Mayday 2012

Why we celebrate, why we fight

Chicago, May 1886. In a city divided by bitter labour disputes and the agitation for the eight hour day, police dispersed a peaceful street meeting. A bomb was thrown, killing one officer – other policemen and many workers died as the police opened fire at random.

This incident was used as a pretext for a sweeping crackdown on unions and anarchists. Eight anarchists were accused, not of direct involvement, but of the catch-all of conspiracy. They were accused and convicted on the basis of their ideas alone: no credible evidence was produced to link them to the bomb. Four of the eight (George Engel, Adolf Fischer, Albert Parsons and August Spies) were judicially murdered on the 11th of November 1887. One, Louis Lingg, cheated the gallows with the aid of dynamite.

The three remaining Haymarket accused (Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab and Oscar Neebe) were given sentences of life and fifteen years. They were released in 1893 when Governor John P. Altgeld, in a moved which finished his political career, exposed the state conspiracy which framed them.

The transparent injustice of the case, and the principled resistance of the accused made it an anarchist propaganda classic, bringing comrades into the anarchist movement for many years to come. So much so that marxists are forever trying to paint these anarchists as just ‘trade unionists’.

What are the lessons of the Haymarket Tragedy? The police are there to use violence to maintain the status quo. They will be backed up by a capitalist media frenzy, in which no ‘fact’ is more important than the one they don’t mention: social confrontation. Standing up for our ideas in times of crisis is neccessary, and productive.

None of that will surprise today’s anarchists. While a lot has changed in 126 years, these are not things you have to look 126 years back to learn.

The fight for emancipation is still on. And the fight for history is part of that. It’s obvious why some of our rulers want to put the Haymarket Affair away in a box of ‘stories from the bad old days’. Not forgotten, of course, but made safe. It’s obvious too why anarchists resist this: our history lets us say to the bosses “We have always had to fight you for freedom… and we always will”.

Taken from the Introduction to “Mayday and Anarchism : Remembrance and Resistance from Haymarket to Now” (Kate Sharpley Library)

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