Cleveland’s 1919 May Day demonstration was the most consequential of that consequential year. Earlier in 1919 Charles Ruthenberg had won 30% of the vote to be Cleveland’s mayor as leader of one of the most left Socialist locals in one of the United States’ most left cities. He would be one of the over 120 arrests of leftists, charged with assault and intent to kill, in a day of rioting throughout the city. Two people were killed as police, militia, and mobs of ‘loyalists’ fought with the 30,000-person strong May Day rally, which was also a protest against the imprisonment of Eugene Debs (arrested for an Ohio speech), as well as Tom Mooney, and opposed to the U.S. invasion of Soviet Russia. That night the Socialist Party’s headquarters at Acme Hall was destroyed by reactionary thugs.
‘The Cleveland May Day Demonstration’ by C.E. Ruthenberg from Revolutionary Age. Vol. 1 No. 30. May 10, 1919.
The workers of Cleveland who are striving to throw off the yoke of oppression and exploitation have received their baptism in blood.
They have learned that the ruling class will not even permit workingmen to peaceably demonstrate. They have been shot, brutally clubbed, and crushed by army tanks and heavy military trucks, all because they dared march through the streets of Cleveland carrying their banners demanding freedom for Debs, freedom for Mooney, freedom for all political and industrial prisoners and work for the unemployed through the six hour day and dollar per hour minimum wage.
The May Day Demonstration in Cleveland was the greatest outpouring of militant workers that this city has ever seen. Arranged under the auspices of the Socialist Party, the IWW, WIIU, and nearly a score of AF of L unions participated. The plans for the demonstration called for four sections of the procession to assemble in different parts of the city, all of which were to meet at a given point and then to march to the Public Square, where speeches were to be made.
Up to a certain point the program was carried out successfully. The different sections assembled and marched through miles of the city streets carrying their red banners and thousands of red pennants and signs bearing the May Day slogans. When the four sections arrived at Central and E 9th Street, the streets were lined for blocks and blocks in every direction by the various columns. No more glorious sight could be imagined by the mind of those inspired by the ideal of the Social Revolution than to look down these lines from the point of intersection and to see the scores of red banners waving high in the air, and then, with a mighty cheer, to see a veritable cloud of red as thousands of pennants were thrust high over the heads of the marchers.
Not less than 20,000 workers participated in the procession and when the head of the line reached the Public Square another twenty or thirty thousand workers were there to greet the marchers.
The joined sections started down E 9th Street and the head of the line had covered three-fourths of the distance to the Public Square without the slightest trouble. Rather were the marchers applauded and cheered, as they had been applauded and cheered while the sections were passing through the working class sections of the city to the meeting place.
When the head of the line was within a block of the Public Square the first trouble occurred. An officer in the uniform of the Red Cross jumped from a “Victory” Loan truck and endeavored to take a red flag which a soldier in uniform was carrying at the head of the procession. A scuffle followed in which other soldiers from the truck and some businessmen joined. During the scuffle one of these businessmen drew a revolver and wildly threatened the workers in the procession. In five minutes, however, the struggle was over. The lieutenant and his supporters were driven back to the sidewalk, the head of the line reformed and with the red flag still flying, marched on to the Public Square.
Up to this point the police had been conspicuous by their absence from the line of march. With the exception of two or three traffic officers at important corners, not a policeman was to be seen. This fact was particularly noteworthy as it is the custom in Cleveland, when there are parades, to station officers a few hundred feet apart, along the whole line of march, and the police had asked for and had received a detailed statement of the plans for the procession.
When the head of the line entered the Public Square there were two noteworthy events: first there was a great wave of cheers and applause from the twenty or more thousand workers who were assembled there to participate in the meeting, and the police made their appearance. They came down Superior Ave., which divides the “Square” into northern and southern sections, headed by the mounted squad, followed by auto load after load. The newspapers later reported that 700 men had been concentrated at the Central Station, who now descended upon the marchers.
The head of the line was not molested. The first thousand or so of workers marched onto the square and took possession of the “Victory” Loan speakers’ stand, which had been built over the stone blocks placed on the Public Square for the use of speakers at public meetings. These marchers with the workers already assembled covered the entire section of the square.
The chairman of the meeting was about to introduce the writer as the first speaker when an officer and a few soldiers tired to climb to the platform, demanding that that soldier holding the red flag give it up. Comrade Lawrence A. Zitt, the chairman, entered into an argument with him and showed him the foolishness of his conduct and had him calmed down, when, without warning, a squad of mounted police dashed into the audience, driving their horses over the assembled workers and clubbing them as they went.
Meanwhile the police had cut the line a block away from the Public Square and had begun their attack all along the line, stretched out over a half mile and upon the thousands who had not left the meeting place of the sections.
What followed is indescribable in its brutality. The police drove their horses into the lines crushing and beating men and women alike. The police autos were similarly driven into the ranks of the workers. The police were soon joined by truckloads of soldiers and members of Cleveland’s Black Hundred, the Loyal American League, and by army tanks which everywhere drove into the line of marchers. One heavy truck loaded with soldiers and the Black Hundred drove along the line while those on board, armed with long, heavy clubs, with nails projecting two or three inches from the end, beat everyone within reach.
The sudden attack of the police, the quick appearance of the trucks loaded with the Black Hundred and their helpers, the tanks, all proved that the whole affair was carefully planned in advance in order to teach the workers who dared take up the fight against their masters a lesson.
Of course the workers fought back and fought bravely. But they were caught at a disadvantage, with their lines extended through the heart of the city four abreast, as it no doubt had been planned that they should be caught. The fighting continued from about 2 o’clock until late in the evening.
Two of the workers were shot by police officers, one being killed on the spot and the other has since died in the hospital. Hundreds were brutally beaten, men and women alike, and about 150 were arrested.
The brutalities did not cease with the attack made upon the streets. The writer was arrested with others, and worker after worker placed in the same cell block told of how the police took advantage of a dark corridor leading into the station to administer some extra blows with their clubs. One man, unable to stand up, was dragged into the corridor, set on his feet, and told to stand up before the registry clerk, and when he collapsed was brutally shoved into a corner. The floor before the clerk’s window was soon covered with blood from the workers’ wounds and medical aid was not furnished for hours after.
While the fighting was going on a crowd of hoodlums, with police looking on, entered the party headquarters and tore and smashed everything they could lay their hands on.
Rumor says after the slaughter was over the Chamber of Commerce gave a dinner to those who did such effective work in their interest and that many thugs and hoodlum received wads of money from the same source.
The arrested workers are being charged with “disturbance” and are being railroaded to the workhouse to serve sentences of thirty days and a fine and costs. The writer is charged with “causing a disturbance,” but the authorities are working hard to frame-up some evidence for a more serious charge in order to fasten responsibility for their own bloody work on other shoulders.
Meanwhile, the Socialist organization remains intact in spite of the destruction of party headquarters. Committees are at work arranging for protection of those in prison and to raise the thousands of dollars needed to pay fines. The workers have had their lesson. They have learned how “democracy” meets a peaceable protest. They know from the thousands who marched that their power is greater than ever. Another day is coming. They will go on until victory is achieved.
The Revolutionary Age was one of the essential publications in the history of the U.S. left. A weekly first for the Socialist Party’s Boston Local begun in November, 1918 to chronicle the unfolding post-war European revolutions. Under the editorship of early U.S. Communist Louis C. Fraina, and writers like Scott Nearing and John Reed, the paper became the national organ of the SP’s Left Wing Section, embracing the Bolshevik Revolution and a new International. In June 1919, the paper moved to New York City and became the most important publication of the developing communist movement. In August, 1919, it changed its name to ‘The Communist’ (one of a dozen or more so-named papers at the time) as a paper of the newly formed Communist Party of America and ran until 1921. There have been a number of papers named ‘Revolutionary Age,’ the other most important being Jay Lovestone’s, which took them name directly from this paper.
PDF of issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/revolutionaryage/v1n30-may-10-1919.pdf