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Memory and the May Day Martyrs | The Nation

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

Memory and the May Day Martyrs

In the United States, communities of the poor are accustomed to a constant police presence. Upon visiting Población La Victoria, a small, self-contained suburb outside of Santiago, Chile, I saw the opposite.

During the reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet, La Victoria was a citadel of resistance, where police feared to tread. I was told that to this day, not only police, but also ambulances and the fire department kept their distance. I saw community wheelchairs stationed on some corners so the injured or the sick could be wheeled to the edge of town and dropped off for emergency care.

Town squares, community centers and even streets were named after political figures who sacrificed their lives in the struggle against Pinochet’s police state. On one corner, I looked and found myself on an avenue called Los Mártires de Chicago. That stopped me cold. Even the most-Spanish language deficient among us would know the translation: “the Chicago Martyrs.”

Despite a basic knowledge of US labor history, my first thought was that this street must be a tribute to the thousands “disappeared” by Pinochet’s secret police. The dictator’s economic blueprint was authored by a group of right-wing Chilean economists trained at the University of Chicago and known to all in frightened whispers as “the Chicago Boys.” Mass torture and execution of radical and labor leaders were preconditions for the Chicago Boys’ Chilean economic laboratory. This street, I thought, must be for those who gave their lives to fighting gunpoint-austerity.

But I was told with a surprised laugh that Los Mártires de Chicago had nothing to do with the University of Chicago and the fevered fantasies of Professor Milton Friedman. The avenue was in fact named after Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel: four Chicago socialist/anarchists executed in Illinois in 1887 for the crime of being leaders of the mass labor struggle for the eight-hour work day. They are the men remembered the world over on May 1, otherwise known as May Day.

Officially, they were hung for a bomb that went off among police at a labor rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. But not even the prosecutor, Julius Grinnell, carried the pretension that they were actually guilty.

As Grinnell said in his summation to the jury,

Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they are leaders. They are no more guilty than those thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury: convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society.

Their hanging was supposed to kill the movement as well. But as Spies said so famously in his last words at trial,

If you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery—the wage slaves—expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.

It’s a remarkable testimony to Spies’s words and courage that their memory continues to blaze in a small corner of Chile, not to mention in massive gatherings and protests the world over.

Today in 2012, their memory should animate this day more than ever. At a time when millions have been inspired by the Occupy Movement, the idea of vigilant resistance, especially to the worst excesses of the criminal justice system, has never been more pressing. Just as in the time of Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fischer, we have all learned this past year that justice must always be demanded and not expected if we expect to see it at all. We should remember the Chicago Martyrs in the same breath with which we remember Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin, Jasmine Thar, Devontae Sanford, Dane Scott Jr., Ramarley Graham and everyone killed by police and the courts because it’s easier, as Troy said so memorably, than not killing them. This is their day as well. It’s a day to remember the dead and fight like hell for the living.

Our living memory is part of history’s revenge on Julius Grinnell, Augusto Pinochet and everyone who has tried to drown resistance in blood. Pinochet executed the labor and radical leaders of Chile as sure as the state of Illinois hung Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel. But that’s the stubborn thing about subterranean fires. They cannot be extinguished no matter how heavy the iron heel.

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