Today in labor history, May 1, 2015: Happy International Workers’ Day! May Day is celebrated around the world as a day of international working class solidarity and is a national public holiday in more than 80 countries. The date was chosen by the Socialist International Congress (the Second International) in 1889 to commemorate the Haymarket incident in Chicago.
An engraving titled “Anarchist Ammunition,” from Michael Schaack’s Anarchy and Anarchists (1889).
Some of the discussions of dynamite that so inspired and energized anarchists, and angered and terrified their enemies, verged on incantations to the explosive’s magical ability to make a single worker the equal of the gathered minions of capital. An editorial in the Alarm of November 15, 1884 read:
“Dynamite is the emancipator! In the hand of the enslaved it cries aloud: "Justice or—annihilation!” But best of all, the workingmen are not only learning its use, they are going to use it. They will use it, and effectually, until personal ownership—property rights—are destroyed, and a free society and justice becomes the rule of action among men. There will then be no need for government since there will be none who will submit to be governed. Hail to the social revolution! Hail to the deliverer—Dynamite.“
On this day in 1886, in a violent altercation between police and protestors, the Haymarket riot occurred in Chicago. The previous day, several people were injured and one killed when police attempted to break a strike aimed at securing national eight-hour day legislation. In retaliation to such police brutality, a group of anarchist labour leaders organised a meeting in Haymarket Square. The meeting was initially peaceful, but when the police called for the crowd to disperse, one anonymous protestor threw a bomb. In the ensuing chaos the police opened fire, and violence reigned in Chicago’s streets. Ultimately, seven police officers and a few civilians died, with one hundred more people injured. The riot stoked fears of working class militancy, and resulted in a crackdown against labour leaders and immigrants. A group of anarchist leaders, known as the ‘Chicago Eight’, were arrested for alleged involvement in the bombing and subsequent violence. While many of the group were not even present at Haymarket, four anarchists were convicted on slim evidence and executed in November 1887. The surviving three of the group (one had committed suicide) were pardoned in 1893 when the case was reconsidered and thrown out on the basis of poor evidence. While proving a blow for the labour movement at the time, the Haymarket riot - and the martyrdom of the Chicago Eight - has endured as a symbol for labour leaders and activists in America and abroad.
“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today” - Anarchist August Spies, one of the Chicago Eight, before his execution for alleged involvement in the Haymarket riot
May 4, 1886. In response to the Chicago Police Department’s killing
of four workers during a strike at the McCormick Harvesters Works on May
3, labor leaders organized a meeting at Haymarket Square for the
following night. About three thousand persons assembled, later dwindling
to a few hundred. A detachment of 180 policemen showed up. The speaker
said the meeting was almost over. Then a bomb exploded in the midst of
the police, wounding sixty-six, of whom seven later died (one died from
the bomb blast, six others died from gunshot wounds from their fellow
officers). The police fired into the crowd, killing several people,
wounding two hundred.
Eight anarchists were arrested and put on trial. Facing an openly
biased judge in Joseph Gary and a clearly hostile jury, the Haymarket
Affair is one of the most infamously unjust trials in American history.
The prosecution focused on the men’s anarchist ties rather than
determining whether the accused had any real connection with the crime.
Essentially, eight men (seven of whom were not even present at the time
the bomb was thrown) were tried and convicted because of their political
beliefs. August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer
were hanged. Louis Lingg killed himself before the state could. Samuel
Fielden, Michael Schwab, and Oscar Neebe were sentenced to prison
(eventually being granted clemency in 1892).
The Haymarket Riot was an important event for the labor movement. The
year 1886 became known as “the year of the great uprising of labor.”
From 1881 to 1885, strikes had averaged about five hundred each year,
involving perhaps one hundred and fifty thousand workers each year. In
1886 there were over one thousand four hundred strikes, involving five
hundred thousand workers.
“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”—August Spies
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