Sunday, November 11, 2007

A political execution in Chicago

"The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today." --last words of August Spies just before he was hanged November 11, 1887.
Although Labor day, or May Day, is traditionally when the country honors its workers, and socialists and labor unions celebrate their heroes and martyrs, today, November 11, marks the anniversary of the execution of four of the seven anarchists convicted of consipiracy to commit murder in the Haymarket Riot that took place in Chicago on May 4th, 1886. Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolf Fischer, and George Engel, all German nationals, members of the International Working Peoples Association (IWPA), the group that organized the campaign for the eight-hour workday, were hanged for their anarchist opinions.

The beginning of the end for them does begin on May 1st, 1886, when a strike in support of an eight-hour workday gathered force all over the US.
Both the Democratic and Republican mainstream political parties offered little hope for disgruntled and downtrodden workers both immigrant and American-born, so doctrines like anarchy, socialism, communism, feminism and labor activism sprouted in the political soil of late-19th-century America.
During the days that followed over 340,000 workers walked off their jobs. In Chicago the IWPA organized a rally where 7,400 striking workers gathered. Unprovoked, the police opened-fire on the crowd, killing four people.

The following day August Spies, who was editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, published a leaflet in English and German entitled: Revenge! Workingmen to Arms! It included the passage:
"They killed the poor wretches because they, like you, had the courage to disobey the supreme will of your bosses. They killed them to show you 'Free American Citizens' that you must be satisfied with whatever your bosses condescend to allow you, or you will get killed. If you are men, if you are the sons of your grand sires, who have shed their blood to free you, then you will rise in your might, Hercules, and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms we call you, to arms."
Over 3,000 people were rallying in Haymarket on May 4th when a bomb exploded killing one policemen and injuring dozens of others.
"The police then immediately attacked the crowd. A number of people were killed (the exact number was never disclosed)and over 200 were badly injured."
Martial law was declared in Chicago and the "Red Scare" took hold of the country. Chicago prosecutor Julius Grinnel famously said "Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards." The prosecution of the seven workers was built around the speeches and writings of the defendents, since it could not be proven that any of the men were at Haymarket at the time the bomb went off.
During the trial the judge allowed the jury to read speeches and articles by the defendants where they had argued in favour of using violence to obtain political change. The judge then told the jury that if they believed, from the evidence, that these speeches and articles contributed toward the throwing of the bomb, they were justified in finding the defendants guilty.

Ken Warren writes in Black and White Strangers, that no less a personage than William Dean Howells, American author and literary critic, petitioned the governor of Illinois to commute the death sentences, calling them "a fundamental assault on political dissent." After his appeals fell on deaf ears and the executions were carried out, Howells wrote:
We had a political execution in Chicago yesterday. The sooner we realize this, the better for us.
As Ed Tant writes the Haymarket tragedy involved political elements all too familiar: government surveillance, police misconduct, immigration, and workers' rights. Today we take the eight-hour workday for granted, just as we take the First Amendment as a birthright. We would do well to heed the words of Mr. Howells and mark the anniversary of the Haymarket tragedy as an important history lesson.

Look for more info at:
Chicago Historical Society
The Haymarket Tragedy, by Paul Avrich

1 comment:

ceds said...

"And we will be where all are free, where there are no longer masters and servants, where intellect stands for brute force, there will no longer be any use for the policemen and militia to preserve the so-called 'peace and order'-the order that the Russian General speaks of when he telegraphed to the Czar after he had massacred half of Warsaw, 'Peace reigns in Warsaw.'"

We could use a little more anarchism these days...