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Green, James | Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago

The riot in Chicago on May 1, 1886 was one of the turning points in the history of the US labor movement as well as in the development of the US society. The riot ended up with numerous casualties among police officers and civilians and resulted in the trial and death penalty of four anarchists that marked the severe punishment of any manifestation of terrorism in the US. On the other hand, such an outcome of the Haymarket riot in Chicago affected the development of the labor movement in the US, which many Americans had started to associate with a revolutionary and terrorist movement. The riot in Chicago undermined the development of the labor movement because workers and union leaders could not raise the public opinion in support of their goals because the public viewed them as anarchists and terrorists. In such a situation, it was easy for the government and the ruling elite to oppress the labor movement in the US and American workers and unions had a long way to go to protect rights of workers and to change the attitude of Americans to the labor movement. In such a context, understanding the context, reasons, circumstances and effects of the Haymarket riot in Chicago is very important because this will help to understand why the tragedy happened and how the tragedy affected the further development of the US and the US labor movement. In this respect, it is possible to refer to James Green’s “Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago”, the book that uncovers the truth behind the riot in Chicago in 1886 and reveals the prompt response of the authorities to the riot and bombing without in-depth investigation.

In fact, the book “Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago” is a non-fiction investigation of events that preceded and led to the tragedy in the Haymarket in Chicago. The author pays a lot of attention to the depiction of the tragic event. At the same time, the author looks back into the past to understand how the tragedy occurred and what factors contributed to the riot in Chicago in 1886. The author covers about twenty years of the rise of the labor movement and growing anarchist trends in the US society along with the ongoing deterioration of the position of workers in large industrial areas of the US, such as Chicago and other large urban areas, where the fast industrialization resulted in the fast growth of the number of workers and consistent deterioration of their socioeconomic position. The author focuses on the rise of the labor movement that was a response of workers to the unjust policies conducted by owners of large plants, who were supported by the government. In addition, revolutionary ideas became more and more popular in the US by the late 19th century. The position of workers became desperate and they united their efforts in their struggle for their rights and better conditions of work and life.

No wonder, the fear of violence was in the air on May 1, 1886, when, to support the start of a nationwide strike for the eight-hour workday, two prominent anarchists, August Spies and Albert Parsons, led 80,000 workers in a peaceful parade. In protest, a group of anarchists called a meeting the next day at the Haymarket. The rally was peaceful, but the speeches were not. Inflammatory language about “killing” the “law” raised the public dissatisfaction with the position of workers in the US and could provoke the public aggression. About 170 police officers were called to disperse the crowd but, in response to the police assault, the bomb was thrown killing seven police offices and seven civilians, while 60 police officers were injured as well as 50 civilians. The depiction of these tragic events covers a large part of the book, but the author still attempts to understand why the tragedy occurred and how the presumable terrorists were treated.

James Green points out in “Death in the Haymarket,” editorial writers hyperbolically denounced the “incendiary vermin” and called for swift and sweeping retribution. “There are no good anarchists except dead anarchists” (Green, 2006, 169). The author is skeptical about such a rush in the punishment of accused offenders. Instead, the author just lays out facts related to the case and describes in details the atmosphere that reigned in Chicago and the US in that time. Green depicts the response of the media to the bombing as well as the public reaction, which was, to a significant extent, shaped by the media coverage of the event.

In fact, events depicted in the book unfold chronologically that is very important to understand how the labor movement and anarchists developed their ideas, united their efforts and launched the organized struggle. At the same time, the author avoids making any close correlations or revelations concerning the Haymarket riot. Instead, the tone of the book is neutral that allows readers to make their own conclusions about causes and effects of the tragedy, whereas the author just attempts to remain behind the scene as a mere narrator of the story of the Haymarket bombing. The precise depiction of facts and events that preceded the bombing is very important because readers can understand the tension that existed at the moment of the bombing between workers and police as well as between workers and the ruling elite.

At the same time, the author takes a neutral position but he fails to conduct a broad socioeconomic analysis that could explain true reasons of the riot. In this regard, it is important to place emphasis on the fact that workers were in a desperate position because owners of plants exploited them severely and treated them as mere commodities. Conditions of work and life of workers were unbearable, whereas the police and the government served interests of the ruling elite controlled by owners of large plants, banks and other companies. In such a situation, the decision to disperse the crowd in the Haymarket was apparently erroneous but Green avoids making such a conclusion to maintain his neutral tone. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the decision to disperse the crowd was totally wrong because it provoked the aggression of the crowd. Workers perceived police officers as servants of large companies and plants’ owners. Therefore, the tragedy would occur, even if there were no bombing because workers came prepared to fight for their rights.
Thus, the book reveals important facts about the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886. However, the author avoids assessment of those events. Hence, readers have to make their own conclusions about the tragedy, while the author maintains a neutral tone.

 

References:

Green, J., 2006, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago. New York: Pantheon.