Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Chicago's Haymarket Riot Debt to Printmaking

What possible debt would an historical event have to printmaking? The title of this article is in reference to a seemingly small series of events, not unlike others that have taken place  throughout history, but this one  blossomed if you will, due to printmaking's social commentary contributions via the commonly used media of newspapers and leaflets, to become an internationally recognized day. The events took place in Chicago, in May of 1886, and we commemorate this day as International Workers' Day. People in other countries have a holiday, a day off from their labors, whereas workers in the United States still go to work, and barely know its significance. The role printmaking played in this scenario was to tell the nation, through lithographs and woodblocks, of the atrocities Chicago had experienced. Those images helped spread the word about a terrible situation, and as art has done for centuries,  it helped to bring about a change for good from which we still benefit.

The story goes that on May 1st, 1886, federal unions declared it would be the nationwide 'start' of an 8 hour workday, yet unhappy workers throughout the United states saw this a  situation of 'too little, too late' and they began to discuss whether to strike against their employers. The day passed without incident, but the press expressed concern that agitated dialogues between laborers and management were getting worse by the day, and they felt strikes were imminent.

The situation had been building for years, so printed media (in numerous languages) began encouraging workers  to engage in confrontations with the authorities over their working situations. Labor activists had been advocating for the workers's rights, and while this seemed a reasonable thing to ask,  extremists were calling for a violent overthrow of capitalists and their governing bodies. The International Working Men's Association (the First International), organizer of the movement, soon had over 300,000 striking laborers rallying for a more reasonable workday. Nearly 1/4 of those 300,000 were men and women in Chicago, and their unity scared the city's employers so much that they capitulated and agreed to a shorter workday. But the situation was far from over....

On May 3rd, a crowd of over 7000 striking workers were gathered outside of the McCormick Harvester Works factory. One of the leaders of the IWPA was speaking to the crowd when the police arrived and opened-fire, killing four workers. Flavio Constantini's 1974 lithograph, called "May 3rd 1886" (below), describes the situation perfectly whereby we see policemen opening fire with handguns upon the defenseless strikers.McCormick's industrial product is clearly displayed above the policemen in a macabre statement about the mower(policemen) reaping the lives of the strikers and they crush them beneath their police wagon.The other strike and Chicago signs are support material for the event before us and we are just as incensed at seeing the description of the atrocity as they must have been when experiencing it firsthand.
The next day, (May 4th), over 3,000 people came to the Haymarket Square to hear speakers in support of the strike. The police soon arrived on the scene, and as they were telling the crowd to disperse and go home, someone threw a bomb into the police ranks. It exploded, killing 8 and wounding over 60 men. From that point, police attacked the crowd and many were killed with over 200 badly injured. The image below shows the moment police have started to attack the crowd and strikers are running for their lives.
As can be imagined, the press was in a frenzy over the situation and decried the slaughter of innocent people. A wave of animosity against anarchists and labor organizers swept the city and the nation, and many people's freedoms of assembly, free speech, and privacy were violated during this period until the trial for the rebellion's accused leaders began in July and August of 1886. All the defendants - except one - were found guilty of being accessories to murder and sentenced to death  by hanging; this despite the fact that several of the accused were not present when the bomb was thrown. The trial proved only that these defendants and other anarchists had previously advocated violence through literature and press.
In September of the next year, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the verdicts of 'guilty of murder' by being accessories before the fact, and the United States Supreme Court refused to intervene or overturn the verdicts. Thomas Nast's image above states the obvious, that the accused were getting the "squeeze" via Justice's clenched hands. Nothing and no one was about to save them from their fate.
 Of the convicted men, one committed suicide, two had commuted life sentences, and the remaining four were hanged in a highly publicized ceremony. Their funeral procession to Waldheim cemetery drew over 200,000 spectators.

Ultimately, those who were hanged became martyrs to generations of labor activists and are symbolic of laborers' rights worldwide.  Printmaking had a hand in bringing this situation to the world's attention, so the Haymarket Riot owes a debt to the printmaking media for its continued investment in social commentary. It's original premise, to communicate through visual imagery, is made clear and one can only hope that printmakers everywhere reading this article will realize we have a legacy to uphold, to swear by, that we must speak the truth through our work. It is our responsibility as artists to show the world what we see and continue to provide visual engagement for viewers to discuss and, hopefully, come to some consensus. 

And, in closing, for those of us who 'toil' through an 8 hour workday, well, we must remember the dates of May 1st, 3rd and 4th as days so important to our world's collective labor history that we must thank those men (and countless others) for their sacrifice.

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