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Everybody's Heroes

Can't local anarchists keep their martyrs to themselves?



By Ted Kleine

"Anarchism has never been as big since Haymarket--it set back the movement here in Chicago drastically," says Fred Major, aka comrade Fred M., the "loudest mouth" and therefore the de facto spokesman of the group Some Chicago Anarchists. In 1887, the year four anarchists went to the gallows for "inciting" the bombing in Haymarket Square that killed eight police officers, the city had five anarchist newspapers, and it was quite acceptable to stand up in the middle of a union meeting and call for the abolition of all governments. "There were thousands of anarchists in a city of less than a million," says Major.

Once every three weeks throughout the summer Some Chicago Anarchists--"We call ourselves that because we're not all Chicago anarchists," says Major--gather for a picnic in Lincoln Park, just west of the lagoon. Only five people attended the most recent one. Major and his companion, Beth, brought a vegetable platter and the group's banner, a black flag on a long pole, which they hung from a crotch in an oak tree. Derek--an office clerk who was once a disciple of Ayn Rand, then a libertarian, and is now an anarchist--was also there, sipping from a bottle of Samuel Adams. Rob, a bicycle messenger with a long red pigtail who calls himself a "fire-and-brimstone atheist," showed up on his bike. And a woman named Althea arrived on rollerblades, batted around her juggling sticks for half an hour, then skated away.

On other occasions over its 16-year history the picnic has drawn as many as 20 people, and games of Frisbee and softball have broken out. But at this picnic the five faithful lounging under the oak tree were most interested in talking about Haymarket. Not about the hangings, which historians now maintain were political executions of innocent men, but about a later outrage: a new National Park Service plaque naming the Haymarket Martyrs' Memorial in Forest Home Cemetery a National Historic Landmark. "We just don't think the government should have anything to do with these people who were antistate," said Major, a bearded, ponytailed construction worker who's well into middle age. "America killed these people!"

For years the Haymarket martyrs have been icons not just for anarchists but for the international labor movement. They died for preaching a cause that is now unassailably American: the eight-hour workday. In the first week of May 1886, 80,000 Chicago workers went on strike to demand a shorter workweek. The strike remained peaceful until May 3, when police fired into a crowd of unionists outside the McCormick Harvester Works, killing four. The next night 3,000 outraged workers gathered at Haymarket Square, at the corner of Randolph and Desplaines, to protest the killings. After speeches by well-known anarchists Albert Parsons and August Spies, 180 police moved in to disperse the crowd. As they advanced, someone hurled a bomb into their ranks.

Eight policemen died, and state's attorney Julius Grinnell began rounding up anarchists. Most of the ten men who went on trial for the bombing hadn't been in Haymarket Square the night of May 4. They were indicted for conspiracy. "Convict these men," Grinnell told the jury, "make examples of them, hang them, and you save our institutions."

Parsons, who'd left the square before the bombing, Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer were hanged in the alley between the courthouse and the Cook County Jail on November 11, 1887. Fischer's last words before dropping through the trapdoor were "Hurrah for anarchy!" The four men were buried in Waldheim Cemetery (now Forest Home), which soon became sacred ground for anarchists and radicals around the world.

The memorial, a statue of a female figure laying a wreath on the head of a fallen worker, was erected near the graves in 1893. On its pedestal are Spies's last words: "The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today."

Over the last century writers, poets, musicians, and activists who were radicalized by Haymarket have chosen to be buried near the memorial. Emma Goldman, who was deported for her anarchist agitation in 1919, was brought to Waldheim after her death. The ashes of Joe Hill, the labor folksinger whose 1915 execution for murder was widely seen as a political frame-up, were scattered over the memorial on May Day the following year. Writer Voltairine De Cleyre, who became an anarchist after the Haymarket hangings and traveled the world preaching anarchism, is also buried there.

The monument was built by the Pioneer Aid and Support Association, set up by Parsons's widow, Lucy, to provide for the martyrs' families. In 1971 it was deeded to the Illinois Labor History Society, which a few years ago began lobbying the Park Service to have it named a landmark. "The monument is not a federal intrusion on the martyrs at all," says Leslie Orear, president of the society. "It is merely a recognition that the people of the world have made it a landmark."

Nonetheless, when the plaque was dedicated on May 3, about 15 anarchists showed up at the cemetery in Forest Park to jeer the historians and labor leaders who'd been invited to speak. They brought their black flag as well as a banner with a drawing of Uncle Sam drooling blood. It read, Bite the Hand That Bleeds You. Smash the State! Four people dressed up in skeleton costumes, each labeled with the name of a martyr, passed out leaflets that purported to give the dead men's opinion of the ceremony. "The events of May 3 were a disgraceful sham," the handwritten leaflets stated. "It maddens and saddens us greatly. We were anarchists. We fought for revolution. They killed us for it. But today these lying hypocrites are associating us with the U.S. government we so greatly hated. In no way do we wish to be connected to a system responsible for tens of millions of murders....Amerikkka murdered us in 1887 but the truth about our lives lives on & our Movement still exists. Join us in protesting this terrible perversion of our ideas. 'Hurrah for Anarchy.'"

The anarchists, a tiny group among the 500 labor supporters, chanted, "Two, four, six, eight, organize to smash the state!" They heckled Monsignor John Egan when he came to the microphone to offer a blessing, saying the Haymarket martyrs had rejected religion all the way to the gallows. And upon hearing a brass band strike up "God Bless America" they nearly busted a vein.

Orear recalls the protest as a boorish disruption of a solemn service and wonders who appointed the remnants of Chicago's anarchist movement to speak for the martyrs. "They started shouting and making fools of themselves. Some people took objection to their heckling of Monsignor Egan. Some of our people, a dozen or so, pushed them aside."

It was a symbolic push, Major says, because the "labor hacks" who won landmark status for the memorial had shoved aside anarchism itself in their effort to transform the Haymarket martyrs into respectable heroes for the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party. The Park Service's plaque, now installed at the foot of the statue, reads, "This monument represents the labor movement's struggle for workers' rights and possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America." Not one mention of the "A" word.

"They think their ideas are buried," Major says. "They think they can make them into Americans, liberal Democrats. A lot of politicians and labor hacks were out there speaking. They were trying to make them into Samuel Gompers mainstream Americans."

Orear says nobody tried to deny the martyrs were anarchists, and Paul Avrich, author of The Haymarket Tragedy, mentioned it in his remarks. "It's not a big point," Orear says dismissively. "From our point of view, they were leaders of the eight-hour movement in Chicago, which was not an anarchist movement."

That's not entirely true, Major says. Not all the martyrs favored the eight-hour-day movement, because it still allowed bosses to dictate the terms of their workers' labor. The pamphlet the anarchists handed out at the dedication offered this quote from Parsons: "Let us take what we can get, say our eight-hour friends, else by asking too much we may get nothing. We answer: Because we will not compromise. Either our position that capitalists have no right to exclusive ownership of the means of life is a true one, or it is not. If we are correct, then to accede the point that capitalists have the right to eight hours of our labor, is more than a compromise, it is a virtual concession that the wage-system is right."

The members of Some Chicago Anarchists also find the plaque insulting because they see it as a tombstone for anarchism as a political force. After all, the United States only honors enemies who are safely dead, which is why there are National Historic Landmarks commemorating Chief Joseph, Mother Jones, and Stonewall Jackson. "They see us as such a small bunch, incapable of doing much of anything, incompetent, inept," Major says. "That's why they're not out here killing and arresting us--because we're not a threat."

Yet even Some Chicago Anarchists realize that their vision of a perfect society--one in which all bosses, from President Clinton to assistant managers at Target, are replaced by small groups of workers and citizens who make decisions by consensus--isn't likely to replace industrial capitalism. So they have focused their efforts on warning people about capitalism's most destructive effects. In 1985 they picketed theaters that showed Rambo, a movie that glorifies people who kill in the name of governments. A few years ago they picketed a festival of TV commercials at the Music Box, because advertising inflames the greed that leads people to submit to stupid jobs, commit crimes, and start wars. And on August 1 Some Chicago Anarchists will speak on "The Second Haymarket Tragedy--The Ultimate Insult" at the College of Complexes, which meets at Lincoln Restaurant, 4008 N. Lincoln.

"It's mostly going to be quotations to bring up the fact that the guys buried there would be very upset about this, because they can't speak for themselves," Major says. This time, he vows, the anarchists are going to beat the U.S. government. "In almost 30 years of doing this stuff I can't think of any times that we've won. But I say, that plaque's not going to be here two or three years from now." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Maymarket Martyrs' Memorial photo by Nathan Mandell/ Forest Home Cemetary, May 3 photo by Jon Randolph.

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