Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Concepts of justice, the legacy of Haymarket, and coming demonstrations

There's been a lot of talk lately about justice. But a lot of the talk has sounded more akin calls for protests, vigilantism, and what might be called street justice. The Trayvon Martin case is one example. Sometimes the lines can be crossed, messages mixed.

It holds true for mass protests as well. Occupy and Occupy-like protests are expected to reignite around the country with a kick off on May 1st. But there too, one person's pursuit of justice may be deemed by others as no more than a senseless act of anarchy or a more sinister attempt to undermine the fabric of our society.

"Justice hurling a bomb"
Courtesy: Haymarket collection,  Chicago History Museum
via Library of Congress
Some organizers and supporters of coming protests have tried to peg their efforts carrying forward themes of  past anarchist, socialist and organised labor actions. Some specifically cite historic  demonstrations and clashes in Chicago in early May 1886 that culminated in what's now known as the Haymarket Riot. After police clashed with workers as they protested for an eight hour work day, anarchists and laborers   responded with a rally on May 4, where someone in the crowd threw a bomb, triggering a retaliatory hail of gunfire by police.

Who was in the right, who in the wrong? Depends on perspective. Some of the facts of what actually happened still remain in dispute.  At least one newspaper drawing of the era seemed to laud the bombing as an act of justice. The identity of the actual bomber remains a mystery to this day.

Those now organizing this May's coming protests almost always include calls for nonviolence. But, despite the best intentions, protest rallies can descend into mobs, and mobs sometimes escalated into rioting. There's also potential for small splinter factions to strike with vandalism and violence while blending in, taking cover within a larger group.

As we draw closer to May, let's hope those invoking the Haymarket legacy mean to do so only in a symbolic, metaphorical way. And let's hope there aren't lone-wolves or splinter groups seeking to embrace Haymarket's example in a more literal and violent way.

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