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Class attitudes

A long-time activist recalls an example of different class cultures

Just after I sent a note to an email list about ‘class’, occasioned by friendly comments I had from a couple of conservatives about a cartoon I’d sent, I thought of an excellent example of the ‘class attitudes’ of those in the working class, which I should have mentioned.

Again, it isn’t a matter of virtue, right and wrong, etc, but simply a difference in class attitudes.

The year was probably 1951, the place was Ocean Park, California, and I was a student at UCLA.

I had joined the Socialist Party, was a campus radical, and was living in the ‘Bohemian’ area of Ocean Park which was primarily the area for low-income Jews from the East Coast (I rented my shack from a couple who lived in a little house right in front of my shack – and it was a shack, with no bath tub, no hot water, and walls so thin that the most they could do was keep out the rain), and of equally low-income folks from Oklahoma and the Midwest – debris from the Dust Bowl days.

I had discovered the blues of Bessie Smith and was given to playing my LPs of her quite loudly.

I didn’t realize how loudly until one night, while I was giving a party, the plaster on one wall exploded into the room because a neighbour had hurled a hunk of metal at the wall from his upstairs apartment. (As I said, the walls were very thin.)

When I went out, he yelled at me about the loud noise. I didn’t know him. I don’t think that, aside from the brief drama of that evening, I ever exchanged a word with him. He was very much a working-class guy (who needed to sleep at night).

Then one evening, perhaps a year later, he approached me in the little alley than ran along behind the shack (in fact my shack sort of faced onto the alley) and said he thought I should know that the FBI had been around asking questions about me, and he wanted to warn me.

This wasn’t a political event. It wasn’t a matter of working-class solidarity with a radical youth.

No, it was simply a working class response to the police.

The middle class would not have done this. But to the working class, I might be a pest who had strange friends and played loud music, but when it came to the FBI, I was entitled to a fair notice.

We (the middle class) think of the police as our friends. The working class knows they are trouble. It is one of those ‘class differences’ of which I don’t think most people in the middle class are even aware.

David McReynolds was the chair of the War Resisters’ International and twice the Socialist Party’s candidate for US president. He is retired and lives on Manhattan’s old Lower East Side. He can be reached at: davidmcreynolds7@gmail.com

Topics: Class