The Sacking of New York City: 1970’s Radical Chic Reaches the Streets
During the 1968 Olympics, most Americans were shocked to see two of the United States’ finest athletes raise their fists in loyalty to the Black Panthers, a radical group advocating violence as a means to change society. The controversy engendered by Smith-Carlos still has not died out.
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Fast forward from the 1968 Olympics to a contemporary scene in the nation’s capital of Washington, DC. There, diners were harassed by Black Lives Matter protestors, who demanded each person give a clenched fist salute indicating solidarity with BLM.
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What happened between 1968 to 2020? How did the United States get from the scene at the Olympics, which was largely repudiated as unpatriotic and excessive, to the scene at the DC restaurant? How did Americans get to the point the equivalent of a Nazi salute is demanded of them by roving gangs?
The nation got here from there because a radical segment of the civil rights movement moved away from the nonviolent protests of Martin Luther King to embrace the violence advocated by organizations such as the Black Panthers. We also got from there to here because of a class of elites that have supported and assisted the ideology embraced by radical groups like the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter, who share almost identical goals.
Tom Wolfe noted in his brilliant and prescient essay, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” that Leonard Bernstein was intrigued with the Black Panthers. Bernstein, who sprang to fame as the composer of West Side Story and the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, invited the cognoscenti of 1970’s New York to a party at his home to support the Black Panthers.
Wolfe’s acid pen spared no one; including the fashionistas who wondered just what one should wear to a party comprised of revolutionaries demanding the extinction of their sort of people. Certainly, the usual ostentatious display of wealth would not do. Maybe a chic little black dress? Ah, sighed Wolfe, “the delicious little agonies of Radical Chic.”
But more serious issues than revolutionary chic surfaced at Lenny’s party. Attending were supporters of ideas that later produced actual, rather than theoretical violence. The guests who celebrated the radicals advocating the overthrow of the structures that supported the literati and aficionados of the arts turned out to be celebrating their own downfall -- while toasting the wooden horse they had welcomed into their Troy.
The ideas that grabbed the attention and monies of New York’s well-to-do later trickled down and bore the rotten fruit that may have damaged New York beyond repair.
“Lenny’s party” has been taken outside into the streets of New York, where the partiers have been freed from any restraint and allowed to riot as they please. It’s noteworthy that the street gangs have not invited the elite, who have been fleeing the city, taking their wealth with them.
Meanwhile, encouraged by Mayor de Blasio, the violent celebrators are busily attempting to exchange the current police force for authority figures who will remain amenable to the fundamental transformation of the city according to the tenets of Black Lives Matter, a contemporary iteration of the Black Panthers. Now most New Yorkers also are seeing the results of ideas “Lenny,” who was sincerely and deeply troubled about societal injustices, could not or would not see.
But Wolfe foresaw it all fifty years ago. He wrote:
“The emotional momentum was building rapidly when Ray “Masai” Hewitt, the Panthers’ Minister of Education and member of the Central Committee, rose to speak. Hewitt was an intense, powerful young man and in no mood to play the diplomacy game. Some of you here, he said, may have some feelings left for the establishment, but we don’t. We want to see it die. We’re Maoist revolutionaries, and we have no choice but to fight to the finish. For about 30 minutes Masai Hewitt laid it on the line. He referred now and again to “that M ----- F ----- Nixon” and to how the struggle would not be easy, and that if buildings were burned and other violence ensued, that was only part of the struggle that the power structure had forced the oppressed minorities into.... But more than one Park Avenue matron was thrown into a Radical Chic confusion. The most memorable quote was: ‘He’s a magnificent man, but suppose some simple-minded schmucks take all that business about burning down buildings seriously?’”
A good question.
A good many “simple-minded schmucks” have taken the idea of burning down buildings seriously. But as Wolfe noted, if you are giving fundraising parties for revolutionaries, should you be surprised if they use those funds to achieve the agenda they espouse, including immolating the houses and businesses of the hosts -- and maybe even the hosts themselves?
What is the agenda?
Donald Cox, a leader of the Black Panthers and an invitee to the party, did not hesitate to let the resplendent representatives of capitalist greed just what was wanted:
“The Black Panther Party… stands for a 10-point program that was handed down in October, 1966, by our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton… We want an educational system that expresses the true nature of this decadent society… We want all black men exempt from military service…. We want all black men who are in jail to be set free…. And most important of all… we want peace, but there can be no peace as long as a society is racist and one part of society engages in systematic oppression of another…. We want a plebiscite by the United Nations to be held in black communities, so that we can control our own destiny.”
Included in Cox’s address was scorn toward “pigs;” known to others as “police.”
“‘We call them pigs, and rightly so,’ says Don Cox, ‘because they have the way of making the victim look like the criminal, and the criminal look like the victim…. We recognize that this country is the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world. The pigs have the weapons…. They are ready to commit genocide against those who stand up against them, and we recognize this as being very bad.”
Fifty years later, gone are the worries about what to wear to the party in the streets. Jeans and masks are the great equalizers, providing anonymity to the partiers who are helping themselves to the goods of greedy capitalist pig oppressors. Gone now, too, is the sentimental nostalgia of radical chic as the reality of the trashing of Fifth Avenue sinks in.
But also gone now are Cox’s worries the Black Panther party and its radically chic supporters would never be mainstreamed or part of the “system.”
Wolfe noted Richard Feigen, a wealthy art dealer who attended the Bernstein soiree, asked a question: “…Are the Black Panthers interested in getting any political leverage within the System?”
Cox initially was ambivalent about the usefulness of the traditional political system, stating, “We have no power within the system, and we will never have any power within the system. The only power we have is the power to destroy, the power to disrupt.” But remaining true to his redistributionist ideology, he added that he thought cooperation with the “system” was not possible, and that “the means of production should be taken from the businessman and placed in the community, with the people.”
After Cox’s speech, Barbara Walters, also a guest, expressed tentative concerns about advocacy of violence:
“Last year we interviewed Mrs. Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver…. I asked her, I said, ‘I have a child, and you have a child,’ and I said, ‘Do you see any possibility that our children will be able to grow up and live side by side in peace and harmony?’ and she said, ‘not with the conditions that prevail in this society today, not without the overthrow of the system.’ So I asked her, ‘How do you feel, as a mother, about the prospect of your child being in that kind of confrontation, a nation in flames?’ and she said, ‘Let it burn!’ And I said, ‘What about your own child?’ and she said, ‘May he light the first match!’ (Italics mine.)
Walters wondered if there was “any chance at all for a peaceful solution to these problems, some way out without violence?”
It’s clear the answer to Ms. Walter’s question is “No.” The children are now grown and lighting matches. So, no, the rioters do not see a peaceful solution.
Further, as to the leveraging the current political system, the revolutionaries now have control of the machinery of the Democrat party, which in turn has control of many of America’s cities. The insurgents have clearly announced they wish to put the essentially communist agenda of the Black Panthers, Antifa and Black Lives Matter into effect -- not just within the cities, but throughout the entire nation. They are attempting a coup. They want to replace current authorities with their own people, who will then complete the transformation of the cities into socialist/communist utopias.
In an interview given by him only three weeks before his death, another Leonard; namely, Leonard Cohen, spoke about the deep roots of his music.
Cohen, whose unique musical genius is celebrated, is best known composing the song “Hallelujah.” But he also wrote a piece entitled “First We take Manhattan.” As usual with his lyrics, there is an ambiguity.
However, Cohen himself was in no doubt as to the interpretation of his lyrics. When asked, he said, “I think it means exactly what it says. It is a terrorist song. I think it's a response to terrorism. There's something about terrorism that I've always admired.”
Cohen, like Bernstein, saw that many, if not most violent protestors were persuaded by a vision of immediate justice -- what he called “a signal from the heavens.” Though Cohen himself was not an advocate of violence, he admired the ideas and cause of the deeply injured who sought justice.
Asked if he were a religious man, Cohen spoke of the landscape of the Bible and the universals that guided him. He noted that guidance was not shared by many in his circles.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was also committed to the universals articulated by the Bible, but rejected violence. He often quoted the prophets Micah and Amos: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God…. Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
The loss of the transcendent universals concerning humanity and the God who created each person once guided, informed and restrained the nation. Desertion of those principles in favor of the anger and violence of radical identity politics has led to today’s chaos.
But in the admonitions of Micah, Amos and other prophets are found the principles for genuine reform for America.
If a return to those foundational principles is not realized, America’s cities will continue to burn.
--Fay Voshell holds a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, which awarded her the prize for excellence in systematic theology. Her thoughts have appeared in many online magazines, including American Thinker, where her essays have been published since 2011. She may be reached at email@example.com.