January 8, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
The Tompkins Square Riot of 1874
Washington, DC- Among the many injustices of the Gilded Age was (not unlike today) the excesses of wealth and poverty prevalent at that time. Also, as is still true today, the nation was subject to a boom and bust economy. The post civil war economic depression had been brought about by lack of banking regulations, which led to bank failures, foreclosures and widespread unemployment. While this may sound exactly like what we just witnessed in 2008, the major difference is there was virtually no social safety net in existence at that time. With no unemployment benefits, Social Security or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families available to those without work, the Panic of 1873 ensued. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans were slowly starving to death, and workers began to take to the streets en masse in order to have their voices heard and their issues addressed.
One of those workers’ rallies led to the incident known as the Tomkins Square Riot of 1874. On January 13 of that year, despite record breaking low temperatures, over 7,000 of New York City’s poor and working class, including women and children, crammed into he park. The park was to serve as a gathering place where workers from across the city would meet and then march to City Hall. There, they would petition for the creation of a public works program that would serve the dual purpose of strengthening the infrastructure of the ever growing city, while providing jobs that would ensure that families would be able to eat, and heat their homes. Their needs were that basic.They hoped York City Mayor Havemayer, and other public officials would be listening with a sympathetic ear so they attended the rally in the spirit of cautious optimism.
Unfortunately, their reality was much bleaker. In a late night decision, the city fathers not only revoked the permit for the rally, they assigned over 1600 policemen to disperse the assembly. All of this was done without either notifying the organizer (Peter J. McGuire) or posting any notices to warn citizens that they might be breaking the law. The result, of course, was a bloodbath.
Among the many workers’ groups present was Local 144 Cigar Makers Union and its soon-to-be president, Samuel Gompers. After witnessing the events of the day, Gompers was later quoted as having said: "mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality. I was caught in the crowd on the street and barely saved my head from being cracked by jumping down a cellarway.”
Many believe that this was one in a series of defining moments for Gompers, his incremental distancing himself from political socialism, and the forming of his later organizing strategy. He became convinced that the presence of socialist, communist and anarchist elements within the mix of workers contributed to the violence of the
police and the public’s distrust of organized labor. He saw his “bread and butter” unionism of highly skilled tradesmen bargaining collectively as part and parcel of a capitalist model, uninterested in social change, as the only hope for the entrance of workers into the middle class.
Whether, in hindsight, we judge him to be correct or not, is the stuff of endless hours of political and philosophical debate. What we do know to be true, especially in light of the events of 1874, is that in order to prosper, “we the people” need employment, our unions and a government that works for all of us.