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A Communist at the Debate-Watching Party

Dispatches from the Apollo Uptown Hall.

I can’t blame Dan McCarthy for the fact that I am now on the mailing list of the NYC branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party; these things happen.

It was the Apollo Uptown Hall viewing party for the debate, and I’d scored some sweet VIP tickets from TAC; founding editor Scott McConnell was on a surprisingly diverse post-debate panel moderated by Keli Goff. The interior of the theater is pure Vaudeville; I navigated my way to a seat with a little plastic cup of Pinot and checked Facebook on my phone. “Where are you sitting?” Noah Millman had commented. “Front and to the left,” I typed, “second row from the front.” The guy in front of me turned around. “I’m Noah,” he said.

I’d expected McConnell to be the lone non-Hillary-enthusiast. He was not. Mariela Salgado, a journalist for Univision 41, was essentially pro-Trump; Amy Holmes was the centrist Republican and claimed to be undecided. McConnell was the one who elicited a yell of “Racist!” from the crowd, but the crowd yelled a lot of things, and when he said he believed Obama’s most lasting legacy was an improved foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, there were murmurs of agreement.

Riley, a Revolutionary Communist, did not murmur—she screamed “Hillary Clinton is a war criminal!” from the balcony over McConnell’s and others’ attempts to answer the moderators’ questions. “Revolution!” she screamed. It was a disruption of a different order than the raucous backtalk of the audience against McConnell and Salgado.

“I can’t believe you didn’t screw up your voice,” I told her on the sidewalk afterward. (She’d been kicked out but hadn’t gone far.) “I know!” she said. “Adrenaline, I guess. I was … there were things I wanted to say that I didn’t get out; that the point isn’t just not to vote to not participate, the point is to not vote and then organize.”

She’s a supporter of Bob Avakian—“the Marx of our time,” she said fervently. “It’s obviously not that Trump’s better, it’s that people there—they’d obviously be pro-Hillary, and we needed to make them think: is she that different? It’s all part of the same system. And Avian has a plan—an actual revolution. He’s written a book.” She handed me her broadsheet: “Time to Get Organized for an Actual Revolution: Message from the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party of the USA.” “The system wages brutal wars of slaughter. The system—capitalism-imperialism—must be overthrown.” The last time I read that kind of thing it was probably in the comboxes under Rod Dreher’s blog.

I should’ve asked her—but didn’t—what she thought about McConnell’s point that Trump is a response to the Republican party that started the war in Iraq, a version of Republicanism whose foreign policy closely resembles that of Secretary Clinton. But I somehow doubt that she spent the pre-debate carefully attending to McConnell, or to the other panelists. She must have been scared, excited, by what she was about to do—and yeah, she did end up very, very gently manhandled by Apollo bouncers, as one does when screaming from a balcony during a debate.

I groped in my bag for the copy of the Catholic Worker that I’d picked up at Maryhouse the day before, couldn’t find it, and tried with marginal success to reconstruct the Ammon Hennecy quote that’d been on its front page: Dorothy Day “did not bother to choose between the rival warmongers who sought to run the country.”

Catholic Worker—is that like Catholic Charities?” she asked, curiously.

“Well, no,” I said. She seemed like maybe she’d run into Catholic Charities before—not in a bad way; she didn’t seem like an abused street rat. The moderator who’d requested that she be removed said “I think we’re maybe dealing with some mental issues here,” but this was obviously not the case. She was simply an old-fashioned revolutionary communist of my grandparents’ type; her children will be red-diaper babies like my dad.

She was small, 25-ish, with bleached white hair; the sides of her head were shaved. “Where are you based?” she asked me—“Harlem?” No, I tell her, Queens. It seems like maybe in her circles this question is more polite than the more traditional “Where do you live?” because the answer to that question might be the subway and it might be Westchester, and either is a bit embarrassing. “I’m based at Revolutionary Books. 132nd street. You should come by.”

I just might. I’ll bring a stack of Catholic Workers if I do.

Meanwhile, the sidewalk outside the Apollo, where Riley stood in her Revolutionary Communist Party t-shirt with a friend passing out her broadsides, was alive—there were more RCP kids somewhere around, and guys selling buttons and Black Lives Matter t-shirts; there were tourists and ladies from the Upper West Side and lots of people who looked like regulars.

And there were TV vans and journalists and everyone was talking to everyone else, everyone sure that everyone else was a Clinton supporter (except the panelists and Riley and her cadre), everyone sure that she had won. “Who here is supporting Donald Trump?” Goff had asked at the beginning of the night. One person had clapped. “You’re brave,” she said. “Who’s supporting Gary Johnson?” “Who?” someone yelled from the crowd. “Jill Stein?” Maybe three people clapped.

“Who’s supporting Hillary Clinton?” she asked, and the roof nearly came down. This was not a bipartisan crowd. And the sidewalk discussion was not actual debate. But there had been sanity and civility in the theater: murmurs of agreement when the moderator asked whether the Democratic party used and took for granted the black community, even some applause for McConnell on occasion.

A man named Raymond, whom I also met on the sidewalk afterward, said that he’d been coming to the Apollo since the ’60s. “Thing about the Apollo,” he said, “We don’t hold back. You feel something, you let it out. Because we’re family.”

“I grew up on the Upper West Side,” I told him, “and I’ve never been here before.”

“You should come back,” he said. And I just might do that too.

Susannah Black is a writer and a native New Yorker. She is associate editor of Providence, sub-editor of Ad Fontes, and a founding editor at Solidarity Hall. She lives in Queens, and tweets at @suzania.



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