Forty Years Ago, a Million People Descended on New York’s Central Park to Demand Peace
Forty years ago this week, Michael Myerson was one of the organizers for the largest rally in American history against nuclear weapons. The real highlight for him, though, was getting to tell Mayor Ed Koch to go f— himself.
Beats me how I came to head up the US Peace Council (USPC). I was asked to do so by the Communist Party but have no idea why, of all people, I was the chosen one.
I was hardly an obedient Communist golden boy, readily submissive to discipline, willing to carry out instructions unthinkingly, eager to repeat any nonsensical wisdom received from the party leadership. In the thirteen years I’d been a member, I had already been “brought up on charges” several times — each time by a Central Committee or Political Bureau member, including three times around unauthorized international travel.
Moreover, much as I was distrusted and perhaps feared in some small way for my independent international travel, the party leaders must have known I had no interest in undermining them. Truth be told, I rarely considered them at all.
Meantime, besides my engagement with and travel to Vietnam and Cuba and work with the Tricontinental Information Center, I had been actively engaged with the Movimiento Pro-Independencia de Puerto Rico (later the Partido Socialista) and had organized the US participation in the centennial celebration of el Grito de Lares, the first Puerto Rican uprising against Spanish rule in 1868. I had also worked actively in support of Northern Ireland civil rights during the years of “the Troubles” and had twice traveled to Dublin and Belfast and points in between, hosted by the Official Irish Republican Army/Sinn Féin and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association headed up by Communist Party leaders in Derry and Belfast. (My work with Ireland seemed to completely escape the notice of the US party leadership, which took no interest in the issue.)
The point being — as a consideration of my being selected to organize the US Peace Council — that I actually knew stuff. Through my relationships in New York with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a Marxist component of the PLO, I came to know the UN ambassador from the Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen (DPRY), the then-independent Marxist-led country of South Yemen whose capital was Aden. Consequently, though holding no position in the leadership, I became the conduit for invitations to the party to send a delegation to South Yemen and Lebanon to establish party-to-party relations with the DPRY, DFLP, PLO, and Communist Party of Lebanon.
I suppose I had (at least provisionally) redeemed myself in the eyes of the party leadership and was again considered kosher enough that I could handle the responsibilities of organizing the US Peace Council.
The reason for organizing the USPC was that the World Peace Council (WPC), headquartered in Helsinki, after nearly three decades of existence, still had no US affiliate — even though our country was the world’s foremost military power and purveyor of war.
The WPC was launched in 1950, its first campaign around the Stockholm Appeal. The appeal was a worldwide citizens petition to abolish and outlaw all nuclear weapons — my mom was a leader of the campaign in Los Angeles through her organization, the Southern California Peace Crusade — initiated by (among others) Marc Chagall, W.E.B. Du Bois, Thomas Mann, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Simone Signoret. Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the French Nobel-prize winning physicist, headed up the campaign and became the first president of the new WPC.
That some of these notables were Communists was used to slander the campaign. In my mind, this redounded to the credit of the Communists rather than detracted from the effort.
But that was 1950, the memory of the US incineration of 200,000 human beings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still fresh, and the lines of the Cold War had certainly been drawn but not completely hardened.
By 1979, when we started the USPC, the WPC had become largely ossified. While many of its national committees — primarily but not only in Western Europe — were active components, even leaders, of their national peace movements, most were heavily bureaucratic and formalized, reduced to letterheads and issuing proclamations via press release. Sitting at the top of the WPC bureaucracy was its longtime president, Romesh Chandra, an exiled Indian Communist, an unbending autocrat who marshaled all his brilliance toward internal factional fights to the complete neglect of movement building.
This was hardly a unique shortcoming; in our country, any number of “leaders” of labor, civil rights, and other progressive movements prefer bureaucratic arteriosclerosis to movement building. It’s easier to control a bureaucracy than to be accountable to a movement.
A few years before my involvement with the WPC, I was in a Prague café having beers with Misha Altman, a blacklisted Hollywood writer, exiled to Europe where he could find work that was barred to him in Los Angeles. For a brief period, he served as a WPC representative in Geneva.
Being an expatriate, a Jew, and a veteran of the Cold War had given Misha a shrewd, gimlet-eyed view of the world. He told a story of how, after their victory in Stalingrad, as the Red Army was moving west, the Nazis occupying Vienna put up posters through the city to calm the population. “Situation serious, but not hopeless,” the signs read. Misha said the opposite was true of the WPC: “Situation hopeless, but not serious.”
In any case, it was 1979, and I was now responsible for organizing a new national peace organization, the US affiliate of the WPC.
Communists’ Singular Contribution
What was generally understood to be “the peace movement” was a significant number of dedicated organizations — many (but hardly all) born in religious and pacifist traditions with long, honorable traditions of fighting, and speaking truth to, power. They were also invariably predominantly white and middle-class. This movement was largely focused on the nuclear arms race between the United States and the USSR. A second “solidarity” movement, with much the same demographic makeup and religious roots, focused on support for liberation movements fighting colonialist and neocolonialist regimes in Africa and Latin America.
The contributions to the peace movement as a whole that we hoped to make with the US Peace Council were 1) to develop a working-class component, and one that was multiracial and multinational; 2) to make clear the relationship between an economy dominated by the military-industrial complex and its shortchanging, not to mention impoverishing, of working-class communities — especially communities of color — and their essential needs: good housing, good schools, good health care, and such; 3) and to embrace and integrate the twin concerns of nuclear disarmament and national liberation.
I don’t want to be misleading. While I personally was a member of the Communist Party, the USPC was hardly a Communist organization. Our leadership, for example, included a number of labor union officers and elected public officials (including some who today are still in elected office).
The Communist Party, for all its many flaws — including its fatal ones — made a singular contribution to American political culture and especially its movements for social and economic justice in its insistence on the fight against racism and the building of multiracial unity as absolutely essential and primary. To its great credit, the party fought racism tenaciously and courageously even in the face of KKK rule in the Jim Crow South.
I believed, based on my then more-than-twenty years of movement activities, that you cannot build a multiracial, multinational organization unless you start out with such a core. Virtually the entirety of national peace movements in the 1980s were overwhelmingly if not completely white and middle-class. Since graduating from UC Berkeley two decades earlier, I had only worked in multiracial movements and knew I would personally be uncomfortable in an all-white environment, so we set out to build something different.
Of course, we worked every day on nuclear disarmament but also on the effects of the permanently militarized economy: environmental degradation, deprivation of decent schools and health care for poor and working-class families, and the like. We worked in solidarity with the peoples of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Palestine, and elsewhere against regimes propped up with US dollars and armaments. We gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures to free Nelson Mandela, then still imprisoned on charges of terrorism by the terrorist apartheid regime, backed by the Ronald Reagan administration. (Mandela was, after all, arrested through the services of the CIA and was officially branded a terrorist by the US government.)
From the get-go when we founded the USPC in 1979 — Representative John Conyers of Detroit was our first keynote speaker — we attempted to join the most important national coalitions working for peace and nuclear disarmament. Our presence was not always welcome, and there were some successful efforts to bar our participation. Nevertheless, we persisted.
One coalition that readily accepted us was the Mobilization for Survival, or “the Mobe,” a major component of the anti-nuclear (both weapons and energy stations) movement. Ronald Reagan had recently taken office and was about to fulfill his campaign promises of stepping up the Cold War, placing the most advanced nuclear missiles in Europe, and letting the world know that the first and only country to use nuclear weapons would not be reluctant to also be the second.
Someone Had to Do It
One snowy day in the winter of 1981, leaving a Mobe meeting at Riverside Church in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, I was walking to the subway with David McReynolds, a veteran leader of the pacifist War Resisters League and of the Socialist Party, and David Cortright, at that time a leader of SANE (National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy). One of the Davids mentioned that in the following year, the United Nations would be holding its first Special Session on Disarmament (SSD) here in New York.
We all agreed that it would be a wonderful gesture to welcome the SSD with massive mobilization in the streets of our city. We agreed to raise this possibility at the next meeting of the Mobe.
We did, and there was immediate and unanimous agreement to build toward the SSD. It was a natural step, since the disarmament movement of the time was largely focused on the Nuclear Freeze. In addition to denouncing previous US-Soviet arms control agreements, Reagan announced a buildup of NATO nuclear forces with the neutron bomb (“Kills People, Not Property” — the perfect capitalist weapon) and a new generation of cruise and Pershing II missiles in Central Europe and aimed eastward. The Soviets, for their part, began replacing older nuclear weapons with more accurate SS-20 missiles.
A couple of years earlier, Randall Forsberg, an American who had worked at the Stockholm International Peace Institute, began circulating a document, “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race,” calling for a freeze on testing, manufacturing, and deploying any more nuclear weapons by both the United States and the USSR. The “Freeze” soon became the primary focus of the disarmament movement — SANE, the American Friends Service Committee, Fellowship of Reconciliation, and other religious and pacifist organizations. It was natural that all these groups would want the Freeze to be the centerpiece of the big mobilization.
The trouble was that while they constituted the majority of the disarmament movement, the disarmament movement represented only a small portion of the public. Demographically, its meetings more closely resembled Provo, Utah, than New York City. When we tried to introduce the idea of broadening the coalition to include people of color, labor unions, and the like, there was great resistance.
These were all good people, morally upright and dedicated. But they were also provincial, unused to working with different kinds of folks, jealous of their prerogatives and ownership of the disarmament issue, and worried about “diluting” the issue with other demands like funding schools and health care instead of missiles. At the outset, I was maybe the most persistent and loudest voice for broadening the coalition — someone had to do it — and there were some who may have thought that, my being a Communist, I had a hidden agenda.
I sadly had to remind them — or teach those who never knew — that people like Dr W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson were among the foremost leaders in trying to stop the development of atomic weapons in the postwar years, as well as to end the Korean War; that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the shock troops of the southern civil rights movement, and Dr King were principal leaders of the anti–Vietnam War movement. Peace and disarmament were not “white issues.” The working class had the most at stake in reversing the march of the militarist lemmings.
I don’t want to give the impression that the Peace Council or I were the major players in the success that resulted. But we did make a singular and essential contribution. Mine was not the only voice making the argument. Joining me were national mobilization virtuoso Leslie Cagan, David McReynolds of the War Resisters League, doyenne of all things progressive in NYC’s northern suburbs Connie Hogarth, and eventually Cora Weiss. Cora ran the Riverside Church Disarmament Project, which hosted our meetings, with the blessing of Rev William Sloane Coffin. Cora was unreservedly dedicated and energetic and politically on the side of the angels, although having been born wealthy, tended to treat most everyone else as the hired help.
After months of intense argument and discussion, one meeting we showed up with three black colleagues: Jack O’Dell, who had been a top aide to Dr King and then to Rev Jesse Jackson; Jim Bell, a vice president of District 65, a union of retail and warehouse workers, and head of the New York chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; and Bill Lynch, perhaps the smartest political strategist in the city, who would become deputy mayor in the David Dinkins administration a few years hence.
Some of the folks didn’t know whether to shit or wind their watch. But they now had been presented with an accomplished fact. And life went on without a single cardiac arrest. In time, others joined as well, notably 1199, the health care union and probably the most progressive labor union in the region.
Most of the people I’ve mentioned here are now gone — Bill Coffin, Jack O’Dell, Bill Lynch, Jim Bell, Connie Hogarth, David McReynolds among them. Suffice to say the June 12, 1982, March for Nuclear Disarmament and Human Needs would not have been the enormous success it became were it not for them.
One of the earliest to die, and the one dearest to me, was Sandy Pollack, whose 1985 flight from Havana to Managua crashed into the sea. Sandy was thirty-five years old. More than a thousand friends gathered for her memorial at Riverside Church where Bill Coffin said, “Sandy may not have believed in God, but God believed in Sandy.”
God got that one right. Sandy Pollack was officially my “assistant executive director” at the Peace Council, but this was a fiction. She was in actuality my codirector or partner — we just divided the work according to our predispositions. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, nor would she.
In the months leading up to the Central Park march and rally, I attended all the planning meetings and argued for and organized to broaden the participation to include New York’s labor unions and the black and Latino communities. Once the arguments were settled, I stepped away and let Sandy help run the “operations” part of the endeavor. Sandy’s assignment — much tougher in my eyes — was to secure permits from the city to essentially take over Midtown Manhattan and Central Park on June 12, 1982.
Ed Koch Is No Friend of Peace
Sandy was hardly one to suffer fools gladly, but she had seemingly limitless patience and determination to suffer fools for lengthy periods of time. Mayor Edward Koch’s parks commissioner was Henry Stern, and while not a stupid man, he played the fool for the mayor. We could not use Central Park without Stern’s permission, and Stern would not issue a permit without Koch’s blessing. Koch was no friend of the movement and had no interest in giving us the park. Sandy had to persuade Stern and Koch to give what they didn’t want to.
We, the planning committee, had decided in the fall of 1981 that we would gather at the United Nations on First Avenue and march to the park. So negotiations with the city, i.e., Commissioner Stern, began sometime that November. Sandy, sometimes accompanied by a colleague (often Leslie Cagan), began regular meetings with Stern in his office in Central Park. Every two or three weeks, Sandy would gather up her purse, notebook, and cigarettes and head out of the Peace Council office to meet with “the undertaker,” as she and then I began to call Stern.
When she came back each time with the lack of any progress over the previous meeting, she wasn’t exactly discouraged but wondered if maybe the meetings were a waste of time. Stern was affable enough but made it clear that the decision in our case would not be made by him but by the mayor. I encouraged her to keep at it, telling her that we had to show good faith even if we knew Stern and Koch did not. I argued that our attitude should be, “We are going to march and occupy Central Park; that is a given, permit or no permit,” and that as it became apparent as the date grew closer that we were determined, the city would give us the permit. Or not.
We only received the permit a few days before the march and rally, when Koch finally understood what Sandy had been telling him for months: that hundreds of thousands of his constituents and additional hundreds of thousands of out-of-towners would be in attendance. I assume that NYPD intelligence gave the mayor the unwelcome news.
In any case, we got the permits. We would assemble for several blocks along First Avenue by the UN for a rally, while the crowd was guided down Forty-Second to Madison, Sixth, and Eighth Avenues to then march north up to and into the park.
The UN kickoff rally was staged from a long flatbed truck. Hollywood stars Susan Sarandon and Roy Scheider were co-emcees, and I was the stage manager, bringing up and herding down various speakers and entertainers. Security for the stage at the UN was organized by District 65. Jim Bell, a District 65 vice president, was one of the folks I’d help to recruit to the planning committee. And it was his security team that surrounded the flatbed truck.
About an hour into the rally — the crowd now occupying all of First Avenue as far as one could see in either direction — I heard someone down on street level trying to get my attention. It was Kevin Lynch, a member of the Peace Council national board and the editor of the District 65 newspaper and thereby part of the security team. I brought him onto the truck so we could confer over the noise of the crowd.
Kevin wanted me to know that, outside the sawhorses blocking off the truck, Mayor Koch had turned up and asked if he could speak. Kevin wanted to know, “What should I tell him?” I replied, “Tell him to go fuck himself.” Kevin, ever the smiling Irishman, grinned and said, “Will do.”
Later I saw Kevin and asked what happened with Koch. Many clichés are clichés because they are truisms. But while I’ve read many stories — perhaps starting with Santa Claus — about people with eyes that “twinkle,” I don’t think I ever knew any until I met Kevin.
So Kevin said, “I went back to mayor and said, ‘Your honor, you see that big guy up on the truck? Well, I asked him if you could speak, and he instructed me that I should tell you to go fuck yourself.” Twinkle.
The entire day was a huge success, but on a personal level, that was its single most gratifying moment.
America’s Largest Demonstration Ever
New York had never seen anything like this mobilization. Nowhere in the United States had. It was the largest single demonstration in our history. An aerial view of Midtown Manhattan would see an ocean of people. The throngs crowded every avenue and many cross streets. By the time they had all gathered in Central Park, they numbered a million.
Among the performers at the park were Bruce Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt, Gary U.S. Bonds, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Joan Baez. But none were announced in advance. Many of the organizers didn’t know who would be there. The people came to the park because they wanted peace, disarmament, a reordering of national priorities from guns to butter. They did not come for the music, though a good time was had by all.
Springsteen, the biggest-name performer, might possibly sing before a million people altogether on a twelve-city stadium tour. But never in one place at one time. So June 12, 1982, was not only the greatest peace demonstration in the history of the United States but also the biggest popular music concert in the history of the world. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.