Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Massacre on Memorial Day in Chicago

As striking steelworkers flee from the Chicago Police attack from their rear, many fall over the dead and injured in the panicked stampede.  Police continued fireing into their backs and beating anyone, man, worman or child within arms reach.  Note the cop lower right taking aim with his pistol.

Eighty years ago yesterday it was a hot, muggy day.  But the sun was shining brilliantly.  Due to the week old strike and the Memorial Day holiday, the giant mills nearby were not belching their customary heavy smoke.  Maybe those unaccustomed dazzling skies contributed to the air of a holiday outing as steel workers, their wives in their finest summer dresses, and their children converged by bus, trolley, auto, and foot on Sam’s Place, an erstwhile dime-a-dance hall, turned into a makeshift soup kitchen and strike headquarters on Chicago’s Southeast Side less than a mile from the Republic Steel mill.
It was May 30, 1937.   The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), the pet project of John L. Lewis’s Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), had shocked the nation earlier in the year by bringing industry behemoth U.S. Steel under contract by infiltrating the company unions and having them vote to affiliate.  Faced with rising demand from an apparent recovery under way from the depths of the Depression on one hand and a popular, labor friendly administration in Washington on the other, the nation’s dominant steel company quietly surrendered.
Buoyed by the success, organizers turned their attention to Little Steel, the smaller, independent operators in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Chicago  and other grimy industrial cities.  But the bosses of Youngstown Sheet and Steel, Republic, Bethlehem, Jones and Laughlin and others were a tougher bunch than the Wall Street stock manipulators that ran the huge rump of the old Steel Trust.  In fact they had nothing but contempt for the monopolists, their old business enemies, and their “weakling” attitude toward unionization.  Little Steel vowed to fight.  Tom Girdler, President of Republic, had said that he would go back to hoeing potatoes before he met the strikers’ demands.
The ferocity of the opposition to unionization was not just empty rhetoric either.  They had shown they meant business in blood on more than one occasion.  Famously in Youngstown, Ohio back in 1916 strikers accompanied by their wives and children marched from the slums to the gates of the Sheet and Tube mill to keep strike breakers from reporting to work.  Inside the gates a small army of private security forces responded by throwing dozens of tear gas bombs.  As the thick, poisonous haze hung over the workers obscuring their vision, guards unleashed volley after volley of rifle fire directly into their ranks.  The exact toll may never be known as workers were afraid to bring the wounded to medical attention.  At least three were killed, probably twice that many including women.  Twenty-seven injuries were confirmed, but strikers made oral reports of more than a hundred.  Enraged as the dead and wounded lay bleeding on the ground the strikers attacked the guards with stones and bricks and perhaps a pistol shot or two before retreating to town.

Little Steel strikers remembered Youngstown 21 years earlier.
In rioting over the next two days, workers burned much of the town’s business district only to be eventually crushed by Ohio National Guard troops.  The memory of those events was still fresh to workers more than twenty years later.  Especially when Little Steel bosses quietly let it be known that they had been stockpiling armories for years and were ready, even eager to repeat the carnage.
The USWOC had called their national strike against Little Steel a week earlier.  In Chicago it had been marred by predictable violence, particularly on the part of the Chicago Police Department which had a long history of being used as armed strike breakers.  Beatings and arrests on the picket lines were occurring daily.  Some strike leaders had been kidnapped and held incommunicado.  For their part senior police officers were “subsidized” by corporate bosses who also bought political clout with the usual campaign contributions and bribes to local officials.  They also pledged to reimburse the city for police over time during the strike.  In addition the still largely Irish Catholic force was kept inflamed by homilies preached in their parishes deriding USWOC as “Godless Communists.”
Despite this, moral among the strikers was high.  After only a week out, families had not yet felt the full pinch of lost incomes and strike soup kitchens kept them fed.   Organizers made a point of engaging workers’ wives from the beginning, including them in planning and giving them important support roles.  This was critical because many a strike had been lost in the past when families went hungry and the women urged their men to return to work.
As the large crowd gathered at Sam’s Place for the first mass meeting of the strike, vendors plied the crowd with ice cream, lemonade, and soft drinks.  Meals were passed out from the soup kitchen.  Other families munched on sandwiches wrapped in wax paper brought from home.  Many of the men passed friendly bottles as they settled into a round singing—mostly old Wobbly songs including Solidarity Forever and Alfred Hayes’s I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.
Then came the rousing speeches.  Joe Webber, USWOC’s main organizer pointed his finger at the distant plant. The plan was to establish the first mass picket at the gates of the Republic Works.  Some workers carried homemade signs.  Organizers passed out hundreds of pre-printed placards stapled to lathing emblazoned with slogans.
With a sense of a gay holiday parade the strikers marched away from Sam’s Place behind two American flags singing as they went one block up the black top and then turned into the wide, flat prairie that separated them from the distant plant.  
Many of the surviving press photos--the police confiscated and destroyed as much film as they could lay their hands on--was damaged.  Still, they tell an unmistakable story.  Police continue to beat the helpless in the pile while launching more tear gas as firing at those still fleeing.
Historian/novelist Howard Fast later described the scene.
…snake-like, the line of pickets crossed the meadowland, singing at first...but then the song died as the sun-drenched plain turned ominous, as five hundred blue-coated policemen took up stations between the strikers and the plant. The strikers’ march slowed—but they came on. The police ranks closed and tightened… now it was to unarmed men and women and children that a police captain said, “You dirty sons of bitches, this is as far as you go!”
About two hundred and fifty yards from the plant, the police closed in on the strikers.  Billies and clubs were out already, prodding, striking, nightsticks edging into women’s breasts and groins. It was great fun for the cops who were also somewhat afraid, and they began to jerk guns out of holsters.
“Stand fast! Stand fast!” the line leaders cried. “We got our right! We got our legal rights to picket!”
The cops said, “You got no rights. You Red bastards, you got no rights.”
Even if a modern man’s a steelworker, with muscles as close to iron bands as human flesh gets, a pistol equalizes him with a weakling—and more than equalizes. Grenades began to sail now; tear gas settled like an ugly cloud. Children suddenly cried with panic, and the whole picket line gave back, men stumbling, cursing, gasping for breath. Here and there, a cop tore out his pistol and began to fire; it was pop, pop, pop at first, like toy favors at some horrible party, and then, as the strikers broke under the gunfire and began to run, the contagion of killing ran like fire through the police.
They began to shoot in volleys. It was wonderful sport, because these pickets were unarmed men and women and children; they could not strike back or fight back. The cops squealed with excitement. They ran after fleeing men and women, pressed revolvers to their backs, shot them down and then continued to shoot as the victims lay on their faces, retching blood. When a woman tripped and fell, four cops gathered above her, smashing in her flesh and bones and face. Oh, it was great sport, wonderful sport for gentle, pot-bellied police, who mostly had to confine their pleasures to beating up prostitutes and street peddlers—at a time when Chicago was world-infamous as a center of gangsterism, assorted crime and murder.
And so it went, on and on, until ten were dead or dying and over a hundred wounded. And the field a bloodstained field of battle. World War veterans there said that never in France had they seen anything as brutal as this.
Because workers were afraid to bring their injured to hospital, the exact casualty count may never be known for sure.  Ten men were confirmed dead.  All shot in the back. More than 50 gunshot wounds were reported. At least a hundred were badly injured, many more with scrapes, bruises, and turned ankles from police clubs and the panicked stampede to escape.
Many reporters and photographers were on the scene.  Police confiscated most of their film.  Newsreel cameras caught the action, but the companies were pressured not to show the footage.  The next day, led by the rabidly anti-union Chicago Tribune, most of the press dutifully recorded that the police had come under attack by fanatic Reds and had acted in self-defense.  
The rabidly anti-union Tribune spread the lie that Communist radicals had attacked police.  They threatened their own reporters who knew better.
Although covered in the labor press, the nation as a whole was kept in the dark about what had happened.  Even the workers supposed friend Franklin D. Roosevelt, pretty much accepted the official account and told reporters that “the majority of people are saying just one thing, ‘A plague on both your houses.’”
A Cook County Coroner’s Jury ruled the deaths that day as “justifiable homicide.”  Not only was no action taken against any of the police involved that day, but senior officers were commended and promoted.
The truth about what happened was very nearly suppressed, as so many atrocities committed against working people had been.  But a single newsreel cameraman saved the footage he shot from the roof of his car.  Some of the photographers on the scene retained their shots.  The stills and the moving pictures were placed on exhibit during the hearing on Republic Steel Strike held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor almost a year later.  A shocked nation saw for itself the senseless, unprovoked brutality of the police.
The Ladies Day massacre outside of the Yousgstown Sheet and Tube plant later in July showed that Little Steel Bosses were still committed to smashing the strike with brutal force. 

As for the strike, it dragged on through the summer, as did regular violence on picket lines.  Then on July 19th it was Ladies Day on the picket line in front of the Republic Steel mill in Youngstown.  After  company guards assaulted one of the women, they were pelted with rocks and bottles.  Retreating into the plant, in an eerie replay of the 1916 violence, guards let loose with tear gas and then opened fire, many firing down on the crowd from virtual snipers’ nests.  At least two were killed and dozens wounded.  Once again the National Guard was called in and the town became a virtual occupied territory.  The strike was crushed and workers went back.
But the Steel Workers turned to the new National Labor Relations Board for help.  They complained of unfair labor practices by the Little Steel companies.  The case took years to resolve.  But in 1942, with another war on and the need for industrial peace, the NLRB ordered the companies to recognize what had become the United Steel Workers Union.
The Memorial Day Massacre victims remembered.

Today a local union hall stands on the site of Sam’s Place.  The Republic Mill and other Little Steel plants are closed and pad-locked eyesores.  The City seeks desperately to find some way to redevelop what are now called simply Brown Fields.  At one time the site was suggested as one possible future home for Barack Obama’s Presidential Library but it was passed over.  USW members and the Illinois Labor History Society sometimes gather in remembrance of that terrible day.  And the last aging survivors, including some of the children present, fade away one by one, their stories untold.
This year despite the nice round number anniversary, there was scant mention of the Memorial Day Massacre or coverage of commemorations.  Seems like Chicago is still eager to forget.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Lilacs—Lost Murfin Verse Unearthed

The lilacs in these parts have mostly faded or gone to seed.  In a day or two they will be gone for the year. You would expect a poem about them to have been posted weeks ago when they were bursting, fresh, and vibrant.  But while we were in Texas this week end my oldest daughter, Carolynne Larsen Fox, posted a scan of a folded sheet of type script on Facebook.  It was a long forgotten poem I gave her something just short of 20 years ago or so.

The ancient typescript that Carolynne found.
Lilacs is autobiographical.  It captures memories of actual lilacs, the sweet scent, and the color at various moments in my life since childhood.  Some stanzas reflect things that I have written about in various memoir stories, like playing Davey Crockett in a Cheyenne back yard.  Others reference other poems—“riding the evening day away” in Skokie, a piece written when I was still in High School.  
Daughters Heather, left, and Carolynne, right with my cousin Linda at the weds,ding dinner at our Albany Street apartment.  Note the framed caricatures on the wall behind them which were made at a visit to Sally's Stage a few month earlier.  This picture doesn't show us, but her eyes were indeed green and she is wearing a lilac colored skirt, her signature color
Another is related to a still lost poem—the one Carolynne was looking for when she unearthed this one.  That one was a little poem I wrote for her not long after I became her stepfather.  She was about ten years old and disconsolate about her green eyes.  I suspect she had been bullied or teased in school or in the neighborhood in Chicago.  She wept uncontrollably.  I was new at the daddy business, ham handed, and unsure of myself.  I wasn’t even sure if my hugs were welcome.  So I scrawled a few lines on a tablet predicting that those green eyes would become the feature guys would be drawn to.  Not much of a poem, if I remember, but one which she kept all these years since and now was distressed not to be able to find.
Back to the poem at hand, reading it with fresh eyes made me realize that the annual here-and-gone lilacs were a metaphor for mortality, something that the younger man who rolled a sheet of paper into an old manual typewriter didn’t realize.
I wasn’t a very good poet back then, not that I am any kind of master now.  I cringed at a clumsy and unnecessary repetitive stanza opening “I remember” so I simply cut that.  There were a couple of other minor tinkers.
But here, resurrected like a zombie from a grave is Lilacs.

There were Wyoming lilac caves
            from which we went Crocketing
            in that sweet aroma twined
            with the musk of dead raccoon
            nestled on our scalps.

Grandma’s bathroom
            tiled black and coral,
            pink flamingoed mirrors,
            crisp towels and Lifebuoy
            where parchment hands clasped
            lilac dusting puff
            from the mother-of-pearl canister
            to finish Sabbath ablutions.

The two seat barber shop
            with trout and geese,
            Field & Stream and Argosy,
            and Dizzy Dean’s laconic call
            where Swisher Sweets
            and lilac water splashed
            on new mown skulls
            made a Saturday man.

The Skokie nights
            with lilacs in my well-worn hat
            I rode the evening day away,
            peddled into adolescent reverie,
            sang the long gone partings
            of two infant nations’ war,
            chanted dreams of glory verse
            “When lilacs las in the dooryard bloomed.”

The Chicago days
            when only lilac could wrap
            Carolynne in fleecy warmth
            or cotton fluff,
            green eyes, and Farah Fawcett hair,
            Rick Springfield and Menudo,
            a laughing daughter of lavender secrets.

And now the ancient lilac grows
            at the marked corner of my lot
            overgrowing three surveyors lines,
            half dead wood but blooming yet
            although box elder and weedy elm
            with youth throw their vigor
            through the tangles.

Lilacs, lilacs pace my life
            And count my springs.

—Patrick Murfin
Circa 2000