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Anarchists, Cops, the Super Rich -- It's New York 100 Years Ago

Posted: 05/22/2012 10:04 am

The thing about New York is that its streets and alleys, neighborhoods and wharves, pulsate with traces of the millions who have gone before. There is no corner you can turn where there was not some grave injustice done, some despicable crime, some tragic ending. And there is also no spot where someone did not fall in love, scream their passion to the sky, or find renewed hope.

Thai Jones peels back the layers with a delicious new history, More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York's Year of Anarchy. Many will find parallels to the current social crises, from the upheavals of Occupy Wall Street to the manipulations of the super rich. I actually think there may be three or four cycles that bear resemblance to the wild ride of 1914. And perhaps more important than the eerie sense of déjà vu is Jones' instructive analysis of the different social forces behind the main players in the drama.

The story is told not so much as an analysis from above or with the 20/20 hindsight of history, but rather as a propulsive narrative of the positionings and repositionings of various social forces as they roiled along through the year. He begins with the New Year's Eve parties around New York that ushered in the critical year. The 1 percent, represented by John D. Rockefeller, was toasting its good fortune while the masses partied long and loud into the night. The newly elected mayor, John Mitchel, prepared to take office after ousting the corrupt Tammany Hall machine candidate.

Mitchel represented that mixed blessing in American history, the Progressive movement. While all manner of radicals have now adopted the term progressive, the original movement was a middle class reform effort. Confident that science, new disciplines such as sociology, and a proper attitude could solve social problems, they applied a kind of pseudoscientific analysis to all manner of contradictions such as poverty and crime. On the one hand they opposed political corruption and corporate irresponsibility -- they introduced food safety requirements and limits on banking speculation -- on the other hand they had a middle-class revulsion for the poor and fear of working class uprisings. Mitchel's reign as mayor would reflect this ambiguity -- especially as the class conflicts escalated.

Other actors in the great drama of 1914 include familiar names such as John D. Rockefeller Jr., from the family that got rich from oil and mining operations -- leaving a long history of philanthropy as well as miserable suffering for their workers. And the anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman -- they were busy writing, speaking, and agitating about the depredations of capital while the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) were advancing the campaign for "one big union." Jones' narrative brings us much more texture, however. We meet the irrepressible Frank Tannenbaum, Wobbly organizer who led a series of church occupations for the homeless, the courageous Arthur Caron who was savagely beaten by police, and the inspiring anarchist agitators Marie Ganz, and Becky Edelsohn.

The year heated up as militia forces massacred miners in Ludlow Colorado during an extended strike against the Rockefeller owned mines. Back in New York, radicals, reformers and union supporters came together for regular demonstrations at Rockefeller's Standard Oil headquarters and his city mansion. When the family retreated to their suburban Tarrytown estate, anarchists began making regular train trips upstate to picket and demonstrate there -- often getting beaten and imprisoned.

Another key character in the drama was police commissioner Arthur Woods. When anarchist and IWW support was growing as a result of a series of brutal police crackdowns on demonstrations, Woods called for support for free speech and an end to heavy-handed tactics. This actually slowed down the growth of the movement. But he also followed up with a more serious application of clandestine tactics, sending police informants, provocateurs, and disinformation agents into the anarchist ranks.

While there is much debate today among Occupy activists about the use of a "diversity of tactics" (meaning both non-violent and confrontational), we also see in 1914 as today an unquestioned assumption that the police forces can and should apply such a diversity of tactics, always including the application of armed force. Indeed, today the militarization of local police forces with sophisticated war materials and training demonstrates the commitment of the state to deploy the most extreme violence domestically, against its own citizens. And as we have seen in Chicago this week, the Woods method of infiltrating radical groups, proposing illegal actions, supplying lethal materials, and making spectacular arrests is still in operation today.

By July of 1914, some of the anarchists decided to fight fire with fire, building a homemade bomb which detonated accidentally in an apartment building in Harlem on July 4. In an eerie foreshadowing of the 1970 bombing that took the lives of three Weather Underground members, the 1914 bombing took the lives of three anarchists, including Arthur Caron. The funeral orations for the three anarchists were unapologetic, however, in their insistence on the right of armed resistance.

Alexander Berkman said:

"I want to go on record here today as saying that I prefer to believe that our comrades were not victims. Why do I say this? Because I believe, and firmly believe, that the oppression of labor in this country, the persecution of the radical elements especially, has reached a point where nothing but determined resistance will do any good. And I believe with all my heart in resistance to tyranny on every and all occasions. ... When workers are shot down for demanding better conditions of living, when their women and children are slaughtered and burned alive, then I say that it is time for labor to quit talking and begin to act."

And Becky Edelsohn was even more explicit:

"Yes, we believe in violence. We will use violence whenever it is necessary to use it. We are not afraid of what your kept press says; and when we are murdered and cannonaded, when you train your machine guns on us, we will retaliate with dynamite."

The narrative of More Powerful Than Dynamite ends with a "what happened next" chapter, including the return of Tammany Hall to control of city government, the death of Mayor Mitchel in an airplane crash while training for World War I combat, the deportation of Berkman and Goldman to Russia, and even the quiet later lives of activists like Edelsohn and Tannenbaum. But he also leaves the reader with a deeper feeling for the way social struggles arise and are played out, the class interests represented by different actors, the strategies and tactics deployed, and the broader meanings of stories that have been too often reduced to anecdote and cliché.

Thai Jones' journey through anarchism, progressivism, state power, labor history, war, and culture -- in short his evocation of the heart of New York -- enriches our feeling for the history and invites us to understand its subtleties and complexities with new respect.

 
 
 
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