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Resistance, Acquiescence and My Friend J. Edgar Hoover
Posted on Dec 10, 2010
By Steve Fraser
People are alarmed and demoralized by the results of the midterm elections. They should be. In my case they happened just as I was preoccupied by two other strikingly different experiences. The first had to do with my speaking and writing about the tragic Triangle Waist Factory fire, the 100th anniversary of which will be commemorated this coming March. The second was a trip to Mississippi, a personal commemoration, so to speak, of my time there as a civil rights activist in the summer of 1964 and after.
The election returns began dribbling in during my interminable flight back north from Jackson, Miss. Those three moments—1911, 1964, now—coming together like that compelled me to think about when and why people resist power, why they acquiesce, and why, sometimes, they may believe they are resisting when they are in truth acquiescing. Also, it all made me wonder about the tenacity and frailty of memory—my own, to be sure which is Swiss cheese-like, but the country’s cultural memory as well, which has displayed a tendency toward amnesia that is and always has been breathtaking.
Even in our United States of Amnesia, we remember the Triangle Fire, in which 146 young immigrant workers, most of them women, working in a garment factory, burned and jumped to their deaths on a March day in New York City in 1911. The shock waves from the catastrophe reverberated around the country. A hundred thousand people filed by the mortuary on “Misery Lane.” Four hundred thousand grieving, angry people marched behind a horse-drawn empty hearse in a solemn funeral procession. Laws were passed to try to prevent such things from happening again.
The Triangle Fire is a landmark moment in the prehistory of the New Deal of the 1930s, especially the legislation it inspired to civilize and democratize the workplace and rein in a savage capitalism. I refer specifically to the Wagner Act, legalizing the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining; the Social Security Act, to minimally protect the elderly against the ravages of the free market; and the Fair Labor Standards Act, establishing some roughly civilized floor for wages and a ceiling for what had been the endless hours of toil, and to end child labor. But the fire itself was not the reason these reforms (and others) were achieved. It was the reason the fire turned out to be such a horrid disaster that tells the tale. Many of the young women might have escaped their immolation, but the exit door on the floor where they were making shirtwaists (women’s blouses) was locked by the factory’s owners in part because they wanted to prevent union organizers from getting in.
Triangle became part of an extraordinary resistance movement against industrial autocracy. That movement lasted a century, from 1870 to 1970 or thereabouts. Just before and just after the Triangle factory burned, the garment workers of New York and dozens of other cities erupted in strikes and demonstrations, some citywide, some violent, some attacked by the police or private thugs, some led by socialists or anarchists or syndicalists, some lasting an hour, some for months. This sort of thing had been happening and would continue to happen for a long time in the coal mines, on the railroads, at steel mills and copper mines, in the cotton fields, on prairie wheat plantations, in lettuce fields and grape arbors, by the docks, on ships at sea, in turpentine swamps and hard timber forests, along telegraph and telephone lines, in cigar-making tenement sweatshops and textile mills both North and South, on horse-drawn trolley tracks and in subway tunnels—everywhere the capitalist production process planted itself.
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So of course this mass of the rightless and exploited rose up. But are things really that simple? Would you rebel? Weighed down by all this, exhausted, struggling just to keep yourself and your family alive, confronted at every turn by the coercions of the foreman, the boss, the police, the courts, sometimes even the Army, by the weight of public opinion that holds you in contempt and honors your tormentors, would you rise up? Would you risk your livelihood, not to mention life and limb? It is just as much a great mystery to ponder why the Grand Army of the Triangle, let’s call it, ever found the psychological and emotional strength, the organizational ingenuity, the social courage, to create itself and rebel as it is to ponder why for so very long people bent the knee.
One sign that the mystery remains unsolved is the anguishing predicament we find ourselves in today. I do not refer to the tea party—quite to the contrary! The tea party is, in my view, a genuine social movement of resistance, if a grotesque and dangerous one. More on that later.
Instead I allude to the remarkable and prolonged acquiescence to the rule of our financial and corporate elites by so many whose lives have been seriously damaged by the plutocracy’s self-regard, their delusions, their bankrupt ideas, their immorality, their felonies, their incompetence and the lethal misuse of their power. For a long generation and more the lives of ordinary working people and the social fabric of civilization have remorselessly deteriorated, indeed nearly crashed and burned just recently, and continues downhill. The sweatshop, once considered an ugly aberration, has been the norm for millions of workers for some time now, and is fast becoming the new normal for much of the rest of the economy. What rights the Grand Army of the Triangle once won are lost or are being lost. The downward arc of everyday life stares most people in the face. Imperial bloodletting and cynical lying about why it’s just and necessary eat away at the veneer of our civilization. The presumptuousness of the country’s wealthy and empowered elites and their immunity from hard times and hard knocks are astonishing and repellent. Yet not a peep beyond “change we can believe in” and “yes we can,” inanities that would have embarrassed our ancestors. Why? If it is so self-evident that the Triangle Army was compelled to say “enough is enough” back then and act on that resolve, what has happened now? What happened then? What did we forget?
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