129 years and little to show for it

Tensions are high. What began as a peaceful rally to show support and protest police brutality seems to be heating up at an alarming rate. As the speaker goes on, becoming more impassioned, even more police show up, trying to disperse the crowd. Before anyone knows what is happening, someone strikes out against the police and a bomb goes off, followed by a smattering of gunshots.


Sound a lot like the news coming from Baltimore? This was Chicago on May 4, 1886, at a demonstration showing support for workers striking for an eight-hour day. The incident became known as the Haymarket Affair, and eight individuals were eventually convicted of conspiracy (even though there was no evidence that any of them actually threw the bomb). This event is generally considered significant as the origin of May Day, celebrated internationally on May 1. As I researched this event today, I was struck by how many parallels there are to the present day.


Leading up to the Haymarket Affair, there had been peaceful labor demonstrations all over Chicago until one incident where police fired shots into a crowd of workers, killing several. Following this, plans were made for a meeting to protest police brutality, and it was this protest that led to the violence at Haymarket Square. Chicago in the late nineteenth century exemplified the Gilded Age, with a large class divide and terrible conditions for the working class. Tensions between the working class and police were growing, and violence seemed inevitable. It seems that most of the police who were shot that day were shot by their own comrades, who fired indiscriminately after the initial explosion.


129 years later, we are still struggling with issues surrounding police brutality, labor, and class. I think the fact that they seem to come up at the same time is no coincidence. This year (and for the last few years) we have seen real and meaningful achievements for workers’ rights and conditions, and we have also seen atrocious police brutality. We have a lot to learn from history, so I hope that as you go about your May Day, you reflect on the lessons of the past and also engage your community in meaningful discussions on this topic.


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