NYC’s Beatnik ‘riot’: How singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ kicked off the 60s revolution

The protestors were peaceful. They didn’t look like revolutionaries. They were dressed in suits and ties. They were singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But the cops still attacked them with billy clubs.

In the spring of 1961, Israel (“Izzy”) Young taped a sign to the window of his shop in Greenwich Village, New York. The handwritten sign announced a protest rally at the fountain in Washington Square Park at 2pm on Sunday April 9th .

Izzy was the proprietor of the Folklore Center at 110 MacDougal Street, a shop that sold books, records and everything else relating to folk music. Since it opened in 1957, the Folklore Center had been the focal point for young folk singers, beatniks and assorted musicians to gather together, hang out, talk, play and listen to music.

After the Second World War, Greenwich Village was the gathering point for all the disaffected youth who wanted to escape the conformity and boredom of suburbia. They were brought by the district’s association with the Beats and jazz musicians who had lived and played there during the 1940s and early 1950s. Often their first point of call was Izzy’s shop. Among the many youngsters who visited there was a young Bob Dylan. Izzy arranged Dylan’s first concert at Carnegie Hall. He “broke [his] ass to get people to come.” Tickets were two bucks apiece. Only 52 people turned up—though later hundreds would tell Izzy they were there.
Izzy Young in the Folklore Center circa 1960.
Since the late 1940s, folk musicians had gathered at the fountain in Washington Square Park. They brought their guitars and autoharps to play and sing songs. It was peaceable enough but some residents thought the Sunday gatherings brought “undesirables” to the neighborhood—by undesirables they meant African-Americans.

In April 1961, the new Commissioner of Parks Newbold Morris decided to take action. He banned singing in Washington Square Park. As Ted White later reported the events of that fateful day in the park in Rogue magazine, August 1961:

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.


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.”

In response to the ban, Izzy applied for a permit to sing in the park. It was rejected. He therefore organized a protest rally.
Izzy Young talks to a cop at the start of the demonstration.
On Sunday April 9th at 2pm, around 500 men and women—smartly dressed, some in suits and ties and carrying placards—peaceably approached the fountain at Washington Square Park. They were stopped by a cop. He wanted to know who was in charge. Izzy Young made his way to the front of the crowd and talked to the officer. He explained they were allowed to protest peaceably. It was within their constitutional rights to do so. The cop told Izzy they couldn’t sing, that singing was banned. They would be arrested if they broke the ban. Izzy countered by saying singing was a form of speech and they had a right to freedom of speech. He added:

It’s not up to Commissioner Morris to tell the people what kind of music is good or bad. He’s telling people folk music brings degenerates, but it’s not so.

The cops were not impressed. They began to move menacingly towards the demonstrators. Izzy thought if they started singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” the police would not hit them “on the head.” He was wrong. As the demonstrators sang the national anthem the cops started laying into them.
Ten demonstrators were arrested. Dozens were injured. The press hyped the story up as a ‘Beatnik riot’ where some 3000 people attacked the cops. This story was quickly dropped as it was widely known not to be true.

Keep reading after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
02:13 pm
Google map view of the spreading riots in London
06:57 pm

OK, so this is getting serious - very serious. The riots in London have now spread across an area roughly 40km by 30km. To see the actual Google map page, click here.

Thanks to Paul Shetler.


Scrap that - the rioting has now spread beyond the confines of the city, past the N406 ring road and into suburbs like Ealing, Romford and Croydon. And that’s not to mention riots breaking out in Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds. Keep looking at the Google Map for updates (zoom out if you want to see the chaos spreading around the country). This is going to be one interesting night…


Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
06:57 pm
The Brixton Riots: 30 years later

Thirty years ago today, the famous Brixton riot of spring 1981 brought the long-simmering issues of class, race and police repression to the front pages and TV screens of England.

Brixton was definitely not the first sign of racial unrest in the Thatcher era. A police raid on the Black & White Café in Bristol’s economically hard-hit St. Pauls district the year before had led to a day-long riot among Caribbean youth. And police apathy in investigating a fire at a party on New Cross Road in early ’81 fuelled the notion in South London’s black community that their lives were perceived by the cops as worthless.

In the days before things jumped off in Brixton’s Lambeth area on April 10, cops had launched the charmingly named Operation Swamp 81 in an attempt to curb local robbery and burglary. Over a week, officers stopped almost 1,000 mostly black people—including three members of the Lambeth Community Relations Council—and arrested 118.

Combined with the extremely high unemployment rate among Brixton’s sons and daughters of the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants, and the rise of organized white racist activism, the community’s temperature was at peak. As one of the youths put it in one of the films below: “Jobs, money, then National Front…something was bound to happen.” Confusion and bad-faith rumors around police involvement around a stabbing incident was all it took to set off two days of fighting.

The implications of the multiracial Brixton riot unfolded throughout the subsequent summer of that year in Handsworth, Chapletown and Toxteth. Despite the improvements and gentrification that Brixton has seen since ’81, the place hasn’t been free of unrest.

In 2001, director Rachel Currie produced The Battle for Brixton, one of the authoritative video chronicles of the revolt, for the First Edition program.

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
After the jump: on-the-ground footage from community members, and Brixton’s impact on music.

Posted by Ron Nachmann
08:52 pm
Thirty-nine years of Attica: Ali & Lennon speak out

September 9, 1971 saw the population of Attica State prison in western New York state rise up and seize the facility, taking 33 staff hostage. Attica was infamous at the time for both being stuffed at twice its capacity, and for the inhumane living conditions of its majority-black and Puerto Rican community. Prison officials allotted one bar of soap and roll of toilet paper per month and a bucket of water per week as a shower. Inmate mail was regularly censored, visits were highly restricted, and prisoner beatings happened constantly. Responding to news of the imminent torture of one of their fellows who’d assaulted a prison officer, a group of prisoners freed their brother and rose up after guards denied yard-time to the full population.

After four days of negotiation, Governor Nelson Rockefeller—who refused the prisoners’ requests to come to the prison and hear their grievances—blessed Correctional Services Commissioner Russell G. Oswald’s order to retake Attica by force.  This resulted in the death of nine hostages and 28 inmates in an episode that shocked the conscience of a nation wearied by war, assassination and urban unrest. It also saw the birth of modern prison reform.

The episode is chronicled in four feature film adaptations—and famously referenced in Dog Day Afternoon)—alongside numerous documentaries, the best being Cinda Firstone Fox’s recently preserved 1973 piece. That one isn’t up on YouTube, but here’s a short doc from the great grassroots media hub Deep Dish TV.

After the jump: Muhammad Ali recites and John & Yoko sing out on Attica…

Posted by Ron Nachmann
03:10 pm
NYC Blackout ‘77: From the Streets to the Towers

At 9:30 PM EST exactly 33 years ago, New York City’s five boroughs suffered a massive power outage that changed plenty about the United States and the Western World. It took a little more than 24 hours for the ’77 blackout to end, but not before 1,616 stores were damaged in looting and rioting, 1,037 fires were responded to, and 3,776 people were arrested. The event and its effects are still under study at places like George Mason University in Virginia.

Here are Grandmaster Caz, Disco Wiz, KRS One, Annie Sprinkle and others reminiscing from the street perspective…

…and below, leave it to the BBC to credit post-welfare-state neo-liberalism for saving the Big Apple:

Posted by Ron Nachmann
05:29 pm