May Day is a Chicago tradition, one that goes back to 1886. It’s woven into the city’s DNA, part of the bones of the big shoulders that hold up the sprawling 234 square miles that spread along the shoreline of Lake Michigan. The day commemorates the never-ending struggle between workers and the bosses, those that enable them, and the continuing fight for dignity, respect, and a better life for all people.
All photos by Aaron Cynic.
I’ve been visiting the monument, sculpted by artist Mary Brogger and dedicated in 2004, for nearly as long as it’s been there. I’ve either marched for May Day or covered it as a journalist and photographer for about as long.
In May of 1886, hundreds of thousands of workers including anarchists, socialists, trade unionists, reformists, and others, struck and marched for the eight-hour day across America. Some 40,000 marched in Chicago on May 1. Tens of thousands more joined them in the streets of Chicago in the days afterward. They were met with repression from police, and at least a dozen workers were killed and scores more were injured in a battle at the McCormick reaper plant on May 3.
On May 4, 1886, workers called for a protest at the West Randolph Street Haymarket (a produce market) in response to the earlier skirmishes. Mayor Carter H. Harrison was present and had instructed police to let the protest be. Harrison eventually left (he later testified the crowd was calm and orderly while he was present), and as the crowd was dwindling, police moved in to break up the demonstration after a report a speaker was using “inflammatory” language. A bomb was thrown into their ranks, which killed seven officers and wounded 67 others. In the melee that ensued, several protesters were killed and hundreds more were wounded.
A few minutes after ten o’clock on the night of May 4, 1886, a storm began to blow up in Chicago. As the first drops of rain fell, a crowd in Haymarket Square, in the packing house district, began to break up. At eight o’clock there had been 3,000 persons on hand, listening to anarchists denounce the brutality of the police and demand the eight-hour day, but by ten there were only a few hundred. The mayor, who had waited around in expectation of trouble, went home, and went to bed. The last speaker was finishing his talk when a delegation of 180 policemen marched from the station a block away to break up what remained of the meeting. They stopped a short distance from the speaker’s wagon. As a captain ordered the meeting to disperse, and the speaker cried out that it was a peaceable gathering, a bomb exploded in the police ranks. It wounded 67 policemen, of whom seven died. The police opened fire, killing several men and wounding 200, and the Haymarket Tragedy became a part of U. S. history.
Anarchists were blamed in the wake of the affair, and eight were tried and found guilty of the bombing, despite a lack of evidence any were involved in the bombing. Instead, their politics were on trial, and after a guilty verdict was rendered, four were executed and one died allegedly by suicide in prison. The other three remained in prison and were pardoned in 1893 by Governor John Peter Altgeld, who was endlessly criticized for his action and was defeated for reelection in 1896..
I’ve visited the memorial more times than I can remember. Not just on May Day—I often make it a point to pass by if I’ve got a few spare minutes and I’m wandering through the area. It’s hard to imagine what the city looked like 135 years ago, and even harder to try to imagine the headspace of a struggling worker in those days.
Years of covering politics and movements here in Chicago and sometimes nationally have taught me that every step forward taken by struggling people is at best, met with skepticism in regard to meeting the basic needs and respecting the rights and humanity of people. More often than not though, these demands are met with political shenanigans, demonizing propaganda, and brutal state repression.
In 1886, where unsafe and unsanitary conditions were common and the typical workday was 12 to 18 hours long, the notion of an eight-hour day and the right to self-determination, both on and off the job, was considered radical. Since I became involved with movements in the late ’90s and started covering them as a journalist in the years that followed, the demands shouted in the streets—which are absolutely intersectional—are considered radical.
I waited on this one for longer than I usually do. Partly because I’ve been dealing with some health issues that made the five miles I walked on Saturday more difficult to recover from, and partly because I’m not doing as much spot/breaking news these days. Last week I wanted to do a short history of recent May Day marches before reporting back on Saturday’s, but contextualizing this year’s through the wider lens of the last 10-15 years feels more appropriate, given our current moment in history.
One thing I learned long ago is that so many movements—be they workers organizing for better wages and working conditions, immigrants fighting for their rights, communities demanding control over how they’re policed, anti-fascists fighting to stem a rising tide of fascism, people demanding to be put first before profit, and more—are not only intersectional, but are inexorably linked.
Chicago organizers have made it a point over the years to put these links front and center. In 2006, some 400,000 people marched in Chicago and millions nationwide in solidarity with immigrants rights and in opposition to harsher immigration restrictions. My memory is more than a little hazy sometimes these days, but this might’ve been the first time I heard the chant “no borders, no nations, fuck deportations!” In 2012, during the waning days of the Occupy movement and three weeks ahead of the NATO protests, thousands marched for worker and immigrant rights and racial justice while also picketing banks and the Board of Trade to call attention to massive income inequality in America, one of many issues that kept people in the streets for months during Occupy.
The first time I received a press release referencing Fight for 15 was in November of 2012. By 2014, organizers with the movement to raise the minimum wage in America from a paltry $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour had staged dozens of actions in Chicago and many more throughout the country. They were one of the many groups that joined the hundreds of people who marched that year, where chants of “no borders, no nations, fuck deportations” mixed with chants to raise the wage.
The Trump years saw an incredible rise in open xenophobia, racism, and fascism throughout America, along with increased public attention to police misconduct, violence, and shootings. Trump’s policies targeted immigrants and people of color harshly, and in Chicago, the edifice that the former reality television star turned aspiring tin-pot dictator erected to himself in 2005 became a frequent target for protests and marches. In 2018, demonstrators stopped outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in the Loop to pray for and sing a sendoff to a small group of people who would march more than 700 miles from the city to Washington, D.C., to protest Trump’s immigration policies.
Meanwhile, as police shootings both local and national increased calls for reform and abolition, they became an integral part of May Day marches in Chicago. Chants for better lives for workers and justice for immigrants mixed with chants of “hey hey, ho ho, these racist cops have got to go.”
Chicago’s May Day march in 2021 saw more than a thousand people hit the streets, though not all at the same time or in the same place. Hundreds assembled in Union Park and marched to a rally in Federal Plaza in the Loop while more than half a dozen other actions that drew hundreds as well took place in other locations in the city throughout the day.
From a coalition of groups that organized the downtown march:
This year, in the afterglow of the great rebellion of 2020, launched in Chicago by the May 30th day of protest called by the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, May Day 2021 will see a march that brings together:
– The immigrant rights movement—Mexicano, Latino, Arab, Filipino, Chinese, Asian, and African.
– The movement for an End to Police Crimes, for Justice for Adam Toledo and all those murdered, tortured, and wrongfully convicted by the police, and for Community Control of the Police by enacting the Empowering Communities for Public Safety ordinance.
– The labor movement, which in Chicago has rebuilt a fighting workers movement, and aligned itself with the Black and Latino communities in their struggle for democratic control of the police.
Demonstrators also marched through the Portage Park neighborhood to demand justice for Anthony Alvarez, a 22-year-old man shot and killed by police on March 31. Meanwhile hundreds of others marched near the University of Chicago in Hyde Park for a “march against cops and bosses,” and later joined workers and their supporters at the Experimental Station, an organization that works to build independent cultural infrastructure on the South Side of Chicago, in demanding recognition of their union. Workers at the Dill Pickle Co-Op in Logan Square picketed the establishment to demand recognition of their union. The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists dedicated a plaque at the Haymarket Statue.
We’re rounding the corner to pass the Reg! pic.twitter.com/gNFlSRC2bD
— UChicago GSU (@uchicagogsu) May 1, 2021
The roads to justice and a better world are long—they stretch much farther back in history than even the 135 years movements have marked May Day, and ones that people will continue to walk long after most of us become dust on those roads. The struggle may never end, but that won’t stop folks from fighting.