The Street as a Site of Political Activism, Entrepreneurship and Community Building in African American History
Dr Mark Naison
” (Marcus) Garvey voiced the marvelous nature of his own rise when he asked . . . ‘how come this New Negro? How comes this stunned awakening/’ The ground had been prepared for him by such outspoken voices as those of Hubert H Harrison, A Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, and WA Domingo. These and other stepladder orators- who began speaking along Lenox Avenue with the arrival of warm weather in 1916 and whose number rapidly grew with each succeeding summer- were the persons, who along with Garvey, converted the black community of Harlem into a parliament of the people during the years of World War I and after.”
Robert Hill, “Introduction,” in Marcus Garvey: Lfe and Lessons ( Berkely: University of California Press, 1987)
The quote I just read, about how street orators transformed Harlem into a “parliament of the people” during and after World War I, may seem tangential in a conference on Street Vending, but the remarks that follow hope to establish its relevance. The goal of my paper is to situate “street vending” as a site of popular resistance in the context of a long history of street based activism and community building within African American Communities. In doing so, I am responding to a discussion, which took place at a NY/Berlin Conference last September, on whether street vending is a constructive and politically responsible form of economic activity for immigrant and marginalized populations Based on what I have seen and studied in US Black and Latino communities, I view the defense of street vending as an important arena of political struggle in the global metropolis It is my contention that attacks on working class, immigrant presence in the public sphere, which have been going in Black and other minority neighborhoods in the US for the last forty years, have led to the virtual elimination of Black and Latino radicalism as a force in American life, promoted class and income segregation in urban areas, encouraged the growth of the prison industrial complex and have promoted gentrification and demographic inversion in many nations cities. So complete has this process been that young people today cannot even imagine a time when Black neighborhoods were filled with orators expounding their political philosophies from soapboxes and step ladders and when radical and nationalist newspapers were sold by hawkers in virtually every business district serving black communities. My goal is not only to remind the current generation of activists of a sixty year period between the onset of World War I and the early 1970’s when the streets in Black communities were filled with orators promoting a wide variety of radical philosophies, but to urge that this tradition of radical street speaking be reinvented and restored under the banner of ”The Right to the Streets” and “The Right to the City.” As the historical narrative that follows will point out, this tradition of street speaking not only encouraged learning and discussion among working class people, it led directly to militant confrontational political activism, ranging from hunger marches and protests against eviction, to boycott neighborhood business that refused to hire blacks, to commodity riots and protests against police brutality.
I am not alone in viewing street vending as a form of resistance to economic marginalization and to neo liberal efforts to assure an orderly and sanitized public sphere in neighborhoods targeted for gentrification The legal scholar Regina Austin made a similar argument in her 2000 Article in the Yale Law Review “Many blacks” Austin argues,” rightly understand that the line between the legal and the illegal in the area of economic activist is ephemeral and that the determination of the precise point at which the line is drawn is a matter of political struggle. Accordingly, blacks need to be in the thick of the battle, fighting for their interests. This means condoning, abetting and sometimes even engaging in illegal activity.”
This is not to say that all street vending is inevitably progressive, any more than other forms of street based economic activity, from drug dealing, to gambling, to fencing stolen goods, are inherently progressive. But given how effectively elites have deprived immigrant and minority people of outlets for political protest during the last forty years, I am prone to regard activities which bring income to undocumented and marginalized populations, especially those which circumvent the law, as important forms of resistance to patterns of urban governance which reinforce social inequality
The relationship between street vending, political activism and repressive patterns of urban governance was brought home to me, with brutal clarity, by an incident involving two members of the revolutionary hip hop group Rebel Diaz in June of last year. Rodrigo and Gonzalo Venegas, the MC and DJ of Rebel Diaz, were taking a friend on a tour of the Hunts Point neighborhood where they lived when they came upon police and Health Department officials confiscating the fruit of a Mexican street vendor. When the Venegas brothers interceded in the vendors behalf, first to translate the police’s commands into Spanish, then to try to allow the vendor to keep his fruit, they were cursed at and threatened by the officers at the scene, and then, when they asked for the officers badge numbers, thrown to the ground, beaten and arrested. This entire episode, captured by the Venegas brother’s friend on his cell phone, was sent out as a video to members of Rebel Diaz artistic and political network and within less than two hours there were nearly one hundred demonstrators picketing the police precinct where the Venegas brothers were being held, demanding their release. What was amazing to me, as a participant in this demonstration, was that the captain of the precinct refused to release the brothers despite damning visual evidence of police misconduct and mounting signs that this incident would be a rallying point for activists around the city. The imperative to maintain police authority through intimidation and illegal force in this immigrant and working class neighborhood was so powerful that neither local elected officials, nor the District attorney, were willing to try to get charges dismissed. A year later, the Venegas brothers still face charges from this incident, a telling reminder of how little standing street vendors and black and brown youth have in the calculations, and governance strategy of those making and enforcing the law.
In the light of this misuse of state power against immigrants exercising the right to make a living, and of activists exercising the right of free speech, it is critically important to recall a time in New York history, when black activists, and their allies claimed Harlem street corners as a space to expound radical political philosophies, and defended their right to that space against police and government attacks.
This almost forgotten tradition of Harlem street speaking, which in its various phases featured leaders like Hubert Harrison, A. Phillip Randolph, Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, Benjamin Davis Jr,. Rev Adam Clayton Power Jr, Carlos Cooks, Charles Kenyatta, and Malcolm X has been described with great eloquence by Irma Watkins Owens in her book Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900-1930. Watkins-Owens writes:
“From World War I through the 1930’s, the unclaimed territory of the Harlem street corner became the testing ground for a range of political ideologies and forum for intellectual inquiry and debate. The open-air arena claimed other adherents as well-barefoot prophets, musicians, healers and traders-competing for the souls and pocketbooks of the urban masses. . . . but on any day of the week, including Sunday, homebound Harlemites emerging from the subway at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue
Would most likely encounter congested sidewalks and the well toned voice of the street orator, often of African Caribbean descent, positioned stop a stepladder and surrounded by crowds of listeners”
As Watkins-Owens account makes clear, Harlem’s step ladder orators shared the street with a variety of people engaged in commercial ventures, ranging from numbers runners, to evangelists ,to street vendors selling products ranging from Southern delicacies (e.g ribs, sweet potatoes and pigs feet) to clothing, to “dream books” for the numbers trade. In an oppressed community, street politics and street economics were, in effect .two sides of the same coin. The population of Harlem, coming from the West Indies and the Spanish Caribbean as well as the American South, not only welcomed speakers calling for an end to racism, white supremacy and colonial rule, they used the streets of their neighborhood to launch a wide variety of income producing activities, whether legal or not, that could compensate for their exclusion from nearly every important section of New York’s labor market.
Because discrimination in the mainstream economy was so fierce, some of Harlem’s best known and most brilliant street speakers used their oratory as an income producing activity, making the line between street speaking and street vending even more porous.
The great Harlem socialist and nationalist Hubert Harrison, widely recognized at the founder of Hatlem’s “Street University” supported himself by collecting pennies and nickels and dimes from the audiences at his street corner lectures, which lasted for hours and touched on subjects ranging from religion, to Greek philosophy, women’s suffrage to the leadership strategy of Booker T Washington. As Harrison’s biography Jeffrey Perry points out, Harrison decided to support himself as a Harlem street speaker only after he was pushed out of his post-office job by Booker T Washington because of his criticism of the Tuskegee leader,, and fired from his position as a lecturer for the Socialist Party for supporting the IWW. Harrison always lived on the edge of poverty, but made enough money from street speaking to pay his rent in a community that was hungry for leadership and hungry for enlightenment. He was also part street vendor, selling books and oils at his lectures!
Harrison’s success, both in attracting audiences, and in raising funds, was not lost on am ambitious young West Indian immigrant named Marcus Garvey Garvey believed that people of African descent were on the bottom rung of every society they were living in, be it in Africa or the Western Hemisphere, and he wanted to build an organization which would unite Blacks to redeem Africa from European rule and to take pride in their
African ancestry Garvey’s message, coming at a time when the self-determination of nations and an end to colonial rule was possible outcome of the World War, electrified audiences on the streets of Harlem, and they invested their energies and contributed their funds to the organization that Garvey created “The Universal Negro Improvement Association.” With the funds Garvey raised from his street speaking, he rented a headquarters in Harlem, which he called Liberty Hall, and founded a newspaper, which he called “The Negro World” started forming chapters wherever his ideas captured Black people’s imaginations. By the early 1920’s, the UNIA had become the largest Black organization ever created, with hundreds of thousands of members all over the United States, and in more than forty different countries. Garvey’s organization eventually foundered due to internal conflicts, financial difficulties and prosecution of its leader for mail fraud by the US Department of Justice, but the power of a message of Black Pride and African Redemption to move the masses of Black people left a powerful impression on Harlem, and would spawn numerous offshoots who would preach some variety of Black nationalism to the people of Harlem and other urban black communities
During the Depression, these small nationalist organizations, along with the Harlem section of the American Communist Party, would give this emerging tradition of street oratory a more activist, confrontational dimension. As unemployment in Harlem rose to over 60 percent, and large numbers of families faced eviction from their homes, local radicals, using soapboxes and street ladders as the platforms, promoted two divergent strategies to ease the economic distress of Harlem’s hard pressed residents. Communists, some white and some black, organized local residents to resist evictions, participate in hunger marches on government agencies and hold sits ins at local charities until their members were given help. By the beginning of 1931, Harlemites had become accustomed to the sight of black and white teams of Communists putting the furniture of evicted families back in apartments and getting aid for starving families by putting charitable organizations under siege. Local nationalist groups, who were suspicious of the Communist message of Black White unity, used their street corner to launch an entirely different movement, a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign to force Harlem businesses, most of which were owned by whites, to hire Blacks as salesperson. This campaign, concentrating on the large department stores on 125th Street, spread like wildfire and ultimately forced major concessions from Harlem employers, not without controversy about the nationalists allegedly anti-white and anti Semitic rhetoric. But by the mid- 1930’s this combination of Communist and nationalist agitation, taking place daily on scores of Harlem street corners, had created an aroused, and informed community ready to rise up in protest at any manifestation of racism, whether local national or international. In 1935, thousands of people in this community rose up in anger following the arrest, and alleged beating of a Black teenager in a Harlem department store, looting stores and fighting police in a two day uprising that was the first of its kind in modern African American history. No longer would a “Race Riot” consist of mobs of whites invading and attacking Black neighborhoods; now blacks, aroused by street oratory, marches and picket lines, would rise up against the outsiders who controlled their neighborhoods politically or exploited it economically.
This street spawned atmosphere of militancy even spilled over into electoral politics. A new breed of activist politician rose to power in the late Thirties, symbolized by the election to the City Council and then to Congress of Reverend Adam Clayon Powell Jr. Powell, who had been a leader in the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work Campaign” and Communist led campaigns against lynching and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia aroused support for his campaign as much with street corner oratory as through the organizational machine he built in his church.. And his successor on the City Council, Harlem Communist leader Benjamin Davis Jr, who was elected in 1943, followed a similar strategy, using a powerful street team to arouse support for his candidacy headed by the redoubtable Audley (later Queen Mother) Moore. Interestingly enough, the year Davis was elected was the year of the second Harlem Riot, provoked by an incident of police violence involving Black servicemen
This extraordinary tradition of street based activsm came under fierce attack in the post war years as anti-Communism became the dominant ideology throughout American society. Between 1947 and 1956, Communists in Harlem, like their counterparts around the nation, were arrested, deported, called before investigating committees, and forced out of their jobs in the school system, the welfare department, universities and the media. The most famous Harlem Communist of all, Paul Robeson, became a virtual exile in his own land, deprived of his passport, barred from radio, tv and movies, and prevented from singing for pay in most major concert halls. Rank and file Communists, harassed and followed by the FBI, fated even worse- by the late 50’s, the Communist street speaker and Daily Worker salesman had virtually disappeared from Harlem neighborhoods where they once had been a respected presence
But thanks to African American nationalists, many of them in small, obscure organizations, the tradition of Harlem street oratory was kept alive, especially along its main thoroughfare 125th Street. There, the message of Black Unity, Black Pride and African Redemption was being kept alive by leaders like Carlos Cooks of the African Nationalist Pioneer League, Charles Kenyatta of the Mau Mau Society and ex Communists Richard Moore and Audley Moore who spoke in behalf of the elimination of the word “Negro” and the necessity of reparations for people of African descent.
But the most important presence on Harlem streets was a minister of a small Black nationalist religious group which called itself “The Nation of Islam” and preached that white domination of the world was coming to an end and that blacks should separate themselves from the “devil white man” before it was too late. That minister, Malcolm X, electrified Harlem crowds with his attacks on Christianity, mainstream civil rights organizations, and the idea that America could become an integrated society. Malcolm told his audiences that America was so poisoned by racism that it never could reform, and that Blacks had to separate themselves from white influences- and white people- to achieve self-determination and self respect. Using the street corner as his pulpit, Malcolm recruited thousands of members for the Nation of Islam, in Harlem and around the nation, and became the most feared, and respected of Harlem’s street orators.
All of these Harlem nationalists, it should be emphasized, sold more than ideas- they also hawked books, pamphlets, or their organization’s newspaper. The Nation of Islam, in particular, excelled at street commerce, moving thousands of copies of their newspaper Muhammed Speaks on the streets of Harlem each week and selling Nation of Islam produced food products on the street- Shabazz Bean Pies- as sign that they practiced what they preached.
By the mid 1960’s more radical organizations, some with a Marxist tinge, began competing with local nationalists for the ear of Harlem residents, and a new culture of radical opposition began to rise in the community. In the summer of 1964, the police murder of a Black high school students triggered another Harlem Riot, larger and more damaging than the ones that took place in 1964. And a fourth Harlem Riot took place following the murder of Rev Martin Luther King Jr in 1968
However, the late 60’s and early 70’s proved to be the last gasp of a Harlem political culture that depended on street oratory, public protest, and the selling of radical newspapers to disseminate oppositional ideologies and inspire vigilance against control of Harlem by forces outside the community. The major radical organizations of the late 60’s the Black Panther Party and Young Lords Party, suffered a wave of political repression almost as fierce as what confronted the Communist Party in the post war era and had virtually disappeared from Harlem by the mid 1970’s. Nationalist groups also suffered a decline, as the Nation of Islam split between those, led by Wallace Muhammed, who wanted the organization to embrace Sunni Islam, and those, led by Louis Farrakhan, who wanted to stay true to the Black Supremacist philosophy of the Nation’s founder Elijah Muhammed.
The collapse of that culture left Harlem relatively helpless in the face of an array of tragedies that beset that community from the early 70’s to the mid 90’s, beginning with an arson and abandonment cycle that destroyed much local housing, a city Fiscal Crisis that radically cut social services, especially fire, sanitation and youth programs; and finally a crack epidemic that destroyed families and eroded the neighborhoods sense of safety even as it made fortunes for a small number of high level dealers. By the time the crack epidemic had run its course in the mid 90’s, the community had been politically demobilized to such a degree that it was unable to resist the mass incarceration of large numbers of its youth, and unable to develop a viable opposition to the Guiliani administration’s plan to redevelop Harlem as a potential site of middle class settlement amidst scare Manhattan real estate.
This is not to say that there was no street level resistance in Harlem to strategies of elite control or plans to develop the community in ways that displaced its residents. Street entrepreneurship of various kinds, often pioneered by African immigrants, continued to flourish, even in the face of opposition from local merchants; hip hop jams commanded space in parks and playgrounds even without permits, taking their electricity from the bottom of light poles, and Al Sharpton and other leaders kept the community vigilant in the face of incidents of police brutality in Black neighborhoods and mob attacks on black people in neighborhoods like Bensonhurst and Howard Beach. The Black nationalist tradition was kept alive in portions of hip hop and in movements like Louis Farrkhan’s Million Man March
But the tradition of street oratory which kept Harlemites vigilant on a daily basis to racial and economic injustice was gone for good. There were no more Hubert Harrisons, no more Marcus Garveys, no more Audley Moores, no more Malcolm X’s. There were no Communist street speakers demanding that furniture of evicted families be moved back into vacant apartments; no nationalist orators demanding that Black owned business be given preference over Burger King and Starbucks. And so, a community battered by disinvestment, drug epidemics, mass incarceration, and the collapse of social services, suddenly became, when the economy revived, a hot new neighborhood for the upper middle class, filled with condos, chain stores, and chic cafes.
As working class Harlemites find themselves more and more powerless, doubled up in apartments or forced to move to the Bronx because of rising rents, we need to ask- is a community without street speakers, and street vendors and protest meetings a better place, and if better, better for whom?
Some traditions aren’t missed when they are gone, but if working class people are to have any power in this city, street speaking and street agitation is a tradition that needs to be brought back