by Ricky Toledano
The serendipity in encountering graffiti street art has always halted me, arresting my eye. It is as if a message had been abruptly slipped into my hand from a stranger who then ran off and whose face I never got a chance to see. What is left is an urgent message about my surroundings, a message with much more meaning than given credit. I had spotted one, once, at a conspicuous height above an awning where it might have been overlooked as a large doodled poster, but closer examination revealed the line sketch of a tired face with bags under the eyes so severe they were layered – or they represented tears – with the stark caption “Get a haircut. Get a white shirt. Get a tie. Get a job. Get married. Die. Repeat.”
“What’s the problem with that? That is just how life is! I’ll toast to that!” said a cynical younger brother, who would never lose an opportunity to deride any concerned observation of mine. I had been trying to explain to him how I found the message much more ironic for its location rather than its content. It was placed almost opposite the sophisticated restaurant where we sipped fine drinks inside what had been an old factory where, maybe, over a hundred years ago some laborers had stopped working to attend a public meeting that questioned the very meaning of their lives – not unlike the graffiti poster.
Everyone had told me to go to “West Randolph Street” to see the latest and most upcoming of gentrification and restaurant row. Leaving the towers behind me, I crossed the Randolph St. Bridge, heading toward the sunset – a path I would not have ventured by foot in the Chicago that I had left more than twenty-five years ago. It was still a Chicago divided by streets that served as borders between tribes that were not crossed without fully contemplating consequences. There were horror stories of the unscrupulous. I remember the look of agony on my father’s face telling the story of a Black man who had staggered across a stretch of Roosevelt Road, circa 1945, to enter a bar on the Italian side, a neighborhood my father infiltrated at a time when Mexicans were just beginning to arrive in mass. My father retold the story about how he was just about to pass the door of the bar on his walk home when it abruptly opened, and the unwanted customer was ejected, hurled onto the curb, landing on his seat, right in front of my father, who never forgot the sound of his hips cracking on the pavement, or his cry of pain.
Although Oprah and the Bulls had already begun changing the West Side when I left Chicago, the area west of the river remained the Forbidden Zone in my mind, a place prohibited by my father. So it was not without the thrill of insubordination, decades later, when I entered a Forbidden Zone on foot in the middle of the afternoon, much before happy hour, so I would have time to do some sleuthing. But when I arrived in the West Loop, I remembered the way Randolph widens into the curious boulevard of old factories and warehouses. It was not exactly unfamiliar: “West Randolph Street?” I asked myself. “What the hell…Why didn’t they just tell me Haymarket Square!”
In my day, nobody would have called that stretch “West Randolph Street”. Technically, it was, yes, but in practice, West Randolph St. would have only refered to the few blocks between State St. and the River – not the other side of the River, where Randolph widens into nothing other than Haymarket Square: the history-making site of the tumultuous days of early May 1886 that resulted in violence between the police and the German- and Czech-speaking laborers, who joined comrades around the country in demanding an 8-hour work day. The main confrontation took place at a peaceful labor meeting on Des Plaines Street just North of Randolph, until police ordered the crowd to disperse and someone, who remained unidentified, threw a bomb, killing 8 officers and either killing or wounding an undetermined number from the crowd. It is the solemn occasion commemorated by most of the world as Labor Day.
But not in the United States.
Not that I had actually known that history. It was a tale I stumbled upon, living in a country on the other side of the planet that I now call home and where I am off every May 1st.
Which means that I had bumped into yet another irony in Haymarket Square on the day I dared to cross the bridge: I am a native of the very city where Modernity exploded among the forces of the Industrial Revolution, both ignited and slandered by terms such as socialism, communism, anarchism, and unionization, and I hadn’t known anything about it, actually.
Now I do. But only after identifying a lacuna, whereby I discovered that there was either a hole in my memory or in a history. I checked my memory first: I vaguely recalled seeing it in bold type in some long-gone history textbook, but it wasn’t covered and it was most certainly not on the test – any of the many tests given for the American History classes that were repeated and repeated and repeated throughout my youth in school (to the detriment of other histories).
Considering it had been a natural forte (history was something I studied without effort, whereas I really do not remember what to do with a square root despite all the effort at the time), I was quite certain that the lacuna was not a hole in my memory.
I took a breath before gathering the flat-edged puzzle pieces and the low-hanging fruit: A day commemorated around the world except in the US? I pondered suspiciously, scratching my chin like a detective.
It appeared to me that this lacuna was an omission that could only have been the work of editors, whether active and passive, who found Haymarket insignificant, irrelevant, unimportant or inconvenient, and thereby omitted it from my education.
My curiosity was further piqued at the very doorway of my research. The [hi]story goes by one of three names: the Haymarket Riot, the Haymarket Massacre, or the Haymarket Affair.
It sounded like someone found it to be a case of civil disobedience, another of martyrdom, and yet, for another, a private matter one does not discuss. If history is written by the victor, it appears that Haymarket didn’t really have one to appropriate the label.
At least not in the United States.
We must pay extra attention to the labels, because besides the necessary discernment between what is true and what is false, never underestimate the power of editing, how things are worded, re-worded and named; what goes unsaid; and what goes said but conveniently downplayed, overlooked, or exaggerated; as well as what is prioritized, because such maneuvering can sway people unsuspectingly between “West Randolph Street” and “Haymarket Square”, or even get them bickering most unwittingly between “Obamacare” and the “Affordable Care Act” – needless to say, I shall assume you know they are the same, because there many who do not.
What I won’t assume is that you knew what I was thinking while looking at that face of urban art staring back at me: How must it feel to be reduced to a life just going through the motions of work without the resources of time and money to enjoy life? I could not help but think that people are finding it difficult to find meaning in their lives while incessantly working – or incessantly not working – perhaps in a situation of poverty or perpetual indebtedness.
I further considered my fortune to be able to take an afternoon off from caring for a loved one with cancer, someone who had access to the absolute best in medical technology, coverage and attention that America has to offer, while most Americans do not. I remembered this fact as a charming barista on “West Randolph” was attempting to enlightened me about an espresso from a double-paned hand-blown glass with a gas-escape-valve cup, made in Sweden, filled with espresso from I-do-not-know-where and extracted I-do-not-know-how, because I really wasn’t listening to the spiel. Silencing the barista in my head, I transported myself back home to Rio de Janeiro to have just a normal, regular coffee requested with nothing more than a thumbs-up and none of the stress of having to discern among endless choices or of having to pay polite attention to people trying to sell me things.
Indeed, there was a time when I would have found such culinary luxuries fascinating; today I find them embarrassing. And why shouldn’t I?
As I sat in that café, misguided politicians were preparing to hold a nation’s budget hostage because they know that once Americans feel the benefit of a basic social health system, even if rudimentary, it will never be taken away, the same way that the 8-hour work day that people had died for – right there in Haymarket Square – is a normal parameter today, no matter how often it is disregarded. Then I remembered the riots happening at home in Rio de Janeiro. At that very moment, as I sat there with my stupid espresso, the city school teachers had invaded the City Council, demanding that education be a priority and value of politicians who see no need for an educated populace. They had pilfered the budget, concentrating it into the hands of that infamous upper 1%. Gravely, I say that I cannot think of any time in human history when the kind of power and wealth concentration we see today has been redistributed without violence. It had happened upon the very ground I was standing in Haymarket, and I would not be surprised if this erupts violently once again, followed by editors meticulously appropriating the narrative, speculating and insinuating as to who threw the bomb, and whether to call the event a “Riot”, a “Massacre”, or an “Affair”, according to which team they root for.
That barista really must have found me extremely odd, even rude.
Before I would join the tippling of liquid cynicism at my fraternal happy hour later on, I left the café to embark on a scavenger hunt to find the nine-foot bronze Haymarket Memorial Statue of a Chicago policeman with hand extended in a demand for peace and order, originally unveiled in 1889 by the son of Officer Degan, the immediate police casualty of the incident, which, according to my calculations, should have been encountered in profile as I exited the café. But it was no longer there.
One would think that history etched in iron, bronze and stone would be much harder to edit than the text of history, which is why I found the story of the monument(s) of the “Haymarket Tragedy” (yet another name I found for it), just as intriguing as the story of the eight anarchists “martyrs”. Over the course of a century, the statue had been struck, repaired, relocated, vandalized, bombed, rebuilt, bombed again, relocated, placed under watch, and then finally rededicated and unveiled in 2007 by the descendants of Officer Degan at Chicago Police Headquarters, where it sits in the not-so public police parking lot on a new pedestal – far from its original pedestal, which had also been defiled for decades before being removed.
Conflicting accounts and even a wrong address from an official source had made it confusing to find the statue – as if it hadn’t already been puzzling to understand there are in fact three monuments to Haymarket.
Commissioned by the City of Chicago, the Illinois Federation of Labor History, the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police and the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Haymarket Memorial is a more recent 2004 rendition in bronze of the wagon union leaders stood upon to speak in Haymarket Square by renowned Chicago artist Mary Brogger. It is a fine piece of public art that really captures an emergence of the voice that occurred on that very corner more than a hundred years ago. But it was also not where it was supposed to be. When I arrived at the corner of Randolph and Des Plaines, I encountered a construction site with a sign redirecting me to nearby Union Park, where it had been “temporarily” and oddly relocated to a Washington Blvd median in order to accommodate the construction at its original site. I sincerely hope that relocation was temporary.
In homage to the fascinating story of the trials and executions that ensued out of a gross travesty of justice, the Martyrs’ Monument is a National Historic Landmark, located in the German Waldheim Cemetary on Circle Ave in Forest Park, where the five defendants were buried and later joined by two more pardoned anarchist defendants. There is a plaque with the inscription of the words attributed to one of the defendants before his hanging: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voice you are throttling today.”
I hope so.
Because their struggle was much more than a fight over an 8-hour work day. It was about fairness. It was about people obstructed from the pursuit of happiness when having to toil an average of 10 hours per day, six days per week, for a $1.50 per day. And although the numbers are quite different today, I suspect the feeling is not. Furthermore, there is also the same empowered and privileged class that is capable of maneuvering to silence dissidents, pitting them against each other, or, in the last instance, pulling the rug out from under them, taking an entire industry to another country where there are those who are content to settle for virtual slavery.
“Which brings us to the mess we’ve made of this world”, explained the most intelligent person I know — who I am proud to say is my sister — as we hopped into a cab to head to the South Side to find the statue she had quickly located. The confusing accounts of the locations and relocations of the monuments were too much information and disinformation for my scattered mind, so I had given it to her to sort out. Forget the needle in a haystack: my sister could find a needle in a hay market.
Continuing her lecture, she explained to me the schizophrenia behind how those who had championed free markets regardless of the costs were now calling for protections from the demons they had created in the first place. What is worse: today there are actually those clamouring to have the right to discriminate against others, for the right not to compensate people equitably for their work, for the right not to recognize how one has benefitted from the work of others.
I silenced her in my head much like I did the barista, not because I was uninterested. It was upon seeing once again the magnificence of the city as we headed down Lake Shore Drive to find the statue that I was contemplating the advantage of the city having burned down in 1871, at the very dawn of Modernity to incorporate and showcase every architecture style since, house World’s Fairs, and, most importantly, the opportunity to plan and construct a city for its people — workers — complete with the transport, services and public space necessary to enjoy one’s environs.
It took consideration for others. It took cooperation to create such a world, individuals giving up some desires, giving up some of the fruit of their labor, and even letting go of some prejudice for the benefit of all. It took contributions from people of all walks of life and the encounter of many cultures, which may even have resulted in the friendly young officer — a handsome Chicago mix with his dark Mexican features on a big Slavic frame, as marked by his name tag filled with consonants— who waived us through what looked like airport security at Chicago Police Headquarters, so that I could finally see the statue in the parking lot.
It was oddly placed. The statue was in a senseless juxtaposition with the building, and in quite a subdued location compared to its original, where it looked as if it were directing traffic, imposingly, in Haymarket Square. It was analogous to that memorabilia one tosses in the garage and forgets.
Maybe it is safer there in the parking lot.
As, apparently, my sister and I were too, since the officer seemed concerned whether we knew where we were going upon exiting, because it seems that the Chicago crisscrossed by borders that our father had to learn about over 60 years ago still exists, together with all its risks.
Which leads me to believe that just as that streetcar had jumped the tracks to strike the statue for its first fall, I cannot help but to feel that we have also been derailed from the American project for democracy in a nation that has sought to create a society based on the most elusive and most American of words: fairness.
The most significant memorials, of course, are the ones that make us reflect and that is why they always involve art. For me, however, that face staring back at me in Haymarket Square was more profound. Since there is no such thing as coincidence, when I saw that drawing’s tears, or black eye, or whatever, I knew it was time to return Haymarket, as I believe we all must do. It is part of a struggle that has seen many victories — Suffrage, Haymarket, Civil Rights — but it is unending tussle that requires constant commitment to renew our vows to the fairness of giving equal opportunity for individuals to enjoy the fruits of labor.
“A decade of strife between labor and industry culminated here in a confrontation that resulted in the tragic death of both workers and policemen. On May 4, 1886, spectators at a labor rally had gathered around the mouth of Crane’s Alley. A contingent of police approaching on Des Plaines Street were met by a bomb thrown from just south of the alley. The resultant trial of eight activists gained worldwide attention for the labor movement, and initiated the tradition of ‘May Day’ labor rallies in many cities.”
Plaque designated on March 25, 1992 by Richard M. Daley, Mayor