East River CORE (pt.2)

The chapter’s statements in the press were reminiscent of something one would expect from an interview with the Black Panthers.
‘We must organize protest around what the people want and not an abstract concept of what we think they should or would be interested in.’
‘The first step is to familiarize (the chapter) with every church, barber and beauty shops, clubs, gangs stores, street people, number runners, and anyone else whose presence on the block is conspicuous.’

Presumably because of the large Puerto Rican population of ‘Spanish Harlem’, the chapter had more success than others in gaining Latino members. An estimated 10% to 1/3rd of the membership at different times was counted as Latino. Activities were made bilingual.

The chapter’s main strategy for building bridges within the community revolved around tenant organizing. Organizing for rent strikes to protest against housing conditions in nearby tenements was the chapter’s first major action project. The goal was to create a situation where ‘the community could fight for itself’. Areas were broken down by blocks, each with a team. Teams could have as many as nine members with each working team consisting of at least four members and one block captain. At one point, ER CORE claimed it had almost two thousand people on rent strike in fourteen buildings, helped establish tenant councils in eleven other buildings while also working with the tenant’s organization in Wagner projects. The rent strikes in the end, however, were considered unsuccessful.

The Tri-Borough Bridge Takeover
ER CORE’s first major demonstration was the Tri-Borough Bridge sit down on March 6, 1964. The goal was publicity for its campaign targeting conditions of East Harlem's public schools. This campaign was part of a larger plan to create more ‘showing acts of civil disobedience in order to bring attention to issues’. This followed previous attempts to enroll East Harlem students into ‘better schools’ in the silk stocking district (14th-89th streets from the East River Drive to 5th avenue).

The entrance to the bridge was blocked by garbage and seven seated members. Approximately 30 other east River CORE members stood by the side for support and to address the media. It was pre-arranged who was arrested: Penn Kemble, Paul Feldman, Donald Arthur (19), Joe Louis, the Freedom Rider Elizabeth Adler (White) and Zungara Tina Lawrence. The seventh member was a woman but was not arrested. The press called the action an example of ‘unique new sit-in demonstrations’ using ‘dramatic new types of civil disobedience’. This technique has since been used by others such as Rev. Al Sharpton in his demonstration against NYPD’s killing of the unarmed Black male Sean Bell in 2004.

Other Demonstrations
ER CORE supported both of the 1964 City Wide School Boycotts. As its office moved to 81 east 125th street, ER CORE also took part in the May 18th NAACP/CORE demonstrations marking the 10th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education. It’s boycott of P.S. 39 at 126th street between 2nd and 3rd avenues resulted in three hundred and fifty Black and Puerto Rican students staying out that day, many of which attended Freedom Schools instead. Other non-White students from Harlem as part of a ‘study-in’ were sent to White schools in the silk stocking district for the day.

Within a day, members also supported protestors (some from Bronx CORE) arrested at a traffic light demonstration for a nearby intersection where kids were being hit and killed. A sit-in at the Traffic Commissioner’s office a month earlier succeeded in setting up a ‘play street’ for local kids at 123rd street between 2nd and 3rd avenues, the street entrance of the Triboro Bridge.

Other notable actions include demonstrations against Local 2 of the Plumber’s Union with Bronx CORE and demonstrating against Schaffer Beer.

ER CORE surprisingly did not support the World’s Fair Stall-In but instead demonstrated inside the World’s Fair. Spokesman for the chapter went so far as to denounce the Stall-In in the press. This may have to do more than anything else with the chapter’s close relationship to Norm and Velma Hill. Wallace Murphy, for example, a member of ER CORE and Velma’s brother, was a designated captain during the demonstration. Among the CORE demonstrators arrested were Rachelle Horowitz, Tom Kahn, Eva Kerr, Blyden Jackson, Joe Louis, Mike Kinsler, Elizabeth Adler and Pat Walker (aka Pat Saunders).

When not involved in campaigns, members attended weekend seminars at a training center organized for them in Nyack. Billed as a re-orientation, this series of classes were designed to create a dialogue between the young activists and the older intellectuals associated with ER CORE and to meet the basic intellectual needs of the young activists seeking a ‘deeper understanding of political, social, and economic processes’. “The civil rights movement by itself could not cause the change that was necessary”, stated one participant. Change instead would come from political power, a philosophy meant to move ER CORE away from street demonstrations to focus on ‘winning elections’.

The Start of the Long Hot Summer
By that summer, however, things changed quickly for the chapter. Along with members of Downtown CORE and South Jamaica CORE, East River CORE staged a rally on 125th street that became the start of the 1964 Harlem riots. Originally slated as a rally to protest the presumed murders of Chaney, Goodwin and Schwerner, it instead became a rally to protest the killing of an unarmed Black teenager by an NYPD officer. ER CORE had announced immediately after the shooting on July 16th that they would protest in front of the officer’s precinct in midtown to demand an investigation.

Sensing the potential violence, White members such as the Freedom Rider Terry Perlman were told by fellow Black members to leave Harlem for their own protection out of fear they would be attacked by Harlem residents not realizing the Whites were members of CORE.

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