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A TRADITION OF STREET SPEAKING AND OPEN AIR DEBATE

 

 

By Mark Naison | With thanks to NewBlackMan

 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011.

 

One of the most remarkable features of Occupy Wall Street is the number of teach ins, discussions and debates that take place at Zucotti Park  during day light hours. Discussion and debate is continuous, some of it one on one, some of it in small groups, some taking the form of large assemblies .And the range of topics is broad, ranging from education policy, to problems in the middle east, to the sources of the current economic crisis, to problems of racism and anti-semitism, to how to diversify the Occupation.  I have not, since the days I was an undergraduate at Columbia in the mid 60’s and participated in debates and rallies at the Sundial in the middle of campus  experienced  this much intellectual vitality  in an outdoor setting.   And it was something I had never seen first-hand in a New York neighborhood.

 

But as a historian of social movements, who had once written a book about Harlem in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s this was all familiar to me. There was once a time in the history of New York City when Harlem, and to a lesser degree the Lower East Side,  Brownsville and the South Bronx were filled with speakers on every corner explaining  Socialism and Capitalism, promoting or attacking organized religion, extolling the value Zionism, Black Nationalism, or Irish Independence, and at times, giving impromptu courses on world history.

 

No place was this tradition of street speaking more developed than in Harlem,  the nation’s largest and most diverse Black community during the years in question, where one commentator referred to it as the “Parliament of the People.” On any afternoon in 1919, you might find  Marcus Garvey, A Phillip Randolph, Richard Moore and  Hubert Harrison on different street corners, each espousing their particular philosophies before large and enthusiastic crowds.   During the 1930’s, those same streets featured debates between Communists and Garveyites,  while leftists organized community members to put back the furniture back of evicted families, nationalists  urged them join   “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns,” and religious orators promised salvation in various forms.  This tradition continued on into the 1950’s and early 1960’s where on a given day, you could hear Malcolm X holding forth about the Nation of Islam, Queen Mother Moore and Carlos Cooks talking about reparations, or Charles Kenyatta urging the community to “Buy Black.”

 

 

This open air forum created an atmosphere where working class people in  Harlem and other New York neighborhoods,  whether domestics, Pullman porter, cab drivers, factory workers or teachers and nurses,, had an almost daily exposure to politics, religion, history and current events right in their own neighborhood. It created a working class  public that was alert, vigilant, and politically active and fought for its interests. It was no accident that in the post war years, New York was a city which had free zoos and museums, great after school programs and sports and arts in its public schools, and free tuition at its City Universities, as well as a  vibrant civil rights movement that fought discrimination in housing, education and employment.

 

Through the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s this tradition of street speaking and public debate gradually disappeared.  The streets of working class neighborhoods retained their vitality, but it came largely from street vendors and religious speakers rather than people promoting political activism or knowledge of world history.

 

Now however, at Zuccotti Park, the Parliament of the People seems to have returned. Debates, both organized and spontaneous, break out at all hours of the day (and for all I know, the night!) and people are able to get many points of view across to eager listeners.  All of a sudden, political discussion has become cool again, but more importantly, people are beginning to feel their views matter because they have seen, as the Occupation evolves, how ordinary people when joined together for action can do things they previously thought were impossible.

 

Now you can say that Occupy Wall Street is an elitist movement and that the political vitality in open space displayed there once spread to the working class communities where it is most needed.  But there are signs that it is spreading to communities of color around New York.

 

On Saturday, I was at an Occupy the Bronx event on Fordham road which began with a Teach in about green cooperatives and ended with a speak out on conditions in the Bronx at which more than 15 people presented their views.  There were 75 to 100 people assembled, but passerby’s often stopped to listen.  When I got up to speak, it was an incredibly moving experience because I had not given a speech on Fordham road since the heyday of the anti-war movement in the early 1970’s.  But the issues here were not ones that were going away-unemployment, the mal-distribution of wealth, poor health care , lack of affordable housing, police harassment of Black and Latino youth. If the Occupation Movement continues to grow, discussions like this may proliferate, bringing with it a renewed confidence, not only that ideas matter, but that people can change their communities through collective action.

 

Space matters. The ability of the Occupy Wall Street movement to hold Zuccotti Park in the for more than five weeks in the face of first profound skepticism of the movement’s staying power and more recently of efforts by authorities to evict it has turned that park into a center of grass roots democratic practice and discourse.   But thought the occupation is new, the discourse is not! It is something we once had in many New York working class neighborhoods.

 

So let us follow the example of the Occupation and transform streets like Fordham Road, 125th Street, Jamaica Avenue and Fulton Street into “Parliaments of the People” where political discussion and debate and thrive and people can plan the next steps to revitalize neighborhoods without driving working class people out, and to use the wealth created in our city to advance the common good rather than the interest of the 1 Percent.

 

***

 

Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of two books, Communists in Harlem During the Depression and White Boy: A Memoir. Naison is also co-director of the Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP). Research from the BAAHP will be published in a forthcoming collection of oral histories Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life From the 1930s to the 1960s.

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