Thursday, March 09, 2006

The New Yorker: Haymarket and Digging Deep Trenches

The normally high-brow New Yorker magazine has gone somewhat lower brow this week with two worker-oriented stories. The first is a book review (Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America , by James Green) dealing with the 1886 Haymarket bombing and the subsequent sham trial of eight anarchists for murder:
The prosecution never proved that any of the eight had planned, committed, or even known in advance about the Haymarket bombing. Instead, it relied on their words. All of them had praised violence in the cause of socioeconomic justice. “If we would achieve our liberation,” Parsons had told a crowd of protesters in April of 1885, “every man must lay by a part of his wages, buy a Colt’s navy revolver, a Winchester rifle, and learn how to make and use dynamite.” The prosecution argued that anarchism itself constituted a conspiracy to commit murder, and the jurors agreed, sentencing all but one of the defendants to death. The person who actually threw the bomb was never identified.
Three were eventually hanged.

The second is a short story by Italian author Erri De Luca called "The Trench." It's about an Italian immigrant laborer who's spends days digging a 20-foot deep unprotected trench in France -- knowing that it could collapse on top of him any moment.
The two of us dug in that narrow trench for several days, each day darker than the one before. We put the dirt in containers that were hoisted up from above with a pulley. We entered at dawn; we came out for the midday break, then again at five. Even those who don’t do this kind of work know that a trench like that should be reinforced on both sides, with vertical beams wedged in by perpendicular struts. Otherwise, there’s the risk of collapse. But our boss didn’t want to bother with all that. So the two of us dug, face to face, knowing that we were caught in one hell of a trap. Who were we and why had we accepted this risk?
Who were they? An Italian and Algerian who needed jobs and knew they'd be fired if they protested.
I needed the job. I had found it with difficulty after weeks of pounding pavements on the outskirts of Paris. I had got it, and I wanted to hold on to it, and no damn boss was going to stop me. If he wanted an excuse to get rid of me I wasn’t going to give him one—I would descend to the depths of hell, but I wouldn’t retreat.

That was why, for those few days, two men who didn’t know each other and couldn’t even have addressed each other by name stood face to face in a trench, risking their lives in search of a sewage pipe. With every foot we advanced, the sky narrowed; soon it was just a strip the size of the hole we were standing in. With every foot we advanced, we were waiting for that trench to collapse on us, burying us alive.
A familiar story on both sides of the Atlantic.