History on the Platform, Memory in the Street Notes from May 1, 2006 Chicago

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This is a reflection on the May Day actions of 2006 and a
sudden conflict that brought to life the complex relationship
between “history” as spoken from the platform and “memory”
as lived in the street. In 2007, 2008, 2009 and again this
year tens of thousands marched in Chicago, and again a
small memorial was held at the Haymarket statue.
In 2010, plans were announced by the Illinois
Labor History Society for a major campaign to
restore the Haymarket burial monument in Forest
Home Cemetery in River Forest. More information
will be available at illinoislaborhistory.org
On Mayday, 2006 I left the huge Immigrants
Rights rally in Grant Park in Chicago and headed
towards Haymarket Square to get there by 4:30
for the Labor History Society celebration at the
Haymarket monument. As I came up Randolph
Street toward DesPlaines, I noticed that the monument,
a statue representing a hay wagon with
figures, was surrounded by portable barriers.
Normally, there are no barriers around the
statue. In fact, bronze soapboxes are set into the
sidewalk beside it and it is common for people to
stand on the soapboxes and climb up on the
wagon. The statue replicates what was there 120
years go: it stands on the spot where the hay
wagon stood from which the speakers at the
Haymarket mass meeting addressed the crowd.
But that day, barriers enclosed both the statue
and the soapboxes. Something was the matter.
At that point, it was still early and only a
handful of celebrants were in the square. Five or
ten uniformed police were standing around.
There was a big speaker’s platform set up about
forty feet north of the statue. People were setting
up microphones and video cameras.
Then a group of anarchist kids came into the
square, dancing and jumping and beating paint
can drums. They wore the usual green hair,
black jeans, some masks, some theatrically
ripped and debrided shirts and skirts. They
made a circle below the speaker’s platform and
danced and beat their drums. They looked like
the cast from Les Miz.
Now more police appeared. Some were on
bicycles and wore yellow bike jackets and bike
Suddenly the anarchist kids ran toward the
statue, jumped over the barriers and climbed up and
placed their black flag on top of the statue. In their gray
and black clothes, they looked like part of the statue. They
looked great against the dark gray sky.
Just as suddenly, the police rushed them. I was standing
about twenty feet away. The ferocity with which the police
threw themselves towards the kids on the statue, tore them
down and tore their flag down, was breathtaking. They
pulled the kids to the ground. Some kids got up again and
struggled, but they were overpowered.
My first thought was that this was some kind of theater,
a choreographed historical re-enactment of the police riot
that had ensued after the bomb was thrown among the
demonstrators in Haymarket Square 120 years ago. One
person was killed by that bomb, but eight were killed by
gunfire from the police, who went crazy and started shooting
into the crowd.
The tussling continued with the kids getting up off the
ground and pushing back at the police, and the police
grabbing them and knocking them down. There were a
lot of photographers who were dipping and snapping all
around. I was standing near a lamp post beyond the statue
when the police rushed some kids who were fleeing in my
direction. I was not right in their path, but I was close
enough, and one policeman knocked me down with his
bicycle. It was not an accident. They were using their bicycles
as prods and shields, and he lifted his bike up and
aimed it so that the front wheel struck me in the chest. At
this point, I realized it was not theater.
I was shaken.
The four people who were tried and hung after the
Haymarket massacre of 1886 were not the police, but
some anarchist immigrants, most of whom had not even
been at the demonstration, which had been called to
protest the killing of two strikers over at the McCormick
factory. Their trial consumed the public press and received
international attention. It is a tale of a judicial process distorted
by ideology, money and fear.
The first statue that was erected in Haymarket was not a
statue of the martyrs but of a policeman, shown standing
in uniform with his hand raised to signify that he was
ready to protect family, community and country. This statue
was bombed several times and finally placed in an inner
garden inside the police academy, where it still stands.
Then for many years there was nothing to mark the site of
Haymarket except an almost illegible plaque set in the
sidewalk. Visitors from other countries would come,
expecting to find a monument that would commemorate
the day that is recognized all over the world as May Day. I
remember a presentation by Ashim Roy, the president of
the NTUI, the new union federation in India. During the
question period, he was asked to tell his impressions of the
United States, the best and the worst. The best was his discovery
of the multitudes of diverse social justice organizations
alive in this country. The worst was about Haymarket.
He had come to the US some years ago, before the
statue was erected, and asked to see the site of the Haymarket
Massacre. He was taken to it, and of course, there
was nothing there. Nothing there! He was amazed and
angry. “Even in the worst of times,” he said, “we in India
did not forget. We never lost the left, we never forgot, even
in the worst of times.”
The statue that stands there today, the haywagon, is very
new and was the product of years of difficult negotiation
with Mayor Daley, the City Council, and the Chicago Police.
It started to drizzle. Now various labor leaders climbed
up onto the platform. The musicians started playing, loudly.
At the same time, more police flowed into the square,
some on bikes. By the time the
speeches started there were at least
four dozen police standing in ranks
beside the statue. They had taken
their bike jackets off. The speakers
got into gear. Nor one mentioned
the rush to tear the anarchist kids
off the statue. Not one commented
on the presence of the silent ranks
of police in their blue uniforms as
if at a funeral. It was as if the speakers
were reading prepared scripts
that couldn’t incorporate the confrontation
between police and
anarchists that had happened right
in front of them.
I decided to leave. I was sore
where I’d been whammed, and still
shaky. Also, I had to drive down to
Champaign that night and it was
just about time to hit the road and
join the end of rush hour.
On the way down to Champaign,
I listened to NPR. Lots of
the news was about the immigrants’
rights marches but the
commentators seemed to be disparaging
their significance: they
weren’t as big as they looked, the
marches weren’t as many as
expected. One official said,
“These people who are marching
today want to be part of the American
mainstream. It’s too bad the
left wing groups, the labor unions,
have tried to hitch a ride on this
movement. These people don’t
want to be associated with left
wing groups.”She explained that
May Day is “The socialist left-wing
holiday in some other countries.”
Yet two things had just happened
that were indisputable, no matter
how comfortable it might be to deny or ignore them: the
streets had filled with thousands and thousands of
marchers, reclaiming May Day for immigrants and workers,
and the police had once again, as if reliving an old
memory, tried to beat up anarchists.
In Champaign the next day, I attended a symposium
at the Center for Democracy in a Multi-Racial Society.
One speaker compared the domains of history and
memory. “History is the arena of data, of libraries and
archives, of writing and paper,” he said. “Memory is the
arena of the street.”

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