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Protests For Workers' Rights, Immigration Reform Held For May Day -- A Commemoration With Chicago Roots

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Saturday is May Day, or International Workers' Day – and that means protests in Chicago and cities around the country and beyond.

May Day is not to be confused with the ancient European holiday that celebrates spring. For many Americans, May Day is the day of International Labor - a day to protest everything from workers' rights to immigration reform.

As CBS 2's Marissa Parra reported, a rally was held Saturday morning in Union Park this morning. Participants then marched to Federal Plaza.

Several hundred Chicagoans, primarily young Latinos, turned out to demand immigration reform – calling for such actions as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, protection for the 5 million undocumented essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic, and accountability from President Joe Biden.

"When I was 10 and in the cages at the border, Obama was president," one activist said. "It's been 15 years since then and now Biden is president."

"It is time right now for Joe Biden to complete the Obama promise and stop deportations and bring home the 2 million deportees!" another activist said.

May Day, as a day to commemorate the labor movement, also has its origins in Chicago – dating back 135 years.

On Saturday, May 1, 1886, 80,000 workers marched down Michigan Avenue demanding an eight-hour workday with no loopholes or cuts in pay. Similar rallies were held in other cities across the country.

The Chicago rally picked up more and more participants as it picked up participants on May 3 and 4. They clashed with police several times, and on May 3 at the McCormick Reaper Plant, two demonstrators were shot and killed by police who allegedly fired into the crowd.

The following day, a crowd gathered at Haymarket Square, at Des Plaines and Randolph streets. The gathering was initially peaceful, but as the crowd dwindled, someone threw a bomb at the police officers who had gathered at the scene, leaving eight officers dead and 60 injured. Police opened fire afterward, and chaos erupted.

It was never learned exactly who threw the bomb, but outrage erupted across the city and the nation. Newspapers editorialized about an anarchist conspiracy theory, and police took hundreds of people into custody. Thirty-one people were indicted, and eight stood trial – George Engel, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Albert Parsons, Michael Schwab, and August Spies. All were anarchist labor activists.

The trial was widely criticized for being conducted without any evidence that the defendants were involved in the bomb throwing or in planning it, or even that there was any conspiracy among anarchists to attack police.

Nonetheless, all eight defendants were convicted, and seven were sentenced to death. Engel, Fischer, Parsons and Spies were all executed at Cook County Jail, while Lingg committed suicide. The others were imprisoned, until Gov. John Peter Altgeld pardoned them in 1893.

"The struggle at Haymarket was really the right to fight for the eight-hour day, the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, the right to free speech, the right to peaceably assemble, and this went against the corporate interests of the day," Larry Spivak, president of the Illinois Labor History Society, said in a 2011 interview.

The Haymarket riots themselves have also remained an issue that many feel strongly about. May 4, 1886, remains the most devastating day in the history of the Chicago Police Department, and is commemorated with a statue that stands outside Chicago Public Safety Headquarters, 3510 S. Michigan Ave.

The statue itself has been a subject of hostile acts several times. When it stood in the old Haymarket Square was destroyed in 1969 by a bomb blast for which the radical Weather Underground group claimed responsibility, and after being rebuilt and rededicated the following year, the group blew it up a second time.

The statue was later moved to the old Central Police Headquarters at 11th and State streets, then to the private courtyard of the Police Training Academy, before finally being relocated to the present-day police Headquarters – where it has been on display since 2010.

The statue is one of 41 public monuments that has been deemed potentially problematic and is now being evaluated by an advisory committee.

The city has created a website detailing all 41 monuments, and has included a feedback form for the public to share their thoughts.

Meanwhile, generations of activists after the Haymarket Affair decried the trial of those charged with the bombing is considered a miscarriage, and called those who were executed martyrs. Thus, the Haymarket Affair became the inspiration for the adoption of May 1 as a holiday commemorating laborers worldwide, which it has been since 1889.

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