The following piece is taken from A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.
“The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices
you are throttling today.”
November 11th 1887. 4 men are hanged in Chicago. August Spies (pronounced owgust shpees), Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel.
All of the men die stoically, some defiantly. The state makes sure they die slowly, noosed and then strangled. No breaking of necks for a humane exit for them.
Another 2 men are serving life in prison. Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab (pronounced shvab). 1 man, 15 years. Oscar Neebe.
Another has committed suicide in his cell, dying a slow death from exploding dynamite in his mouth. Louis Lingg.
All this for what heinous crime? For being visible in a movement for an 8-hour working day…
In the late 18th century, many Europeans flocked to the United States seeking work in the land of opportunity. What they found was that pay and conditions were worse than back home. Consequently, they organised. Some agitated. Unions, socialists and anarchists built an uneasy alliance. There were many issues but all came together in the movement for an 8 hour day in a time where 14 to 18-hour days were not uncommon. They called for balance, “8 hours for work – 8 for rest – and 8 for what we will”.
On May 4th, 1886, a rally was convened as a response to several workers’ deaths during a strike at the hands of the Police the previous day. It was a subdued affair, by the more honest accounts, that anywhere between 600-3,000 attended. Many had left by 10:30p.m., when the Police arrived in force and demanded that the crowd disperse. They were, with the speakers descending from the wagon, when a bomb was thrown killing 7 Policeman, 1 outright, 6 eventually. Later thought to be a provocateur posing as an anarchist, the culprit was never caught, nor perhaps even sought that hard. After this, gunfire scattered the square, leaving a further 60 Police officers wounded. Nobody knows how many demonstrators were either dead or wounded as they were too afraid to get official help and found it where they could. At the time rumours started that the demonstrators opened fire first. However, later anonymous reports pointed to Police fire only, who, in the resulting chaos were said to have “emptied” the contents of their revolvers on each other.
In the resulting clampdown many were arrested, particularly anarchists, with most of these associated with the radical German language workers’ paper the Arbeiter Zietung. 8 were tried. Long-time activist Albert Parsons, whose wife was deemed “more dangerous than a thousand rioters”, initially escaped arrest but walked into the courtroom on the day of the trial start to stand in solidarity with the others.
The trial was a blatant set up from start to finish, but public opinion was paranoid and strong. Even 7 years later, a pardon from Governor Altgeld, almost stating this, made him the most hated man in the U.S. for quite some time. The state and mainstream press brought the full weight of their might to bear on the men. Even before the rally the press shouted that Spies and Parsons should be made examples of, were there to be any trouble. Afterwards, they screamed, “Now it is blood” and continued to whip up frenzied copy for the remainder of the proceedings. It seems that organising is one thing, but combined with agitating (i.e. getting people to think critically or question authority) sends the establishment into turmoil. For this is where revolutions come from.
Judge Gary was openly hostile to the men and the jury rigged, most of whom also openly stated their prejudice against the defendants. The Police had long hated the men, who had not held back in their written and spoken exposure of Police corruption and brutality. Spies had been told by friends to watch his back as they had heard warnings of “getting even” after Spies had (unsuccessfully) tried to prosecute a Policeman for rape of a servant girl in custody. Neebe further accused them in his speech to the court and stood firm when Police Captain Schaak laughed at his words, saying that the Captain was an anarchist in the worst sense of the word. All through the case, the defendants were very articulate in their ideas on political anarchy and socialism, as opposed to capitalists, who they charged operated to the same violent anarchy that they were accused of. This, of course, was the real charge, that the men were picked out for being leaders and should be made examples of to “save our institutions, our society.” The prosecutor even said at one point, “Anarchy is on trial”.
On finding there was no evidence to prosecute for murder, as most of the men were not even present when the bomb was thrown, the judge swiftly changed the charge to one of conspiracy to incite the murders. Some had made bombs or had weapons, but the trial really centred on their written and spoken views on the sometimes legitimate use of violence. Eventually (surprise!), he found that their guilt to this equated to their guilt for murder and sentenced 1 to life in prison and 7 to death. Spies wryly noted that the principle of “a life for a life” was in action, relating to the 7 Police who lost their lives.
All the men spoke to the court nearing the end of the trial in October 1886 (the speeches in the records are well worth reading1). They are passionate, eloquent, and unyielding in their defence of themselves and their beliefs. They do not advocate violence at any cost, but they also do not rule it out either. They do not hold back their accusations levelled at the state and its agents and at capitalism generally. The phrase “speaking truth to power” was never so apt. By all accounts Samuel Fielden wowed the crowd with his oratory skill, ironically learnt as a Methodist preacher in Lancashire in the U.K. Albert Parsons spoke for a total of 8 hours over 2 days.
It is, however, August Spies’ words that thrill me. In his speech, Spies is insistent and clever. He fiercely and fearlessly picks apart the arguments of his accusers. He uses natural phenomena to illustrate his point that anarchy and revolution are natural states. That a force can be brought to try to push us down but this can never stop us. We rise. We grow. No-one can stop the inevitable growth of the land, its people, and the forces that we contain. Change is the only constant and revolution is ever present in all beings’ spirit and lungs.
He uses all the elements in his arguments:
Earth and air:
“Revolutions are no more made than earthquakes and cyclones. Revolutions are the effect of certain causes and conditions… If anyone is to be blamed for the coming revolution it is the ruling class who steadily refused to make concessions as reforms became necessary; who maintain that they can call a halt to progress, and dictate a stand-still to the eternal forces, of which they themselves are but the whimsical creation.”
“You, in your blindness, think you can stop the tidal wave of civilization and human emancipation by placing a few policemen, a few Gatling guns, and some regiments of militia on the shore. You think you can frighten the rising waves back into the unfathomable depths, whence they have arisen, by erecting a few gallows in the perspective.”
The fires of Beltane in a statement of perfect defiance:
“If you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery… if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here we will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.”
I have used Spies’ words in the following poem about Beltane, rising up, and revolutions. It is dedicated to him and all the Haymarket martyrs, in memory of whom International May Day is now internationally observed (the first strikes for the 8-hour day were held on May 1st, 1886). I have also used a phrase from Dylan Thomas’ poem, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” because, really, no other term will do…
“everything breathes the revolutionary spirit”
for august spies
now is our time, we rise, we grow,
those voices strangled on mayday,
silent resolve most powerful
of bright green emancipation.
we force through, we a tidal wave,
come summer, come the early spring
that we may swell to our full height
to die, hunker over winter,
we the “green fuse” that refuses.
Nina George is a social activist and writer living in Lancashire in North West England. She has worked on repairing the damage done by men who are abusive towards women for over 20 years. She agitates for revolution whenever she can.
This piece, and many others, is available in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire Is Here. Here’s how to order.