New York Times Smears Courageous Harlem Communist

In Memory of Bill Epton

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No.781, 17 May 2002

Bill Epton, a longtime leftist active at various points of his life in the Progressive Labor Party (PL), the Negro American Labor Council and the Black Radical Congress, died of gastric cancer in New York City on January 23. He was 70 years old.

As an avowed communist in Harlem in the 1960s, Epton embodied the combination of black and red so feared by the American ruling class. When the country’s largest ghetto was subjected to a police occupation and reign of terror in the summer of 1964, Epton sought to provide leadership and organization to the besieged black masses. For his courageous efforts, he became the first person convicted of “criminal anarchy” in New York State since the 1919 “red scare.”

The New York Times, which acted as a mouthpiece and apologist for the New York Police Department (NYPD) in 1964, continued its vendetta against Epton even after his death. In a 3 February obituary, the bourgeoisie’s “newspaper of record” indicted Epton for “preaching violence” in the midst of a “bloody race riot,” claiming that he urged the killing of cops and judges. The only riot in Harlem in the summer of 1964 was the NYPD rampage, and it stopped when the cops withdrew. Epton was a levelheaded, lucid man interested in jazz, a skilled printer and an eloquent orator and writer. He did play a key role in the events of 1964, but of a rather different nature than the Times insinuated. We were there, and we remember Epton’s courage and militancy in that tumultuous time.

Bill Epton, a founding member of the Progressive Labor Movement (later the Progressive Labor Party), was at the time vice chairman of PL and the head of its Harlem branch. PL came out of the Communist Party (CP) in 1962, based primarily on trade unionists repelled by the CP’s abject reformism and support to the Democratic Party. Rejecting the staid pro-Moscow Stalinism upheld by the CP, PL instead looked to the seemingly more militant Chinese Stalinists under Mao (eventually breaking with Beijing as well). Though PL was always limited by its continued adherence to Stalinism, it was a left split from the CP and at that time a very serious group.

The Harlem Police Riot

The years 1963-64 saw the Southern civil rights movement move North into the center of American capitalism. Rent strikes exploded throughout Harlem and by 1964 had spread into Brooklyn. Two effective school boycotts against segregated and run-down conditions galvanized opposition to the racist policies of the New York school board. The second boycott pulled 90 percent of children out of ghetto schools, despite lack of support by “respectable” black leaders and social democrats like Bayard Rustin, who used their influential role in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to try to sabotage the boycott. Self-proclaimed communists were getting a hearing in Harlem, prominent among them Bill Epton.

In early April 1964, the Brooklyn branch of CORE planned an action in which cars would run out of gas in order to disrupt traffic heading toward the World’s Fair site in Queens at which Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson was planning to speak. The city rulers turned the threatened “stall-in” into a showdown, mobilizing tens of thousands of cops and tow trucks, passing new laws with heavy penalties in one day and unleashing a withering scare campaign in the mass media. Although the CORE “stall-in” was rather haphazard, it was yet another indication that black people in New York were becoming increasingly politicized and militant.

Democratic Party mayor Robert Wagner and Police Commissioner Michael J. Murray were intent on confronting and smashing this wave of black protest. The city administration beefed up the police presence in Harlem, including generous detachments of Tactical Patrol Force heavies. In April, one of these squads provoked what was called the “Little Fruit Stand Riot,” using clubs and blackjacks against a group of youngsters who had simply been playing with some fruit from a street stand. When a black hosiery salesman, Frank Stafford, tried to intervene, the cops beat him with clubs at gunpoint, gouging out one of his eyes. By the time Stafford was taken to a hospital 19 hours later, after a further beating in the station house, it was too late to save his eye. A Puerto Rican seaman, Fecundo Acion, had his nose shattered for attempting to pull the cops off Stafford. Eventually Acion, Stafford and Wallace Baker, a member of a karate club who tried to intervene, were arrested.

Soon thereafter, when two Jewish shopkeepers were brutally attacked, one fatally, the cops simply rounded up Baker and several fellow karate club members who had been seen at the fruit stand and framed them up for the attack. This became the case of the Harlem Six, which was taken up by radical civil rights attorney Conrad Lynn and is recounted in his autobiography, There Is a Fountain (1979).

In an article headlined “Negro Struggle in the North” (Spartacist No. 2, July-August 1964), written just before the cop occupation of Harlem, we warned: “Over the past few months New York has witnessed an unprecedented campaign of press terror against the Negro people.... This press terror campaign has as its purpose the psychological preparation and justification for the smashing, through police terror, of the coming stage of the Negro rights struggle.” Leading the way, the New York Times ran a lengthy front-page article claiming that the Black Muslims were directing a dope-selling, karate-trained gang of 400 “Blood Brothers” bent on maiming and killing whites.

When an off-duty police lieutenant, Thomas Gilligan, shot and killed James Powell, a 15-year-old black youth, on July 16, the cops used the resulting protest as an excuse to launch a pre-emptive strike against unrest in the ghetto. A demonstration at Harlem’s 28th precinct two days later was repeatedly pressed back by the cops, who hurled racist slurs at the demonstrators and eventually charged into the main body of the protest. In the ensuing days, as we reported in Spartacist No. 3 (January-February 1965), “wave after wave” of the tactical cops “swept through Harlem indiscriminately beating and terrorizing all who crossed their paths.”

In the face of the police occupation, most Harlem organizations joined together to form a “Unity Council,” whose members ranged from the Nation of Islam to the NAACP, Malcolm X’s Organization of African American Unity, businessmen and local Democratic Party hacks. The Unity Council pledged itself to “restore peace in the community.” But the only action pursued by this alliance of “leaders,” as we noted in our article, “was directed against the one serious attempt that was made to give effective organization and direction to the people in the streets,” that of the Harlem Defense Council (HDC) led by Epton. The HDC issued a leaflet urging:

“ORGANIZE YOUR BLOCKS. The events of the last two days have shown that if we are not organized we are just a mob and not in a position to properly deal with the enemy. ORGANIZE APARTMENT BY APARTMENT, HOUSE BY HOUSE! The Harlem Defense Council calls on all black people of Harlem to set up Block Committees with the purpose of defending each and every block in Harlem from the cops.”

The HDC called for a march and mass demonstration on July 29 and, though a small group, did what it could to concretize this call.

The cops banned the march; the position of the Unity Council was that while the police ban was bad, the march was even worse. The Unity Council tried to get Epton to call off the march and circulated leaflets along the proposed route urging people not to participate. James Lawson, a member of the Unity Council and the head of the United African Nationalist Movement, went so far as to offer up his membership to aid the police in suppressing the march! When Epton refused to call off the march, 27,000 cops were mobilized to make sure no one dared protest in Harlem that day. In a singular act of personal courage and defiance of New York’s arrogant racist rulers, Epton, surrounded by supporters, went to the march assembly point at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue. At his side, arms linked with Epton’s, was Conrad Lynn. Epton and Lynn were arrested as they stepped off the curb. Leaderless, the demonstration did not materialize.

Our organization, then still in its infancy, played an active role in the events. Two Spartacist comrades, Paul Gaillard and Shirley Stoute, were in the HDC. In an attempt to take the pressure off the ghettos, we initiated the Harlem Solidarity Committee (HSC), which organized a mass rally in the downtown garment district around the slogans: “Remove the rioting cops from Harlem” and “Support the right of the citizens of the ghetto to defend themselves.” Despite the cops’ denial of a sound permit for the rally, nearly a thousand workers came out and responded enthusiastically to the speakers. Among the speakers at this united-front rally were Lynn, PL leader Milt Rosen and Workers World editor Vince Copeland. In his speech, Spartacist editor James Robertson described the role of the cops in creating the riots and responded to frenzied redbaiting by the bourgeois press, which sought to blame the Harlem protest on a communist conspiracy. Robertson remarked, “Unfortunately there aren’t many Reds in Harlem now—but there will be!

Epton: “Guilty” of Being a Black Communist

While anti-Communist black nationalists were granted audiences with the mayor and allowed to stage their own rallies in Harlem, Epton and those who supported him were subjected to fierce repression and a wide-ranging witchhunt. Sweeping injunctions were issued against all those who were even remotely associated with either Epton’s march or the HSC, including Robertson, preventing them from “assembling, gathering together, convening, parading, marching, demonstrating or acting in concert” anywhere between 110th and 155th Streets and the Harlem and Hudson Rivers. In early 1965, more than 20 PLers, including Milt Rosen, were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury “investigation” and subsequently arrested for contempt of court for refusing to testify. The investigation was then widened to also go after Robertson and the Spartacist group.

Epton was framed up on charges of “criminal anarchy” based on three claims: that he and PL put out a pamphlet describing how to make Molotov cocktails, that he led the “riot” and that he was actively involved in arming Harlem residents. When these charges didn’t wash, Epton was charged with advocating killing police officers and judges—on the basis, as we noted in our article in Spartacist No. 3, “of a paraphrase of Lenin’s State and Revolution.” According to a contemporary account in the New York Times (26 July 1964), the cops claimed that Epton had declared that in order to achieve freedom it would be necessary to “set up a new state of our own choosing and liking. And in the process of smashing this state, we’re going to have to kill a lot of these cops, a lot of these judges, and we’ll have to go up against their army.”

The recent obituary in the Times maliciously distorted even its own 1964 version of the statement attributed to Epton, “quoting” only the last bit to make it sound as though his sober description was an immediate call to action. Piling one falsification atop another, the Times obituary portrayed Epton’s “criminal anarchy” case as raising the question of whether there was “a constitutional right to say, ‘Burn, baby, burn’.” In fact, that phrase wasn’t even heard until the time of the Watts upheaval in 1965 and only became famous when it was used by H. Rap Brown in 1967.

In a powerful statement to the court at the time of his conviction, published by PL as a pamphlet titled We Accuse: Bill Epton Speaks to the Court (1966), Epton explained the real reason for the capitalist state’s vendetta against him:

“I have been found ‘guilty’ of agitating against the conditions that my people are forced to live under in New York and all over the country.

“I have been found ‘guilty’ of protesting the murder—yes, murder—or legal lynching, whatever you choose, of James Powell by Thomas Gilligan, a New York policeman.

“I have been found ‘guilty’ of organizing the Harlem community against police brutality that has been occurring in the Black ghettos for hundreds of years.

“I have been found ‘guilty’ of standing up for the right of all men to be free—to be free from the system of exploitation of man by man.

“I have been found ‘guilty’ of proclaiming that capitalism is an oppressive system and that socialism is the only solution for mankind to live in peace and humanity....

“And finally—I have been found ‘guilty’ of being a communist—and a Black one at that!”

We were actively involved in Epton’s defense from the start. In February 1965, at a protest against the witchhunting grand jury, Robertson was himself served with a subpoena to testify. Lynn agreed to serve as Robertson’s legal counsel, and assisted in preparing his testimony. A Spartacist Special Supplement (March 1965) issued as a “Report to Our Readers” summarized several key points from Robertson’s appearance before the grand jury, including that “Robertson has never heard Bill Epton advocate acts of violence and terrorism; moreover, since Comrade Epton is a declared Marxist such advocacy would be in fundamental contradiction to his beliefs.” Robertson also testified that “the New York City cops, not communists, provoked the riots last summer.”

Explaining why the Spartacist group was cited by the state along with PL, the supplement noted:

“The SPARTACIST editor has been dragged into the witchhunt because of our detailed exposure of the police over the riots last summer; our determined defense of Bill Epton and Progressive Labor against legal intimidation and persecution; and our initiation last summer of the militant Harlem Solidarity Committee which rallied working class support in New York’s garment center for the people of Harlem during the police riots.”

The supplement also explained why we chose to have Robertson appear before the grand jury: “The Spartacist group has no reason or desire to conceal either its political views or its actions. Quite the contrary; should its officers be sent to jail for refusal to testify, we want it crystal clear that such punishment is exclusively for refusal to drag in the names of innocent people or to render false testimony.”

In defense of Epton and others targeted in the witchhunt, we collected signatures, distributed literature and organized meetings and Epton defense committees in various cities, including Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area and Ithaca, New York. Our defense of Epton was not always welcomed by PL, however, which in sectarian fashion declared their Committee to Defend Resistance to Ghetto Life (CERGE) off-limits to “Trotskyites.” In a letter to one of our Chicago comrades, PL leader Bill McAdoo fulminated that “in general” Trotskyists were “counterrevolutionaries.” In February 1965, PL expelled Spartacists Paul Gaillard and Shirley Stoute from the HDC on the basis of their Trotskyist politics. Nonetheless, we forthrightly continued to defend Epton. That month, a Spartacist supporter proposed a motion which was passed unanimously in CORE’s Harlem branch that read: “N.Y. CORE condemns the attempt to make Bill Epton the scapegoat for the brutal action of the police last summer against the people of Harlem. It supports Epton’s right to speak, and calls upon the City to drop its indictment against him.”

Epton’s case drew support from around the globe, ranging from philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre to Amnesty International. In a statement of support, the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam stated:

“We strongly protest against the unjustifiable arrest and trial of Bill Epton on the ground of trumped up charges and demand his immediate release by the U.S. authorities. We call upon all justice loving people in the U.S.A. and in the world to raise their voice of opposition to this effect as they have raised their voice to protest against the aggressive war waged by the U.S. imperialists in Vietnam.”

In later years, Epton moved to the right, bitterly exiting PL in 1970 in the midst of internal turmoil. Unable and unwilling to transcend its Stalinist framework, PL itself soon began moving rightward, promoting one “single issue” reformist campaign after another. Epton spent many of his later years working with the Malcolm X Museum. He was also involved in the Black Radical Congress and the Citywide Coalition to Stop Giuliani, both “left” shills for the Democratic Party and both a far cry from Epton’s politics in the 1960s. Nonetheless, we remember Epton as a committed and courageous working-class militant who in a volatile time did not bow before the onslaught of the bourgeois state or bend to the pressures of liberalism.

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