Dynamo (1934)

by Paul Mattick


Professor Gray glanced at his watch.1 Time was up, his lecture could not last longer than an hour and a half. Having already said everything he wanted to say, all that was left was to find a good conclusion. He took a sip of water and carried on in a refreshed tone: “It might sound fantastic, gentlemen, but I am convinced that after a few more flights into the stratosphere, we will find the basic laws that will allow us to turn the stars into our servants. The radium emitted by cosmic rays turns our world into a giant dynamo, which could undoubtedly generate more electricity than humankind will ever require for its industrial and private needs. Today, this mass of energy still circulates, so to speak, untamed, but tomorrow it will fundamentally transform all of our technological systems. Unimaginable possibilities will open up for the development of industry and commerce. Even the age of electricity will seem insignificant in light of the coming technological revolution.”

Professor Gray took a bow. The director of the trade association said a few more words of thanks to the speaker and the audience.2 While the applause continued, he led the professor and a few board members towards the association’s offices, where they had drinks and shared congratulations. Professor Gray confirmed that he had received a check for $250 dollars, before bidding everyone a cordial farewell.

The presentation was discussed in the association’s cafeteria. Professor Gray was the last surviving member of a group of radium researchers who had attempted to industrialise and commercialise the science of radium. There was no shortage of stories about Professor Gray and these other scholars, which, however, rarely had anything to do with radium itself. Gray rose to prominence as an expert witness in the trial against a luminous watch factory in New Jersey.3 The women who worked there had sued for damages. Working at the factory had ruined their health. But before the court case, which had been repeatedly postponed, was concluded, the employees had already died and the company had gone bankrupt.

“Damned radium!” rued Mr. Knittigen from the landlords association, as he sat with the police chief, Mckinley, and his lieutenant, Larkin, while staring out the restaurant window into the park.

“They’re in the process of artificially producing radioactivity,” Lieutenant Larkin said, “which would work great against cancer.” “Cancer,” Knittigen sneered, “who doesn’t have cancer these days? People just eat too much and too haphazardly.” The police chief, McKinley, nodded and filled the glasses.

The three gentlemen were, as they themselves put it, past the sunny side of life. You could tell they held important, or what seemed to them important, positions with adequate salaries. Lieutenant Larkin was the only one of them who maintained a slender appearance. The professor’s lecture had put him in a vibrant mood. He had frequently been required to speak not on the topic of radium but of tear gas, and yet he recognized that the professor’s lecture had many implications for his own work. Wouldn’t radium provide colossal opportunities for improving weaponry? Gas was already out of date, like most everything else that guided the military. Sooner or later, it would all be meaningless.

Shifting his eyes from the park to the police chief, Knittgen interrupted Larkin’s train of thought: “Awful all that newspaper litter. It’s a disgrace how they let bums sleep in the park.”

“That will stop soon enough,” McKinley said to justify himself, “the cold will drive them away.”

“With a view like this, no wonder they can’t sell property here anymore!” Knittgen grumbled.

Larkin laughed. “Soon there will be a war, and you won’t have to worry, my friend. It will make good soldiers out of us all.”

“That might not be true if the whole thing comes to nothing.”

“Well, we’re still far from any such outcome. My wife,” added McKinley, “even thought the weather on the coast would be good for her, but she changed her mind after Balbo’s flight.”4

“An artillery officer told me that our anti-aircraft guns are performing exceptionally well. Nine hits out of ten shots.”

“If Professor Gray hurries, that won’t really matter,” said Larkin, “as you yourself heard, cosmic rays can destroy anything.”

“Yes,” Knittgen sneered, “we could use them to drill deep holes through the thickest mountains, we could tap Vesuvius and heat our homes, but unfortunately we won’t live long enough to see any of that.”

“All kinds of miracles happen during wars; there are more inventions than at any other time. Just think of how Germany extracted nitrogen from the air during the World War. I can easily imagine that soon we’ll have aeroplanes that run without fuel or crews. You’ll be able to direct deadly beams from a parabolic reflector at enemy objects, all from a central location. That would put an end to fortresses, factories, ammunition depots, and really clean things up magnificently.”

“What good will that do us,” said Knittgen, “we might go bankrupt before the next war, it’s all a fantasy! A world dynamo! What would we do with it? Even the cheapest bill is useless if nobody pays it. If you want to get rid of something these days, you practically have to give it away. And even if God decided to supply us with electricity for free, we’d still be on the brink of bankruptcy. Who can wait for a new era? Whoever doesn’t keep up won’t have a future. I wish the trade association would appoint a professor who could tell me how to collect my rents!”

“When it comes to practical matters like that, your best bet is to call the police,” asserted McKinley, “500 evictions are ordered daily, and it’s hard to keep up with them.”

“Hard to keep up with? My friend,” Knittgen was now irritated, “you have to be joking! Who have you ever thrown out? What about the South Side? If matters keep up like this, people will quit paying altogether.”

“There are too many unemployed. How do the poor devils keep going?”

“Poor devils? These damn niggers are as sneaky as they are dirty. Since so many manage to live for free, even those who have money try to get away without paying. Unemployed? We can’t do anything about that. They count on our good will. The courts make me sick. You wait three months for an eviction, and on top of that we still have to pay the costs.”

“Hey pal,” Knittgen turned abruptly to Larkin, “we’ll soon visit your buildings. I mean it! We’ll pull a team together to not only get these people out but to make sure they stay out too.”

Knittgen leaned over towards the police chief again, “Matters don’t proceed briskly enough. A real lesson needs to be taught once and for all. They rely on matters continuing as they have been. Billy clubs alone aren’t sufficient. When the niggers realize that we’re serious, they’ll either pay up or move out. A few whacks will do wonders. Matters need to be approached very differently. Not in the middle of the day, but evenings and by surprise, when no one expects it. No uniforms either; three policemen standing together is enough to mobilise the entire street. It only takes a few minutes for a beautiful little demonstration to overwhelm you.”

That wouldn’t be so bad, McKinley thought, as Knittgen spoke to him ever more insistently and firmly. Yes, perhaps it was worthwhile to have the landlord’s association on your side. The police had a bad reputation, still tainted by a few questionable incidents. It was time to give the taxpayers their money’s worth. The landlords could make themselves very useful in the next election. After all, who could possibly object to teaching the nigger respect? And if there really is a ruckus, there’s no harm in that, quite the opposite! “We’ll see,” he said to Knittgen. “We’ll see,” he said to himself as well.

He emptied his glass and said farewell. Larkin joined him.

Knittgen ordered another bottle. He was preoccupied and did not want to go home. The park slowly disappeared into a pale grey. Only a few windows in the big hotels were illuminated. Knittgen counted them. Everything is empty, he thought, the whole property market has gone to the dogs.

The waiter turned the radio on. Knittgen followed the beat of the music with his fingers drumming against his wine glass. They moved slower and slower as Bing Crosby’s voice grew more tender: “It’s such a sweet sensation, but is it love, true love?” He has it easy, Knittgen thought. A hundred thousand a year for a little singing, and I have to put up with these dirty Negroes for less than a tenth as much. What a crazy world!

The city was conserving light. Only every third street light burned. Phyllis didn’t mind; men strode by too quickly in bright light. She rolled her cotton stockings over her knees. The east wind blew, a sign that it would get colder. “Nobody has any money today.” Phyllis dreamed of a winter coat but was only willing to pay half as much as was needed. Ever fainter and discouraged, she tempted passerbys with a smile: “Come in boy!”

The street was not particularly busy. It had only a few shops. Half the residents lived on welfare. Canned goods, dried fruit, lard, and flour were brought home. People bought very little. But there were many young girls competing with Phyllis. Her profession was fated. Everyone knew, the street urchins, the neighbours, the parents and siblings. The girls’ relatives left the apartment when guests arrived; they returned when it was over. Everyone knew that money had to be earned. The girls had to pay the rent. And this was not cheap, despite the rotten floors, the bugs, the dilapidated walls, and the depressed neighbourhood.

The Negroes were trapped inside their districts. In other parts of the city, landlords demanded three times as much from them, since houses lost value as soon as Black people moved in. Whites would move out immediately. The rents in the Negro quarter were monopoly prices and had to be paid to avoid being thrown into the street. The men from the landlords’ association knew very well that unemployment was highest among the Negroes; but they also knew about the many Negro girls, and at the end of the day, they had their own interests to look after just like anybody else. They were landlords, not philanthropists.

Phyllis’ neighbour down the hall, Johnny May, read in the paper, “Sure, there’s not much sunshine in our town, but there aren’t any floods either.” Too bad, Johnny thought, maybe there'd be work.

Work! A light blue suit with padded shoulders, yellow boots, plaid neckties, and a white sports hat. Johnny reminded himself that there were no benches on the road to success. After all other prospects had failed, he wanted to be a tap dancer and singer. He tossed the newspaper aside and began to practise, making the kerosene lamp on the table shake, the floor vibrate, and the walls creak. The tips of his toes were as agile as his voice:

“and then when you die, baby, heaven will open for you, baby, I'll still sing to you at your grave, baby, Tralala, tralala, my baby.”

Johnny made a trumpet with his hands and blared the most extraordinary sounds. The crazier, the more demonic his howl became, the more likely his dream would come true, “lalalalala.”

He stopped suddenly. Phyllis was standing in the doorway. “Johnny, they’re kicking the Washingtons out!”

“You’re crazy, – not now.”

But Johnny could already hear banging on the door one floor up. “Open up! Police!”

The Washington family moved their furniture to block the door. They had been waiting for this moment, full of fear, for three days already. Mr. Washington had been sitting at the window all day so that he would not be caught off guard. They had to keep the cops and the movers out of the apartment. He knew that they were not allowed to force their way in, nor were they allowed to break down the door. The Washingtons were simply not home.

But it was no use; three men threw themselves against the door and it immediately gave way. The furniture was moved to the side.

Other tenants gathered on the stairs and in corridors. They were agitated, they hollered back and forth, they crowded upstairs to see what would happen to the Washingtons. They all knew that one day exactly the same thing could happen to them. They knew why the Washingtons were late with the rent. People came in from the surrounding neighbourhood; the building was getting full. People started to gather on the street. The voices of protest grew louder and louder.

Mrs. Washington trembled, pressing herself flat against the wall. She wrung her hands and muttered with eyes closed, “Where do we go now, where do we go.” The children hid under the bed. Mr. Washington didn’t dare look directly at the officers either. He found no word of protest; he feared the crowd just as much as he feared them leaving.

The officers paid the Washington family no attention at all. All they saw was the shoving, cursing, agitated crowd outside the door. They saw the crowd growing in the street and knew that immediate action, forceful action, must be taken lest the whole expedition turn out to be in vain. The precinct commander knew exactly what his mission consisted of, the eviction was to be enforced by all means, they would not let a few Negroes stop them.

Johnny and Phyllis had been pushed into the kitchen with the others. They tried to get out again, but the people lining the stairs formed a solid wall. The first attempt to move a piece of furniture out into the street showed how nonsensical the whole endeavour was. It wasn’t even possible to get through the doorway. Enraged, the precinct commander made an impromptu decision to rip the window open.

“Throw that thing out on the street, get that crap out of here!”

The people in front of the house scattered. The dresser flew to the pavement and broke into pieces. Hands grabbed at the laundry, the dried fruit, the objects that were strewn on the street.

“Come on boys, grab the bed, get rid of the junk!”

The precinct commander held the crowd at bay with his revolver. The children screamed, clutching their mother who was also in tears. Mr. Washington’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. He doubled over, his thoughts confused. From an open apartment door, through all the noise, came a whiny radio voice: “When my girl’s not by my side, it rains all the time.”

If the radio had been dialled to another station, a clear, indifferent voice could have been heard at the same time:

“Police alert: all police vehicles to 5000 South Wabash–riot!”

Sirens wailed; police cars whizzed around corners. The police unstrapped their batons from their belts.

Masses of people suddenly jolted forward, battered by the police behind them. Whoever was unable to escape to the side, fled into the house. People on the stairs were pushed into the apartments, as if in a trap. The detectives started beating people. Phyllis, struck with the handle of a revolver, was knocked unconscious. The stairway railing collapsed; those who fell screamed as if possessed. A few brave souls grabbed the handrails in order to protect themselves. Doors were slammed shut. Behind them stood trembling women, hoping they would be left alone. Fists thundered against the doors, demanding entry. Curiosity seekers rushed from the side streets and were immediately engulfed in the scuffling. The steady, cold voice on the radio still repeated, “police alert: riot on the South Side, all vehicles….”

Johnny was wedged between people. He was pushed further and further into the room. An inch forward, a slight surge back, and then an inch forward again. Then shots rang out. The precinct commander knew this was his moment; he emptied all cylinders of his revolver. Five shots landed. Johnny collapsed, no longer hearing the frenzied screams of anyone fleeing the scene, the cracking of clubs on frizzed skulls, nor the many different sirens and horns coming from ambulances and the dead man’s car.

The precinct commander phoned in a report to his boss, McKinley. His boss congratulated him and immediately called Knittgen. Knittgen called editors at the newspaper. The evening papers broadcast the news all over town.

“Coloreds Riot on the South Side,” “Black Mob Attacks Police,” “Mob Tries to Stop Eviction,” “Police Shoot Negroes in Self-Defense.”

The mayor, however, had second thoughts, the unemployment situation required extreme caution. Good thing that this was only about Negroes. The phones rang all night. In the days that followed, the newspapers only contained a few lines about them, deep inside. It was too dangerous to “play it up.”

Editorials that were already written were withdrawn. Instead of a flaming appeal for peace and order, there was an article by Professor Obgurn about the coming prosperity.

Professor Obgurn knew how to infuse flesh and blood into dry, lifeless discussions of economics. He did not bother anyone with figures and statistics; for him, human will was the root of all progress. To shake free of the general pessimism was all that was necessary to overcome the crisis. With happier faces, we could even reach paradise. And so Professor Obgurn wrote about a future in which artificial light would bathe the streets and make them healthy; about new houses and modern apartments with proper ventilation and automatic temperature controls. Yes, every apartment would have a television, its own cinema, and automatic readers for the blind. Who could not imagine...?

The events on the South Side were a topic of discussion at all welfare offices. The protest resolutions received by the mayor from all parts of the city wound up unread in the trash can. Organisations of the unemployed called for a joint demonstration on the day of the funeral. The city administration refused to grant a permit for the march until the very last moment, finally reaching a compromise after heated discussions with the unemployed delegation. The demonstration was to be routed through predetermined streets only.

McKinley was disappointed, but there was no point in fighting city hall. He complained bitterly, “You barely get a little traction before these cowards come and screw it up again.” Knittgen agreed with him and took it upon himself to present a resolution against the mayor to the landowners’ association.

The mayor was extremely displeased with the entire situation, but what could he do? It would be pointless to ban the demonstration, since as he had been informed, it would take place even with a ban. If at all possible, public unrest had to be avoided, otherwise the city’s livestock fair would suffer.5 He consoled himself by thinking that the demonstration would not be very large, because everyone else had little sympathy for Negroes, and the Blacks themselves were highly cautious. Negro clergy had assured him in a meeting that they would use their pulpits to dissuade the faithful from taking part. Nonetheless, the militia was mobilised just in case.

Inside the small chapel that held the four dead Negro boys, Black and white workers filed past with more curiosity than pain in their eyes. Darkly-clad relatives waited, wept, and grew weary. When the first lines of demonstrators formed in the street, Lieutenant Larkin arranged his units by several different apartment buildings situated at strategic intersections. McKinley had a thousand policemen line up in front of the library and himself issued final instructions. Separated by five steps from one another, the police were to cordon off the demonstrators. Only in the most extreme situations were weapons to be used, but if so: “God damn, no mercy!”

The mayor was mistaken. Thousands of the unemployed poured into the streets of the South Side. That they were standing up for Negroes was completely beside the point to them. They were galvanised by a single thought: that people were being shot because rent had not been paid. Black faces and frizzy hair meant nothing compared to this; people had been beaten to death because they refused to sleep on the street. “It’s not enough that we beg for work without hope of ever finding any, that we are starving, that we walk around in tattered clothes, not enough that we languish from morning till night, nothing but languishing, now we are supposed to crawl into basements and drive our children into police stations and from there into reform school. Yes, have they gone mad?"

“Down with the murderers!” “Fight the evictions!” the demonstrators’ signs proclaimed.

The cops played with their batons and grinned.

Her head bandaged and tilted down, Phyllis stood before the dead. The coffins were about to be closed. Phyllis heard nothing, not the Negro speaker, nor the Internationale that played in the background, about which she knew nothing. She paid no attention to the melody. Johnny still hummed in her head, the lively, hopeful Johnny: “Then I’ll sing to you at the grave anyway, tralala, tralala, my baby.”

She marched in the demonstration following the coffins, wondering and crying. What were the red flags for, the songs, the chants; what did any of it have to do with Johnny? What did she have to do with any of this? Nonetheless, she marched, and thousands marched with her.

Curious onlookers crowded the roofs, windows, and fire escapes of nearby houses. People waved red rags, shouted and sang, more and more joined the march.

Grins vanished from the police officers’ faces, their commands softened and soon stopped altogether. They sensed a dangerous enthusiasm, and knew soon enough that they would be trampled if a fight were to break out. The line of blue uniforms was certainly impressive, every five steps a baton. In front of them and behind them, an immense and densely-packed mass of people stood and marched. The streets were theirs. The streetcars sat idle on the tracks. Cars sought detours to reach their destinations. The crowd chanted the same words over and over, to the same tune: “and McKinley will soon hang from the tallest apple tree; united we are strong.” Lieutenant Larkin was very disappointed. The important staging areas he had chosen so strategically ceased to be strategic. The automatic weapons pointed down deserted streets, masses of people had broken away from the agreed-upon route. There was no point in sending reservists to chase after the protestors, not even tear gas would help here, the protest arena was too big.

Phyllis had grown tired. She left the march, pushing her way through the crowd in order to sit on the steps of a house. What a funeral Johnny had had, but why were people singing so loudly, why did they become evermore cheerful and boisterous the longer they sang? Actually, this was hardly a funeral, a sense of mourning was missing. The hearse had already passed by, the demonstrators had marched past too, the sidewalks were emptied.

Phyllis stood up, her back aching, her shoes pinching her feet, and limped home. As it grew dark, she pulled her hat low over her face to cover her bandage and took up her usual place in front of the house, smiling and beckoning, “Come in boy!”

That evening Larkin and McKinley met. “Who could have expected,” said Larkin, “that the demonstration would turn out that way.”

“Next time,” McKinley replied bitterly, “it’ll be different. We can’t allow crowds like that to congregate; they must be broken up into smaller groups. Otherwise, we’ll have outright war.”

Phyllis stood for a long time in the front entranceway and looked at the stars. Only the starlight caught her attention, and she thought that perhaps Johnny was now out there somewhere. She didn’t know that stars emit rays that the professors were attempting to capture, hoping to use them to revive the economy so that the Knittgens of the world could collect their rents without difficulty and for all eternity.

The world is like a giant dynamo, Professor Gray had said, pointing to a few instruments. But, science aside, who could doubt this in the face of the radiant, electrically-charged crowd of people who had sung and vigorously bid Johnny his last farewell? They may have crawled back into their rat holes in the evening, each for themselves, unemployed, lifeless; true, the energy of that day had been squashed as if by lightning, only to fade into nothingness, but how long would it be before these irregular sparks would flow in a broadly-conscious and powerful surge across the earth and light up the stars.

Originally published in: Neue Deutsche Blätter, Monatsschrift für Literatur und Kritik, Prague, Jg. 1 Nr. 9, June 1934, pp. 554-564.