Thursday, May 1, 2014

Remembering the Real Labor Day

Flags are funny things, aren't they? Ultimately, they're just colorful pieces of cloth that people hang on poles and fly in the breeze, yet the symbolism they convey is powerful enough to make some of us pledge oaths to them, fight for them, even die for them. Some people, conversely, burn them in protest of what they represent. Either way, flags become a strong focal point for our emotional relationships toward what they symbolize.

Starting on the Sunday before Earth Day, I raised the Ecology Flag outside our house, and it's remained there until today, in recognition of the ongoing struggles our planet faces and the care we need to take of her. On Earth Day itself, I replaced it with the Flag of the Earth. The Global Climate Convergence movement asked us all this year to take the period between Earth Day and May Day to focus on the need for an "emergency green economic transformation," before it's too late to turn the tide. Flying our flags here at the house was a reminder to myself to be aware of my role in changing the world for the better, and it was a small display of solidarity with our Mother Earth.

Now we reach May 1, which in itself is a day strongly associated with our natural world. The ancient pagan celebration of Beltane honors life and fertility, as the Northern Hemisphere of the planet shakes off the cold and darkness of winter and embraces the light and warmth of spring and the approaching summer.

But May 1 is also an important day in the history of the labor movement. We don't think about it much in the USA, since Labor Day is months away here, but May Day is recognized as a public holiday in honor of laborers and the working class in more than 80 countries around the world. Labor Day was deliberately placed on another day besides May 1 in the USA so that it wouldn't be seen as a celebration of an incendiary moment in labor history.

That moment? The Haymarket Massacre.

Workers around America had been campaigning for more humane working conditions, and in an 1884 convention, a gathering of workers decreed that May 1, 1886, would mark the date by which the eight-hour work day would become standard practice. Strikes were planned for that day around the country, and the largest of them was in Chicago, where workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company had been locked out over a labor dispute.

On May 3, a rally was held outside the McCormick plant, where several workers had crossed the picket lines and gone back to work, alongside replacement workers. When the protestors moved to confront the strikebreakers at the end of the work day, police surged toward the strikers, guns drawn, and opened fire. As many as six people were killed. 

August Spies, an anarchist labor activist in Chicago, had spoken to the gathered strikers that day and urged them to stand together by their union. Outraged by the unprovoked violence from the police, Spies appeared the next day at Haymarket Square, to speak to a rally organized by local anarchists.

The gathering remained peaceful as a large contingent of police officers looked on. Chicago's mayor, who was also present, suggested that "nothing looked likely to happen to require police interference" that day. Rain eventually drove most of the crowd away.

Only around 200 people remained when the police, numbering around 180, suddenly moved in and ordered the crowd to disperse. 

At that moment, somebody threw a bomb into the crowd. No one knows who. But the blast killed police officer Mathias J. Degan, and gunfire began ringing out in response. Several witnesses said all the gunfire came from the police. But before it was all over, seven police officers and at least four protestors were dead, and dozens more were injured.

In the aftermath, anarchists and labor activists were vilified. Police raided meeting halls and conducted warrantless searches of the homes of suspected anarchists. Scores of arrests were made. "Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards," the state's attorney said.

Ultimately, eight people were charged with being accessories to the murder of officer Degan. Only two of the eight had been at the Haymarket rally when the bomb went off -- Spies and Samuel Fielden -- and they were both stepping down from the speakers' wagon at the time of the explosion. In other words, none of the accused was the bomb-thrower.

But the public wanted revenge, and the justice system delivered, by making examples of eight men known for their activism in anarchist and labor causes. The presiding judge was openly hostile toward the defendants, and most of the jurors expressed prejudice toward them before being seated. It was in this kangaroo-court environment that seven of the defendants were sentenced to death. The eighth, Oscar Neebe, was given 15 years in prison, though he asked to be executed along with his fellow defendants when the sentences were handed down.

Four of the men -- Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer -- met their ends at the gallows. Another, Louis Lingg, committed suicide in prison. Two of the remaining three -- Fielden, and Michael Schwab -- had their sentences reduced to life in prison after petitioning for clemency.

Fielden, Schwab, and Neebe were eventually pardoned, after John Peter Altgeld, a labor-friendly progressive, became governor of Illinois. By doing so, he sacrificed his own political career. But as he was said to have told his secretary of state, "No man has the right to allow his ambition to stand in the way of the performance of a simple act of justice."

Within a few short years, nations around the world began commemorating May 1 as International Workers' Day, in the continuing fight for the eight-hour work day -- which, of course, has since become the standard thanks to the tireless efforts of the labor movements of those times -- and in honor of those who died in connection with the Haymarket Massacre.  

In our current age, as income inequality reaches record proportions, and as we learn that law-enforcement groups worked at the behest of corporate and elected leaders to violently suppress grassroots citizens' protests during the Occupy movement, we would do well to reflect on how history often repeats itself, and how the struggle for basic fairness for the poor and working class goes on even today. 

As for the anarchist movement, it's been widely characterized as dangerous and violent ever since Haymarket, from which the stereotype of the radical bomb-thrower was probably born. Some who associate themselves with anarchism do the movement no favors when they engage in random acts of vandalism and destruction, but it's also fair to say that the popular notion of anarchy is misguided, perpetuated largely by people in positions of power who want to keep people afraid of anarchists. At its core, anarchy is simply the opposite of hierarchy. It doesn't have to mean random chaos. To the contrary, many, if not most, anarchist movements wish only to build an egalitarian, democratic society, built on a horizontal basis of self-determination at the personal or community level -- a level playing field, in other words, in which everyone has an equal voice, as opposed to the top-down hierarchical structure that characterizes most social and political constructions. Decisions over people's lives, anarchists believe, should be made by those people, at the local level, since local decision-making is, by its nature, more responsive to the needs of the people than a far-flung, unaccountable bureaucracy hundreds or thousands of miles away.

My notion of what anarchism is -- or at least should be -- squares with the views J.R.R. Tolkien held. In writing to his son, he once proclaimed:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs). ... [T]he most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.   
Noam Chomsky distills anarchist philosophy down to a simple challenge to established systems of power:
The basic principle I’d like to see communicated to people is the idea that every form of authority and domination and hierarchy, every authoritarian structure, has to prove that it’s justified or be dismantled. To me, that’s anarchism: the point of view that people have a right to be free, and if there are constraints on that freedom, you have to justify them.  
There are many flavors of anarchism -- since anarchism remains an idea in the theoretical realm, there are many opinions as to how it would work in the real world -- and the one I identify with most closely is anarcho-pacifism, which, as you'd expect, rejects any form of violence in the fight to tear down the existing system. Thoreau and his acts of civil disobedience against the state certainly constitute some of the earliest philosophical foundations for modern anarcho-pacifism. Leo Tolstoy and Dutch author Bart de Ligt are also regarded as two of its primary proponents and most formative thinkers. Their argument, one with which I agree, is that the state is inherently violent, relying on force -- either explicit or implicit -- to make people comply with the law. Therefore, legitimate opposition to the state also requires opposition to force. Gandhi's acts of passive resistance would certainly be an example of anarcho-pacifism in action -- fighting the system with unblinking resolve, but without violence.

The anarcho-pacifist flag, then, is half black and half white. The black represents the traditional flag of the anarchist movement, colored black to represent a sort of anti-flag, in symbolic opposition to the notion of a nation-state. White flags, in contrast, have traditionally been used as signs of peace and non-aggression. Think of the white flag that requests a truce in battle, signifying that the person holding the flag is not armed and will not resort to violent means.

While I'm still not sure I identify as an anarchist, I do identify as a pacifist, and anarchism makes more sense to me than any other political philosophy I've encountered so far.

So in honor of the day, the labor movement, the Haymarket martyrs, peace, and political self-determination, today I fly my anarcho-pacifist flag.

Happy May Day, everyone.

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