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Albert Parsons and August Spies were hung in 1887. Joe Hill was shot by a firing squad in 1915. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were electrocuted in 1927. Their methods of execution were different, but their “crimes” were common: they were put to death because of their staunch advocacy for the rights of working people to decent wages and working conditions.

The application of the death penalty has always been political – from the Salem Witch trials to New Hampshire’s Attorney General using a death penalty prosecution in her election campaign to yesterday’s verdict by an Egyptian judge that condemned 683 people to death.  (See statement from Amnesty International.)

With International Workers Day, a day that began in honor of Albert Parsons and August Spies, four days away, this is as good a time as any to recall why the cause of labor should be tied to the movement for an end to the death penalty.

Parsons and Spies were leaders of the International WorkingHaymarketRiot-Harpers.jpg People’s Association in Chicago, which was fighting for the eight-hour day. They had already been singled out for condemnation by city leaders, Parsons even threatened with lynching by Chicago businessmen, when they led the planning of a peaceful rally at Haymarket Square on May 1, 1886.

Three days later Parson, Spies, and Sam Fielden, also a member of the Working People’s Association, spoke at another rally, peaceful as well until it was rushed by club-wielding police and then shattered by an explosion.

Eleven people, including seven police officers, died. No one knew who had brought or thrown the bomb, but Spies and Parsons – who was with his wife and two children at a nearby saloon when the bomb went off – were immediately blamed.

In the words of Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, authors of Labor’s Untold Story, “the nation’s press was a unit in declaring that it made no difference whether Parson, Spies, or Fielden had or had not thrown the bomb. They should be hanged for their political views, for their words and general activities and if more trouble makers were given to the hangman so much the better.” The Chicago Tribune, for example, said the labor leaders should be “held, tried and hanged for murder.”

And that’s exactly what happened, despite the lack of any evidence tying them to the bombing or the deaths of the police officers. “The trial was conducted with all the sensation histrionics, all the stage properties which so often transform American legal proceedings into lurid public spectacles,” according to Boyer and Morais, who added, “the verdict was almost a formality.”

This May Day, let’s remember Albert Parsons and August Spies and pledge to end the government’s option to execute those it decides are its enemies.

[Thanks to Wikipedia.org for graphics.]

The last words of Albert Spies

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