For almost thirty years, public housing in my hometown of Peekskill N.Y., has been at the center of political controversy. In 1999 I was arrested twice and put on trial for “talking” at city council meetings. The powers that be told us we could not talk about issues unless they put them on the agenda. I refused- talked about saving public housing- was arrested, tried and found guilty of disorderly conduct. The legend Pete Seeger came to my trials to show his support for poor people and free speech. Despite my two convictions by a judge who admitted to going on vacation with the very councilmembers who ordered my arrest, we won that struggle. The administration was toppled and we made peace with the new administration. It seemed the issue of gentrification was over.
Pete Seeger Talks about Peekskill
In late 2013, Pete Seeger would again come to Peekskill. This time to speak at a fundraiser for my organization, The Committee for Justice. Gentrification in Peekskill was once again front and center. When Pete spoke he talked about the 1949 “attack” on concert-goers who came to the Peekskill area to enjoy a free peace concert by the great Paul Robeson. That particular day- August 27, 1949- according to Pete, Neo-Fascist elements helped incite Peekskill residents to violence against the concert-goers. Robeson was forced to turn around at the Peekskill train station. The show was cancelled and many people were hurt and nearly killed during the ensuing violence. Pete was in Peekskill to help raise money for us because we were in the third year of the most racist, vicious political struggle I have ever been involved in. We were, again, fighting to save public housing and stand up to retaliation directed against women and children by the administration. Virtually every tenant who spoke out against the gentrification and abuse by the administration, and the housing director they backed, was unjustly hauled into court for eviction.
Hey? Where did the Constitution Go?
Ultimately, we won that struggle too. But not before marching, picketing, and being subjected to being called “niggers,” and “welfare queens” on public forums. I, as the leader of that movement, was illegally “banned” from public meetings and buildings and arrested several times at council meetings after I was verbally attacked and defended myself. I was never charged with a crime, just ejected from the meetings. I was also hit with a S.L.A.P.P Suit to try to silence me. All the housing director asked was that I stop reporting his abuse and alleged corruption. I saw my girlfriend violently attacked at a council meeting by a Democratic Party District Leader named Carole Gerten. My partner provided hours of video of the council meetings and housing authority board meetings as record and for the public to watch. The mayor and council hated that. Therefore Gersten smacked her at a public council meeting as she was filming the meeting. Police refused to arrest Gersten despite about 12 officers in the room at the time. After all, it was only a white woman getting violent with a Black woman. The Peekskill Democrats put out a statement saying Gersten is a hero. They wrote, “she stood her ground.” It took almost two months for Ms. Gersten to be charged by Peekskill Police. Even then, they waited until AFTER the November (2013) elections and a phone call from the New York State Attorney General’s office, which started monitoring the council meetings. The Peekskill city council passed “no-clapping” laws against us; sent police to break up our tenant association meetings and brought over a dozen police officers into the council meetings to intimidate and silence us. All the while, at council meeting after council meeting, Democratic officials were literally putting their hands on us and challenging us to “step outside!” All caught on video. Through organizing, courage and strategy, we defeated these near fascist tactics by the all-Democratic mayor and council. Because these were Democrats, virtually every Democrat in New York State and Westchester County turned their backs on us- their most loyal voting block. I literally wrote, called and sent video to Democratic Party Leaders across the nation. Not one would speak up. And because these were the most ugly, even violent, political forces since Paul Robeson came to town, it was only fitting I should entitle this book, Ghost of Robeson.
About the Book’s Title
Why “Ghost?” Depending on your religion and/or culture, ghost could mean different things. For me it means “spirit” as in memory and inspiration. My connection to Robeson is on a spiritual plane that transcends space and time. He was a hero to me and I hope with this book, an emerging hero to more people who may have never heard of him. Like Robeson, we stood up to ultra right wing attacks; like Robeson we were hounded; and like Robeson, the abuse was carried out by residents of my dear hometown of Peekskill N.Y. For the first time you will get to see emails, documents and court testimony exposing the ugly plan to remove public housing and how the Peekskill Democrats refused to talk to us about compromise or mediation. More importantly, you will be inside the thoughts, fears and strategy meetings of a movement that achieved an inspirational victory for poor people and people of color everywhere. Just put your contact information in the box to the right of this post and you will get to see some of these documents from Ghost of Robeson before the book is released.