchists and communists, fought for the rights of the homeless, workers, women, immigrants and others disempowered by virtue of gender or class.

Although the Movement found its vigor in Christian charity and promoted a political strategy of total non-violence, Day was never one to shy away from direct action. Jailed for picketing the White House in support of women’s right to vote, while imprisoned for her offense, she helped organize a hunger strike at Occoquan Prison.

It is said that, over the course of a long life of civil disobedience, Day was arrested more than one hundred times. A poster memorializing her final arrest at age 76 declares “our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.” It hangs from the wall of my office.

To Dorothy Day, peaceful resistance necessarily demanded of activists’ controversial speech that directly confronted the tyranny of the status quo…  something she excelled at while working as the editor of The Masses.

Based in “Alphabet City” in the LES, Masses was a radical magazine that reported on most of the major labor struggles of its day: from the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912 in West Virginia to the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913 and the Ludlow massacre in Colorado. It strongly supported Big Bill Haywood and his IWW, the political campaigns of Eugene V. Debs and vigorously argued for birth control and women’s suffrage.

Until closed by the government in 1917 for its anti-war and “anti-government” platform, The Masses featured a chorus of militant voices including such writers as John ReedCrystal Eastman, Hubert Harrison, Inez MilhollandMary Heaton Vorse, Louis Untermeyer, Randolf Bourne, Arturo Giovannitti, Michael Gold, Helen Keller, William English Walling, Anna Strunsky, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Floyd Dell and Louise Bryant. It also featured a host of  political artists including John Sloan, Robert Henri, Mary Ellen Sigsbee, Cornelia Barns, Rockwell Kent, Art Young, Boardman Robinson, Robert Minor, Lydia Gibson, K. R. Chamberlain, Hugo Gellert, George Bellows and Maurice Becker.

At other times, the radical history of the LES has been marked not just by controversial speech or passive resistance alone, but by direct action that, on occasion, has exploded into violence captivating the watch of the rest of New York City as if this one hundred square block area is very much of a different world.

Thus, on January 13, 1874, over 7,000 largely unemployed workers gathered in Tompkins Square Park, in the largest demonstration New York City had ever seen, to demand financial assistance from the City during an economic depression.

Ten and a half acres in total, the square-shaped park is bounded on the north by East 10th Street, on the east by Avenue B, on the south by East 7th Street, and on the west by Avenue A. It is abutted by St. Marks Place to the west.

Without warning, not long after the demonstration began, some 1,600 policemen charged the park and dispersed most of the crowd beating people throughout it with clubs. Others, on horseback, cleared the surrounding streets. Some of the demonstrators fought back in vain… attempting to defend the square. Hundreds were injured.

Samuel Gompers, himself a resident of the LES,  who founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and was scheduled to address the demonstration that day, described the events and his experiences:

“. . . mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality. I was caught in the crowd on the street and barely saved my head from being cracked by jumping down a cellar-way.”

Little more than a century later, on August 6, 1988, Tompkins Square Park exploded yet once again when police attacked a large group of peaceful demonstrators protesting a newly established curfew intended to clear the park of activists, homeless and so-called squatters that had made increasing use of Tompkins Square for demonstrations against the City and its misuse of local community space. Bystanders, activists, neighborhood residents and journalists were caught up in the violence.

Despite a brief lull in the fighting, the mêlée continued until 6 a.m. the next day. Numerous injuries resulted with over 100 complaints of police brutality lodged following the riot. One headline in the New York Times summed up the events: “Yes, a Police Riot.”

St. Marks Place

If Tompkins Square Park is the heart of the East Village, St. Marks Place is its soul. James Fenimore Cooper lived at 6 St. Marks from 1834-1836. While there, he published his epic “A letter To My Countrymen.” It proved to be his most scathing work of social criticism in which he denounces the “slavery of party affiliations.”

In 1854 The Nursery for the Children of Poor Women…the first of its kind… was set up in a rundown house on St. Marks.

In 1917, Leon Trotsky arrived on St. Marks Place where he wrote for the Novy Mir (“New World”), then based at 77 St. Marks, while living with his family across the street in an apartment at 80 St. Marks. Just a few years earlier, Berkman and Goldman opened the progressive Modern School at No. 16 St. Marks. Among its teachers were famed muckrakers Jack London and Upton Sinclair.

In the 1940’s, W.H. Auden resided on St. Marks.  In the 60’s, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin co-founded the Youth International Party (“Yippies”) at No. 30 St. Marks and Lenny Bruce lived for a while, on the famed street, at No. 13. In 1966, Andy Warhol housed his Exploding Plastic Inevitable collective above the Electric Circus nightclub at 19-25 St. Marks… installing the Velvet Underground as the house band. During the same period, Debbie Harry lived at 13 St. Marks. Often were the occasions when a vibrant sweep down St. Marks Place would mean a chance encounter with Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg… a longtime area resident.

Elsewhere on the Lower East Side, throughout the 60’s, political activists, movements and artists alike continued its well established tradition of serving as a safe haven for cultural diversity, political dissidents and controversial speech.

For example, just up the block from what had been the home of Charlie Parker, stands the Christodora House.  Located on Avenue B, directly across the street from Tompkins Square Park, the Young Lords and Black Panther Party maintained their respective headquarters during this period.

The Young Lords, in particular, played an important role in what was, and remains, a heavily Latino neighborhood… creating community projects similar to those of the Black Panthers but with a Latino flavor. Such projects included a free breakfast program for children, the Emeterio Betances free health clinic, community testing for tuberculosis and lead-poisoning, free clothing drives, cultural events and Puerto Rican history classes. The female leadership in New York pushed the Young Lords to fight for women’s rights.

80 St. Marks Place

The venue for Sunday’s panel discussion has a storied history itself in the LES.  Beginning as a nightclub during Prohibition, 80 Saint Marks Place was home to performers that included such Jazz greats as Thelonious Monk, Harry “Sweets” Edison, John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra.

After Theatre 80 was established in the former nightclub, its tradition of diversity in the arts continued as it launched the careers of famous performers including the likes of Gary Burghoff, Bob Balaban and Billy Crystal, who once worked there as an usher.

Richard “Lord” Buckley, described by Bob Dylan in his book “Chronicles” as “the hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels”, had his final performance at Theatre 80 when his cabaret card was seized by police from the vice squad and his show closed.  Outraged, Buckley went to the local precinct to demand his card’s return. Not long thereafter he ended up dead in St. Vincent’s Hospital of an apparent stroke. That brought about a movement which eventually ended the Cabaret Card system in New York City.

Not many years later, the legendary play “Hair” was cast at Theatre 80. During the 1970s and 80s it also served as a revival house where one could see vintage films. Among those who attended, often to see their own body of work was Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell.

More recently Theatre 80 presented a play by noted poet, playwright, author and racial equality activist, Sonya SanchezFred Hampton Jr. was often seen at the theatre to attend events for famed radical defense attorney, Lynne Stewart, who recently died having been politically persecuted and imprisoned for her life’s work.

Actively involved in a wide range of community issues, the theatre, not long ago, along with Patti Smith, sponsored a concert to raise money for the victims of the Second Avenue gas explosion which caused two deaths, injured at least nineteen people… four critically… and completely destroyed four buildings between East 7th Street and St. Marks Place. It has held a number of so-called “truther” forums that explored the events of 9-11… an issue of burning interest to the local community.

Come this Sunday, the panel discussion will proceed in the ideal venue in the perfect community.  To be sure, at times, its participants will surely say things that may offend the sensibilities of some in the audience. On occasion, panel members will disagree with one another as the market place of ideas is not a group-speak but rather a challenge to explore diverse and often competing thoughts in the pursuit of truth.

Ideas may sting, they may hurt, and they may challenge us to explore issues that can cause great personal discomfort. That’s precisely what they are intended to do. There is no question that while the clash of ideas causes pain; the suppression of ideas causes greater harm… and sometimes pain is the stretch of growing.

Thanks to the refusal of Lorcan Otway, owner of Theatre 80, to surrender to howls of a few, join us this Sunday, April 30 at 5PM in the heart of the ongoing American evolution at Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Place in the Lower East Side of New York City.

More articles by:

Stanley L. Cohen is lawyer and activist in New York City.

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