May Day 2020

This is our friend Beverly Stewart, at the time President of the Roosevelt Adjunct Faculty Organization (RAFO), an NEA local, telling the story of Haymarket at the statue on the site of the massacre. This is Chicago, about 2008. She is addressing the women at a Polk Conference. You can see that the statue, which is supposed to not only commemorate the massacre but represent an argument for free speech (it is a haywagon that is also speaker’s platform) has people climbing on it. See the story below for why this matters.

History and Memory

In honor of May Day 2020, while Joe is in San Francisco joining a pandemic car caravan demonstration (6 foot social distance provided by a 2-ton metal cage) in support of the Green New Deal, a general rent strike and two other demands, I am going to post an article I wrote about the Haymarket Martyrs Commemoration following the giant May Day 2006 Immigration march in Chicago. It was published in the Champaign Illinois Indymedia paper.

If you have forgotten, or were too young to pay attention, the immigration rights marches that year were enormous and thrilling, joyful, ferocious:

Lessons of 2006 immigrant rights struggle that ring true today

But here is what I saw that day.

The Platform and the Street: History and Memory face each other at the May Day Haymarket Square Rally

May 1, 2006, Chicago

I left the immigrants rights rally in Grant Park at about 4:00 while the speakers were still holding forth on the platform. People would later say that there were a quarter or half a million people there, all together, including those who walked east from Union Park along Randolph or Jackson all the way to the lake and then instead of going to the rally just turned back and walked west to their cars and buses or a train station. Leaving Grant Park, I walked north and then west, heading to Haymarket Square to get there by 4:30 when the celebration of Mayday at the Haymarket Monument was scheduled to begin. It was drizzling slightly.

When I got to Haymarket Square, I noticed that the statue was surrounded by barriers, the low metal portable kind that look rather like bike racks. Normally, there are no barriers around the statue. It stands on the sidewalk on the spot where, 120 years ago, the wagon stood from which the speakers at the Haymarket mass meeting addressed the crowd. That 1886 crowd was a protest crowd, protesting the shooting and killing of two strikers at the McCormick Works a few days before. The statue depicts a wagon with several figures climbing on it, speaking from and either building or dismantling the wagon. To emphasize the free speech purpose of the statue, several soapboxes (made of bronzed material) are set about the sidewalk beside the wagon. It is common for people to climb up on the statue and join the sculpted figures. I have photographs of visitors from out of town up on the statue and have a picture of myself and my husband up on it. But today barriers enclosed both the statue and the soapboxes.

At that point, only a handful of celebrants were in the square. It looked as if no one from the immigrants’ rights march was going to show up. There were a few police. I asked one of the bystanders what the barriers were for. Had the Labor History Society, which had organized the rally, asked that they be put up? He had no idea.  There was a much bigger speaker’s platform set up transversing the street – Des Plaines – about forty feet north of the statue, and a smaller platform on the west side of Des Plaines on which I saw Larry Duncan from Labor Beat with a video camera.

Bit by bit more people showed up. I knew most of them. They were staff or elected leaders of the big Chicago labor unions and a few freelance labor movement people. On the speakers platform, Bucky Halter and someone else I didn’t know were setting up to play music.

The sky was still gray but the drizzle had stopped.

Anarchist kids, labor leaders, and police

At this point, a group of anarchist kids came into the square, dancing and jumping and beating paint can drums. They wore the usual green hair, black jeans, some masks, some theatrically ripped and debrided shirts and skirts. They made a circle below the speakers platform and danced and beat their drums. They looked like the cast from Les Miz.

More police appeared. Some were on bicycles and wore yellow bike jackets and bike helmets.

Suddenly the anarchist kids had jumped over the barriers and climbed up on the statue and had placed their black flag on the top of it. In their gray and black clothes, they looked like part of the statue, or part of a painting of the statue.

The police rushed them. I was standing about twenty feet away. The speed and ferocity with which the police threw themselves towards the kids on the statue, and with which they tore them down, and tore their flag down, was breathtaking. It was as if a year’s worth of testosterone had been pumped into their blood and had intoxicated them. Their faces were blank and enraged. It looked as if they had entered a zone in which it was permitted for them to act out something that was normally forbidden or at least secret.  They pulled the kids to the ground and knocked them down. Some kids got up again and struggled, but they were overpowered.

My first thought was that this was theater, some kind of historical re-enactment of the police riot that had ensued after the bomb was thrown in Haymarket Square a hundred and twenty years ago. One person was killed by the bomb, but eight were killed by gunfire from the police, who went crazy and started shooting into the crowd.

The tussling continued with the kids getting up off the ground and pushing back at the police, and the police pushing against them and grabbing them and knocking them down.  There were a lot of photographers who were dipping and snapping all around.  The kids scrambled, the police kept rushing. I backed off, but not all the way. I couldn’t believe my eyes – I was still half-thinking that this was a piece of theater. I have seen drawings of a policeman in uniform struggling with a ragged kid so many times.

I was standing near a lamp post about thirty feet from the statue when the police rushed some kids who were coming in my direction, trying to get away. I was not right in their path, but I was close enough, and one policeman – a middle-aged black man in a helmet and a bike jacket – shoved me with his bicycle. It was not an accident. They were using their bicycles as prods and shields, and he lifted his bike up and aimed it so that the front wheel struck me in the chest and knocked me down. People on both sides of me held my hands and pulled me back up. Another cop was in front of me by now and was leaning over me. I pushed him off me. He said, “You punched me in the chest!” I said, ‘I what? Your friend knocked me down!” The tussle dissipated. Several people asked me if I was all right.

The anarchists went back to standing in the middle of the street and facing the cops. I looked around to see what else was going on. I was a bit shaken. I saw various labor leaders and staffers, standing around. They were another thirty feet from where the tussle had been going on. Tom Balanoff from SEIU Local 1 (note added 16 years later: he was not just “from” SEIU Local 1, he was the President; this is an enormous local stretching from Chicago to Houston that represents custodial workers among others) was there and there was a cluster of people around him. He seemed to be laughing. Soon he and a few others went over and stood among the police. More police had come by now. Many were still wearing their bike jackets, but some were taking them off. The musicians on the platform started playing, loudly. It was by now about quarter to five. Balanoff walked toward the anarchists and said something.

By the time the speakers started to give their speeches about the reason we had come to this place on this day, there were at least four dozen cops standing in almost military formation beside the statue. They filled at least half the square. They had taken their bike jackets off and were standing in their blue uniforms. There were more cops than there were people in the audience. More came, in police wagons with sirens blaring. The anarchists went and sat at the base of the statue, on the curb, and banged their drums lightly.

The four people who were tried and hung after the Haymarket massacre were not the police, but some anarchist immigrants, most of whom had not even been at the demonstration. The trial consumed the public press and received international attention. The story of the trial and conviction of the people who came to be known as the Haymarket martyrs is told in Jim Green’s just-published book, “Death at the Haymarket.” It is a tale of a judicial process distorted by ideology, money and fear.

The Haymarket Statues

The first statue that was erected in Haymarket was not a statue of the martyrs but of a policeman, shown standing in uniform with his hand raised to signify that he was ready to protect family, community and country. This statue was bombed several times and finally placed inside the police academy. Then for many years there was nothing to mark the site of Haymarket. Visitors from other countries would come, expecting to find a significant monument that would commemorate the day that is recognized all over the world as May Day, worker’s rights day, and find nothing. Eventually nothing was left of the original buildings except the cobblestone paving in Crane’s Alley that leads into Des Plaines. Then a metal plaque was installed in the pavement. It was vandalized, but it existed, and you could go there and read it and see if and look around and think, “This is the place.” 

Erecting the monument that is presently standing in Haymarket was a long process. The city resisted. Finally, permission was given. The design of the wagon was intended to both suggest what the square was used for – meetings and demonstrations – and to hint that it could still be used that way. There was a lot of debate about what the statue should look like and when it was unveiled in place some people said that the figures looked like melted crayons – “It was pre-vandalized,” someone said – and that you couldn’t tell if the figures were building the wagon or taking it apart. At the unveiling, labor leaders spoke and the president of the police union also spoke. At that event, anarchists also protested. I am not entirely clear about what they were protesting. I’ve been told that the anarchist philosophy prohibits cooperation with the state, and that the existence of the statue had come about through cooperation with the state and was therefore unacceptable. This seems a bit oversimplified. I have seen Labor Beat’s video called “Trainwreck of Ideologies” that documents the protests that occurred at the dedication of the memorial to the Haymarket martyrs that is in Waldheim cemetery, where they are buried, but I am still not clear on exactly what the issues are. Either way, the kids who were dancing and climbing on the statue on May 1, 2006, were not the same people who had been at that event.

As the speakers got in gear it began to drizzle harder. I kept looking among the policemen for the man who had knocked me down, but I couldn’t find him. I wondered what it was like to be up on that speaker’s platform, on a day that had taken so much work to organize, and look down at the thin crowd of familiar labor movement faces – hardly anyone there who didn’t have to be there, hardly anyone who wasn’t on some union payroll  – and see beyond them that phalanx of angry police, some still breathing hard in their tight uniforms, standing as if in formation. If anyone ever doubted that the original Haymarket massacre had been a police riot, I thought, the events of this afternoon should have settled that. If anyone doubted the atmosphere of fear that today’s labor movement functions in, a photo of this rally should eliminate that doubt. Would someone on the platform speak to that, mention that this afternoon’s events had clearly dramatized the fact that the issues were still in play, and hot?  

I decided to leave and walk home. I was a bit sore where I’d been whammed, and still shaky. Also, I had to drive down to Champaign that night anyway, and it was just about time to hit the road and join the end of rush hour.

A Lowly Nobody

As I walked away I saw one cop standing alone, a young guy, near where half a dozen police vans were parked. I went up and asked him why the barriers had been placed there. He said he didn’t know – “I’m just a lowly nobody,” he said. I said that it was the intent of the design of the statue that people stand on it and speak and that I had never seen barriers there before, and that putting barriers there had just given the police an excuse to be belligerent. I asked, “Why are there so many police here?” He said that earlier, there had been reports of a fight going on. “Between whom?” I asked. He said they had been told it was between bikers and anarchists. “Bikers? You mean people on motorcycles?” Yes, he said. I said I hadn’t seen any motorcycles around – and did they need forty cops for that? “I’m just a nobody,” he said. He said that the anarchists were dangerous – they wore masks, they broke windows. I said I’d never seen them breaking windows but he said he recognized them from other demonstrations  — even through their masks — and that yes, they broke windows. I said they were kids, more like cheerleaders.

Altogether, it was a bad ending to a good day. The immigrants rights march was huge and exciting and would have, along with the other marches in other cities, an impact on national politics. I had left the office at 2 pm, one hour after the march began, and it was still huge walking east from Union Square. The shouts of “Si, se puede!” moved up and down the march in waves. It was wonderful to be walking along in the middle of an enormous river of calm and purposeful people. There were lots of women pushing strollers. I saw a sign that I liked: “No somos uno, no somos cien, somos milliones, cuentas nos bien.”  Along the march I saw small groups of men and women, mostly student age, with signs identifying themselves as muslims, and families with Polish flags. But the overwhelming mass was Latinos, including many young men. For a long time I walked behind a thin, dark-skinned man in his thirties who had his hair in a long pony tail bound with leather thongs.

That evening, on the way down to Champaign, I listened to WBEZ, the public radio station, as long as I could through the static that starts about thirty miles south and continues until you lose the signal altogether and can get nothing but Christian stations. I heard a woman who obviously represented some official agency saying, in an unaccented voice, that these people who are marching today want to be part of the American mainstream. It’s too bad the left wing groups, the labor unions, have tried to hitch a ride on this movement. This will make it harder for these people to become part of the mainstream. They don’t want to be associated with left wing groups. She also said that May Day is the socialist left-wing holiday in some other countries.

In the Tribune on May 2, the next day, there was a photograph on page 3 of the police pushing the barricades at the anarchists. In the picture you can see the guy who knocked me down – he’s in his yellow jacket, and he’s lifting his bike up over the top of a barricade and shoving it at a young man on the other side of the barricade, who appears to be fending it off with his left hand.

History and Memory: An explanation of what I saw

Two other things I want to mention. In Champaign the day after May Day, I attended a symposium of fellows of the Center for Democracy in a Multi-Racial Society. One of the fellows, Maurice Stevens, a graduate of the History of Consciousness program at Santa Cruz, compared the domains of history and memory. “History is the arena of data, of libraries and archives, of writing and paper,” he said, or something close to that. “Memory is the arena of the street, of talk and photo albums.” I thought: yesterday we saw these two domains face each other. History was on the platform, in the person of the Labor History Society. History had arranged this event and summoned dignitaries and supporters to come to mark the event. The dignitaries were substantial but the supporters were few. Memory was in the street, in the person of the cops. In their righteousness and bullying arrogance, they embodied the spirit of the times that had hung the Haymarket martyrs. In this face-off, memory proved that it was still alive, and it beat history.

Even in the worst of times, we in India did not forget

A week later I attended a presentation by Ashim Roy, the president of the newly convened trade union federation of India, the NTUI. After the presentation, during the question period, he was asked to tell us two of his impressions of the United States, the best and the worst. The best was, as might have been expected, his discovery of the multitudes of diverse social justice organizations alive in this country. The worst had to do with Haymarket. He said that he had heard of Haymarket, of course, in India, and knew the origins of May Day. Then upon coming to the United States he had asked to see the site of the Haymarket Massacre. He was taken to it, and of course, there was nothing there. (This was on a previous but recent trip, before the statue was erected.) Nothing there! He was amazed and angry. “Even in the worst of times,” he said, “we in India did not forget. We never lost the left, we never forgot, even in the worst of times.”

He implied that in the United States, Haymarket had been forgotten. I disagree. Haymarket was never forgotten. Whoever sent those forty cops in blue uniforms to stand in a phalanx across Des Plaines Street, blocking the intersection with their paddy wagons as if they planned to arrest dozens of people, had not forgotten. The conflict was not commemorated, however. It was re-enacted, proving that it has not yet, and may never, not in this country, cool from memory into history.  What looks like forgetfulness is more like a standoff.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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