Saturday, May 3, 2014

Cliven Bundy and His Goons Wish They were So Righteous: A Question. What Do You Know About the Great Railroad Strike of 1877?

It is a wonderful day here in Chicago. Spring is here--if only for a moment. I am going to go take a walk near the lake, feed the squirrels and other animal friends, and then do some reading while eating Popeye's chicken outside. I am a sophisticate that way.

My essay on Cliven Bundy that asked "what if his militia/goon squad was black and running amok in a white community?" is approaching 9,000 shares on Facebook via the Daily Kos. That is good stuff; the challenge is how to translate that back here to We Are Respectable Negroes (any suggestions?).

One of the commenters over at the Daily Kos mentioned the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and what it could potentially teach the American people about State power and citizens' resistance. I recall hearing about the Great Railroad Strike in high school. Ignorance should create a hunger for knowledge. I need to be fed by learning much more about the Gilded Age with a special emphasis on People's protest and resistance movements against the robber barons and plutocrats during that era.

[If you have any reading suggestions or movies that could be useful to that end please share them.]

The essential Howard Zinn--of course--wrote about the Great Railroad Strike in A People's History of the United States.

Zinn was a master story-teller. What if more historians possessed his talents with prose? For example:
When Harris said he would not go, the rest of the crew refused too. The strikers now multiplied, joined by young boys and men from the mills and factories (Pittsburgh had 33 iron mills, 73 glass factories, 29 oil refineries, 158 coal mines). The freight trains stopped moving out of the city. The Trainman’s Union had not organised this, but it moved to take hold, called a meeting, invited “all workingmen to make common cause with their brethren on the railroad.”

Railway and local officials decided that the Pittsburgh militia would not kill their fellow townsmen, and urged that Philadelphia troops be called in. By now two thousand cars were idle in Pittsburgh. The Philadelphia troops came and began to clear the track. Rocks flew. Gunfire was exchanged between crowd and troops. At least ten people were killed, all workingmen, most of them not railroaders.

Now the whole city rose in anger. A crowd surrounded the troops, who moved into a roundhouse. Railroad cars were set afire, buildings began to burn, and finally the roundhouse itself, the troops marching out of it to safety. There was more gunfire, the Union Depot was set afire, thousands looted the freight cars. A huge grain elevator and a small section of the city went up in flames. In a few days, twenty-four people had been killed (including four soldiers). Seventy-nine buildings had been burned to the ground. Something like a general strike was developing in Pittsburgh: mill workers, car workers, miners, labourers, and the employees at the Carnegie steel plant.

The entire National Guard of Pennsylvania, nine thousand men, was called out. But many of the companies couldn’t move as strikers in other towns held up traffic. In Lebanon, Pennsylvania, one National Guard company mutinied and marched through an excited town. In Altoona, troops surrounded by rioters, immobilised by sabotaged engines, surrendered, stacked arms, fraternised with the crowd, and then were allowed to go home, to the accompaniment of singing by a quartet in an all-Negro militia company.
His conclusion is a blow to the stomach, but it contains some hope for the resistance and protest movements that would follow:
In St. Louis, as elsewhere, the momentum of the crowds, the meetings, the enthusiasm, could not be sustained. As they diminished, the police, militia, and federal troops moved in and the authorities took over. The police raided the headquarters of the Workingmen’s party and arrested seventy people; the executive committee that had been for a while virtually in charge of the city was now in prison. The strikers surrendered; the wage cuts remained; 131 strike leaders were fired by the Burlington Railroad.  
When the great railroad strikes of 1877 were over, a hundred people were dead, a thousand people had gone to jail, 100,000 workers had gone on strike, and the strikes had roused into action countless unemployed in the cities. More than half the freight on the nation’s 75,000 miles of track had stopped running at the height of the strikes.  
The railroads made some concessions, withdrew some wage cuts, but also strengthened their “Coal and Iron Police.” In a number of large cities, National Guard armouries were built, with loopholes for guns. Robert Bruce believes the strikes taught many people of the hardships of others, and that they led to congressional railroad regulation. They may have stimulated the business unionism of the American Federation of Labor as well as the national unity of labour proposed by the Knights of Labor, and the independent labour-farmer parties of the next two decades.  
In 1877, the same year blacks learned they did not have enough strength to make real the promise of equality in the Civil War, working people learned they were not united enough, not powerful enough, to defeat the combination of private capital and government power. But there was more to come.
The end of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st have been described as a new Gilded Age in America. Extreme income inequality, gross entitlement and selfishness by the plutocrats, job insecurity, the evisceration of the middle class and the vilification of the poor, the continued rise (and tragic acceptance by the public) of the surveillance society, and a Culture of Cruelty, make such a description more than a pithy headline or sharp talking-point.

But in a country with a failed public school system and where college and university education is being reoriented to produce technocrats and drones in the name of "global competitiveness"--instead of engaged and aware citizens--how many Americans are able to locate the stress, anxiety, and worst aspects of hyper-capitalism as destruction, and the Corporation as sociopathic predator, within a larger historical context? There ain't nothing new in the game; unfortunately, the forces of Power want to create paralysis among the People by cultivating nihilism, a sense of futility, ignorance, emotional and physical exhaustion, paralysis, and social atomization.

The struggle against the 21st century plutocrats is not new. However, if the American people believe that it is, and thus they are alone in the continuity of history and the human experience, energy is wasted by a search for new insights and tools of resistance, when many of those necessary and useful lessons are readily available for those who know to seek them out.


Myshkin the Idiot said...

The city that raised wages to $15 an hour over the next seven years... Seattle manarchists start some vandalizing and other forms of disruption.

"One of the key themes of yesterdays march was the campaign for a $15 minimum wage and, early in the day, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced a plan to phase it in over the next seven years.

"However, Daniel Stender, 26, was at the rally holding a sign pushing for quicker action on getting to a $15 minimum wage.

'It's getting ridiculous. It's getting to the point where you can't afford things,' he said."

joe manning said...

The 60's antiwar movement demonstrated that folks are capable of mobilizing. With the economy unraveling I think people will have no choice but fill the streets.

chauncey devega said...

I will check out that book. I don't know if strikers and students are mocked and derided by most Americans--the mainstream media/Right-wing media have manufactured that notion in order to subvert democratic will and to marginalize those critical voices. "Public Opinion" and consent are manufactured to quote Chomsky. He said that years ago, still if not more true today.

chauncey devega said...

Sure. But what did the broader movement against poverty and for racial justice achieve in terms of its longer range goals. What typically happens is that the vision is captured by elites and centrists who can then buy into the system and create "stability". That is not always a bad thing, but in the longer game you see citizens not asking for revolutionary or great change but just a sit at the table and the whole ship is sinking.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

re: mocked

I just get the impression that mass culture meme-ifies populist movements into irrelevancy.

few points: "Don't tase me, bro." became a parody after a student asks a question and refuses to leave a public appearance by John Kerry. I don't think he did anything wrong except ask a question maybe out of line.

The cop that pepper sprayed students at a UC Davis protest.

Occupy Wall Street became synonymous with that happy go-lucky hippy girl.

Then every time there is a protest that spirals out of control, like my post above, some of the Trayvon Martin events, Kimani Grey's vigil and march, people associate the broader movement and concern with the actions of a few people behaving poorly.

joe manning said...

With imminent crises looming one wonders if the liberal solution will have time to play out, and will it be enough? The liberal model of change is all we got since we haven't seen a revolutionary groundswell since Debs 1900-04-08 presidential bids.

joe manning said...

And the media lionizes the TP and they're still unpopular, so maybe there's hope.