Public Memories of Haymarket in Chicago

The Haymarket riot in Chicago emerged out of the struggle for the eight-hour workday. On May 1, 1886 a May Day celebration drew over 80,000 protestors in a peaceful demonstration up Michigan Avenue where it was becoming evident that factories would have to honor the workers’ demands. Days later, on May third, violence erupted when police opened fire on strikers at the McCormick Harvester Works. The following night, on May fourth, workers gathered in Haymarket Plaza to condemn the bloodshed of the previous day. As the demonstration came to a close, an undisclosed person threw a bomb, killing policemen and workers alike. The ramifications of the blast would be profound. The police utilized the event to attack organized labor, eventually bringing to trial and executing some of the most significant labor leaders and anarchists in the city. For many, Haymarket would cement the division between workers and bosses, and those executed (four were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were given prison sentences) would become martyrs to the struggle of working class people throughout the world.

In December of 2005, Nicolas Lampert and Daniel Tucker sat down with Michael Piazza, a Chicago-based artist and educator who has been initiating projects around the history of the Haymarket monument since 1986. Piazza was a founding member of Axe Street Arena, a cultural space and gallery that existed from 1985–1989 in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, at the intersection of Kimball, Diversey, and Milwaukee. Axe Street initiated a mail art show with a Haymarket theme in 1986. This interview explores some of the history and contradictions of the various public markers and art that have attempted to commemorate what happened near the corner of Desplaines and Randolph Streets 120 years ago.

1986: the anniversary

Nicolas What happened in 1986?

Michael 1986 was the 100th anniversary, and people from all over the world came to Chicago. As far as I can tell, there was no mainstream press about this at all—but even as something relatively underground, the police presence was extraordinary.
There was this network of events in different parts of the city. You had the Latino community that made altars to the Haymarket “martyrs.” On the anni-versary, there was a meeting at the site. Utah Phil-lips was there, and you had all the different unions who spoke. That was, and still is, an old parking lot on the other side of the new monument. There had been plans to make a park there, which was more of a priority from labor’s side of things, whereas the anarchists didn’t want a monument at all.

N So labor is interested in putting up a monument and the anarchists oppose the very concept of a monument. That sets up an interesting dichotomy.

M There was a marker there for a long time, and of course the anarchists put their symbol on it. Then the recent statue got built, so I don’t know. There has always been conflict over how one should approach this history.

N I heard that in 1986 there were attempts to create guerilla monuments, and a project to create a citywide curriculum about the history of Haymarket and May Day. Can you talk about the connection between the citywide projects and the events you did at Axe Street Arena?

M There was a guy named Allan Schwartz who was on the committee to try to tie some of these projects together. Caza Aztlan produced this Latino version of a memorial that was extraordinary. Our group had a mail art show at Axe Street Arena. We produced a show and a catalog of things that were coming in through the mail for our zine, Panic, and we opened our space for people who were coming in from out of town to crash. The whole mail art show is actually archived at Sangamon University, now known as UI Springfield MEO, with Ron Sakolsky.
Labor historian Franklin Rosemont of Charles H. Kerr Press put out The Haymarket Scrapbook that weekend of May third in ’86. That was another big thing.

Daniel Usually there are very small protests on May Day in Chicago. Have you seen any impressive actions on May Day?

M ’86 was pretty good. The cops were lined up on Desplaines. There was a red flag contingent for labor and an anarchist black flag contingent, and everyone was marching in for this celebration. There were maybe 500 people there, from all over the place. Like I said, we opened up our space and there were parties and events every night around the centennial.

N That is significant. May Day is so marginalized in U.S. history. In Chicago, it is all that more important that the event is given prominence.
In this Haymarket-themed issue of Panic, I noticed a story about Chicago artists participating in a Haymarket centennial show in Nicaragua. It seems like a lot of people were involved in it, including yourself, and there was also a show of prints from Nicaragua in Chicago.

M Yes. There was a lot of work that I brought back with me from a trip to Nicaragua, and there was a group that took the work down for the Haymarket show. They did the show at the Sandanistan art school. Because Elizam Escobar Puerto Rican political prisoner was in the show it was also important for them; they were trying to develop a museum for Latin American revolutionary painters. Actually, all the work we sent down there is still there, and all the work they sent us is still in Chicago. It was a big deal for them to present Chicago artists showing work with some tie-in to a Haymarket theme.


Eight-hour action series

N Tell us about the Eight-Hour Action Series.

M Ever since 1972, when the statue was removed, the blank pedestal remained with only a plaque that read: “In the Name of the People of Illinois, I command Peace.” For nearly 20 years there had been just this pedestal without a statue.
I realized that there was a division between a small group of people in town who knew what it represented, who had this local knowledge and memory, while there was a whole other group who just thought it was an empty pedestal.
That always fascinated me. Finally, during the ’96 Democratic National Convention, the entire pedestal disappeared. Different groups have been doing actions for a long time around that area.

N And these actions are often divorced from one other. I could go out and do an action right now at the site, and not know anything about the history of past actions carried out there. It seems like a constantly contested site.

M It’s interesting how long the pedestal stayed up there before being removed. When it got removed, it left this 18-foot spotlight-like circle.
Shortly after that, on May Day in 2001, I went by the site, and Carlos Cortez and Rene Arco pull up in a car. Arco runs out and starts stomping on the site, and I got this idea for a performance called the “Arco Stomp.” I put out a call for artists, and suddenly the city comes around and cements over this circle that had been there since ’96. I’m sure it was a coincidence, but it was strange.
Then, in May of 2002, the “Eight-Hour Action Series” project was initiated. The idea was to have projects that would occupy the site for up to eight hours and that would suggest the vanished history of the site.
One of our first projects was a sewing bee, where we created a large orange circle over the site. We worked all day on this sewing project, and then took a break for lunch. Javier Lara and some students from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago initiated that project.

The next project was by Bertha Husband. She placed a fake street sign right by the site of the statue.

Dara Greenwald, Blithe Riley and Lauren Cumbia initiated this “HAY! Market Research” project with a billboard that changed statistics about women’s labor. There was also a survey for passersby about Haymarket history and the site they were standing on.

Larry Bogad came out from Philadelphia and did a project called “The Police Statue Returns.” He started at the Daley Center and made his way to the site with large puppets of the police statue and Lucy Parsons, and walked all the way there and placed a large Anarchist flag on the site.
Then there was this guy Fish who did this saxophone performance.
And finally, there was a “soap box” project on the site, and people like John Pittman Webber of Chicago Public Art Group did Eugene Victor Debs prose readings. Bill Adelman also did a historical presentation.

2004: the new monument

N Let’s talk more about the recent monument that was installed in September of 2004.

M I heard that last May Day, a group of Colombian workers went to the new monument and had an official ceremony commemorating their own labor struggles, and then installed an additional plaque. It is interesting to think that it could be used to commemorate other labor struggles and could evolve over time.

I feel like the monument looks just at the event itself—the night when the bomb went off—and ignores how contested the eight-hour struggle was between the workers and the factory owners and the police. It is almost like Picasso’s Guernica for Haymarket: a symbol of an event that does not explain the politics unless you are already aware of the complex history. It references the incident, but does not side with the anarchist martyrs nor with the police. It is a very safe monument.

M Well, even the language on the plaque frames it as the Haymarket “tragedy” and every word is chosen very carefully in that way.

N I am very interested in that, because it can be argued that a monument at the site is important, but this particular monument dumbs down the history to such a great extent, as well as the serious class struggles that surrounded the events. Perhaps it was preferable when it was “the police statue” and not this watered-down, in-between monument.

M I think that they should have just left the ped-estal. It was important to see something strip-ped away. I was floored when it disappeared.

D That stripping-away you are describing sounds similar to the sites of serious political transition, as in former communist countries. There you have these partial and broken monuments, and you also have contested spaces where the monuments are entirely replaced. In Budapest, they gathered all the old Stalinist statues and put them in a sort of graveyard called “Statue Park,” at the edge of the city.

M Absolutely. This is actually why I move to these more temporary strategies of visiting and intervening, like the big orange cloth and trampoline. They’re like a monument ‘kit’ that can be folded up and brought out when needed.

N What are your thoughts on the new monument?

M I think my problem is that it is permanent. When I heard about this Colombian labor plaque, I thought that was really interesting because it had the potential to be more flexible.

N It must have been a very difficult process to even get that thing into existence.

M I am not sure what the process was like or how much public input there was. I wonder if there were historians involved. I am not even sure about the art group involved, and how this thing got chosen. I wonder if there was an open call process. I would love to see a show of all the proposals for that process: No monument, many monuments, and different topics—just a real accumulation of ideas.

N I don’t think it is a very successful monument. It ultimately dilutes the history of the sharp division that was illustrated when the police monument was there while the workers’ monument was not even allowed within Chicago city limits. I would rather have a monument take a stance. Or perhaps two monuments on the site:one to the martyrs and the other to the police. It could be interesting to see which one is attacked more!

M There has even been a push to take the old police statue and put it on that site. Bill Adelman went and said, “Sure you can have the police monument, but not here.”

N There are some interesting threads in this discussion about the ways in which monuments reflect the political and cultural climate of the time. First you have the Weather Underground bombing the police statue in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Now this new monument reflects an era of apathy and is totally divorced from what happened. But there is also the fact that the city and the police are totally resistant to putting any type of radical content into the public landscape, be it a Lucy Parsons park or this contested Haymarket site. It seems especially intense in this city. Obviously, it happens in other cities as well, but in Milwaukee, the city where I am from, a similar incident occurred where workers were killed over the struggle for the eight-hour day. The Bay View Massacre happened the day after Haymarket and consequently received less international attention. The memorial on that site, which is from the perspective of labor, has not been as contested. On the site of the massacre, a plaque and a semicircle of trees dedicated to each worker who was killed were installed by the Wisconsin Labor History Society. The city of Milwaukee took a less defensive stance to the memorial, but here in Chicago, any type of monument to the martyrs is perceived as a threat to the city’s power structure.

D Those are the conditions that make these symbolic temporary monument projects necessary. The highly political way in which space is contested and policed becomes the precondition for us to initiate creative resistance in the public sphere.

N That’s why this new monument seems to come out of nowhere. You have a really intense struggle over an issue, and then out of nowhere this watered-down monument appears.

M I wish I knew what the process was like.
Seeing Nathan Mason from the Department of Cultural Affairs out there with these Colombian workers was interesting. With these types of struggles you never know what forces are at work or who is talking to whom. I’ve heard there are some monuments about the former site of Maxwell Street Market being discussed.
The question is, how do you sensitively represent the vendors in that situation? Will the vendors who were kicked out be part of the process? It could be like the Haymarket, where the monument just appears and everything is supposed to be hunky-dory. I really don’t trust monuments.

N The new monument is more problematic, and harder to simply attack, because it makes some gestures towards honoring labor. How does one react to it?
The symbolism of this new monument being so watered down makes the statue at the Waldheim cemetery even more important. Look at all the radicals who have decided to be buried there over the years: Emma Goldman, Joe Hill had his ashes scattered there, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Big Bill Haywood. The list goes on.

M It is kind of like Emma is surrounded by her fans. She is off in the corner, and there are all these people that want to be buried by her—it’s kind of like sectarianism in the cemetery.
I heard a story about how in 1986, the anarchists really went to town decorating the statue at the cemetery. So when the labor historians and academics showed up, there were black roses in her arms, and immediately there was this academic scuffle! I wish I had a picture of them duking it out and then a person ripping the black roses out of the statue’s arms and replacing them with red roses. Every year they put their red roses.