On January 13, 1874, thousands of unemployed New Yorkers met in Tompkins Square Park to protest their unemployment and poverty. There, the police would beat them in the first large-scale state crackdown of the American white poor in the nation’s history.
The Panic of 1873 was the first of the post-Civil War economic collapses to throw the working class into desperation. Caused primarily by corrupt railroad financing, especially thanks to the notorious Jay Cooke, the Panic led to high unemployment throughout the 1870s and created the first explicitly class-based political actions in American history. By November 1873, 55 railroads had gone bankrupt, wages were slashed, unemployment jumped, and the American working class began realizing the impact of the unregulated capitalism suddenly transforming their country. Most Americans at this time lacked what we might consider a “class consciousness” or any real doubt that the growing economic system wouldn’t serve their interests as independent operators manfully thriving. But the Panic began to lead to the first meaningful questioning of how this system affected workers and while substantial and well-organized radical resistance would take some time to develop, the first stirrings of resistance are clear in the mid 1870s.
Some urban workers responded to the Panic by organizing into one of the first unemployed workers movements in American history (probably we can trace the very first stirrings of these types of movement to the economic problems of 1857). In New York, the Committee of Safety was formed, demanding public works projects to employ those who needed work and the mayor to meet with them about it. In the first days of 1874, a series of protests became increasingly larger. By January 8, over 1000 workers were meeting in Tompkins Square Park and the demands were growing, including for the 8-hour day.
Tompkins Square as a site of recreation for the poor, 1873
Already though, the nascent labor movement in New York was divided between “radicals” and “conservatives.” Some of the leaders of the Committee of Safety were socialists and other labor leaders in New York denounced them as “communists,” a term with a much less defined threat than the post-1917 period, but one that already meant un-American. A bricklayer named Patrick Dunn led a counter movement that denounced the Committee of Safety and launched his own movement with many of the same demands, culminating in a January 5 march to City Hall. The Iron Molders International Union also tarred the Committee of Safety with a similar brush, using the term “anarchist.” What this really meant to Americans in 1874 was “immigrant that questioned the fundamentals of American capitalism.” The leader of the Committee of Safety was Peter J. McGuire, later famous for being the founding figure and long-time president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, which later became the most powerful union in the American Federation of Labor. McGuire called for a mass demonstration on January 13, urging the city to quit evicting unemployed tenants and instead to provide public aid. Many of the unemployed workers were immigrants and McGuire urged sympathy with their plight, a stance many native-born unionists were not willing to follow.
The forces of order across New York freaked out. Calling this the American version of the Paris Commune, newspaper editors and business owners called for the crushing of these workers. The mayor refused to meet, the police refused to allow them to march to City Hall, the governor refused to get involved. On January 13, over 8000 workers met at Tompkins Square. This was the largest political demonstration in New York history to that point. The protestors permit to meet had been revoked but no one told the protestors. Meanwhile, 1600 police officers gathered near the park.
At about 10 a.m., the police moved in and began savagely beating the protestors with clubs, while horse-mounted police cleared the streets. Samuel Gompers, still over a decade away from his ascension as a major American labor leader, remembered, “mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality. I was caught in the crowd on the street and barely saved my head from being cracked by jumping down a cellarway.” 46 workers were arrested. Two men were charged with assault, one, a German named Christian Mayer, for hitting a policemen with a hammer. Most of the arrested workers were unemployed immigrants who could not afford bail. One, Justus Schwab, later became a leader of American anarchism.
The suppression of the Tompkins Square protests undermined the unemployed workers movement in the city. Most of the city’s and nation’s newspapers lauded the police for purging the United States of its own version of the Paris Commune, beginning a long history of police and big newspaper editors joining to suppress the rights of workers. For much of the 19th century, the police response to Tompkins Square became a model. Pennsylvania law enforcement looking to suppress the Molly Maguires took lessons from it, while Chicago developed militias with the aim of cracking workers’ heads if need be; several of these were engaged in the violence of 1886 that culminated at Haymarket.
The Committee of Safety soon dissolved, attempting to form a political party which soon disappeared on its own. A socialist newspaper campaign convinced the governor of New York to pardon Mayer later in the year, but otherwise there was little public sympathy for the victims of Tompkins Square. In coming years, more class-based social movements would develop as the American working class tried to understand and fight back against this new world of big capitalism. Most notably, in 1877, the Great Railroad Strike would announce to the nation’s leaders that American workers would engage in mass organizing. But it would take over six more decades of economic boom and bust, the growth of class consciousness, and a series of left-leaning movements for working-class dignity before the government would finally become even minimally responsive to the needs of unemployed Americans.
This would not be the last time Tompkins Square found itself the point of police violence, as in 1988, the people who hung out in the park, now a space for punks, youth cultures, and the homeless were angry about gentrification and a 1 a.m. curfew battled police.
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