The New Politics Convention (2)
I walked up to the theater that day in an enthusiastic mood. But as soon as I got inside and took up my observer’s seat in the balcony, I could feel a sour atmosphere developing. The first sign that the inmates were taking over the asylum came when a caucus of 200 black people demanded an automatic 50 percent of the vote. Later we found out that the caucus was put together by an FBI agent provocateur. Of all the old-line radicals there, Sidney Lens was the only one with the guts to stand up to it. It was, I think, his finest hour. Sid loved being a leader, loved the roar of the crowd, and he distinguished himself. When the question was finally called, he got 35 or 40 percent of the vote.
By Sunday, however, the Communist Party delegation decided they were not going to be outflanked on the left. After that, a lot of other people decided they were not going to be outflanked either. It was less a conspiracy than a stampede.
Irv Beinin and Jesse Prostin, two old friends of mine who were prominent in the left, stood with me in a stairwell Sunday afternoon trying to explain. “This is part of the black consciousness dimension of the movement,” Jesse said. Irv added, “In its own way, it’s really kind of revolutionary.” I turned away in disgust.
“Oh, you’re not going to go downstairs by yourself, are you Frank?” Jesse called. “Be careful. You’ll probably get rolled down there.” I turned back to him. “Ten seconds ago you were trying to convince me this was a revolutionary development, and now you’re telling me people are getting rolled,” I shouted. “This is bullshit.” If white radicals feIt guilty enough to go through with this charade, I reasoned, the way to express that guilt was to organize the white community. I was only repeating what I’d been told at any number of SNCC supporters’ meetings, and it seemed reasonable.
What had happened was that the street gangs found out this was going on, and had moved in for an easy kill. What could be easier than a collection of guilt-stricken white liberals afraid to speak up for fear of being baited for racism? The papers the next day reported with glee a series of robberies and instances of sexual harassment on the Convention floor. Nothing ever came of that: the people who were victimized were part of the movement and did not want to create a scandal, so the political lessons of the charade were never really drawn. By the end of the day, everybody just wanted to get the hell out of there and forget all about it.