Thursday, July 19, 2012

When Justice Kills: Love and Anarchy in 1880s Chicago

“The lives of working people like us don’t often get written down; our stories and struggles don’t get passed on to the next generation, or into the textbooks. The monopolists control history to the same extent they do the economy.” – Albert Parsons

In 1887, the State of Illinois executed Albert Parsons and several of his cohorts. He was hung from the gallows, but his neck was never broken, and witnesses say his body twitched for eight minutes before he finally suffocated. Parsons, one of the most prominent voices for workers and minorities this country had seen, was not executed for some malicious act. Parsons committed no actual crime. The charges against him lacked any and all evidence. But this did not stop a bloodthirsty judicial and political system from literally choking the life from Parsons. In the plainest of terms, Parsons was executed for his political beliefs.

If you haven’t heard this American story, re-read the Parsons quote I opened with. Luckily, Martin Duberman, a renowned historian and novelist, has taken this piece of our nation’s history and brought it to life in his novel “Haymarket.” This novel tracks the life and love of Albert Parsons and his wife Lucy. It’s their love story, but it’s also the story of their love for working people and basic human rights. It’s a novel, yes, but it’s a damn well-researched one. Duberman dug through every possible document and resource related to the working class struggles of the late 19th Century. The product is a timeless and tragic story whose power and vibrancy still reverberates today.

Parsons’ time was not a hopeful one. When he and his wife Lucy moved to Chicago in 1873, a veritable war was underway. The monopolists, police and politicians, with nearly unlimited resources and “the law” on their side, waged war on a divided, poor and angry working class. This was a time of extra-judicial executions of labor leaders. The Chicago police, who were using their power and force to defend their racketeering empire, were nothing more than a mob of trigger happy hoodlums. Striking workers demanding a few cents more a week got bullets and batons. The workers demanded bread, and as one police official put it, they could instead expect “the rifle diet.” The factory floors, picket lines and streets of Chicago (as well as other cities all across the country), ran red with blue collar blood.

Since leftist history is nonexistent in America, books like this are vital in understanding where the American working class came from. What does it mean to be a “worker” in America? Why are unions demonized in our society? Why are working people viewed as the problem and not unchecked corporate power? How does control over the means of production impact political power? These are questions we don’t ask. These are questions “Haymarket” forces us to confront.

Parsons and his wife Lucy move from their Texas homes to Chicago. For the first several years of his time in Chicago, Parsons’ politics fall firmly in the unionist and social democratic camp. He sees the anarchists popping up in the city as “too ideological.” Hey views them as romantics, men and women with big hearts and a lot of guts, but not necessarily people he trusts to provide the working class with and better future. But he does give the anarchists credit where it is due. In the late 1900s, even radicals maintained intense prejudices. Chinese workers were demonized in the socialist press as subhuman. It’s true that blacks and women were treated much better in radical circles than in the rest of society, but many workers’ organizations either banned women and minorities altogether or tolerated systemic bigotry. In this time period, anarchists largely remained free of these prejudices. Their strident views left no room for racism or bigotry. In this sense, anarchists can be seen as a kind of vanguard (to borrow a socialist term), rejecting racism and pushing society toward a more just future. I think Parsons’ most heroic and virtuous trait is his aversion to racism and sexism in all its forms. He is a constant defender of blacks and immigrants. He treats women with a level of respect that was unheard of in the late 19th Century. He dedicates his life to ideals of equality and freedom for all men and women. He’s quite poetic in his promotion of these values, perhaps most when he is writing letters to his wife, who is half African American and half Native American.  

Albert is a realist before anything else. He believes that if the workers strike, and the police and “propertied classes” wage war, the workers will lose. He is no Marxist. (“The Marxists especially seem too sure about what the past means and what the future requires.”) In his analysis of the economic and political climate of late 19th Century Chicago, if the workers were to fight, they would lose miserably. Despite his differences with some leftists, Parsons maintains an intense passion for working class rights. As he says to a labor rally, “What we all share in common… is the belief that the average person deserves a better life, that the paradise of the rich is made out of the hells of the poor.” And, even though he opposes violence, he does see it an inevitable reaction to economic injustice. “If the current desperation continues, the working class will be driven, against its will, to outright revolt.”

“Haymarket” follows Parsons as he becomes more and more radicalized. After being introduced to the work of Proudhon and Kropotkin, Albert’s ideas begin to expand. “They’ve opened up new horizons, even a new view of human nature.” He has a soft spot for Kropotkin’s ideas that humanity’s noblest aim is a society based on cooperation, mutual aid and equality. In 1883, he writes to his wife: “The anarchist dream of a decentralized society based on voluntary association is the best dream.”

After the police massacred dozens of workers and injured even more, Albert writes in his diary of his confidence that rebellion “will soon enough find a new expression.” And it always does. That idea, the inevitability of the struggle against oppression, knits this book together, and that theme makes this book incredibly relevant in our own time. He was a profoundly hopeful man, even where it would seem hope had disappeared forever. I think he could be called an unreasonable man. His unwavering commitment to equality for all men and women of all races was nearly unheard of in his time. Even when facing the gallows, Parsons never lost is faith in the preponderance of rebellion in the face of economic injustice.

Then there’s Parsons’ wife, Lucy. You’ve probably seen those bumper stickers on aging Volkswagens that read “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History.” That’s the mantra Lucy lives by. From the time they first meet on a ranch in Texas, to their days in the slums of Chicago, they fought oppression with everything they had. Lucy is a character, a woman far ahead of her time. She’s a natural agitator who believes “those with power never yield it peacefully.” She rejects Albert’s notion that change is possible through the political process. Her hero is Nat Turner, a man who channeled his beliefs into a “real insurgency.”

Much of the novel is written in the form of letters between the Parsons, which offers deep insight into their relationship. Lucy writes to her husband: “You sometimes think me hard, I know… We must be patient with each other. Together we will find the right path.” They are not ideological automatons. They are lovers committed to doing good, and they are open to compromise individually so that they may succeed as a family, a movement, maybe even an entire city. They agitate together, but they also have fun together. This makes Albert’s execution all the more tragic, knowing that he must leave his true love and his two children behind.

The last quarter of the novel focuses on the Haymarket Square riot and the subsequent arrest and trial of Parsons and several other anarchists. This portion of the book must’ve been easier for Duberman to write, because the speeches and court records have been preserved. This part of the “novel” is basically a re-telling of the case. For anyone with a sense of right and wrong, and for anyone with a commitment to justice, this part of the book is simply maddening. The case as a whole has to be one of the most egregious violations of justice in American history. The case featured a litany of injustices: Perjured testimony, coerced testimony, outright lies by the police, personal biases treated as sound evidence, the jury’s xenophobia and outright hatred for the accused, the judge’s complete disregard for fairness and law.

We know how it ends: in the gallows. But the trip there is something to behold.

No comments:

Post a Comment