A Day Of Protests And Deadly Response

Today marks the anniversary of two landmark events in the history of political protest, civil disturbance, and official response in the United States.

On 4 May 1886 in Haymarket Square in Chicago, a force of some 200 police officers attempted to shut down a protest rally. The rally was organized by labor “radicals,” mostly foreign‐born immigrants, to protest the killing of a striking laborer by Chicago police the day before. In the face of the massive police presence and their use of extremely violent tactics to disperse the crowd, the rally began to dissolve almost immediately, but as the crowd dwindled, an unidentified terrorist threw a homemade bomb at the police squad.

The bomb killed at least a dozen people and injured hundreds. The surviving police began firing their weapons into the crowd, killing or wounding many more. Within minutes, the crowd disappeared into the side streets, and the police began to gather up the dead, which included several police officers.

The Chicago papers immediately dubbed the incident “The Haymarket Riot.” A dragnet of the city’s poorer districts rounded up more than 300 “known‐radicals,” almost all immigrants. More than 30 were indicted by a grand jury, despite the fact that in most of the cases, there was no evidence to tie the suspect to the Haymarket rally. After a highly controversial trial, which focussed more on the evidence of the defendants’ political beliefs than on their criminal culpability, 7 men were sentenced to death. Four of these were hanged the following year, one committed suicide in his cell, and the remaining two were eventually pardoned by the Governor of Illinois. The pardon was based upon evidence which showed that the police officers who had been killed at Haymarket Square had been felled by police bullets. That evidence had not been admitted at the trial.

And it was forty-two years ago on this day in 1970 that another pivotal clash in the history of American political protest and governmental response occurred. At Kent State University in Ohio, troops of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd, killing four people and wounding at least a dozen others. The event shocked a nation already rent by widespread unrest and riot.

In May of 1970, protests erupted across the United States in the wake of the United States’ bombing of Cambodia (a country with which we were not at war, but which had been an open safe‐haven for Viet Cong forces.) The National Guard had been called in to Kent State a few days earlier to help control protests that had turned riotous. Earlier protests had turned destructive and had resulted in property damage, and the school ordered a ban on protest rallies.

At noon on 4 May 1970, depsite the ban on rallies, a large crowd appeared on the campus to resume the protest. National Guard troops advanced on the crowd to disperse it. The Guard had bayonets fixed and fired teargas into the crowd. Some in the crowd responded by throwing stones and tossing the teargas canisters back at the Guard. Then, for reasons that have never been clearly established, the troops opened fire with deadly effect.

A photograph of a young woman in anguish over a prone body, her hands stretched out as if imploring someone for an explanation, became the iconic image of that era.

Subsequent investigations, military, Federal, and State, resulted in no prosecutions for the incident. In its aftermath, however, riot control and response became a specialized area of police work, and the use of deadly force for crowd control has become an option of last resort, though recent experiences show that the use of potent force against non-violent protesters is on the rise. It is a disturbing trend in a representative democracy.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

What experience and history teach is this –
that people and governments
have never learned anything from history.

— Hegel, 1801

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