Thursday, September 22, 2011

"American Labor Revolutionary: Lucy Parsons"

This article, first published at, is a much-abridged, edited version of a longer article I had previously posted here.


Keith Rosenthal tells the story of a revolutionary who contributed enormously to the struggles of U.S. workers on both sides of the turn of the 20th century.

THE ASHES had hardly cooled from the house fire that killed labor radical Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons in 1942 when the Chicago police raided the remains of her home, confiscating her personal library of 3,000 volumes of literature and writings on "sex, socialism and anarchy"--in the cops' words--turning it over to the FBI. This trove of revolutionary material was never again to see the light of day.

Through the six decades of her adult life, Lucy Parsons was a revolutionary, with a reputation as one of her generation's finest orators. She led workers and oppressed people in struggle, wrote widely on the questions facing anarchists and socialists, and lived a full and remarkable life.

It was no surprise that the Chicago police were anxious to bury Parsons' legacy as quickly as possible. In their own words, she was "more dangerous than a thousand rioters." For virtually the entirety of the last 40 years of her life, the police tried to bar her from making any public speeches and routinely arrested her for the "crime" of handing out revolutionary pamphlets on the street.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lucy Parsons: "More Dangerous Than a Thousand Rioters"

By Keith Rosenthal

Also available for download as a zine/pamphlet


The strongest argument that can be made as to why all radical activists should study the life and works of Lucy Parsons is that the FBI wants you to know nothing about her.

Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons died in 1942, at the age of 89, in a house-fire in Chicago — the city in which she lived most of her life. The ashes had hardly cooled before the Chicago police raided the remains of her home, confiscated all 3,000 volumes of literature and writings on “sex, socialism, and anarchy,” which constituted her personal library, and turned it over to the FBI. Tragically, and despite her comrades’ repeated inquiries, this treasure trove of revolutionary material was never again to see the light of day.[1]

Indeed, the Chicago police had ample reason to want to bury Parsons’ legacy as quickly as possible. In their own words, she was “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” For virtually the entirety of the last 40 years of her life, the Chicago police tried to bar her from making any public speeches, and routinely arrested her for the ‘crime’ of handing out revolutionary pamphlets on the street. Famed labor historian Studs Terkel even noted how rare of a privilege it was to hear Parsons address a large audience in her later years, owing to the constant police harassment.

Overlooked by History

Partially because so much of her own writings were ‘disappeared’ by the government, and partially because she was a revolutionary woman of color speaking out against the injustices of a capitalist society run by white men, Lucy Parsons is one of the least known of the major figures in the history of revolutionary socialism in the U.S. Much like her long-time comrades and friends, Eugene Debs, William “Big Bill” Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Lucy Parsons made a tremendous contribution to the birth of America’s turn-of-the-century, revolutionary working-class movement; a movement which continues to this day to shape the character of class struggle and revolutionary politics in this country.

Historian Robin Kelley argues that Lucy Parsons was not only “the most prominent black woman radical of the late nineteenth century,” but was also “one of the brightest lights in the history of revolutionary socialism.”[2] Historian John McClendon writes that she is notable for being the “first black activist to associate with the revolutionary left in America.”[3]

More often than not, however, if Lucy Parsons is mentioned as an historical figure, she is noted merely as the “wife of Albert Parsons,” a man who had gained international notoriety after he was executed in 1887 by the state of Illinois for his revolutionary activities.

Unfortunately, this slight extends beyond solely ‘mainstream’ historians, including supposedly left-wing intellectuals as well. For instance, in the 1960s, the feminist editors of Radcliffe College’s three-volume work, Notable American Women, decided to leave Parsons out of their study on the grounds that she was “largely propelled by her husband’s fate” and was a “pathetic figure, living in the past and crying injustice” after her husband’s execution.[4]

Even contemporaries of Lucy Parsons, such as the popular anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman (with whom Lucy Parsons became a life-long political opponent), accused Parsons of being an otherwise unimportant opportunist who simply rode upon the cape of her husband’s martyrdom, describing her as nothing more than one of those wives of “anarchists who marry women who are millions of miles removed from their ideas.”[5]

None of this, however, is to diminish the historical importance of Albert Parsons and the events leading up to his execution; and while it is true that Lucy Parsons spent much of her life addressing the crime that was her husband’s murder at the hands of the capitalist state, nonetheless, her political activity and impact on history extend far beyond the scope of that single tragedy. In fact, the work that she lent her energies to in the years following Albert’s execution are of equal (if not greater) importance than anything he had been able to add to the fight for workers’ emancipation in the course of a life that was sadly cut short.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Know Your Rights | Is it legal to video record the police? (The short answer is, yes)

A troubling trend has been cropping up across the nation recently: the arrest of bystanders for the "crime" of video recording on-duty police officers.

Often using a cell phone or camera, people in several cities (Boston, Albany, Chicago) have attempted to record police engaging in legally-dubious behavior, only to have their recording devices smashed or confiscated, and themselves handcuffed and charged with felonies carrying 5-year prison sentences.

The court cases and outcry from civil liberties groups that have resulted from these incidents have raised the question of whether recording the police should be considered a protected right under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Most of the arrests that the police have made in this vein have been under "illegal wiretapping" and "secret eavesdropping" laws, contending that a citizen who records them conducting police business is violating their rights to privacy.

By and large, however, the courts have decided against the police in these instances and have upheld the legality of recording police activity that occurs in public venues.

In general, the question revolves around whether or not the recording was being done "secretly," or openly, so that the person being recorded was aware of it.  In many states it is not illegal to record someone without their consent or knowledge, while other states explicitly prohibit this.

To find out the relevant laws governing the recording of another person (including police) in your state, see the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's "State-by-State Guide", which provides summaries of the relevant "wiretapping" laws for each of the fifty states.

As a general rule of thumb, however, it is best to follow these simple steps to ensure that when you record the police, you will be engaging in legally and constitutionally protected activity.

1) Record the police in a public location.  The laws governing the recording of another person on private property are much more complex and difficult from the standpoint of the person doing the recording.

2) Do not conceal the fact that you are recording the police. In fact, make it obvious!  In every state in the country, it is legal to record another person in a public location as long as they are aware that you are doing so (i.e., it is not being done "secretly").  This is very important, as is evidenced by the following case, referenced by the Citizen Media Law Project:
In a recent case, a political activist was convicted of violating the wiretapping statute by secretly recording video of a Boston University police sergeant during a political protest in 2006. The activist was shooting footage of the protest when police ordered him to stop and then arrested him for continuing to operate the camera while hiding it in his coat. As part of the sentencing, the court ordered the defendant to remove the footage from the Internet. From this case, it is clear that you can violate the statute by secretly recording, even when you are in a public place.
In contrast to the above case, there is a more recent case of a Boston law student who was arrested in 2007 for recording the police harassing and assaulting a man on the Boston Common.  However, in this situation, all charges were dismissed against the law student, making this court decision an important precedent in securing the right for Massachusetts citizens to record police in public locations, as long as the recording is being done "openly" and in a way that would be deemed "obvious to a reasonable person."

The actual wording of the court ruling in this latter case can be accessed here.  Additionally, if interested, one can click here to access the court filing on behalf of the law student who is now suing the police for violating his civil rights.   
To view the exact Massachusetts law on "illegal wiretapping," which covers the act of recording another person, you can see it here.  It is also worth checking out the Citizen Media Law Project's section on Massachusetts Recording Law


Finally, it is worth stepping back and wondering what is behind these police attacks on concerned bystanders who take it upon themselves to observe the police.  With the increasing prevalence of camera-phones and the technological advances for rapid, mass dissemination of video via services such as YouTube, the last several years has seen a veritable explosion of videos circulating on the internet, capturing cops engaging in police brutality, illegal activity, and so on.

It is therefore no surprise that police engaged in suspect activities would begin keeping an eye out for anyone who may be recording them.  The ability for the police to abuse their power and act with that oh-so-common arrogant air of omnipotent impunity (not to mention the downright racist, sexist, homophobic, and bigoted actions the police regularly engage in), turns upon the extent to which they exist outside of the public eye.

If more citizens get in the habit of recording police as they engage in such activities, it has the potential to lead to the police actually being held accountable for those things they had grown accustomed to regularly getting away with.

This is what is behind the growth of police attacking bystanders who attempt to document their misconduct; it is nothing more than pure-and-simple scare tactics and bullying.

But this is also why it is so important to fight against police attempts to crack down on free speech.  If we can't record their abuses, it makes it all the easier for the police to get away with committing those abuses. 

It is in this spirit that I offer this article as a resource for people to use in asserting their First Amendment rights to "observe and report" police misconduct, wherever it may occur.

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Celebrations of Death," Osama bin Laden, and the American Media

By Keith Rosenthal

In those rare moments over the past week when the mainstream media have even acknowledged the revulsion that many Americans may feel towards all of the "Bin Laden is Dead" debauchery, the question is ever addressed from a purely psychological -- as opposed to a political -- standpoint.
Articles have been popping up in the "Health" sections of all the major newspapers exploring the question of whether it is okay -- morally, socially, mentally -- to celebrate Death (for example, see this gem which appeared in the New York Times: "Celebrating bin Laden's Death: Ugly, Maybe, but Only Human"). 

The aim of these articles is always to assuage the unease of a presumably-liberal audience, whose instincts are to recoil away from the overtly-crude, frat party-atmosphere of the bin Laden street parties.  Celebrations of death are "okay," we are assured, as long as the dead person was really, really evil.  Indeed, such celebrations can be an important part of the "healing process."

In particular, TIME magazine recently ran an article titled, "The Post-Bin Laden Party — and Why You Should Enjoy It," which extols the national "paroxysm of celebration in which the image and memory of the person who dreamed of being a world-transforming figure is simply ground into the street along with the wet confetti," and in keeping with a mood more appropriate for a Wayne's World movie than the response you would expect to follow from a political assassination, the article's author concludes by saying, "So party on, America — for a while longer, at least."

(As an aside, this article also attempts to offer consolation to those who feel demoralized by the lack of due process in the summary execution of bin Laden, by arguing that, yes, it would have been nice to have taken Osama alive and tried him in court, "but then you've got the years-long mess of a trial and the question of what you do with him once he's been inevitably found guilty. Best to whack him quickly and pitilessly and let the national touchdown dance begin.")

Now, while the above-mentioned discussion of Death and the Human Psyche is certainly interesting and would make for a great college seminar, the problem is that not a single one of these articles has even broached the question of whether some Americans may be repulsed by the celebrations, not because of some abstract, psychological discomfort with the general practice of taking glee in someone's death (I danced a jig-and-a-half when Reagan died), but rather are disgusted by the political context surrounding this particular assassination by the U.S.

In other words, it is not merely a squeamishness about death, or feelings of Christian guilt, that would possibly lead one to wax nauseous about all of the celebratory flag-waving, but rather the fact that the killing of bin Laden is merely one death in what has been a ten-year killing spree by the American military, claiming the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of innocent Arab people across the Middle East.

What's more, the surge of patriotism in the wake of bin Laden's assassination is inevitably going to be (and already is being) exploited in order to buttress public support for the prolongation of U.S. wars abroad in Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, and Iraq (yes, the U.S. army is still in Iraq).  This will mean the unnecessary killing of thousands of more innocent people at the hands of the U.S.

After ten long years of disastrous U.S. war on the Arab world, what this country needs right now more than anything else is not mass celebrations of American military power and imperial reach, but rather mass protests calling for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Middle East; not a resurgence of public support for the torture techniques that supposedly led to bin Laden's netting, but rather popular demands for the closing of Guantanamo and the release of real heroes, like Bradley Manning, from military prison.

The war on al-Qaeda and reactionary political forces in the Middle East is being won, not by the U.S. Army, but actually by the masses of Arab people themselves, who are rendering the foregoing groups impotent by virtue of the politics of hope, solidarity, and democracy that have been thrust to the fore by the broader revolutionary wave sweeping the region.

Ironically (or maybe not so ironically), these Arab uprisings, which are ultimately responsible for the weakening of al-Qaeda's influence, have as their direct aim the overthrow of those despotic regimes that owe their very existence to the exertion of U.S. power.

In other words, the fate of al-Qaeda's strength in the region, and the question of whether or not it gets marginalized out of existence, turns upon the ability of the Arab people to end the U.S.'s regional power and influence, and with it end the democracy-crushing, inequality-breeding, and social strife-inducing, state of affairs created by the imperial meddling of the United States.

If Americans (oh yeah, and the remaining 95% of the human population) are to celebrate the death of anything, let it be the death of the U.S. Empire -- an edifice of global power, which frustrates the desires of people abroad for self-determination, and sacrifices the dreams of working-class people at home to the Gods of Corporate Profits and National Security.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The day the music died

I was just informed by the powers-that-be at the place where I've worked for 4 years that I was no longer allowed to sing or hum while at work, because it is "unprofessional."

Maybe I could understand it if I had a god-awful voice and if the patients were complaining that they were coming in for back pains, but leaving with ear pains.

But that's not the case. Nobody lodged a complaint against me. On the contrary! Not to brag, but my coworkers regularly say they like my singing, that it brightens the place up, and that I have a good voice. Besides, I have a good-enough rapport with my coworkers that if one of them politely asked me to stop, I would immediately (half the time I'll just start absent-mindedly humming a tune and won't even realize it til I'm well into the second verse).

Why do I sing (and sometimes whistle) while I work? The reasons are manifold.

I sing in order to retain my own sense of humanity during those eight hours of the waking day that I don't really control -- indeed, when someone else really controls me. When some unaccountable, unelected bureaucrat can tell me what, when, and how to do something, whether right or wrong, and I have to do it.

I sing to mitigate the indignity of being paid just above the poverty level by one of the world's wealthiest institutions.

I sing to block out the incessant chatter of my bigoted coworker, indefatigably spewing forth disdain for people on welfare, people with eating disorders, the elderly, immigrants, unions, Muslims, antiwar activists, etc., etc.

Most of all, I sing as a way of saying, "My body and mind might be trapped inside these sterile walls, beneath these inescapable lights, bent towards accomplishing a monotony of tasks, surrounded by a group of people as utterly alienated as I am from one another and from themselves (each expressing it in their own unique way); all these things may be so, but at least my spirit, my soul, my yearning for beauty, humanity, universal freedom -- these things will still be mine. You cannot have them, too!"

Well, apparently they can.

As someone once said of that jealous God, the Capitalist, "he demands of the worker not just his labor-power, but also his very soul."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

One of Karl Marx's most beautiful and insightful descriptions of social revolution

"Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the 18th century, storm swiftly from success to success; their dramatic effects outdo each other; men and things seem set in sparkling brilliants; ecstasy is the everyday spirit; but they are short-lived; soon they have attained their zenith, and a long crapulent depression lays hold of society before it learns soberly to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period.

On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the 19th century, criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again even more gigantic, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out:

Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
Here is the rose, here dance!"

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An Ode to the Boss's Pet

You're nothing but a hypocrite, a no-good, low-down liar,
You spy on your coworkers, snitch to the supervisor.
"Don't complain about low wages! Just give thanks for what you get!"
With these words you meet all grumblings, for you are the boss's pet.

Labor unions? You can't stand 'em (barring those that never fight),
"It's in our nature to be selfish," you assure yourself each nite.
In the world you just see chaos, so you think the safest bet,
Is to back the current order and become the boss's pet.

With contempt you look upon those who subvert established power,
"Get a job!," you scold the young, "Go cut your hair and have a shower!"
Spite and malice are your guide, you've cast aside shame and regret,
Yes, there is no lower life-form than the boss's little pet.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Some of my favorites of Banksy's street art

Click on an image to view a larger version

On the Israeli Apartheid Wall with Palestine
On the Israeli Apartheid Wall with Palestine

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The United States and the "right of revolution"

The U.S. ruling class tries to have it both ways . . .

"We hold these truths to be self-evident...that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. [W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations...evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security."
--American Declaration of Independence, 1776

"It shall be unlawful for any person with the intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any government in the U.S., to print, publish, edit, issue, circulate, sell, distribute or publicly display any written or printed matter advocating, advising or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence."
--U.S. Code, from a 1940 law still in effect

Friday, January 7, 2011

Proudhon & Bakunin (Kropotkin)