On May 4th 1886, amidst preaching from congressmen and anarchists, under dark clouds portending the events of the evening and winds cold and cutting, a group of workingmen, carpenters, machinists, mechanics, etc. gathered in Haymarket Square in Chicago as a part of a succession of strikes to get an eight hour work day. First hand accounts describe the scene as tense. The police were out and prepared for a riot. The energy of the workers was fit to burst, like the storm clouds overhead.
It was not until the police tried to disperse the crowd that a bomb went off and chaos ensued. Later, during the trial, officers at the square claimed to hear a shout of "here comes the bloodhounds of the police; you do your duty and I'll do mine." The workers that took the stand heard no such speech, they only felt the chaos and the bullets of the officers taking their right to assembly.
Thanks to the sensationalism of the press, and the politics of the age, eight men, labeled, stereotyped, and politicized, were martyred for the actions of an unknown individual. Then, like today, the police officers that opened fire on the crowd kept their jobs and were regarded as heroes.
On April 29th 2016, three days before May Day, the New York Times ran a story titled The First Global Terrorists were Anarchists in the 1890s. Maya Jansoff, the author and a professor of history at Harvard, opens her argument by mocking contemporary anarchism, claiming it is survived only through "old hippies" and "wild-haired loners." She uses the same demagogic arguments as Donald Trump by avoiding talks about policy and instead ridiculing and demeaning the group. Attacking what she claims is their original strategy, her piece pillories anarchy through a single man's, Kropotkin, call for for "propaganda by deed," (which is the equivalent of saying all Communists follow Stalin) and matching them up with the Western bogeyman - ISIS.
She paints anarchism in a mawkish light, something meant only to destroy and not create, pinning the burgeoning police state on the deeds of struggling workers and dispossessed people, not on the fears and bureaucratic machinery of those comfortable and in charge. "Anarchists (unlike communists) didn't succeed in overthrowing governments," she quips, as if the anarchists are a consolidated mass left feeble and stymied by their overly idealistic and violent goals.
In reality there were anarchists amongst the Bolsheviks at the storming of the winter palace (who later got shipped off to the gulags), there were anarchists in Prague during the Velvet Revolution, there were anarchists in Warsaw fighting Hitler, there were anarchists in Paris fighting the imperialism that led to World War I, and there have been anarchists taking part in every political movement for the past 200 years. There are anarchists fighting an oppressive regime in Colombia today, and an anarchist state run by the Zapatistas.
Anarchy is not just the siren song of angsty suburban teens looking to deface corporate "art," like Target billboards and shopping malls. It stands for liberation of the downtrodden and dispossessed, those that Maya Jansoff is claiming to support, and arguing that anarchy has hindered by causing the rise of terrorism.
If we are going to talk about terror, how about we talk about the greatest perpetrator of terror in the world today - The United States of America.
Behind the colorful flags, impassioned speeches on freedom, and jean clad people lurks a shadow of old Imperialism. The United States pays the most - almost 25 percent - into NATO, and conducts almost 85 percent of the airstrikes in Syria. According to The Guardian's article this last February, 11 and a half percent of Syrians have been injured or killed in the Civil War.
We often talk about the horrors of "militant Islam" and the Islamic State: 130 men and women were killed in the Paris Bombings; 2,753 were killed on 9/11; beheadings seem to happen frequently to civilians and non-combatants. Where, in the media, is the talk of the 2,381 lives lost in Afghanistan, a war supposedly meant to end the terrorism that was taken up by the Islamic State? Why do we continue to believe that bombs will solve the humanitarian crises we have created through over stepping our bounds?
While I in no way condone the "terrorism" and killing of innocent civilians, we should not look to point fingers at the perpetrators, and therefore find an easy cure for guilt, but instead scrutinize the systems that produced such attacks. Militant Islam is not the progenitor of terrorism, nor anarchy, but the state control that leads to the bombings and reduction of civil liberties.
As August Spies, one of the men martyred for the Haymarket Riots, said, "what socialism aims at is not the death of individuals but of the system."
So yes, anarchists of old are much like the "terrorists" of today: stigmatized and stereotyped, left with no other option for discourse than radical action. Then as now, they come from the bottom of a system of subjugation where the only discernible action is violent revolution.
It is the same premise that led to the American Revolution, to the French Revolution, and to all of the social shifts that have come to shape the world we know today.
maybe instead of fear mongering, sensationalizing, and isolating these so called "terrorists," we should try and understand what it is exactly that they are fighting for, and ask ourselves if we would not do the same in similar circumstances.
It is one thing for the cafe liberal that Jansoff talks about to fear the violence that seems to be enveloping the world, but yet another to do something about it. While it is easy to judge someone as crazy for not enjoying the same pleasures and comforts as yourself, it is another thing entirely to leave your Ivy League living and go into poorer quarters to try to convince people they need only work harder or wait for the proper legislation to get them out of their destitution.
To bring peace about through peace, instead of through war, we need to see it no longer as us vs. them, or us and them, just us.
Anarchy is alive and well today. The black flag still flies high. It might not be apparent to cafe and opera house liberals who would prefer stereotyping and believing anarchy is only housed in petrol bombs and broken riots, but if you go to your local soup kitchen, or look towards volunteers in shelters, or defenders of the disenfranchised, you will find them. As Steinbeck says, "If you are in trouble, or hurt or need - go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help - the only ones."
Do not dox them, turn them in, or label or chastise them for not being content with a broken system. When things fall apart, when children are left starving, when men and women are being killed in the streets, when protests come for equal rights, they are the ones on the front lines - the only ones.