Municipal Government

Spotlight on American Labor History

May 1, 2017 
By Bill Hohlfeld
If you happened to be listening to “Blue Collar Buzz” last night, you heard a few details about the Haymarket martyrs.  Now, if you were to read about it on Wikepedia, or some other “neutral” source, you’d probably get the standardized “anarchist throws bomb” version.

And, in pretty much the same fashion, if you take any labor- friendly history course, you will get the version where the poor downtrodden worker is once again being brutalized by the oppressive forces of capitalist power, this time, embodied by the Chicago Police Department.

Of course, none of us were there, but judging by the way we see spin being applied today to virtually every important issue in the news, and further judging by the state we seem to be in today due to purely partisan politics, I  can’t help but believe that there were some other horrible but very real forces at work to create this tragedy.

I imagine a Chicago workforce who were tired and hungry and frustrated, with a deep desire to climb out of poverty and provide for their loved ones. No rational person could deny that there is a have vs. have not undercurrent to the plot.  Yet, I can also imagine an underpaid and overworked police force frightened and confused by what they were convinced was an angry mob that was determined to do those officers bodily harm.

I envision a native born constabulary, charged with keeping the peace, confronted by a largely immigrant population whose early flyers read (in German): “Workingmen Arm Yourselves.” To those police, the message and the intent of that crowd were probably just as murky as the weather was that May night in the Windy City. The workers, no doubt, were reminded of past interactions with the law that had been, to say the least, unsatisfactory. The us vs. them atmosphere must have been as prevalent as it was toxic.

As peaceful as men like Samuel Fielden and Albert Parsons were, (the former being a lay preacher in the Methodist tradition, and the latter being a civil rights activist who was married to a woman of color, and who had his own children in tow that night), there is every reason to believe that some in that crowd were inspired by more violent anarchists based back in New York City. By the same token, it is just as easy to believe that police chief “Shoot to kill” Bonfield had an agenda in mind. That agenda was the same as McCormack Reaper, Armour Meat Packing, George Pullman and other industrialists of the day who yearned to see all labor movements crushed so that profits could continue to soar unimpeded.

The argument spiraled out of control, extremists and idealogues fanning the fires of discontent, until the conflagration caused lives to be lost, injuries to be sustained, and rights to be violated. Because, at the end of the day, it wasn’t about justice. It was about who was “right.” Eight men who committed no offense, were convicted, imprisoned, four of whom were hanged, not for what they did, but for what they thought, and that was the real crime.

May 1, 2017

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