Actual History: Refusal 10 (May Day)

May Day as International Workers’ Day has its origins in the Haymarket Affair of 1886, a double display of state violence: on May 3rd, the third day of a general strike for an eight-hour work day, police protecting strikebreakers fired into a crowd of striking workers. At a mass meeting the following day, someone threw a bomb into a group of arresting officers, and the ensuing police raids and arrests ended with eight men sentenced to death. The state hanged four and later pardoned two; one took his own life in prison. Meanwhile, labor organizers continued their work, and in 1889 the Second International declared May 1st International Workers’ Day.

I also want to talk about another day in May.

Starting–but more about that in a minute–on May 1st, 1867, striking workers in Chicago shut down the economy of the city for a week to close loopholes in a law calling, already for the eight-hour workday. Industries in and around Chicago at that time included meatpacking, garment manufacturing, shipping, lumber processing, iron molding–so we can guess that fewer components were poured and fewer cuffs and collars sewn, that cargo ships sat at their moorings and that meat rotted on the packing lines. A week of people earning no money, drawing from the strike fund if they could. A week in which a city that bragged about how much it could produce, how fast it grew, couldn’t hold onto that pride and had–if only for a week, after which the strike collapse–to admit who made that pride possible.

The strike itself started on May 1st, but the work of making it possible started long before: in conversations, in the nurturing of loyalties, in meetings, in the gathering of resources, in the asking of questions, in the distribution of knowledge, in arguments, in shared meals, in the washing of clothes and the tending of children, in corners, in quiet, under the cover of machine sounds.

The fight for the eight-hour workday is a fight to be owned less than entirely. It says: we won’t let you use us up. It says: we are more than fuel.

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My attention keeps turning to the failures to refuse in the May Day origin story: the police who, on May 3rd, didn’t have to but chose to fire into a crowd of striking workers. The jury. The hangman. Someone would probably have punished them, or tried to, if they refused, but that’s not identical with not having a choice. Examine your promises: who do they require you to hurt?

The May Day march in Providence starts at 3pm today, in Burnside Park. I’ll be walking with the Climate Justice and Just Transition bloc. Come too.

Actual History: Refusal 9

 

I’m working to learn more from the stories of people who have refused and rejected attempts to exploit and tyrannize them, and I thought you might like to do that, too.

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I’m going to tell this story backward.

In 1804, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines named Haiti and declared it independent. In 1803, he had led the formerly enslaved people who defeated the army of French colonizers at the Battle of Vertieres. They’d been fighting since 1791, but they’d been preparing to fight for much longer than that.

The people who would become Haitians used previous slave rebellions and the French Revolution as spurs and models. They had forged a shared language out of a combination of French and their or their parents’ home languages. Many of them shared Vodun religious practices.

The mountains in the years before 1791 were full of people, people who had escaped slavery and lived there and people who came there to meet them. “The slaves were stirring and holding mass meetings in the forest at night,” one of my sources read.

Marronage is the name for what the people who ran to the forest and made their lives there did, and what enslaved Black people throughout the Americas and the Caribbean did, before they killed their oppressors and gained their freedom. They made places to live, speak, think, eat, and plan. Of people similarly positioned in Louisiana, Ashon Crawley wrote, “The ciprieré communities secreted from local plantations, maintaining a relationship to spaces from which they escaped, but established new patterns of behavior and aesthetic interventions for protection and peace. Setting traps, navigating the swamps, having sex, singing, raising children, eating – all these were aesthetic practices that always and likewise had to be forms of preparation. Maroons needed to be ready at a moment’s notice for encounter with the political world of the exterior that would bear down on them and produce violence against them. Each practice, therefore, was a likewise preparation for the possibility of the threat of violation; each practice, thus, highlights the ways in which interventions always likewise have an aesthetic quality and theoretical underpinning.”

In other words, the story of marronage is the story of learning to live instead: rejecting, refusing, the ways the people profiting from your suffering told you were the only ways. Living, instead, or otherwise, in ways that make you want to live, and make you and your people more likely to live, and prepare you all to evade or to fight back against your death.

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The Haitian Revolution is famous. My sources cite rough counts for how many former slaves and how many colonizers died, but I haven’t been able to find a source that will tell me how many people enslaved in what’s now Haiti died–through murder, through abuse, through neglect, at the hands of the white people who enslaved them–before the Revolution. I’m guessing that would change the count considerably. When you’re reading history, I urge you to consider and seek out the numbers around the numbers, and the information around the information, remembering that every historian chooses when and where to start and stop the story.

The first Ashon Crawley essay I cited above is an old one, and even the second one is two years old. I recommend attending to his recent work.

Actual History: Refusal 8

I’m working to learn more from the stories of people who have refused and rejected attempts to exploit and tyrannize them, and I thought you might like to do that, too.

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Women in the provinces of Calabar and Owerri fought the Women’s War, Ogu Umunwanyi or Ekong Eban, in the fall and winter of 1929.  British colonizers had appointed “warrant chiefs” in place of the chiefs that the Igbo people elected, and when these British-appointed chiefs and the colonizers who appointed them threatened to tax the women who sold food to the growing cities, and sacriligeously invaded their privacy with the excuse of calculating this tax, Andoni, Ibibio, Igbo, Ogoni, Bonny and Opobo women began to plan and discuss resistance.

Beginning in November of 1929, the women blockaded roads, knocked down telegraph poles and severed wires. They attacked the Essene “Native Court” and released people imprisoned there, burned down other Native Court buildings and attacked European-owned stores and banks. They chanted threatening songs and organized ceremonial mockery (“sitting on him”) of the warrant chiefs, wearing palm leaves as a symbol of the summons to action and a mark of protection. Between 15,000 and 25,o00 women resisted in this way, destroying property and attacking pride and status but killing  no one.

Colonial authorities, on the other hand, killed many of the women in fear and retaliation. They did ultimately abandon the plans for a tax, curb the power of the warrant chiefs, and acknowledge the necessity for women’s involvement in governing, but as we know, they did not leave.

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As always, I’ve attempted to source this well, but if anyone has any corrections I will take them.

In learning this story I was particularly struck by the destruction of relevant property (businesses owned by colonizers, buildings that represented and inflicted the unjust law), the release of prisoners, the severing of one form of communication and the use of another, and the work done by mockery and shame.

If you want to honor the women of the Women’s War, you could start by learning about the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People and their fight against Shell Oil, and get a North American you know who’s thinking about “volunteering in Africa” to do the same. (I’m looking for additional things you could do, but wanted to post this.)