• U.S.

New York: Mao’s Man In Harlem

2 minute read

In the bitter Harlem riots of 1964, as in the Watts uprising last August, a handful of Negro demagogues helped to prolong and aggravate the violence. On the hot summer night when New York’s black ghetto boiled over, a disgruntled Communist named William Epton incited a street-corner crowd: “We will not be fully free until we smash this state completely and totally.” Later, Epton cried: “In that process, we’re going to have to kill a lot of these cops, a lot of these judges, and we’ll have to go up against their army.”

Last week, under a 1901 New York law that had not been successfully invoked for 45 years, a State Supreme Court jury—including two Negro women—found Epton, 33, guilty of conspiring to riot and to overthrow the state. He faces a maximum penalty of twelve years in prison. The same grand jury that indicted Epton investigated the riot’s causes. It gave immunity from prosecution on riot charges to 13 witnesses, eleven of them members of Epton’s Progressive Labor Movement. The 13 were cited for contempt after refusing to testify. Five have been sentenced to four months in the workhouse; eight cases are pending.

Epton was no ordinary agitator. He joined the Communist Party in 1958, dropped out four years later because, in his words, it was “no longer a revolutionary party.” With other frustrated militants he organized the Peking-oriented Progressive Labor Movement, became its Harlem chairman and ran for the city council in 1963 and the state senate this year on the party’s ticket.

Long before the riots, according to a Negro detective who infiltrated the group, Epton was concocting plans for a “bloody revolution.” Though he had no hand in starting the violence, the state charged that Epton sought to keep the disorders “going and going.” Police, who had made a tape recording of his July 18 speech, arrested him a week later for trying to organize a march in defiance of a city ban. His attorney argued that Epton was only trying to “do something both locally and nationally for the poor and oppressed.” But the poor and oppressed of Harlem apparently have little use for the Progressive Labor Movement or for leaders of Epton’s stripe. When the jury brought in its verdict, there were three spectators in the courtroom.

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