The Haymarket Massacre is still the paradigmatic case of the state using a violent act to justify repression. In 1886, at the height of the movement for an eight-hour workday, a bomb was set off at a worker rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. The rally was called to both protest police killings of worker protesters and to support striking workers fighting for the eight-hour day. When police attacked the demonstration, a bomb was thrown. To this day no one knows who set off the explosive, including whether it was an agent provocateur or an activist.
What is known, however, is that the government used the bombing as a pretext to discredit the protests and the workers movement, suggesting that the entire movement was comprised of supposedly violent anarchists. Charges were brought against key leaders of the movement and in a kangaroo trial, eight individuals were convicted for their alleged involvement in the bombing. Four were subsequently hanged.
The reaction by police unions, the Right and much of the mainstream media today is eerily reminiscent of the aftermath of the Haymarket massacre. In this moment it is critical that progressives forcefully counter these arguments. They are cynical and disingenuous efforts to discredit and derail one of the most important movements of the recent past. Let us be clear about what has transpired.
We must learn critical lessons from the Haymarket massacre and its aftermath. Public opinion can be quickly, and rather easily, manipulated against progressive mass movements in the aftermath of egregious acts. If the movement does not stand strong and pay attention to segments of the population that appear to be wavering in their support for the objectives of the movement, there can be major setbacks.
At the same time, there is nothing inevitable about what happens next. This is why good leadership, organization, and a sophisticated approach to strategy and tactics is so necessary.
I have absolute confidence in the young activists leading today’s movement. I hope that they pay attention to the lessons of history as they continue to battle for justice. They have refocused the attention of much of this country on something that was all but ignored. Now they must press on.
The movement must appreciate that efforts will always be made to discredit it, and to blame the actions of a few on the many. It cannot afford to remain silent or agnostic regarding activities or actions that alienate our base and key supporters and, potentially, isolate the movement itself.
A related point: in making a movement successful, we must pay attention to those in the middle, that is, those who are not as committed to the long-term aims of the movement, but are susceptible to persuasion. The aim is to effectively surround our opponents in such a way that their voice becomes the voice of the discredited minority. When we win over the middle, we have that opportunity.
The need to win the “middle,” however you want to define it, on issues like is what I was getting at in this post, with one deranged person committing violence providing the state with the tools to not only repress a social movement, but to convince that middle that the protestors are a danger to order and the state. Of course, like with Alexander Berkman and the Homestead strikers, there’s nothing those in the anti-police violence movement could do about one violent person committing a single crime. So a solid strategy on how to overcome an incident like this is really important for it going forward.