The Night Thread of the Haymarket Affair

May 4th, 1886 was a day of tragedy in Chicago when a peaceful labor rally arguing for an eight hour work day was ruined by violence.  It was not the first rally; several had occurred in other cities on May 1, including Detroit, Milwaukee, and New York.  Workers were on strike to fight for their eight hour days, and in Chicago, the McCormick company had seen their union workers locked out of the factory since February because unions were, and still are, seen as evil by companies who would like nothing more than to destroy people to make money.  Strikebreakers who had taken the unions strikers’ places in the factory were being escorted to and from work by police officers; on the 3rd of May, some of the union workers decided to confront the strike breakers.  This was not the best idea, since the police decided they were allowed to shoot to defend themselves and the strikers.  There were varying numbers of fatalities, and, angry at what they saw as unjustified and premeditated murder, local anarchists spread fliers to call for a rally at Haymarket Square the next day to protest the violence.

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The rally, as you can imagine, didn’t go so well.  The rally itself was peaceful, with various speakers throughout the day, and lessening numbers of those attending as the day grew long and the weather started to suck.  But when the police arrived around 10:30 to disperse the rally (being kind of jerks doing it, as they often were when it came to dealing with labor), someone threw a bomb, killing one policeman, and wounding six others.  It happened in a second; the repercussions were immediate, and violent.  Reports vary on who fired first, and at who; it was dark out, and it’s entirely possible the police were shooting at their own more than the people at the rally.  At the end of it, seven officers were confirmed killed, with four civilians dead as well, and scores of injured on both sides.

The Haymarket Affair is one of the big events of the labor movement, for obvious reasons.  Not just for the violence against the labor workers striking to have a fair work day, but also for the dog and pony show that was the trial afterward, when several men–including some prominent anarchists and labor leaders–were sentenced to death despite there being little to no evidence of their involvement with the bombing past “they’re anarchists and labor leaders, let’s hang ’em.”  (The majority of them were also German-born immigrants, or German-American, as many socialists of the time were.  There’s a reason Milwaukee had Socialist mayors.)  It was, frankly, a gross miscarriage of justice, one that was obviously done simply to get rid of people they saw as problematic.   However, this terrible event was also inspiring, giving the labor movement a reason to really rally workers and push for the eight hour work day, as well as taking May 1st as a day to honor labor as International Workers’ Day.

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